Buddy Bolden: Remembering the Father of Jazz on Father’s Day
Born on September 6th, 1877, cornetist and New Orleans native Charles “Buddy” Bolden was a preeminent figure in the development of the musical forms ragtime and jass, which would later become jazz.
Bolden’s indispensable contributions to the jazz form – particularly through his improvisational work during the onset of the 18th century – would effectuate his eventual christening as the “father of jazz” by generations of musicians that would follow.
Little is known of Bolden’s early life, as general record keeping was in its early stages at the turn of the century.
By his 20s, Bolden was leading the Bolden Band in New Orleans, and had become known as “King” Bolden as a result of his untethered, improvisatory approach to traditional performance.
An early adopter of the blues, Bolden’s implementation of the form in his approach to brass ensemble and ragtime arrangements was a forerunner to the stylistic liberties which would become customary to jazz music over subsequent decades.
Preferring to forgo formal musical practices, Bolden was a “by ear” performer who incorporated bits of music he heard in various stylistic formats and applied them to his own work. These fusions of ragtime, blues, gospel, and other styles became essential in defining the sound of jazz.
Bolden’s playing style was also unique to him, and his audacious, sonorous approach to the projection of his horn was resolent in the discernment of what was tonally possible with the instrument. His powerful technique would prove to be instrumental (no pun intended) in the technical development of jazz pioneers such as Bunk Johnson and Joe “King” Oliver, the latter of whom acted as a mentor and primary influence to one of the most significant and influential musical minds – not only in the world of jazz, but of all time – Louis Armstrong.
Due to the lack of recorded information from this time, the legend of Buddy Bolden overshadows the scant details known of his life by a significant margin. And while one bandmate of Bolden’s, trombonist Willie Cornish, attests to having recorded with Bolden, no recorded output from Bolden’s lifetime is currently known to exist.
Even relative contemporaries such as Jelly Roll Morton – who himself would unabashedly lay claim to the title of jazz’s creator to anyone within earshot – and Sidney Bechet would sing the praises of Bolden’s profound musical influence.
Musically, Bolden was responsible for innovations such as the Big Four Rhythm – sometimes referred to as the Bolden Rhythm or Buddy Bolden’s Big 4 – which would act as a core element of jazz and swing rhythm going forward, interconnecting musical measures through emphasis on the final 4 beat. Musician John P. Birchall writes,
“[Bolden] used the ‘kicking quaver’ to push into the 4th beat of the second bar /dum-de, dum-de, dum–ti dum/ … this was the start of the characteristic ‘kicking quaver’ ‘lifting’ into the last beat … the second 8th note became ‘associated’ with the downbeat of beat 4.”
Bolden’s fortunes would soon wane, and by the age of 30 he would be diagnosed with what today would be known as schizophrenia, and committed to the Louisiana State Insane Asylum, where he would spend nearly the full remainder of his life. Buddy Bolden passed away on November 4th, 1931 at the age of 54 as a result of cerebral arteriosclerosis.
The legend of Buddy Bolden transcends history, his legacy traveling through word of mouth in the same way of the blues and folk standards that came to define popular music as we know it – more on that here.
So on this Father’s Day, we celebrate not only the hard-working fathers of the world, but also the Father of Jazz himself: Buddy Bolden.