Charles Joseph “Buddy” Bolden

Charles Joseph “Buddy” Bolden was born on September 6, 1877, in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Alice and Westmore Bolden. He grew up in a vibrant and diverse city that was rich in musical traditions, such as brass bands, ragtime, blues, and gospel. He learned to play the cornet by ear and soon developed a unique and powerful style that earned him the nickname “King” Bolden.

Bolden is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of jazz, a term that was not yet in use during his musical career. He is credited with creating a new style of music that fused elements of ragtime, blues, and sacred music, and that featured improvisation, syncopation, and a strong rhythmic drive. He also reorganized the typical New Orleans dance band of his time, replacing string instruments with brass and reed instruments.

Buddy Bolden Band, New Orleans, c. 1905: (back row from left to right) Jimmie Johnson, Buddy Bolden, Brock Mumford, and Willie Cornish and (front row from left to right) Frank Lewis and Willie Warner.

Bolden led his own band from around 1895 to 1907 and was very popular among both black and white audiences. He often played at parades, picnics, dances, and other social events. He also performed at some of the city’s famous venues, such as Funky Butt Hall and Lincoln Park. His band included Willie Cornish on valve trombone, Frank Lewis and Willy Warner on clarinets, Jimmy Johnson on bass, and Brock Mumford on guitar.

Bolden’s music was never recorded, but many of his contemporaries and successors praised his influence and recalled his songs. Some of his tunes, such as “Funky Butt”, “Careless Love”, and “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”, were later recorded by other musicians. Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Joe “King” Oliver, Freddie Keppard, and Bunk Johnson were among the jazz legends who acknowledged Bolden’s impact on their music.

Unfortunately, Bolden’s brilliant career was cut short by mental illness. In 1906, he began to show signs of paranoia and erratic behavior. In 1907, he suffered a breakdown during a parade and was arrested for assaulting his mother-in-law. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to the East Louisiana State Hospital in Jackson. He spent the rest of his life in the asylum, where he died on November 4, 1931.

Charles “Buddy” Bolden was a musical pioneer who left a lasting legacy on the history and culture of New Orleans and jazz. His life and music inspired many books, films, plays, and songs that celebrate his achievements and lament his tragic fate. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Holt Cemetery in New Orleans.

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