Charles “Buddy” Bolden: A Part of Early Jazz History

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In the 1800s to early 1900s, there lived a man named Charles “Buddy” Bolden, whose impact on jazz has become legendary.

He was born in 1877 and lived in New Orleans.  He became the leader of a band that is recognized as being the first band to play what became known as jazz music.

To get an understanding of the types of places where this music was played it is important to understand something about the experiences of black people in New Orleans at that time. 

One case helps to explain this and it happens to be one of the most famous cases in American history—the Plessy vs. Ferguson case. 

Segregation Sanctioned by the Supreme Court

In 1890 the state of Louisiana passed a law that required segregation in railway cars, the Louisiana 1890 Separate Car Act.  Blacks were required to sit in separate railway cars, while white citizens were also required to sit in cars assigned for their race—an exception, to this, was that black nannies could ride in whites-only cars when caring for white children.

A group of black men joined together to test the constitutionality of the “Separate Car Law”.  Theyraised money, then reached out to Albion W. Tourgée (a well-known politician) and engaged him as their lawyer.  Their organization was called the, “Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law”.  

They then convinced Homer Plessy to help them challenge the law.  Homer Plessy was a man who was seven-eighths white and one-eighth black, therefore he was considered a black man under the law.  

On June 7, 1892 he boarded a railroad car that was headed from New Orleans to Covington, LA.  Homer purposely sat in the whites-only car and was arrested for violating the law (many railway companies did not like the law because it required additional expenses).  

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and, on May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that separate facilities did not violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.  This “separate but equal” doctrine would remain legal until the Brown v. Board of Education decision (May 17, 1954).  

So, as jazz was growing as an art form, segregation was the law of the land.

In New Orleans there were segregated public parks, dance halls and meeting places—allof which were venues where popular music was enjoyed.

Music wasn’t just played in speakeasies in the red-light district; music was played in a variety of settings.  Social organizations and charitable clubs organized balls and dances to raise funds for people in need.  It was not uncommon for blacks not to be able to get insurance during this time, so charitable clubs would often organize events to raise money for medical treatments and emergencies.

Also events such as baseball games, picnics, marches and parades, masquerade balls and even funerals used musicians to help enhance the event. 

Charles “Buddy” Bolden’s band became one of the most popular bands of this time.

Bolden played in marches and parades, in dance halls and parks, and he could often be heard playing his cornet from miles away.

Bolden’s band played in historic venues like the Odd Fellows/Masonic Ballroom and the “Funky Butt Hall”…as well as in segregated parks like LincolnPark and Johnson Park.  

 John Robichaux was also a talented musician at this time who headed up his own orchestra.  He and Bolden famously competed for attention at Lincoln and Johnson parks.  It is said that Bolden would begin his session at one of the parks by blowing his horn so that people could hear it from miles away.  Folks would leave the function they were attending and go to hear Bolden’s band.  They would follow the sound of Bolden’s horn and come to hear “King” Bolden play.

His style of music appealed to young people who liked to dance.  He played the traditional music of the day, but his band would begin to play a grittier style of the music, as the night wore on.

His band became wildly popular and from about 1898 - 1906 he was the undisputed “King” of the music scene in black New Orleans.

Bolden’s life in music, however, would be short-lived as he suffered from mental illness and battled alcoholism.  His mother had to have him committed to an insane asylum, in 1907, where he spent the rest of his days.  

Despite his personal battles, Charles “Buddy” Bolden is seen as one of the first great figures in jazz history.

Charles “Buddy” Bolden

(September 6, 1877 - November 4, 1931)

See our book, "Stories about Black History," for more stories and information.

© 2015 and 2017 Danita Smith, Red and Black Ink, LLC.


Library of Congress.  Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room.  “Topics in Chronicling America - Plessy v. Ferguson (Jim Crow Laws)”  Accessed March 2016.

National Park Service.  New Orleans Jazz:  National Historic Park Louisiana.  “Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden.”  Accessed March 2016.

National Park Service.  New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park.  “Jazz Walk of Fame - Buddy Bolden.” (video)  Viewed March 2016.

Tulane University Online Exhibits.  “Early New Orleans Jazz Posters.”  Accessed March 2016.

Our Documents.  “Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).”  Accessed March 2016.


Red and Black Ink, LLC.  Horn, 2016.


Danita Smith