The only known photograph of Buddy Bolden, standing back row and second from left, horn in hand. Also pictured: guitarist Brock Mumford, bassist Jimmie Johnson, clarinetists Willie Warner and Frank Lewis, and trombonist Willie Cornish.
Courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Museum
On a sunny Thursday afternoon in May, the corner of First Street and LaSalle in New Orleans' Central City neighborhood was lively. Kids tooled around on bikes and grown-up neighbors danced to the sounds of DJ Jubilee and Al Green, spun onstage by DJ Mannie Fresh, the producer whose exceptional skills put Cash Money Records on the map back in the '90s. The party was hosted by PJ Morton — a native New Orleanian and the keyboardist for Maroon 5 — who followed Fresh's set with a long, jammy performance of his song "New Orleans Girl," including both a bounce verse and a trombone solo.
The party took place at a hot locus for New Orleans musical culture, where second line parades roll through and Mardi Gras Indians show off, near the housing projects where the Neville Brothers and Juvenile and Harold Battiste, the modern jazz innovator who worked as Sonny and Cher's musical director, grew up.
And also it's where Buddy Bolden, the mysterious cornetist who scholars and fans credit as a pioneer of jazz, lived during the peak of his short, improbably influential career. Born in New Orleans in 1877 and self-taught, Bolden quickly became an in-demand act in his youth, popular for the forcefulness of his cornet's sound and his tendency, novel at the time, to improvise on the blues and ragtime and parade-band standards that were the standard repertoire around the turn of the century. (Also for what would become his theme song, the bawdy "Funky Butt" — or "Buddy Bolden's Blues.") As historian Don Marquis wrote in his landmark 1978 biography In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz, he "played all over town... for every conceivable function," at parks, picnics, parades and dances, and on the back of wagons that drove around town to advertise them.
Not that you can hear any of that.
The subject of an impressionistic biopic, Bolden, being released May 3, Bolden is a historical wraith who still looms large over the legacy of jazz. No written compositions or recordings of his playing exist; Wynton Marsalis, who scored the film, had to reconstruct a facsimile of his sound based on both recordings of his contemporaries and their recollections of his playing and his presence. To date, researchers have identified only one photograph of him (which you can see above). In the first years of the twentieth century, he was the biggest name in town. But, as researcher James Karst recently wrote in Preservation In Print, by the time "jazz" entered the lexicon in the mid-teens, Bolden had been gone for years.
It was much later that the first jazz scholars took an interest in establishing a record around the birth of the music and began interviewing the remaining people and players who remembered its creation. Bolden's name was uttered over and over again, with awe — in the preface to First Man of Jazz, Marquis quotes Louis Armstrong reminiscing: "He blew so hard that I used to wonder if I would ever have enough lung power to fill one of those cornets."
With nothing but secondhand reports and imagination, Bolden's legend grew. He was a ladies' man and a boozer who played all night, and louder than anyone; an innovator who catalyzed one of America's most important cultural inventions. Marquis writes that it's certainly possible that very absence of hard facts is what has fed his exaltation. But the memories of those who did hear him still stand out. "There were other cornetists and soloists who were prominent, but they were just not remembered like he was," Karst told me.
Based on news reports and arrest records, historians surmise that the horn player became unpredictable and violent in his late twenties, suffering psychotic breaks and episodes of paranoia. His mental illness chipped away at his ability to work, and he stopped performing. In 1907, he was committed to the Louisiana State Insane Asylum at Jackson, where he died in 1931. He was buried in a potters' field in New Orleans — the specific location of his resting place has been lost to time. Where he lived his life, however, could be on the verge of avoiding the same fate.
PJ Morton's party was a kickoff celebration for the Buddy's House Foundation, his recently announced plan to renovate Bolden's house, in consultation with the Preservation Resource Center (PRC) of New Orleans, an organization which advocates for the city's historic architecture. According to Morton, the house will become a community center, museum and recording studio, offering music-business education for young performers and celebrating the jazz originator's legacy.
Bolden's house, at 2309 First Street, stands two doors down from the Greater St. Stephen's Full Gospel Baptist Church, the worship center presided over by PJ Morton's parents, Bishop Paul S. Morton and Pastor Debra Morton, from whom its fate has become inextricable. The house was granted landmark status in 1978, following the publication of Marquis' book. In 2000, the Times-Picayune reported that after the property suffered minor damage from a fire, its owner approached then-Mayor Marc Morial for financial help in restoring it. The city offered to move the building to a site in the Treme neighborhood, but the owner declined; it remained a rental property until 2008, when the Mortons' church bought it. In recent statements, the elder Mortons have said they were unaware of its history when they bought it, and PJ learned even later. "I found out when I moved home three years ago," he said. "And shamefully, as a musician who grew up in New Orleans, I didn't even know Buddy's story."
There have been murmurs of dissatisfaction among jazz fans with the new film, Bolden, for liberties it takes with the historical record. (Director Dan Pritzker has said that the film deliberately leans into his mythology because of the dearth of confirmed facts and the phenomenon, even in the face of that, of Bolden's massive legend.) But as the clock ticked down to the movie's release, a lot of those critics and scholars, in New Orleans at least, were concerned less with the story on the screen than with that double-shotgun house.
Bolden lived there for about fifteen years, from age ten to 25 or so, James Karst said. His residence there coincided with his most active and fertile time as a musician, and the family's move, "to a much shabbier house" nearby, said Karst, was timed to his decline.
The house was included on the Louisiana Landmarks Society's annual list of the city's nine most endangered properties in 2011, when it was also cited for blight (as it was in 2014, too). At that time, according to a report in the New Orleans Advocate, the Preservation Resource Center, an organization that advocates for the preservation of historical architecture in the city, offered to help renovate the landmark and find a new buyer, as it had done with the historic homes of other early jazz artists. But the church declined to sell, saying it planned to renovate 2309 First Street itself.
But jazz scholars and preservationists like John McCusker, author of the 2012 Edward "Kid" Ory biography Creole Trombone and a tour guide who's been bringing groups to see the house on First Street for more than twenty years, were growing skeptical. When the New Orleans City Council voted to approve a federally-funded rebuilding plan for the Mortons' church in August 2018, which did not include the Bolden house, McCusker and others led a charge both at the council meeting and online, arguing that the jazz site should be prioritized. (Many tweeted at Wynton Marsalis, hoping that he might weigh in due to the forthcoming film.)
McCusker, though, is taking a skeptical wait-and-see approach to the new plans. ("What does the Bible tell us?" he said. "'We shall know by their acts.'") This is less cynicism toward the new Foundation and the church in particular and more a learned response to New Orleans' track record with the physical markers of its extensive musical legacy. Louis Armstrong's birthplace was torn down in the sixties as part of the construction of a new police headquarters and court complex. The site of J&M Studios, where Cosimo Matassa waxed hundreds of groundbreaking early rock and R&B recordings, is now a laundromat. The Dew Drop Inn, a major locus of black music and cultural life in the city from World War II until the '70s, stood shuttered and crumbling for decades, as did the Eagle Saloon and Odd Fellows Hall on South Rampart Street. The latter sites have been the subject of periodic attempts at restoration and reinvention, though nothing substantial has yet panned out.
"The city really actively tried to suppress jazz music for years," Karst says. By the time that history – and that of rock and roll, and R&B – was looked at with reverence, it was often too late. "Armstrong himself wasn't really appreciated til the sixties. Due to racism, ignorance, disinterest in black pop music ... it's really kind of a shock that [the house] is still there."
According to McCusker, the whole neighborhood around the First Street house deserves more attention as a generative zone for jazz. Within six blocks of the Bolden house, he said, were also homes occupied at the same time by pioneers like "Kid" Ory and Johnny Dodds.
"But nobody talks about Central City as a birthplace of jazz," he said. "And it's a gateway to a better understanding of music and a better understanding of New Orleans, and I don't understand why it hasn't been more of a priority."