Before The Earth Cooled:

The Pre-Jazz Life and Music of Buddy Bolden


Howard Fishman

Buddy bolden band jimmie johnson buddy bolden brock mumford willie cornish frank lewis willie warner new orleans ca 1905
Buddy Bolden Band: (back from left) Jimmie Johnson, Buddy Bolden, Brock Mumford, and Willie Cornish and (front from left) Frank Lewis, and Willie Warner, New Orleans, ca. 1905 (Public domain image)

The cornet player and bandleader Charles “Buddy” Bolden (1877-1931) is considered by some to be the first great man of jazz, inspiring a lineage of New Orleans horn “kings” that would come to include Joe Oliver, Freddie Keppard, and Louis Armstrong. Yet almost everything known about Bolden and his life is apocryphal – anecdotes rife with pathos, intrigue, and drama, told by his peers decades after he played his last note. These stories formed the basis of two recent treatments of the innovator’s life: “Playing Hot,” an Off-Broadway theatrical production created by Kevin Armento and Jaki Bradley (which had a successful run at Theater 511 in summer 2019), and Daniel Pritzger’s splashy Hollywood biopic “Bolden” (which was released shortly thereafter). Both endeavors brought new attention to this galvanizing, shadowy icon who has been mostly a footnote in American musical history – geeked out over by historians and jazz buffs, but still largely unknown to the general public.

The hallmarks of the Buddy Bolden myth go something like this: in the whispery pre-jazz world of turn of the twentieth century New Orleans, one titanic musical presence loomed larger than any – Bolden, the Paul Bunyan of the cornet. He played louder, harder, and hotter than any horn player before, or since. Unlike the ensembles led by his contemporaries, most or all of whom read printed sheet music on the bandstand, Bolden’s band was primarily made up of “ear” players. They were among the first (some claim the first) to bring the art of improvisation to the kinds of ensembles that preceded the advent of the musical style we now call jazz – mostly string bands and small orchestras performing marches, hymns, rags, and popular songs of the day. No recordings of Bolden and his band exist, though an unverified story persists that he made at least one Edison wax cylinder that has never been found – the Holy Grail of early jazz. But the legend that’s been handed down is that Bolden’s playing and his ability to read and draw from the energy of his adoring, excitable audiences was radical, incendiary, and transgressive.

Both “Playing Hot” and “Bolden” make the claim that Buddy Bolden “invented jazz,” which is reductive hyperbole. No one “invented” jazz, any more than anyone invented cooking, or painting, or dancing. Jazz is the art of spontaneity. It involves making things up, or embellishing what’s already there with new variations. Bolden may have been the first, or the most well-known, musician in New Orleans to popularize this approach to composed music, but it seems wildly disingenuous to call him jazz’s creator. What he may also have done, in addition to encouraging his players to blow with more freedom and abandon than his contemporaries, was to add the guttural growl, moan, and sob of the blues to music that had – until that point – been played politely, for polite audiences, thus paving the way for an entirely new style.

Bolden’s larger-than-life biography is a compelling one, even if it is probably more folklore than fact. He was reputed to be a lady killer, the Elvis of his milieu; women swooned over him, fought for the privilege of carrying his horn to and from the bandstand, and were jailed for the brawls they instigated over him. Bolden was a heavy drinker, they say, and a font of energy – sometimes playing a half dozen gigs in a single night. Some of his contemporaries swore that Bolden was a barber by day, and that he also edited and published a scandal sheet called “The Cricket,” filled with the latest New Orleans gossip and hearsay (topics all covered, and mostly debunked, in Donald M. Marquis’s sober 1978 book In Search of Buddy Bolden ).

The most haunting detail of the Bolden story is also the most irrefutable one: in 1906, when he was not yet thirty, Bolden lost his mind. He quit performing in public, and by the following year, was committed to the rural Louisiana State Insane Asylum near the Mississippi border, where he spent the last quarter century of his life in complete obscurity. He died there, alone (most assumed he was long dead), well before jazz began to be taken seriously by historians and his contributions were belatedly acknowledged. Whether he was aware of how popular jazz became in his wake or what he may have thought about it if he had been aware, will never be known. Bolden left behind no writings of any kind, musical or otherwise. Like his fellow musical pioneer Scott Joplin (who also met his end in a mental institution), he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.

“Playing Hot,” an immersive theatre-cum-concert tribute to Bolden, was the more effective of 2019’s two Bolden projects. The show had a young, wide-eyed enthusiasm, joyous live music (performed by a genuine, New Orleans-style brass band), and a winning, winking irreverence about the unknowability of its subject. Linton Smith II, a Big Easy native and professional horn player, made his theatrical debut as Bolden, fronting the band through the Crescent City standards included in the show like “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” “Careless Love,” and “St. James Infirmary.” “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” was featured prominently, a tune attributed to Bolden’s trombonist Willy Cornish and most associated with Jelly Roll Morton (tellingly, the lyric begins “I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say…”; even in the one famous song about Bolden, the narrator is not certain about anything).

“We wanted to bring a night in New Orleans up to New York City,” co-creator Bradley told me about the show, “and to try to give a sense of what jazz might have felt like to people in 1905.” “Playing Hot” managed to celebrate and riff on elements of Bolden’s life (“the way Bolden riffed on songs,” Armento said) without ever taking itself too seriously. Instead, a contagious sense of bonhomie and enthusiasm was generated by its large ensemble of actors, musicians, and dancers. Historical fussiness was not the point; the show’s action jumped backward and forward in time, and while many of the people and places common to the Bolden myth were name-checked, so were the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Picasso, and Beyonce. Modern-day skits contextualized Bolden’s relevance and influence without ever hitting them too much on the nose: Russian babushkas recorded a youtube video of themselves making gumbo; Public Enemy’s appearance on Arsenio Hall’s show was reënacted; a “very, very old white man” (inspired by Marquis, but played by a black actor– the tongue in cheek Eric R. Williams) declared that he was going to explain black music history. Palpable through it all was an inclusive, anything-goes spirit. “The idea was to eradicate the idea of a dusty biopic,” Armento said.

Armento was not explicitly commenting on Pritzger’s film “Bolden,” but he may as well have been. The movie (Pritzger’s first feature), gives our hero the full Hollywood treatment: big budget production values, elaborate period scenery and costumes, and a robust score (composed, arranged, and performed by Wynton Marsalis). Unlike “Playing Hot,” the approach in “Bolden” seems to be that more is more; where the play succeeded in making the Bolden legend relevant for our time, the film comes close to burying it. This is not for lack of trying; “Bolden” means well. All the Buddy Bolden mythical checkboxes are ticked (the barbershop; the women; turf battles with rival bandleader John Robichaux; the Edison cylinder), but they are presented like the findings of a desultory school book report, rather than as jumping off points for creativity and nuance. Rather than conjuring up a sense of the man and his humanity, the film underestimates our intelligence. Bolden becomes smitten by a whorehouse jazz cellist (wrong in so many ways) who looks as though she has stepped out of an ad for a luxury perfume. At one point, the legendary horn player is asked: “If you don’t write your music down, how’s anyone gonna play it after you’re gone?” (all that’s missing is a jump cut to the older, forgotten Bolden smacking his forehead and popping his eyes). When he begins to show signs of mental illness, no clues or explanations are offered for this decline, though we do see his irises inexplicably begin to turn red and yellow, as though he may suddenly transform into The Werewolf.

Maybe worst of all, “Bolden” perpetuates the stereotype of the misunderstood, edgy genius who lives hard, plays hard, and meets an untimely, tragic end, only to have his contributions lionized after he’s gone (see: Robert Johnson, Bix Beiderbecke, Hank Williams, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, ad infinitum). Haven’t we evolved, culturally, from such tasteless glamorization of self-abuse? Troubled artists don’t succeed because of their addictions and compulsions; they do so, if they’re lucky, in spite of them.

Like “Playing Hot,” “Bolden” employs a lot of actual music, though in the film the playing is mimed by the actors, adding to the overriding feeling of phoniness. Because no recordings of Bolden have ever surfaced, it’s always been a delicious brain teaser to imagine just what the molten, gritty textures of his band actually sounded like. If “Bolden” the film is to be believed, they sounded an awful lot like the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. We hear classics like “Make Me a Pallet,” “My Creole Belle,” and “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You,” along with new compositions by Marsalis. Played with the requisite squawks and bent notes, there’s no danger to the music – none of the raw, punk-like energy that Bolden was said to have played with. (Incongruously, the end credit music is Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” a hit for Louis Armstrong, a character who appears prominently in the film and serves to remind us of what Bolden might have become. The movie’s muddled thesis seems to be that Armstrong succeeded where Bolden failed because the former was willing to Uncle Tom-it for his white audiences).

For a greater, richer sense of who Bolden was, and what was so powerful about what he did musically, it’s worth seeking out two earlier works that explore his myth with greater subtlety and elan: Michael Ondaatje’s 1976 novella “Coming Through Slaughter,” and Danny Barker’s oral history compilation “Buddy Bolden and the Last Days of Storyville,” from 1998.

Ondaatje’s book is an impressionistic journey that alternately circles the Buddy Bolden story and divebombs straight in – a work that throbs with visceral darkness and outsider passion. Ondaatje sees Bolden’s ghost everywhere: in song lyrics, in the names of brass bands, in New Orleans topography, in news clippings, in numbers. Like Werner Herzog (whose career as a documentary maker has been guided by his concept of “poetic, ecstatic truth…reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization”), Ondaatje knows that facts can sometimes get in the way of a good story. Instead, the author allows himself to swim in the murky swirl of myth and legend that surrounds Bolden’s life, emerging with a heady, kaleidoscopic treatment that offers a real sense of what the beginnings of jazz may have actually felt and sounded like:

“It was a music that had so little wisdom you wanted to clean every note he passed, passed it seemed along the way as if traveling in a car, passed before he even approached it and saw it properly. There was no control except the mood of his power…and it is for this reason it is good you never heard him play on recordings. If you never heard him play some place where the weather for instance could change the next series of notes—then you should never have heard him at all…
But there was a discipline, it was just that we didn’t understand. We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot - see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes…”

Knowing that the real Bolden will never be found (and was, in fact, wiped out by the transitory nature of a less-documented age), Ondaatje instead gets at the feeling of Buddy Bolden and what he represents in our cultural imagination, the book an assemblage of fancy, poetry, romance, history, music, sound, legend, and location, inextricably linked to the gravitational, decrepit/baroque character of America’s most seductive city.

Danny Barker’s “Buddy Bolden” contains the extensive firsthand recollections of Dude Bottley, brother of one of Bolden’s bandmates. In the long first chapter that forms the basis of the book (“A Memory of King Bolden,” first published as a magazine piece in 1965), Bottley’s memories are spurred on by Barker’s questions and offered up without embellishment – a glimpse into how Bolden continued to grip the imagination of New Orleans long after he was gone:

“One day Bolden and this woman got into an argument and started fighting. He beat her up terrible and she ran from the rear through the barber shop and into the street naked, in broad daylight. One of the barbers rushed out and covered her up with a barber cloth and the next-door neighbor let her in the house and hid her under the bed. Bolden sat on the neighbor’s steps with two razors for the rest of the day and most of the night. The news spread and all of his friends arrived on the scene to try to calm him down which proved useless. But that neighbor never opened her door, which was a very sensible thing to do.”

Barker, a guitar and banjo player, and songwriter (1909-1994) was a local legend too, a pillar of the New Orleans music community. He maintained a lifelong fascination with the origins of New Orleans jazz (also essayed in his books “A Life in Jazz” and “Bourbon Street Black”), and is often credited with single-handedly saving the brass band tradition from extinction by courting and cultivating the interest of younger generations. Little-known outside of traditional jazz circles, Barker got a moment of his own last season when Jazz at Lincoln Center paid tribute to him for two nights with the program “Danny Barker: A New Orleans Life in Jazz,” featuring a band comprised of many of New Orleans’s own, including Dr. Michael White, Don Vappie, Shannon Powell and Leroy Jones, but Barker’s spirit and charisma– like Bolden’s – are not easy to replicate. Thankfully, Barker can be heard on record, on any of the hundreds of recordings he appears on as both sideman and leader. (For my money, the absolute best is the solo guitar record he recorded late in life called “Save The Bones.”)

In the glittering firmament of American cultural history, Buddy Bolden’s star is barely distinguishable, its existence acknowledged mainly by its effect on what can be seen around it. We know the who and the where, but we don’t know the how, the what, or the why. Neither of last year’s Bolden tributes will do much to change that. In a set piece that appeared in both the stage production and the film, Bolden is seen in rehearsal, teaching his bandmates how to incorporate a syncopated rhythmic bass drum pattern in their sound – the beat that would become the foundation of the funky, classic New Orleans sound that persists to this day. In the film, the scene is presented as a gauzy origin story, with Buddy clapping the new rhythm out with his hands, teaching it to his dumbstruck band, the moment invested with the significance of Benjamin Franklin discovering electricity, or Jackson Pollock dripping paint on a canvas for the first time. By apparent coincidence, the exact same sequence happened in the play, but just as it did, the moment was subverted. The actors suddenly froze, a light shift took place to reveal our cranky narrator informing us sternly: “It didn’t happen like this! Who the hell knows how it happened??”

HOWARD FISHMAN is a writer, composer, and performer based in Brooklyn. He is the author of To Anyone Who Ever Asks: The Life, Music, and Mystery of Connie Converse (Dutton) and is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker.