I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say: Recording the Prehistory of Jazz

By New, Michael J. | Journal of Ethnic American Literature, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say: Recording the Prehistory of Jazz


New, Michael J., Journal of Ethnic American Literature


I thought I heard Buddy Bolden shout:

"Open up that window and let that bad air out"

-Jelly Roll Morton, "Buddy Bolden's Blues"

Thus, having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come out, I must emerge. And there's still a conflict within me: With Louis Armstrong one half of me says, "Open the window and let the foul air out," while the other says, "It was good green com before the harvest." Of course Louis was kidding, he wouldn't have thrown old Bad Air out, because it would have broken up the music and the dance, when it was the good music that came from the bell of old Bad Air's hom that counted. Old Bad Air is still around with his music and his dancing and his diversity, and I'll be up and around with mine.

-Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Buddy Bolden was "bom with a silver trumpet in his mouth," Duke Ellington exclaims in his call-andresponse exchange with trumpeter Clark Terry in the musical and spoken-word allegory of jazz history, A Drum is a Woman (1956). Ellington boasts that Bolden "played the hom before he talked / bom on the after-beat / patted his foot before he walked." King Bolden, as he became known, was a barber, editor of a gossip paper, and renowned comet player from New Orleans who pioneered the brash, bluesy, raggy sound that came to be called jazz. Or so the story goes.

Charles "Buddy" Bolden is a figure from jazz lore who has transcended to the realm of mythology. Known for his volume, versatility, and virtuosity, he was the most popular bandleader in New Orleans around the turn of the century. Yet his musical career was brief, lasting only from about 1895 until he succumbed to mental illness and alcoholism in 1907 at the age of thirty. He spent the rest of his days in a state mental asylum in Jackson, Louisiana and never performed in public again.1 When Bolden died in 1931, Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher," Louis Armstrong's "Stardust," and Ellington's "Mood Indigo" were among the most popular records in the country, confirming the national craze for black music, but serious writing on jazz had barely reached its infancy.2

In early jazz criticism, the Bolden myth functions as an allegory for a paradigm shift in modem music. The invention of jazz is harnessed to new technologies that record, duplicate, and replay sound. Yet even as critics lamented the loss of pretechnological authenticity, they claimed recordings as the objective texts of jazz improvisation. Although no recording of Bolden has ever been found-or likely will be-his status as a folk hero is reinforced by each iteration of his story.3 The leg- end of Buddy Bolden is retold by musicians as a way to write themselves into the historical record of jazz's origins. Because his sound is not captured by phonographic technology, Bolden becomes a symbol of the oral tradition-one inscribed everywhere in the written history of jazz.

Although Bolden died in obscurity, his memory was soon revived during the late 1930s and 1940s by the first wave of jazz historians. Frederic Ramsey, Charles Edward Smith, William Russell, Alan Lomax, and Rudi Blesh were among the first to treat black music with scholarly rigor, but the quest to identify the singular origin point of jazz often resulted in a limited view of the music and the culture that surrounded it. Early jazz historians' attempt to produce an authoritative account of the music's genesis resulted in a rich, if problematic, site for narrative play within the jazz tradition. Their historical research relied heavily on the recollections of musicians who had played around New Orleans during the first decade of the twentieth century, but their nostalgia for early jazz impaired their perception of primary sources. Deciphering fact from fiction about the invention of jazz has been an enduring project for critics ever since. As informants, musicians sowed an irresolvable dissonance in the field of jazz criticism. …

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