300 in Black
Celebrating the Impact of Blacks New Orleanians
Charles “Buddy” Bolden was born in New Orleans on Sept. 6, 1877. It is believed that Bolden began his education at the Fisk School for Boys. In documents during the 1900s, the family name is spelled at different times as “Bolen”, “Bolding”, “Boldan”, and “Bolden”, making research difficult.
Bolden’s skill as a cornetist was regarded by contemporaries as a key figure in the development of New Orleans’ style of ragtime music, or “jass”, which later came to be known as jazz.
As Buddy’s talent with the cornet developed, he was hired to play professionally. It wasn’t until 1888 that Buddy realized his own potential and formed his own band.
Instead of imitating other cornetists, Bolden played music he heard by ear and adapted it to his horn. In doing so, he created a one-of-a-kind fusion of ragtime, Black sacred music, marching-band music, and rural blues. He rearranged the typical New Orleans dance band of the time to better accommodate the blues. String instruments became the rhythm section, and the front-line instruments were clarinets, trombones, and Bolden’s cornet.
He was known as “King Bolden” or “The King of Jazz” and his band was popular in New Orleans from 1900 until 1907. Bolden was known for his loud sound and improvisation. He made a big impression on younger musicians. While Bolden’s trombonist, Willie Cornish, among others recalled making phonograph cylinder recordings with the Bolden band, no surviving copy has ever been found.
He played within the boundaries of Storyville for six years and became well-known citywide in New Orleans. Bolden’s band was in high demand and his style was easily recognized from his improvised sets. He played his own interpretation of the song instead of reciting what was on the music sheet.
One of the most famous Bolden numbers, “Funky Butt” (known later as “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”), represents one of the earliest references of the concept of “Funk” in popular music.
Secretly, Bolden was burdened by schizophrenia (then called dementia praecox).
Unfortunately, Bolden’s alcohol addiction drove him into the Jackson Insane Asylum of Louisiana where he was institutionalized for 24 years. He died on November 4, 1931.
Bolden was buried in an unmarked grave in Holt Cemetery. In 1998, a monument to Bolden was erected in Holt Cemetery, but his exact gravesite remains unknown.
The Boldens’ home at 2309 First Street in New Orleans still stands and was declared a historic district landmark in 1978.