A newly discovered account of jazz legend Buddy Bolden’s mental decline
Updated Jan 3; Posted Jan 6
529 sharesBy James Karst
Buddy Bolden is a towering yet enigmatic figure in American popular music. The cornet player was said to be the most popular jazz musician in New Orleans for a brief period in the early 20th century, before the homegrown genre was even known by that name. Bolden is sometimes credited as having single-handedly invented jazz, although the truth of its genesis is complicated. The bawdy “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” AKA “Funky Butt,” remains a traditional jazz staple to this day.
Tragically, the first king of jazz was debilitated by mental illness at what should have been the height of his career. After a series of arrests, he was committed to the Louisiana mental asylum in 1907. He lived out the rest of his life at the institution and died in obscurity. Bolden is believed to have made a wax cylinder recording around the turn of the century, but it has never been found, and the conventional wisdom is that it probably no longer exists.
Limited details are known about Bolden’s life, and separating fiction from fact has often proven difficult. Much of what we do know has come from police and medical records and from interviews conducted years after his death with people who had known Bolden.
During Bolden’s career, in the early decades of Jim Crow, newspapers in New Orleans rarely wrote about black people except to hold them up for ridicule or to document alleged criminal offenses. As a result, any contemporary slivers of information about Bolden have great significance to jazz historians. Don Marquis writes in his definitive Bolden biography, “In Search of Buddy Bolden,” that reports in the Daily Picayune and Item in late March of 1906 constituted the only newspaper coverage of the famed musician during his lifetime.
But a third New Orleans newspaper, the Daily States, also wrote about the incident that is believed to have marked the beginning of Bolden’s downfall. For reasons that are unclear, it was lost to history until this December, when it was discovered by this writer on microfilm in the New Orleans City Archives. This newly unearthed report provides another perspective on beginning of the mental health crisis of the jazz pioneer, sharing details not addressed in the other newspapers or the police report, and offers a rare contemporary glimpse at the life of a tragic figure whose enduring fame exists at the intersection of madness and genius.
Bolden had become depressed and experienced severe headaches in March 1906, Marquis writes. He was confined to bed at his home at 2302 First Street, in what’s now known as Central City, and it was in his bedroom that he struck a family member with a water pitcher on March 25. He was arrested on a charge of being insane and taken to the 12th Precinct police station.
The reports on the incident from the Picayune and the Item identify Bolden as a musician and describe the attack on the woman; one discrepancy is that the Picayune describes the victim as Bolden’s mother-in-law, while the Item identifies the injured woman as Bolden’s mother.
Perhaps the most notable element of the newly discovered story in the States published on March 28, 1906, is that it emphasizes Bolden’s alcohol abuse and cites it as the cause of his mental health problems.
“Alcoholic indulgence,” is the all-caps main headline. “Converts Negro Patient Into Dangerous Man,” it says below it.
Marquis, in his biography of the musician, notes that the state mental asylum listed alcohol as the cause of Bolden’s insanity, but that jazz historians and fellow musicians have debated – without evidence — whether the real cause had been venereal disease. Marquis suggests that perhaps the mental illness was the cause of the drinking – i.e. that Bolden had been self-medicating.
Another notable difference between the previously known reports on the March 1906 incident and the newly discovered story is the issue of medication. The Item and Picayune both say Bolden believed he was being drugged before he attacked the woman. Only the States, in the newly discovered report, goes to far as to note that Bolden actually was being administered a drug. Just what that medication was is unclear, although it seems likely that in 1906 a medication for depression or alcoholism could have done more harm than good and that an unwanted administration of it could be logically construed by the patient as unnecessary.
The States also has Bolden bedridden for weeks prior to the attack on the woman. The Item has him “sick for some time,” while the Picayune describes him as “confined to his bed” for three days.
“A negro named Charles Bolden, who had been ill abed for several weeks, developed a strange case yesterday and the attending physician has ordered his removal to a place of safety,” the States writes in the newly discovered story. “The intense suffering of two weeks completely deranged his mind, and yesterday when his aged mother entered the room to administer his medicine, he became frantic, and leaving the bed he took hold of a water pitcher and struck the old woman on the head. For several days he complained of being drugged by his parents.
“Last night the patient was removed and a strict watch will be kept on him. The doctors say that alcoholic indulgence caused …”
The last few words are illegible on the microfilm.
The sourcing on the story in the States is not clear, as was typical of the time. But it provides more details that the rudimentary arrest report from the New Orleans Police Department.
Bolden probably was released from jail after a couple of days, Marquis writes. He was arrested twice more, in September 1906 and in March 1907. In April 1907 he was committed to the mental asylum. He arrived there on June 5, putting an end to his career as a musician, and is believed to have remained there until his death on Nov. 4, 1931.
******* James Karst is a writer and jazz historian in New Orleans.
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