It is generally agreed that Buddy Bolden was the first musician to play what later became known as jazz. But, because his achievement occurred over a 100 years ago, what we know about the man was primarily by word of mouth; stories that usually referred to Bolden as "mysterious" or "enigmatic." However, in 1978 Donald Marquis, then Curator of the News Orleans Jazz Club Collections, published the findings of several years of research in his book, In Search of Buddy Bolden. Marquis’ book provides a fascinating account of the Buddy Bolden story; a story made even more fascinating by the recent medical theory put forth by Britain’s Dr. Sean Spence that jazz was the product of mental illness.
Charles Joseph "Buddy" Bolden was born in New Orleans in1877, the year President Hayes ended Reconstruction and withdrew Union troops from the Southern states. Bolden belonged to the first generation of Blacks to be born after the abolition of slavery. They entered a liberated society and, in fact, Louisiana had thousands of Free Persons of Color even in the years before the War Between the States. And many of the neighborhoods in New Orleans, including Bolden’s, had residents of various ethnic groups.
Buddy grew up in a modest Uptown section of New Orleans. Because of its proximity to his neighborhood, he presumably attended the Fisk School for Boys, which was noted for its discipline and outstanding music teachers. Buddy probably learned to read music, play different instruments, and he’s known to have developed an accomplished singing voice. Church attendance was a major part of his life and the hymns and spirituals he heard at the services would later color the secular music he played. While in his early teens, after his father’s untimely death, his mother, still a fairly young woman, became involved with a part-time musician; a cornet player who taught Buddy how to play the instrument. From then on Bolden abandoned all other instruments and concentrated on the cornet.
Buddy was described as having light brown skin; a lean muscular physique, brown eyes and brown, slightly reddish hair. The only portrait of him shows a handsome young man, probably between 18 and 20, with Creole features. He is wearing a formal suit in the style of the times with a high starched collar and white bow tie. Recollections of him usually mention his good looks, prominent eyes, and meticulous grooming and fancy clothes.
While still in his teens, Buddy Bolden played for dances and parades as a member of large orchestras with string sections. Its difficult for us to picture the father of jazz playing waltzes, quadrilles and polkas but this formal ensemble playing help discipline his technical proficiency and taught him about musical charting, scores and arrangements. After five years of what we might call apprenticeship, Buddy was restless to be on his own and be more musically adventurous.
The Buddy Bolden Band included, in addition to Bolden’s cornet, a trombone, two clarinets, guitar, bass and drum. Most musicians have abandoned the cornet in favor of the brassier sound of the trumpet. But the cornet with its softer mellow tone was perfectly suited for Bolden’s kind of music, because, although he played for parades and large picnics, his mainstay was playing for dances. Night after night his band produced music for dancers with Bolden’s smooth cornet balancing the clarinets and the trombone. As the night grew on, Bolden’s band would loosen up and experiment with its new kind of music.
Jazz great, Louis Armstrong claims that, as a very young boy, he would often sneak into dance halls and conceal himself in the back of the room so he could listen to Buddy Bolden. Armstrong, who played the cornet himself, was profoundly influenced by Bolden and always recalled his power and improvisational creativity. Like Armstrong, most musicians can usually point to a role model, someone whose musical style influenced theirs. But Buddy Bolden had no one to emulate. No one else had done what he did. Bolden’s improvisational style was nonexistent until it occurred spontaneously.
Unfortunately, there are no recordings of the Bolden band so we can only surmise how his music must have sounded. There are reliable reports that Bolden’s group did record a selection of songs on an Edison cylinder. In an interview before his death, Willie Cornish, one of Bolden’s sidemen, confirmed that the recording was made. The search for the cylinder continues to this day and jazz aficionados have offered sizable monetary rewards for it. The cylinder has become "jazz’s Maltese Falcon."
When 1900 arrived, the Buddy Bolden Band was the talk of the town. A picture of this famous band contains the only existing photograph of Bolden. He stands behind his guitar player with his cornet lying across his hand. Beside him is his good friend, trombonist Willie Cornish. Seated in front of Cornish is the clarinetist Frank Lewis, the only band member, other than Bolden, who could read music. These two did all of the arrangements for the other players. And, in one of the many enigmas surrounding the Bolden legend, his drummer, Cornelius Tillman, is inexplicably missing from the band’s only group picture.
As he was only 22 years old, Buddy was dubbed "Kid Bolden," a sobriquet that soon changed to "King Bolden." His singing wowed the ladies. It was reported that he was "giving them the crawls." Bolden originally played Ragtime, which is often thought of as jazz but it was written music. In contrast, Bolden’s innovation was the unwritten, unrehearsed ornamentation of melodies; solo improvisations that became the essence of jazz. And it was the powerful lush sound he wrung from his cornet during his astonishing solos that made the greatest impression on his fans.
But early on some of the regular fans of the Buddy Bolden Band sensed that there was something "strange" about this talented young man; qualities that set him apart, not only from other musicians but also from other people. When discussing Bolden’s playing they frequently used the term — "the trance." Reports from that time claim that during his solos Bolden seemed to go into a trance-like state, unaware of his surroundings and responding only to internal stimuli. Often, when he would come out of one of his long improvisations he would glance nervously around the room as if trying to get his bearings.
Many were disturbed by his abrupt mood changes that usually occurred when he was improvising on a lively, cheerful tune. In the middle of a solo, Buddy would slow down and segue into a somber almost funereal theme — still the blues but with a hint of church hymns. Bolden’s whole aspect seem to darken during these melancholy passages. Oddly, Buddy’s most powerful improvisations were not the up-tempo pieces we normally associate with jazz, but slow and plaintive refrains, combining the elements of down and out blues with doleful church spirituals.
Over the next few years Bolden’s popularity continued to increase but so did his notorious drinking and womanizing. Women had always been drawn to him, but with his celebrity status they found him irresistible. It was not unusual for Buddy to be accompanied by two or more attractive ladies and jealousy for his attention occasionally provoked scuffles and catfights. Bolden had always been congenial and easygoing, but at some point he began to experience periods when he would become petulant and moody. These episodes, along with his drinking and philandering strained his second marriage: his first wife had moved away some time ago taking his son.
Finally, after several years of musical amiability, his relationship with his band began to deteriorate. There was now constant bickering between Buddy and his players. In a moment of anger he would fire one of his sidemen he suspected of some disloyal act. Over time other players quit the band because of his irrational accusations and ill treatment. Some left simply because he was not always able to pay them after a booking.
Bolden became more and more unreliable. He drank heavily and often showed up late for performances, forcing the band members to make excuses to irate proprietors. Finally, his players simply took over the band and changed the name from the "Buddy Bolden Band" to "The Eagle Band" with trombonist Frankie Dusen as its leader. The band must have felt compassion for their former leader, apparently realizing Buddy was grappling with demons beyond his control. So Dusen offered him the opportunity to become one of the sidemen. To be reduced to a sideman in what had once been his own band must have been humiliating but as Bolden’s reputation prevented him from getting bookings or hiring new musicians, he had no other choice. And soon worse humiliations would follow.
Buddy began having severe headaches, and a family member reported that "he seemed to be afraid of his cornet." The band had endured his tardiness and his missed performances for too long. One night, after waiting in vain for Bolden’s arrival, they decided to start without him. As the band was about to play its first number, Bolden entered the hall with his cornet. A disgusted Frankie Dusen informed him; "We don’t need you anymore." As the stunned audience watched, Buddy Bolden turned and slowly left the room.
But apparently Bolden played at least one more engagement with The Eagle Band, the1906 Labor Day parade, the occasion of his famous breakdown. The temperature was in the 90s — one of those sweltering humid days so common to New Orleans’s sub-tropical climate. The parade always featured several bands and they marched smartly through the Crescent City, each band with its own uniforms and caps. Suddenly, Bolden stumbled and staggered out of formation, screaming. He was assisted out of the parade route and shocked witnesses claimed he was frothing at the mouth. Artist George Schmidt’s painting, "Buddy Bolden’s Nervous Breakdown" shows Bolden seated on the curb with legs extended and head slumped onto his chest; a posture of hopelessness. In the right foreground we see his cornet and cap lying on the cobblestone road. A band member looks back towards Bolden and a policeman has temporarily stopped the dignitaries on horses who were following the band.
A few days later, while recouping at home, Buddy became so violent that his family sent for the police. Bolden was arrested and the police listed the charge as "insanity." After his release his condition worsened, his drinking accelerated and there were more out-of-control episodes. The once fastidious dresser now neglected his clothes and grooming, alternating between periods of rage and placidity. He was often incoherent. Bolden’s family suffered through months of turmoil in their attempts to help him. But after another furious assault on his family, the police were again summoned, this time for his third arrest during a 12-month period. He was again booked for insanity and placed in the House of Detention to await a medical examination.
A "Declaration of Insanity" was finally approved by a local judge and Bolden, along within sixteen others, was placed on a wagon drawn by a team of horses and transported to the State Mental Hospital in Jackson, Louisiana. Buddy Bolden would spend the rest of his life at the Hospital and, on the day he arrived, June 5, 1907, he was 29 years old.
Various reasons for Buddy Bolden’s mental collapse were voiced throughout New Orleans; the most common being "advanced alcoholism." While the frequency of his drinking would probably qualify as alcoholism, it had never affected the quality of his playing. Indeed, his three arrests were all attributed to insanity. His drinking was probably a result of a more severe problem — most likely he drank to quiet the voices in his head which mental patients often describe as "a radio tuned to several stations at once."
Tertiary syphilis was often put forth to explain Bolden’s erratic behavior and with good reason. We don’t know how many women he was sexually involved with, but a handful of names have been identified and at least one of those had been arrested for prostitution. It is safe to assume that some of his girlfriends were probably as promiscuous as Buddy himself was, so a sexually transmitted disease is a high probability. But it should be noted that he was given a physical examination including a blood test upon his admission to the Hospital and his medical records did not indicate syphilis.
Considering the New Orleans’ culture around 1900, it is not surprising that a widespread explanation for his breakdown was "Voodoo." There were a number of Voodoo practitioners operating in the City at that time and it is possible that the daughter of famous Voodoo queen, Marie Laveau, who continued her mother’s practice and used her mother’s name, was still around. Whether it was she who was contacted or some other conjurer, a regularly repeated story claims that one of the women Bolden jilted paid a Voodoo priestess to prepare special gris-gris for her. During Bolden’s absence, she furtively inserted this potion into the mouthpiece of his cornet and it worked its black magic by destroying his mind.
A more contemporary view attributes the cause of Bolden’s curious behavior to an inner ear infection that led to Meniere’s disease which is suspected of precipitating manic-depressive disorder. Meniere’s disease was also purported to have caused Vincent Van Gogh’s mental problems which, interestingly, might have produced his unique style of painting. If mental illness can alter an artist’s style of painting, it could also modify a musician’s interpretation of a melody.
These theories are interesting but meticulous research by Dr. Sean Spence, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Sheffield lead him to agree with the 1907 diagnosis of Buddy Bolden made by the State Mental Hospital in Jackson: "Dementia Praecox" which is now called "Schizophrenia." The Hospital’s medical records describe Bolden’s behavior as grandiose, incoherent, hears voices, has visual and auditory hallucinations, tears his clothes, ritually touches things, and talks to himself.
Last year, Dr. Spence made a presentation to the Royal College of Psychiatrists alleging that "without his schizophrenia, Buddy Bolden might never have started improvisation." Spence noted that the onset of schizophrenia usually occurs in young adulthood, the very time when Bolden formed his band and began his improvisational style. Also, schizophrenia affects the function of the prefrontal lobe area of the brain which is the area used for creativity. According to Dr. Spence "Bolden’s mental health problems meant his motor functions were impaired" consequently "jazz music arose from the attempts of a cognitively impaired performer to execute novel performances. Bolden’s case demonstrates the possible contribution of the psychotic process to the generation of a new art form within the life of a single subject."
But even if the root cause of jazz was mental illness it takes nothing away from Buddy Bolden’s spectacular achievement. Many artists have suffered psychiatric complications and it may have actually enhanced their creativity. Edgar Allan Poe thought so and expressed it this way "…the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence.whether much that is glorious does not spring from disease of thought…from moods of minds exalted at the expense of the general intellect." This might have been the case with Buddy Bolden, a musician who constantly struggled to take his pyrotechnical solo flights higher and higher. But, like a supernova, his light became so intense that it exploded leaving behind only the memory of its brightness.
Gail Jarvis [send him mail] a CPA living in Beaufort, SC, is an advocate of limited government best exemplified by the voluntary union of states enumerated by the founders.