Congo Square

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But for every Picou there were many other colored Creoles who found that they could not play the new music. Leonard Bechet, brother to the great Sidney, knew what it took and knew that he did not have it. Speaking to Alan Lomax, Leonard put it bluntly: “Now, I’ll tell you…a person have to go through all that rough stuff like Sidney went through to play music like him.” Some of the colored Creoles, he said, had not gone through that and did not wish to mix with those who had. Picou, for one: “You see, Picou—Picou’s a very good clarinet, but he ain’t hot.” Then he got to the bottom of it, to what divided the colored Creoles from the blacks quite as that fence at Congo Square had separated the whites from the “entertainers” within: “You have to play real hard when you play for Negroes. You got to go some, if you want to avoid their criticism. You got to come up to their mark. … If you do, you get that drive. Bolden had it.”

 

Not a single participant of the music’s earliest years fails to mention Bolden. This is Charles “Buddy” Bolden who in legend is to the music what Ruth is to baseball, Ford to the automobile. Whether by black or colored Creole, at some point the name will be invoked: this man, his life a mystery of legend, existing visually in but a single photo and that one so blotched and scratched that you cannot tell his eyes from the imperfections of age.

So then, Buddy Bolden: what is there behind his blurred, tantalizing features, inside the cornet he holds casually against the flat of his palm? No preliminaries or introduction here, for his legend stomps off with Bolden already high on his horn. Somewhere in the town’s Uptown section—yes, in that summer of 1895—Bolden stands up before his band, raised waist-high above the dancers, and improvises a chorus of blues. And then another, and another. The crowd roars encouragement, demands that he repeat them. Bolden cannot, for he has already forgotten his latest invention. But he has others, many others. In that night Kid Bolden becomes King Bolden, a musical colossus, the one, the originator.

He can play with terrific power all night long, one improvised chorus after another piling out of his horn. But it is not only his power and inventiveness that make him king and his band supreme. It is also a personal style that comes straight out of Uptown, or “Niggertown.” Black, raised in the 1870's on First Street, it is said that he saw the dances at Congo Square and that later he got hold of a cornet, perhaps a battered little piece left behind in a pawnshop by a departed bandsman of the federal garrison. He teaches himself his own way about its valves and wafer-thin pads, learns to play the street songs of Uptown and the soul-steeped hymns of the Baptist church across from his house. The blues he picks up from street-corner guitarists just in town from the down-river woods. He openly scorns note reading, though he can do it: everything is by ear, everything must be felt to be played.

He scorns ties and collars, too, wearing his shirt busted open to reveal a workingman’s blazing red undershirt stretched across his heaving chest. For like the rest he is a workingman, spending his daylight hours as a barber. When he leaves First Street in the evenings, passing the now shuttered barbershop on his way to his real work, a crowd of women is with him. One carries his horn, another his watch, a third his coat, another just hopes.

If he is to play at Lincoln or Johnson parks on the outskirts, he pulls the crowds out there by turning the bell of his cornet toward the center of town and blowing the blues. He says this is “calling his children home,” and they come running. If by chance the John Robichaux band is playing the park opposite, Bolden sees this as a challenge, for Robichaux is a colored Creole, raised by white folks, and his “legitimate,” reading band gets all the society jobs, playing correctly, quietly in close-buttoned coats with music stands and charts arranged before them. “Come on, Cornish,” Bolden says to his trombonist, “Come on, put your hands through the window.” And they put their horns out through the window and blast so high, so seductively, that the dancers to Robichaux can hear nothing else and so leave the legitimate bunch to crowd into the presence of the King. “Of course,” said an old-time cornetist, “the whites said, ‘We don’t want no King Bolden. Robichaux’s the band.’ … They called Bolden’s band a ‘routineer’ bunch, a bunch of ‘fakers/ But amongst the Negroes, Buddy Bolden could close a Robichaux dance up by 10:30 at night.”

Wherever he tours in the outlying parishes the astonished children and their parents drop everything: “It’s King Bolden! It’s King Bolden’s band!” Once, in some country dance hall he blows his horn apart, and one of the local kids becomes instantly a celebrity by lending the King his beat-up little cornet. “Buddy laughs like hell. Says, ‘Well, pardner, it’s better’n nothin’.