Charles Joseph “Buddy” Boldenwas a key figure in the development of the jazz style of music in the late 19th century. The most renowned cornetist of his time, he improvised rhythm and music with his trumpet, creating a swanky blend of rural blues, adding spiritual spice and ragtime music with a twist. He is proclaimed as the ‘Father of Jazz’. Bolden was also referred to by many African-American musicians of his time as the ‘King’ of cornet. He was so musically dexterous that he could turn legendary numbersupside down and add new beats with varying tempo, rendering a refreshing twist. His fans would easily advance into a frenzy listening to his upbeat music and would yell for him to play some of his popular tunes such as ‘Funky Butt’. However, apart from his extraordinary talent with the cornet, he lived a desolated and dismal life owing to his poor mental health. He was often labelled ‘mysterious’ and ‘unfriendly’ by his band members and others who knew him. He amassed great fame and popularity and attracted plenty of wealth yetpeople did not know much about him apart from his music and weakness for women.
Childhood & Early Life
Charles Joseph “Buddy” Bolden was born to African-American parents Westmore Bolden and Alice Harrison on 6 September 1877 in New Orleans.
His family comprised his parents and sister, Cara. They were a small happy family until misfortune struck them when his father died in 1883; Buddy was only six years old at that time.
Shouldering the responsibility of her children,Alice began working. In order to provide her children the best, she moved with them to ‘385 First Street’.
Anecdotes of Bolden’s life suggest that he attended the ‘Fisk School for Boys’ recognised for its strict regulations and brilliant adroitness for music.
It is probably at school that his love and passion for music developed. He also attended the Sunday services at ‘St.John’sBaptist Church’ and listened to its soulful choir that reaffirmed his zest for music.
It took him some time to try his hand at music. It was only in 1894 that he began learning to play the cornet from his neighbour Manual Hall, who was at that time romantically involved with his mother.None would have then imagined that he would one day grow up to be such a sensation who would sport expensive attires and be a lady’s man!
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The Cornet King
Music bands had become very popular during Buddy Bolden’s time; however he didn’t know much about forming his own band, so he began his career playing the cornet in ‘Papa Jack Laines’ band.
He played for the band for a couple of years before the mid-1890s when he formed his own band which played instruments of cornet, guitar, bass, clarinets, trombone and drums.
In order to build his own band he learnt from other popular bands how to mix instruments in order to liven up the performances. When he learned just how to go about organising his band, he named it the ‘Buddy Bolden Band’.
His band played at the disreputable red-light area of Storyville. But it wasn’t an impediment to his success; his band soon became the talk of the town.
From 1900 to 1906, hewas met with humongous success; he topped all charts in New Orleans and was crowned the ‘King of Cornet’. He was such a passionate musician that his cornet could be heard from miles away.
By then dancing had become a new form of entertainment.With his magnetic tunes, he belted out funky rhythms of legendary ragtime songs making them innovative and creating a novel genre for dance.
Unfortunately his success rushed to his head. He was often seen surrounded by women and drowned himself in alcohol.
Unable to keep up with producing unconventional and fresh music owing to his unhealthy addictions, he was met with heavy competition from other upcoming bands.
His popularity began to decline and in 1906 he went into depression and immersed himself in alcohol further.
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His final public performance was with the ‘Eagle Band’ at the New Orleans ‘Labour Day Parade’. At the parade instead of striving to hold onto his crumbling image he ended it for life.
An incident at the parade changed his life forever. During the parade he began slurring abuses at the women surrounding him, and then he fell unconscious on the ground, with froth oozing from his mouth.
He was immediately taken to the asylum where he was deemed mentally unfit and plagued with schizophrenia, then called ‘dementia praecox’ permanently.
He did not stay at the asylum for long but was frequently taken back for treatment until his paranoia became so intense that he was admitted into the ‘State Insane Asylum’ in Jackson, Louisiana, on the 5 June 1907.
With all the fanfare that he had gathered, the world had known him only through first hand experiences and primary sources. There had never been a recording of his songs, thus the world will continue to remain oblivious to his voice and music.
Willy Cornish, his band trombone player said in an interview that the ‘Buddy Bolden’s Band’ had in fact recorded a few of their jazz numbers before 1898 called ‘Edison Cylinder’.
Monetary awards had been offered to anyone who found the cylinder, but all in vain; it seems to be missing forever and no one has yet been able to lay their hands on the recording.
However, we do know that one of his most popular songs was called ‘Funky Butt’ that was later called ‘Buddy Bolden’s Blues’.
The lyrics of the song pertained to the sweltering heat and dancers soaked in whiskey tapping their feet at the crammed ‘Union Sons Hall’ after which it was informally renamed the ‘Funky Butt Hall’.
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His creative use of the trumpet and unique rhythm made his fans hysterical and his music hypnotised crowds taking them into a trance, where they danced their feet off, which ushered him to spiral from the nickname ‘Kid’ to ‘King’.
Personal Life & Legacy
Buddy Bolden died on 4 November 1931, 25 years after he was admitted permanently into the State Asylum. The reason for his death was intense depression, withdrawal and acute schizophrenia.
He was buried at the ‘Holt cemetery’, which was known to be a pauper’s graveyard situated in New Orleans. His grave bore no epitaph of his contribution to the world of music and hence his grave remains unknown.
In his fond memory decades after his death, a memorial was erected at the Holt cemetery in 1998.
King Bolden has left behind a legacy in every amateur musician playing the trumpet and attempting to be as electrifying as Bolden himself.
His theme tune ‘Buddy Bolden’s Blues’ was recorded for the first time by Jelly Roll Morton. In the song ‘A drum is a Woman’, Duke Ellington honoured the work of the creator of jazz.
Through the composition of ‘Buddy Bolden Stomp’, Sidney Bechet paid his respect to his idol and ‘Let Them Talk’ by Hugh Laurie has marked the admiration he bears for the ‘Cornet King’.
Not only musicians but also authors have been intrigued by the life he lived; his dramatic downfall and mental illness in the peak of his career creates a compelling character in literary fiction.
Fictional characters that bear resemblance to the life of Bolden or cite his name are found in novels such as ‘Coming through Slaughter’, ‘Seven Guitars’, ‘Devil’s Tail’ and ‘The Sound of Building Coffins’.
He never won any award, besides the admiration of several African-Americans of his time and a huge fan base in New Orleans.
His success was short-lived, though he sealed his spot as the pioneer of jazz music, he could hardly build on the career that he had started off so pompously.
People all over the world today recognise him for his incredible talent yet there are no traces of his work.
If he had refrained from alcohol-abuse and had continued his undying passion for music, the world would have had plenty of recordings and memories to cherish after his death.
As a result of schizophrenia,Buddy Bolden developed extensive hallucinations and paranoia; he believed that not only the world but his family was also set on finishing his life.
As a result of such behaviour, both his mother and sister didn’t feel safe around him. One such incident was when he hit his mother on her head believing that she had poisoned him.