The Buddy Bolden Orchestra 1897/1907
This page tells the story of the world's first jazz orchestra.
It contains two articles:
1. Professor Bolden's Orchestra: a Close Up by Daniel
Hardie reprinted from the January 2008 on-line Mississippi
2. Who Was the Leader? Commentary on an article by
Karl Gert zur Heide first published in New Orleans Music Vol
5 No 2 December 1994
1. Professor Bolden's Orchestra: a Close-up
Buddy Bolden’s Orchestra ca 1903/5
In 1903 invitations were sent out for a Mardi Gras Ball sponsored by
the‘Ladies of Providence and the Knights of Pleasure’ to be held at the
Providence Hall at the corner of Phillip and Liberty Streets on February
18th 1903 music to be provided by Prof. Bolden’s Orchestra” (Marquis
D. In Search of Buddy Bolden 1978/1993 p72)
The grainy old photograph above, first published in 1939 in the ground
breaking history of jazz titled Jazzmen, is the only pictorial evidence for
the existence of the first jazz orchestra. The best evidence suggests
that it was taken between 1903 and 1905 though even that dating has
been the subject of dispute. Much ink has also been consumed arguing
whether it was printed wrong way round in the first edition of Jazzmen.
I do not want to enter that dispute though I am persuaded by the
physical evidence that the above presentation is correct. (See Alden
Ashforth The Bolden Photo - Annual Review Of Jazz Studies No3)
The players have been identified as Frank Lewis, (standing) and Willie
Warner (seated) clarinet, Willie Cornish valve trombone, Jefferson
Mumford Spanish guitar, Charles (Buddy) Bolden cornet and James
Johnson string bass. Some authorities consider the standing player to
be Warner and Lewis the seated man.
If the photo was taken in 1905 Bolden who was born in 1877 was aged
27 or 28. Will Cornish, born 1875 was about 30, Jefferson Mumford
born 1870 was 35, Jimmy Johnson, youngest of the group, born 1884
was 21. Clarinettist Frank Lewis, born ca 1870 was 35 and Willie
Warner, born ca 1865 would have been 40. The images in the photo
appear to be consistent with these ages. A sidelight on this age
structure is that the oldest man in the photo is clearly the seated
clarinet player, and this suggests that it is indeed Willie Warner who also
appears to be wearing a dress suit of an earlier period, complete with
vest and watch chain.
It is worth noting that, far from showing a scruffy Uptown band, it
reveals a group well dressed in evening wear. This seems to have been
the tradition for New Orleans dance bands around 1900. Buddy Bolden
appears to be wearing white tie.
Instrumentation and performers
The instrumentation shown in the photograph is not typical of bands
of the Elemental Jazz era. Early photographs and published lists of band
members indicate that a trap drummer was usually employed and that
the leader of the band would usually be a violinist. No other early
photographs show two clarinets being employed.
In fact the photograph cannot be interpreted as representing the
regular composition of the Bolden Orchestra. Wallace Collins who played
with Bolden before 1900 is reported by Rudi Blesh as saying that the
lead was played by the violin and Bolden “ragged” behind the lead.
Just who was the regular violinist is difficult to determine. Bunk
Johnson recalled Alcide Frank (born ca 1875) as the band's violinist and
Manuel Manetta suggested that the photograph was taken when Frank
left Bolden to form his own Golden Rule Band in 1905. (By 1905 Alcide
was leading his Golden Rule Orchestra at Foucault's (aka Fewclothes)
Cabaret. Louis Nelson (de Lisle) was the clarinettist; Adolph Alexander
Sr., cornet; James Brown, bass; and Joe Brooks, guitar.) Manetta
suggested the second clarinet was introduced as a temporary measure
to perform as a substitute for the missing violinist. Marquis lists
violinists Tom Adams, Dee Dee Brooks and James Palao as having played
in the Bolden Orchestra.
Valve trombonist Willie Cornish enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1898 and
left for the short Spanish American War in Cuba. During his absence he
was replaced by Frank Duson but returned to take his place in the
regular line up. Marquis mentions Ed. Jones and Bill Harrison as other
trombonists associated with the group. Cornish left the band in 1906
and was replaced by Duson.
Clarinettists Willie Warner and Frank Lewis appear to have been regular
performers but Marquis suggests Sam Dutrey Sr. and Alphonse Picou
may have substituted from time to time. The authors of Jazzmen
“Buddy used William Warner or Frank Lewis, or sometimes both on
clarinet. Warner had a C clarinet, while Lewis played the usual Bb
instrument.” Brian Wood suggests this information came from notes
supplied to the authors of Jazzmen following an interview between C.E.
Smith and Willie Cornish in 1938.
The use of the C clarinet meant that a player could play from the violin
score as written, and there are examples of other players who used the
C clarinet. Louis Nelson de Lisle featured the instrument and became
known as ‘Mr. C Clarinet’. This suggests that, when Frank left the Bolden
Band, Warner or Lewis was pressed into service as leader.
I am not convinced by the identification of the clarinet held by the
seated clarinettist in the Bolden Band photograph as a C clarinet. My
own measurements suggest the front instrument is .93 times as long as
the one held by the standing player. Measurements for my own C
clarinet show its length overall to be .83 times that of a Bb instrument.
Similarly measurements of two Bb instruments by different makers
reveal the length of the smaller to be to be .97 times the length of the
longer. Measurement of the clarinets in the Bolden picture is
complicated because the clarinet of the standing player appears to be
fitted with a mouthpiece cap while that of the seated player does not.
This could add to the difference in length by some millimetres
depending on the cap. This suggests that the difference in length as
measured could be accounted for the fact that we have two Bb
clarinets of different make, and it is certainly not enough to identify the
seated player's instrument as a C clarinet.
Fortunately there is a photo of Louis Nelson De Lisle holding what is
clearly a Clarinet in C in a photo of the Imperial Band ca 1908. In front
of him a larger clarinet stands on the floor. Careful measurement
indicates that the smaller clarinet is approximately .805 the length of
the larger (Bb or A?) instrument. I compared the length of my A clarinet
with my C instrument and found the C to be exactly .805 the length of
the A. This suggests that the standing instrument may be an A clarinet
or a Bb with a long mouthpiece cap.
Above: Louis Nelson de Lisle holding a Clarinet in C major
(Photo of the Imperial Band ca 1908)
Taking all these measurements into account I do not believe it is
reasonable to identify the clarinet of the seated player in the
Bolden band photo as a C clarinet.
Bob Lyons and Albert Glenys played string bass with Bolden before
1900 but the younger Jimmie Johnson appears to have been the
regular bass player. Bassist Ed Garland also claimed to have subbed
Jefferson Mumford was the regular guitarist until 1906 when
Lorenzo Staultz took over the guitar chair.
Bolden’s biographer Donald Marquis lists Cornelius Tillman (born
1872) as the regular drummer. However Jimmy (Jamesy) Phillips,
Dee Dee Chandler and others sat on the trap drum stool from time
The Bolden Orchestra was an offshoot of a previous group led by
former street guitarist Charles Galloway after 1889. It seems
originally to have been a string band, consisting of guitar, string
bass and violin, that was gradually reinforced with clarinet (Willie
Warner), cornetist (Ed. Clem) and valve trombone (Tom Landry).
Charles Bolden joined the band on cornet around 1895. Marquis
states that Bolden soon began using musicians from Galloway's
band to accept professional engagements on his own behalf.
According to Samuel Charters Bolden was a charismatic player and
by 1896/7 he was becoming known in New Orleans as the inventor
of the hot blues. By 1900 he was known as Buddy or Kid Bolden
and eventually King Bolden.
For about ten years the Bolden Orchestra played for dances at
neighbourhood halls both Uptown and in the French quarter, over
the river in Algiers and travelled on excursions to other Louisiana
towns like la Place and Plaquemine. There is some evidence of
Bolden playing in street parades, though this does not appear to
have been the major occupation of the group. Trumpeter Charlie
Love recalls Bolden’s band wearing blue coats and caps, a uniform
more suited to street parades than the evening dress of the Bolden
photo. Wallace Collins apparently played tuba on such occasions.
Around 1906 Buddy Bolden dismissed some of his regular sidemen
including Willie Cornish and Jefferson Mumford and Frank Duson and
Lorenzo Staultz were recruited. When Bolden was incapacitated by
mental illness in 1906 Duson took control of the Orchestra. With
Bolden’s permanent hospitalisation in 1907 Duson established the
Eagle Band to carry on the tradition.
Bolden apparently absorbed influences from Galloway and Mumford
who had been playing street music before 1890. He and Galloway
introduced to some of the traditional vernacular dance songs and
blues formerly played by street bands to dance hall audiences.
About half of the tunes reported to have been played by the
Bolden Orchestra fall into that category.
In Bolden’s time the faster dance songs would have been called
Jump ups. They were simple tunes with raggy melodies that like If
you don't Shake You Get No Cake or All the Whores Like the Way I
Ride often had vulgar lyrics. The blues influence appeared with
slower numbers like Make Me a Pallet on the Floor said to have been
a favourite with his audiences.
Although such things appealed to his audience they apparently also
wanted to hear the latest ‘pop songs’ from the burgeoning nationwide
publishing industry and vaudeville stage and a significant
proportion of the orchestra's repertoire was drawn from such
sources. They included coon songs, ragtime songs and sentimental
love songs suited to the performance of the two-step, or
schottische. Examples of the former include Any Rags (1903), If
the Man In the Moon Were a Coon (1905) Mr. Johnson Turn me
Loose (1896). On the more sentimental side they played love
songs like Lazy Moon (1903), Ida Sweet as Apple Cider (1903) and
Wait till the Sun Shines Nellie (1905).
The popularity of classic piano rags after 1899 led to a demand for
favourites like Maple Leaf Rag (1899) and a number of rags by
composers of the Joplin School were apparently performed.
It will be observed that this was an up to date repertoire. The
orchestra was expected to provide for the dances of the time. The
faster vulgar dance songs and popular songs in 2/4 or 4/4 time
supported the very popular two-step and the emerging ragtime
one-step. The newer slow drag was danced to the blues. More
traditional waltzes, polkas, mazurkas had to be played and the
speciality of the evening was the quadrille ? a medley of
conventional dances in different tempos. The repertoire is dealt
with in more detail in “The Birth Of Jazz: Reviving the Music of the
Bolden Era”.“ (The Birth Of Jazz: Reviving the Music of the Bolden
Era” by Daniel Hardie see:
Some critics suggest that by 1906 Bolden was having trouble
keeping up with demand for the latest numbers and that by 1907
bands like that of the younger Fred Keppard played more of the
Bolden's orchestra belonged to a New Orleans musical tradition
solidly based on European performance practices See Hardie D.”
The Ancestry of Jazz: A Musical Family History” iUniverse 2004
Chapter 13 p166 ff and p 173.
However by 1895 even the most conventional of dance orchestras
of the time were introducing syncopation to their performance
styles. These were orchestras trained in the conservatory tradition.
There has been much contention about the musical standards of
the Bolden Orchestra.
Buddy Bolden himself had some elementary tuition from Manuel Hall
beginning in 1894. However Bunk Johnson said that though Buddy
could play in any key, he didn’t know which key it was. Others said
the band played everything in Bb, the easiest key for the Bb
transposing instruments (cornet and Bb clarinet) or only in a limited
range of flat keys.
Frank Lewis was reputed to be a good sight reader as were Willie
Cornish and Willie Warner who were both believed to have arranging
talents (Warner was later to go on to arrange for A.J. Piron’s
Orchestra.) Similarly Jimmy Johnson went on to play in high quality
bands and was a good reader. Little is known of the musical
abilities of Jefferson Mumford or Cornelius Tillman. It can be taken
for granted however that, whoever the violinist was, he would have
had sight-reading skills.
Experience with the repertoire performed by the Orchestra
indicates that it would have been necessary to adapt many new
numbers from piano scores or published arrangements. Some of the
simpler vernacular tunes could have been learned by ear. Manuel
Manetta stated that a folder of lead sheets was maintained by
clarinettist Frank Lewis.
What made the Bolden band different from its early competitors
was the introduction of improvisation and blues intonation. As Bunk
Johnson indicated, they improvised all the time. According to
Wallace Collins from the earliest days the violin played straight
melody and Buddy ragged the melody by taking one note and
putting two or three to it. To provide variety the melody was
passed around to other instruments to perform individual melodic
improvisations. The rhythm was two beat with an emphasis on the
Some writers have assumed that the music was coarse and
incompetent, even hokey, but there is no evidence to support this.
On the contrary, witnesses emphasise good tone and sweet
performance coupled with loud and soft variations. Latin American
rhythmic elements were also noted.
There are some fascinating snippets of information in the oral
history that enable us to glimpse the likely sound of the band. A
number of witnesses identified Bolden’s style with that of Fred
Keppard, and in the slower sweeter tunes that of Bunk Johnson. In
the rougher numbers the louder intonation of Wooden Joe Nicholas
was considered comparable with Bolden’s louder moments. One
witness said that Frank Lewis played like the later George Lewis and
we have recorded examples of the playing of contemporary players
Louis Nelson de Lisle, Alphonse Picou, and George Baquet. Another
witness compared trombonist Frank Duson’s style with that of
Alfred Warner. In the 1940’s Kid Rena’s jazz band recorded with a
light sounding rhythm section similar to that of the Bolden Band.
The only recordings of early New Orleans violinists, those of
Armand Piron and Peter Bocage, allow us to eavesdrop on the
violin/leadership role in the early jazz bands.
It seems from the above that in many respects the band would
have sounded similar to some later jazz bands, though probably
lighter because of the light rhythm component. It seems reasonable
to think it might have sounded similar to the Keppard led Original
Creole Orchestra but sadly that group was never recorded.
I have, while researching the various accounts of early jazz music,
been struck by the number of occasions on which writers still begin
by referring to the Bolden band as mythical or legendary. There is
no excuse for this. As early as 1978 Donald Marquis dispelled the
many mythical elements of Bolden’s story and presented the facts
of his life and musical development. Since then even more has been
discovered about his family background. It does not take very long
to find factual information about the band, its members and its
performances in even earlier historical works.
Professor Bolden’s Band performed a mixture of popular and
vernacular dance music in the neighbourhood dance halls of New
Orleans from around 1896 to 1906. It adapted the staid
conventions of performance of the time introducing syncopation,
improvisation and elements of blues performance. After 1899,
while still catering for the older traditional dances it introduced
music suited to the newer dances of the ragtime era.
Note: Two additional photographs inserted in the article as published in the
Mississippi Rag have been omitted as unnecessary to the original text. The only
other change is the substitution of the correct date of publication of Jazzmen
which was 1939 not 1935 as shown in the published version.
2. Who Was the Leader?
Commentary on an article by Karl Gert zur Heide first
published in New Orleans Music Vol 5 No 2 December 1994
Jazz historian Karl Gert Zur Heide was the first to
question the leadership of the Bolden Orchestra in his ground
breaking 1994 article entitled 'Who Was the Leader of Charles
Bolden's Orchestra'. After pointing out that Buddy Bolden was
christened Charles (Joseph) he stated correctly that the proper
contemporary title for this type of group was Orchestra rather than
Band. He also correctly identified the players.
After a short interlude in which he discussed the tonality of the
two clarinets shown (he concluded that the seated player was
holding a C clarinet), he drew attention to the missing violinist
As he indicated, the leader of a New Orleans Orchestra of the time
was usually considered to be the violinist, who played the lead part,
often from a written score - zur Heide called him the musical head.
There is ample evidence to support this contention, much of it I
elaborated in Exploring Early Jazz: The Origins and Evolution of the
New Orleans Style Chapters 4 and 5.
He then argued that as the violinist was absent from the only
photo of the Bolden Orchestra the leader role must have been
played by the second, seated clarinetist - Willie Warner when the
two clarinet format was used*. This seems to be a reasonable
deduction. Karl pointed out that in any case the leadership function
was often split among members, with the managerial aspects being
farmed out to an instrumentalist other than the musical leader. In
fact two contemporary bands - The Imperial Orchestra and the
Olympia Orchestra, followed this practice though each was
sometimes referred to by contemporaries by the name of their
star cornet players, Manuel Perez and Freddie Keppard respectively.
zur Heide suggests that Dee Dee Brooks would have been the lead
violinist of the Bolden Orchestra and he is certainly one of the
violinists associated with the group. He did not suggest who carried
out the managerial function but as indicated above Frank Duson
seems to have taken over this role when he was with the band. It
seems possible that Buddy Bolden initially managed the group but
later as his health declined the managerial role was increasingly
assumed by Duson.
'Who Was the Leader of Charles Bolden's Orchestra' was an
important contribution to the literature, not only because it
raised the important issue of leadership but because it first drew
attention to the important role of the violin in early New Orleans
*At the time of writing (February 2008) Karl affirms the conventional view
expressed in his article that Warner is holding a clarinet pitched in