The “perplexing” and “puzzling” Buddy Bolden photograph

May 24th, 2014

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Back row, left to right:  Jimmy Johnson, Buddy Bolden, Willie Cornish, and William Warner; front row, left to right: Jefferson Mumford and Frank Lewis

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The same photograph with the image reversed

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While reading through Donald Marquis’ outstanding In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz (1978), I was reminded about the only photograph in existence of Bolden — perhaps the most famous photograph in the history of jazz.  Here is what Marquis learned about it while writing his book…

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     [Buddy] Bolden’s popularity hit its peak in 1905 and that was the only year most of his sidemen were listed as musicians in the city directory. The regular band at that time included Bolden, cornet; Willie Cornish, valve trombone; Brock Mumford, guitar; Cornelius Tillman, drums; Fran Lewis, b-flat clarinet; Willie Warner, c-clarinet, and Jimmy Johnson, bass. Bolden and Lewis, the best reading musicians in the band, taught Bolden’s repertoire to the others.

     The one actual photograph that has been found of the band pictures these regulars, with the exception of Cornelius Tillman, whose absence is unexplained. This photograph has been printed in nearly every major book on jazz and continues to perplex meticulous jazz scholars. The original came from Willie Cornish, who loaned it to Charles E. Smith to use in Jazzmen [Jazzmen: The Story of Hot Jazz Told in the Lives of the Men Who Created It, by Charles Smith and Frederic Ramsey (1939)], Jr.Bella Cornish later loaned it to Leonard Bechet, Sidney’s brother, and when he died the original was never recovered. When it was first printed the caption state “before 1895.” Bunk Johnson, however, provided this information and because he claimed to have joined the band in 1895 it was necessary for him to say that the picture had been taken before he was a member. For years the “before 1895” date was thrown in automatically whenever the picture was copied. There are several reasons to believe that the date was actually closer to 1905, one reason being that Bunk Johnson’s other information concerning Bolden is off by almost exactly ten years. Jimmy Johnson is the key man in dating the photograph. According to his marriage certificate Jimmy was born in 1884; this date was verified by Louis Cottrell, Jr., who roomed with Johnson for seven years while both were touring with Don Albert’s band in the 1930s. The quality of the picture is so poor it is difficult to judge Johnson’s precise age, but it is nonetheless evident that he is older than eleven.

     Another puzzling aspect of the photograph is the way the musicians are holding their instruments. As originally printed in Jazzmen the fingering positions of the clarinetists indicated that the picture may have been printed backward. When the picture is reversed to correct these poses, however, both Johnson on bass and Mumford on guitar would seem to be playing left-handed. Johnson was not a left-handed bass player, and Mumford’s family and others who knew him say he was not left-handed either. Bolden is also holding his cornet an unusual way, flat in his open palm. Whatever the explanation for these curious poses there is no doubt that this is Bolden’s band. Among the many who have identified the group and its individual members are Beatrice Alcorn, Ed Garland, Tom Alpert, Papa John Joseph, and Willie Parker.

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Excerpted from In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz

by Donald Marquis

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Read our production of “An Online Story of Jazz in New Orleans,” with an introduction by Nat Hentoff

Read our conversation with Gary Giddins, “A History of Jazz in New Orleans

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