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The house of Buddy Bolden

buddy-boldenThe 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?

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Yes, Obama, do it. I read Coming though Slaughter 30 years ago and have been haunted by it ever since

    October 26, 2016
  2. thenextwavefutures #

    Impossible to read this without being reminded of Adrian Mitchell’s tribute, “Buddy Bolden”.

    Here’s one stanza:

    He chose his girls like kings do
    And dranl like earth was hell
    But when they tried to cut him
    He played like Gabriel.

    October 26, 2016
  3. dave heasman #

    Louis was only 5 when Bolden was committed. I suppose he could have remembered his sound…

    October 26, 2016
  4. obama should have beheaded gwbush and dickcheenie for their war crimes, but has not; doubt that obummer will do anything about Buddy either.

    October 26, 2016


    October 27, 2016
  6. Thank you so much for highlighting my efforts to saved Bolden’s house and other jazz landmarks. That being said the Bolden of Coming Through Slaughter, regardless of the merits of the work as art, bears little resemblance to the actual man or his story.

    October 30, 2016
    • True enough — but Ondaatje’s book is a wonderful piece of literature in its own right, and of course its success helped draw attention to the story of the real man. Good luck with saving the house. These things are important.

      October 30, 2016

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