Congo Square


In 1897 town officials rope off a district for prostitution, gambling, and the new music that seems to go with these: the District, it is called (Storyville to us). Here Bolden solidifies his rule, moving nightly among the halls and cabarets: Perseverance Hall, Globe Hall, Come Clean, Big Easy, Drag Nasty, Funky Butt, Spano’s, Fewclothes, Tuxedo. At each of these Bolden plays the numbers he has made famous: “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” “If You Don’t Shake,” and his theme, “Buddy Bolden’s Blues. ” As at old Congo Square, this is music for the dancers, and there is an electric sympathy between those on the floor and those on the bandstand. They tell each other things, and when the King plays “Don’t Go Away, Nobody,” everyone knows the polite dancing is over and now it will be blues until daybreak.

Sleep? Bolden does not need it. He has staying power, workingman’s power. He has a signal to his band, “Don’t take down,” that means, “Don’t put your instruments down. Keep playing.” And they do. Led on by the King, they stomp from “can’t see ‘til can.”

By now it is our century, and the legend of the hero begins to merge into the history of the music he is credited with creating. Now it begins to glimmer out from behind the names of his successors. We hear talk of Storyville, where at any intersection there would be four cabarets, each with its band of younger musicians playing the new music at top volume. Seven-piece dance bands blared in the big halls of the District or “bucked” each other in musical battles fought from the beds of furniture wagons they hired to advertise the dances: as a band rolled through a neighborhood playing from its wagon, a rival group might ride into view, and then the two would lock wheels to try to play each other down, “Didn’t He Ramble” against “Moose March.” The winners got the crowd that night, but such was the popularity of the music that there were no real losers—there were always jobs. Thus where before we heard only of King Bolden’s Band, now we hear of the Columbus Band led by the heavy-lipped powerhouse cornetist, Tig Chambers; of the Imperial Orchestra headed by Manuel Ferez, the best of the Creole cornetists; of the Magnolia Orchestra, organized around 1909, and which included in the next five years many who subsequently would be regarded as pioneers. We hear, too, of other “kings” of the cornet—Freddie Keppard, the “best ragtime cornet,” and Joe King Oliver, and Bunk Johnson, who had the sweetest tone in town but played with a “peppery” style. And we learn where the piano players were: in the mirror-spangled parlors of the high-class whorehouses where the geniuses Jelly Roll Morton and Tony Jackson earned big tips improvising dirty songs or speeding through the demanding rags of Scott Joplin and Torn Turpin—“Maple Leaf Rag,” “The Easy Winners,” “A Ragtime Nightmare.”

In the twenty-two years between that summer of ’95 and the closing of the District in 1917, the music took cognizance of itself, developed its standard instrumentation and ensemble style, created its canon of tunes. And by 1917 Buddy Bolden was a great name among other great names, a sort of father among the fathers, spoken of always in the past tense, for by this time he had long ceased to be an active presence in New Orleans or anywhere else. Legend says that on some dateless spring day, playing a long, hot funeral parade, Buddy Bolden “fell out,” quit playing, and never played again.

This is the legendary end for the King, appropriate in view of what we know of the circumstances of black life in his New Orleans, and appropriate too in view of what we know of black life in America since Bolden. Of this persistent condition, jazz is a disquieting reminder. This is a part of its interior sound, as if the legacy of the legendary King was still hanging in the air, a note, a call higher than we can well bear.

Walking the streets of Bolden’s old neighborhood you can feel that interior sound of the music humming up out of places that have changed little since 1895—except to deteriorate. Along First Street things look much the same as when Bolden lived here. Now as then this is a predominantly black neighborhood; in the schoolyard spidery-looking black boys imagine themselves becoming superstars as they shoot basketballs toward hoopless backboards. At the corner of First and Liberty is the barbershop where Bolden spent some of his daylight hours making arrangements for his band dates. A wooden awning curves around the corner, and there are benches underneath. Inside, on the walls above the two chairs and the mirrors flecked russet with age, are pictures of Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass. Also photos of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis: that was another way to make it out.

Across the street is Bolden’s house, 2309, its yellow paint chipping down through other layers, its high streetward window shuttered. Along here few know that Charles “Buddy” Bolden did not merely disappear from a parade but that he died a hundred miles away in the segregated unit of the state insane asylum, where for a quarter-century he had rotted untreated. Probably the historical ending is not as important as the legendary one, for in the latter we see history in relief, its broad patterns sharply defined for those who look.