LUC SANTE

I THOUGHT I HEARD BUDDY BOLDEN SAY

THE MEANING OF FUNK AS WE KNOW IT TODAY—AS A SIGNIFIER OF AUTHENTICITY, FUZZ-TONE BASS, PERSPIRATION, AND A BOTTOM-HEAVY DRUM STYLE—ORIGINATED ON A SATURDAY NIGHT IN A NEW ORLEANS CONCERT HALL IN 1902, JUST BEFORE SOMEONE OPENED A WINDOW TO LET IN SOME AIR.

DISCUSSED: New Orleans, Buddy Bolden, Non-Marching Musical Agglomerations, Divinity Students, Dementia, Pimps and Prostitutes, The Ping Pong, Funky Butt Hall, Jelly Roll Morton, Scatological Variant Lyrics, Abe Lincoln, Olfactory Denotation, Spiritual Surrender, The White Middle-Class Ear

The Union Sons Hall stood at 1319 Perdido Street, between Liberty and Franklin, in the area of New Orleans known in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Back o’ Town, which was among other things the unofficial black prostitution district, as distinct from the official white one, Storyville, a few blocks away. The hall was built sometime after 1866, when several “free persons of color” formed the Union Sons Relief Organization of Louisiana and bought a double-lot parcel for its headquarters. The only known photograph of the place was taken in the 1930s, a decade or so after it had become the Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church, and by then it certainly looked like a church, although this being New Orleans it is not impossible that it always had a steeple and Gothic arched windows. Anyway, it was a church on Sunday mornings for much of its existence, originally leased to the First Lincoln Baptist Church for that purpose. On Saturday nights, meanwhile, it was rented for dances which lasted until early light, so that the deacons must have put in a hard few hours every week washing up spilled beer and airing out the joint before the pious came flocking. At night it was known as one of the rougher spots in a rough area. It was razed in the late 1950s, along with most of the immediate neighborhood, its site now lost somewhere under the vastness of the Louisiana State Office Building.[1]

It is remembered solely because of those dances, and primarily because some of them featured Buddy Bolden and his band. Jazz is too large and fluid a category of music to have had a single eureka moment of origin, let alone a sole inventor, but just about everybody agrees that no nameable person was more important to its creation than Buddy Bolden. He was a cornet player, born in 1877, and he got his first band together sometime around 1895. He was known for playing loud—stories of how far his horn could be heard sound like tall tales, but are so numerous there must be something to them—and for playing loose and rowdy. He was by all accounts the first major New Orleans musician to make a virtue of not being able to read a score. You can begin to get an idea of how distinctive his band was from looking at photographs. The traditional-style brass bands of the era wore military-style uniforms, complete with peaked caps, as their parade-band successors do to this day; the getups proclaim unison and discipline, even if the New Orleans version allowed for more latitude than was the rule among the oompah outfits active in every American village of the time. The orchestras—the term was then applied to non-marching musical agglomerations of virtually any size or composition—dressed in mufti, but their sedate poses attest to rigor and sobriety. The John Robichaux Orchestra may have had a big drum, as shown in an 1896 portrait, but its legendarily virtuosic members look as serious as divinity students, and by all accounts they played as sweetly.

Buddy Bolden’s band, on the other hand, is clearly a band, in the sense in which we use the word today. In the only extant photograph, circa 1905, each member has chosen his own stance, with no attempt at homogenization. They all rode in on different trolleys, the picture says, but up on the stage they talk to each other as much as to the audience. Drummer Cornelius Tillman is unaccountably absent. Shy Jimmy Johnson disappears into his bull fiddle. B-flat clarinetist Frank Lewis sits gaunt and upright as a picket. Willie Warner holds his C-clarinet with the kind of delicacy you sometimes see in men with massive hands. Jefferson “Brock” Mumford, the guitarist, looks a bit like circa-1960 Muddy Waters and a bit like he just woke up fully dressed and out of sorts. Willie Cornish shows you his valve trombone as if you had challenged his possession of it. Buddy Bolden rests his weight on his left leg, holds his little horn balanced on one palm, shoulder slumping a bit, and allows a faint smile to take hold of his face. You could cut him out of the frame and set him down on the sidewalk outside the Three Deuces in 1944, alongside Bird and Diz, and then the smile and the posture would plainly say “reefer.” You could cut him out of the frame and set him down on the sidewalk outside right now, and passing him you would think “significant character, and he knows it, too,” and spend the rest of the day trying to attach a name to the face.

  1. This piece draws heavily on Donald M. Marquis’s In Search of Buddy Bolden, First Man of Jazz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978; New York: Da Capo, 1980), a heroic piece of historical detective work that represents pretty nearly the last word on Bolden, who nevertheless remains a specter about whom more stories can be refuted than proven. Mention should also be made of the website maintained by Carlos “Froggy” May—www.geocities.com/BourbonStreet/5135/Bolden.html—which has stayed abreast of more recent scholarship, faint trickle though it is.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Luc Sante’s books include Low Life, Evidence, and The Factory of Facts. A version of this essay appears in The Rose & the Briar, a collection of essays on “death, love and liberty in the American ballad,” published this month by W. W. Norton.

STAY CONNECTED
News on Facebook Photos on Instagram Stuff on Pinterest Announcements by RSS Sounds on Soundcloud Exclusives on Tumblr Updates on Twitter

Subscribe to our mailing list