Who Was Buddy Bolden?

You might have heard the name Buddy Bolden a lot recently. This is because a jazz biopic about his life was released earlier this month. Bolden: Where The Music Began, is the story of the New Orleans cornet player who is often credited as being very instrumental in developing jazz back in the early 1900s. Not a lot is known about Bolden, so the movie is based on urban myths surrounding his life. But what is known of Bolden is pretty interesting stuff. 

Charles Joseph “Buddy” Bolden was born on September 6, 1877 in New Orleans. He started playing the cornet as a teen and became so good at it that he eventually developed the moniker, “King” Bolden. When he was 20, Bolden formed Buddy Bolden’s Band and it quickly became popular in the New Orleans music scene. 

Bolden’s band was the first to play the blues on brass instruments. Because the band couldn’t read sheet music, they replicated compositions of other bands or played off one another in improvisational sessions. The music they created helped to form the backbone of ragtime and “jass” later known as jazz. The band did make phonograph recordings but sadly, there were no surviving copies. 

Bolden himself would play music he heard by ear on his coronet. He managed to create an exciting and unique blend of ragtime, spiritual music, marching-band music and the blues. Bolden is also believed to have created the “Big Four”, a key rhythmic innovation on the marching band beat, which provided more room for individual improvisation in jazz music of the day.

Bolden’s quick rise to fame gave way to tough times for the musician. He struggled with alcoholism and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was admitted to the Louisiana State Insane Asylum and spent the rest of his life there. He died November 4, 1931 at the age of 54. 

As for the movie, Wynton Marsalis had the unique challenge of bringing Bolden’s music to life despite never hearing any of his performances. But Marsalis did it by just imagining Bolden’s signature sound. He also incorporated the styles of three horn players who were influenced by Bolden—Bunk Johnson, King Oliver and Freddie Keppard. These three musicians embraced ragtime and because they were all recorded during their lifetimes, Marsalis had source materials to draw from. Marsalis also played the way he believed Bolden played: Energetic, authoritative and definitive.

If you want to hear Marsalis’ interpretation of “King” Bolden’s music, you can hear it in Bolden: Where The Music Began, which is in theaters now.

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