Cornetist Buddy Bolden is one of the premier legendary figures of jazz. Credited as the founder of "jass," later to be called jazz, he was the first player to pursue an improvisational style. Much is unknown about Bolden's life, however, and it has been difficult for jazz historians to separate myth from reality, and the legend continues to grow.
Charles Joseph Bolden was born in New Orleans to Westmore Bolden and Alice Harrison on September 6, 1877. In December of 1883, Bolden's father died and his mother began working to support the family. At the age of ten, Bolden, along with his mother and sister, Cara, moved to 385 First Street. It is possible that Bolden attended the nearby Fisk School for Boys, an institution noted for its discipline and excellent music program. His other musical influence came from St. John's Baptist Church, where his family attended services. By 1894 Bolden had begun playing the cornet, and received his first lessons from a neighbor, Manual Hall, who was dating his mother.
In the mid-1890s Bolden formed a series of bands as he searched for the right combination, and by the turn of the century he had a lineup that included cornet, trombone, two clarinets, guitar, bass, and drums. The Buddy Bolden Band held court in the South Rampart and Perdido area of downtown New Orleans, a somewhat disreputable section of town that included the red-light district known as Storyville. Between 1900 and 1906, Bolden's band was the hottest group in downtown New Orleans. Here, the cornet player solidified his reputation as "Kid" and later "King" Bolden, and gained a reputation as a drinker and a ladies man. The one photograph that survives of Bolden reveals a sharply dressed man with an oval face and pleasant features. Contemporaries later said that his hair was reddish-black and that he was considered handsome.
Although many critics of the time commented on Bolden's style, there is no surviving recording of any of his performances. Many commented that he played loud with a blue tone and that he, unlike the other musicians of the day, improvised. One of the most intriguing stories about Bolden concerns the possibility that he made a recording with his band before 1898. This Edison cylinder has become the Holy Grail of missing jazz recordings, and enthusiasts have offered large rewards for the finder. "That the cylinder was made is quite believable," wrote Donald M. Marquis in his book In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz. He added, "That it is gone forever is even more believable."