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Buddy Bolden: First-hand Impressions

Jelly Roll Morton turned a tune called "Funky Butt" into "I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say," and he was among many who actually did hear Mr. Bolden and lived to talk about it when the "moldy Fygs" of decades past started digging up whatever jazz information they could find. They were funny guys, these early collectors, obsessed as such people tend to be, but in a humorous sort of fashion. Some jazz veterans (still relatively young in those days), had their own fun with the collectors, feeding them an assortment of tales, some of which have yet to be debunked.

New Orleans banjo player Danny Barker made up a story that had jazz writer-historian Rudi Blesh wasting days scouring a Long Island town for the garage in which Barker said King Oliver made some mysterious recordings. 

Myths about pioneers—real and imagined—abounded, but no character was more intriguing than the cornet-playing barber whose horn could be heard from one end of New Orleans to the other, until he blew his mind right into an asylum. His name was Charles Joseph Bolden, known as "Buddy," and no more mysterious figure could be found in all of jazz. He may not have been a barber, but he was definitely a mental patient, and if he is not the only true "legendary" figure in jazz, he is certainly the one most qualified for that hackneyed title.

Many years ago, when Sammy Davis, Jr. hosted his own TV show, he introduced his guest, Sarah Vaughan, as "The legendary..." As if to underscore how misused the tag had become, Ms. Vaughan exclaimed, "Thank you, Sammy!," as she walked in to take her seat. "You know, every morning when I wake up, I look at myself in the mirror and shout, 'I'm a legend! I'm a legend!"

These days, referring to someone as legendary is a polite way of saying that they have been around for years. Ironically, Buddy Bolden's life was relatively short, but he was on the jazz scene before anyone knew what to call the music, and he blew his horn with such force that those who claimed to have heard him perform recalled the sheer volume of his playing more vividly than the music itself. Although jazz recordings had been around for fourteen years in 1931, when Bolden died at age 54, he never appeared on one. Diagnosed as having dementia, he spent his last 23 years as a mental patient. Yes, there's the old rumor of the "lost" Bolden cylinder, but I doubt if anyone ever took that tale seriously. A legend is, of course, a tale, especially one told far and wide, and with either missing or conflicting details. In jazz, Bix Beiderbecke left an aura of qualifying blurriness, but, unlike Bolden, he made many recordings and left tangible footprints. Bolden's legacy comprises the stories, a misty face in a group photo, and equally fading recollections. It is possible that more people thought they heard Bolden than actually did, but, even though the clear across town story is among the exaggerations, some had to have listened. One being Peter Bocage, who was in his mid seventies in 1961, when I recorded his band for the Riverside label and taped a brief interview.
I assume that today's racial attitude is considerably better in New Orleans than it was a half century ago. Back then, I could not share a taxi with guitarist Emanuel Sayles nor eat at bassist McNeal Breaux's restaurant (the back door solved that problem), and there are no longer separate Musicians Union locals for black performers. It was remarkable to find such racism existing by law in 1961, but it was only eight years ago that Hurricane Katrina blew off a mask of mardi gras harmony and reveal the extent to which the city discriminated against non-whites, 

Some have observed that a more covert, but no less hateful form of discrimination was practiced by black people of light complexion—some of whom were "passing," as the saying went. "When I want to pass," the late Moms Mabley used to say, "I carry under my arm a copy of El Diario." 

We get an inkling of this racially-based class distinction when Peter Bocage, a man of light hue, speaks of Buddy Bolden. For more about Mr. Bocage, I suggest that you go to Wikipedia.

The interview took place during a break at the Société des Jeunes Amis hall, where we recorded the sessions, so there were musicians milling about, causing Bocage to lower his voice at one point. Since I haven't the equipment to digitize the original tape, I have taken this excerpt from a weekly radio show that I conducted over the WQXR network in 1961, so you will hear my introduction.

When I relayed Bocage's views on modern jazz to Dizzy Gillespie, he rather liked hearing his music described as "eccentric."

Bocage, McNeal Breaux, photographer Ralston Crawford, and Benjamin Turner. Insert shows Bocage around 1910. (photo by Chris Albertson)

Here is "Bouncing Around," as played by Peter Bocage and His Creole Serenaders that day. Bocage is heard on trumpet, along with Homer Eugene, trombone, Louis Cottrell, clarinet, Benjamin Turner, piano, Sidney Pfluger, electric guitar, McNeal Breaux, bass, and Alfred Williams, drums. The recording engineer was Dave Jones.

COMING UP: The next scheduled post will comprise recordings made by me at a 1964 Jackie Robinson lawn party. Performances by Mercer Ellington and Duke's alumni orchestra, the the Dave Brubeck Quartet. 


  1. Hi there, Chris --

    What a nice coincidence. It's about Buddy Bolden what I wrote today. Click on my name, and enjoy the ride.


  2. Chris -
    Very interesting interview and the music is delightful. Fascinating that Bocage looked down on Bolden because Buddy played in brothels and jook joints instead of for businessmen! Did you ever read "Coming Through Slaughter" by Michael Ondaatje?

    1. Larry,
      I was fairly new to seeing the U.S. through adult eyes and the South was a totally new experience. One of the realities obscured by my naïvité was the existence of color bias among people of color, and that is particularly evident in New Orleans.

      I think I have an interview with Lil Armstrong somewhere on this blog wherein she recalls her family’s alarm when she was born with a light complexion and “good” hair. She became darker in fairly short order and the family breathed a collective sigh of relief! It was not that they suspected her mother of infidelity, but such contrasts suggested that it might have occurred somewhere along the line, possibly raising awkward questions :)

      No, I didn't read Ondaatje’s book, but I recall being discouraged by reviews, even the good ones, because, although I love good fiction, I am bothered when it is applied to real people. There was too much unlabeled fiction in the early jazz books—not to mention what Hollywood came up with :)