The house of Buddy Bolden
The other day I read two stories about famous people’s homes. One was about the house in Austria in which Adolf Hitler was born. Finally the authorities are thinking of razing it to the ground, to prevent its use as a neo-Nazi pilgrimage site (although they’re nervous about it being interpreted as an attempt to erase the country’s dark past). The other was about Buddy Bolden’s house in New Orleans, which is lying derelict in the grounds of a mega-church and could be demolished at any moment to make way for car parking.
A piece by John McCusker in The Lens, a New Orleans news website, depicted the single-storey wooden house at 2309 First Street in Central City, a once poor quarter now in the process of rapid gentrification. It was where the great cornetist lived with his mother and sister until he was taken away to spend the last 25 years of his life in the Louisiana State Insane Asylum, where he died in 1931, aged 54.
Anyone familiar with Michael Ondaatje’s great book Coming Through Slaughter, a wonderfully vivid imagining of Bolden’s life, will feel something stirring while looking at McCusker’s photographs of the house. They might even feel moved to write to Bishop Paul Morton of the Greater St Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, which shows no sign of making good on its promise to restore the building in recognition of its history — or even simply to stop it falling to bits and put up a commemorative plaque.
Gil Evans once told me that Louis Armstrong told him that Miles Davis’s tone reminded him of the way Bolden sounded. Armstrong, of course, had heard Bolden at first hand. You and I have no idea of whether he really was, as his legend suggests, the first jazz musician. But there are enough verifiably true elements of the legend to make him a valuable symbol of America’s great art form. Is there still time for Barack Obama to make some sort of presidential decree?