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Jazz Changes$

Martin Williams

Print publication date: 1993

Print ISBN-13: 9780195083491

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195083491.001.0001

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Buddy Bolden's Legend

Buddy Bolden's Legend

(p.171) Buddy Bolden's Legend
Jazz Changes

Williams Martin

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Charles “Buddy” Bolden was born around 1878 and died in 1931, but the last twenty-four years of his life were passed in the Louisiana State Hospital in Angola. There is at least one existing photo of Buddy Bolden's Band. There are six instruments: a guitar, string bass, two clarinets, Willie Cornish's valve trombone, and Bolden's cornet. There is no drum, no banjo, and no tuba. This arguably was the first jazz band. But Morton did not call Bolden the first jazz musician; instead he played “ragtime.”

Keywords:   Charles Bolden, Buddy, Angola, first jazz band, tuba, banjo

“One of my pleasantest memories as a kid growing up in New Orleans was how a bunch of us kids, playing, would suddenly hear sounds. It was like a phenomenon, like the Aurora Borealis—maybe. The sounds of men playing would be so clear, but we wouldn't be sure where they were coming from. So we't start trotting, start running—‘It's this way!’ ‘It's this way!’—And, sometimes, after running for a while, you't find you't be nowhere near that music. But that music could come on you any time like that. The city was full of the sounds of music …”— Danny Barker in Hear Me Talkiri to Ya, edited by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff.

The Negro community of almost any Southern city or town will have several men's clubs, but in New Orleans there seemed to be more of them than anywhere else. Jelly Roll Morton sometimes rattles off the names of these clubs with the impatience of a man asked to name the commonplace. They all needed music, as a part of the celebration, for outings, dances, funerals, and for parades. Those wonderful New Orleans parades. “Yes, they't have lots of fights. Well here's the way some of the bands would play” and he begins a version of Stars and Stripes Forever strange and exciting, in a style that soon became familiar (in some version or other) around the world.

There is at least one existing photograph of Charles (“Buddy,” then “Kid,” then “King”) Bolden's band. There are six pieces: Bolden's cornet, Willie Cornish's valve trombone, two clarinets, a string bass, a guitar. There is no tuba, no banjo, no drummer (p.172) (he added one later, Bunk Johnson said), and, of course, there is no piano. A pretty “far out” group isn't it? This, according to many, was the first jazz band. (The instrumentation alone might suggest the kind of rhythmic flow that could make a jazz pulse out of the more clipped rhythms of orchestrated ragtime.) However, you will notice that on these records, Morton does not call Bolden the first jazz musician, but says he played ragtime.

Charles “Buddy” Bolden was born about 1878 and died in 1931, but the last twenty-four years of his life were passed in the Louisiana State Hospital at Angola, his diagnosis reading “dementia praecox, paranoid type.”

How did he play? He played lots of blues and they say he liked to play them slowly and often quietly. That doesn't sound like ragtime. Albert Gleny, once his bassist, has said he was “the best for ragtime,” but for years the New Orleans musical style was called by the name of that Missouri style that had become a national craze. And Willie Cornish said that when they were playing the rhythms might cross “three times at once.” Bolden probably made disk records and at least one cylinder, but none of these have been found—yet. Bunk Johnson recorded demonstrations of the way Bolden played (American Music 643) on which he seems close to the beat, and with a beat rather like Morton's or Freddie Keppard's or Mutt Carey's. But those demonstrations show variations (which are improvised) that use a rhythmic complexity, and which approach the piece chorus by chorus in a gradually evolving development of a theme. Bud Scott said that Bolden got his music from church; Mutt Carey said: “that music was swinging all the way back in Bolden's time and before him in the Holy Roller churches he got it from.” That speaks for rhythmic complexity and for improvisation certainly. Bolden couldn't read and apparently had a superb ear and that speaks both for improvisation and for an imitation of the voice unknown in ragtime.

According to all reports, Bolden was a very powerful trumpeter. He was fantastically idolized. Bunk said: “… his band had the whole of New Orleans real crazy and running wild (p.173) behind it.” Clarence Williams said: “It was after I heard Buddy Bolden when he came through my home town, Plaquemine, Louisiana, on an excursion, and his trumpet playin ‘excited me so that I said, ‘I'm goin’ to New Orleans.’ I had never heard anything like that in my whole life before.” Bolden was a barber by trade and he ran a scandal sheet called The Cricket. One of the essential points about him has been made this way: he and his musicians were a part of the community life, not in any class apart called “musicians.”

Perhaps Mutt Carey's phrase, that Bolden was “the man who started the big noise in jazz” is the most accurate; he was powerful enough, good enough, and popular enough to establish the music's identity and to draw creative people to it who would continue it, as, say, Armstrong and Parker were to do later.

Morton says that the tune here called Buddy Bolden's Blues was written by Bolden and later stolen by the author of St. Louis Tickle (Barney and Seymore, 1904). The research done by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis for They All Played Ragtime indicates that it was an old ribald levee song, heard all along the Mississippi. One early publication was in 1899, as a part of Ben Harney's The Cakewalk in the Sky, in which several rhythmic variations on it were present. Morton's performance here is rather different from the two slower ones he did later.

The two tracks on “Marching Bands” here were recorded after the body of the Library series and where a piano was not available, to fill in some gaps. When Morton says he played drums and trombones in parades, no one who has heard his left hand will be much surprised. In the second part, we get the conversion of Sousa and the Stars and Stripes Forever into jazz very clearly and wonderfully. When he calls out the “next strain,” he gives, of course, a chorus of melodic-rhythmic variation. Anyone who has ever heard a Negro band in a parade in any Southern city has heard something approaching this music. Notice also the remarks on the trombone's improvisation. I once heard a man in Virginia say that in his early band, which played orchestrated rags, the trumpet and clarinet read harmonized and unison (p.174) passages, but the trombone felt free to “clown,” as he did in parades.

Morton's remark (his second such) that ragtime players would keep increasing their tempos because a perfect tempo hadn't been picked for that style has puzzled many and will continue to. Jazz players can increase their tempos, too (Morton may himself), and a blues pianist like Will Ezell does it in a way that makes it seem intentional. The device is standard in many musics, including West African, of course. Morton once said that he hit on his style because he couldn't make fast tempos at first, and then discovered that he could incorporate rhythmic variety, embellishments, and variations of many kinds at such speeds. Certainly if a player uses a simple ragtime bass he may well tend to speed up, and if he is building in his performance by rhythmic-melodic variation, he will not need the false climax of merely increasing his speed.

The question of American Indian music and its influence on jazz reminds one of a theory about jazz which had some popularity at the time of these recordings and was neglected thereafter until bassist Oscar Pettiford (born on a reservation in Okmulgee, Oklahoma) raised it again—strongly, to say the least—at a summer round table in 1956 at Music Inn in Lenox, Mass. One can be sure of one thing: Indian music is analogous to African in several ways, and such an analogue can be an encouragement to creativity. Morton's apparently accurate memory of a Mardi Gras ceremony he had known as a young man (which may have been very mixed with vodun music by that time, of course) seems to show that the music made an important impression. A couple of notes appended to Hally Wood's transcription of Ungai Ha in Alan Lomax's book, Mister Jelly Roll are interesting: “This is written longer than the singer actually sang it. Barely anticipate the beat without any hurried feeling and you will have it.” “Not sung as a full tone change, but more as an emphasis on this beat.” The descriptions might apply to so much of jazz, to so much of Morton.

The Creole Song, which Morton plays very simply, later showed up in part as a Creole Song about two gossips which Kid (p.175) Ory later revived. One can readily imagine it as a French song, with a rhythm at half time to this, in a heavy 2/4.

The melody of If You Don't Shake could also easily come from a European “nursery” or folk song. If you have any trouble supplying the censored words, maybe you't better not be listening to this one in the first place.