Buddy Bolden’s Blues

Jelly Roll Morton, General 4003, 1939

It’s a tribute to a guy whose brief period of glory was in a place called Funky Butt Hall, before he spent his last twenty-four years in a mental institution, totally incompetent. It’s sung by a guy whose nickname is slang for the male sex organ. The singer doesn’t quote the honoree spouting words of wisdom, but instead urging someone to “open up that window and let that foul air out.”

All that said, listening to Jelly Roll Morton playing and singing “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” (also known as “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say”), recorded in 1939, just a couple years before Morton died, is a glorious experience, time after time.

The mysterious Buddy Bolden is the person most people credit with inventing jazz—except for, ironically, Jelly Roll Morton, who always claimed he invented jazz. Of course, no one person “invented” jazz. It has way too many antecedents. But you can hear in this record a nice example of the mix of blues, sacred music, and swing that Bolden’s said to have made his mark with.

The record label gives the writing credit to Morton, but most agree that the music and lyrics originated with trombonist Willy Cornish and other members of Bolden’s band, as they played at the Union Sons Hall (the place everyone called Funky Butt Hall). No recording of Bolden and company has ever been found, and Buddy’s estrangement from reality began in 1907, before anything we’d think of as jazz made it to a recording studio.

Mr. Morton was all but forgotten in the thirties, after his heyday during the preceding decade. Styles had changed, former friends and associates had been alienated. But he went out with a bang, recording solo and raconteuring away for Alan Lomax, who also put together a nice bio, Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortune of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz” in 1950. The full-band recording of “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” with Sidney Bechet, Zutty Singleton and other New Orleans lights assisting, is probably as close to being a perfect evocation of that great city in music (and what better way to evoke NOLA?). But the solo Jelly displays piano-playing as deft and artful as always and a voice as timeless as New Orleans’ mystique. It somehow matters not at all that he’s singing about funky butts, foul air, and a man who died crazy and nearly lost to history. “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” whoever wrote it, is divine.

Alexander’s Ragtime Band

The Boswell Sisters , Vocalion 4239, 1938, #4 Pop

As a harmony nut, I find I’m often drawn to the music of sibling-harmony groups. Way back before the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers and the Roches, around the same time as the Mills Brothers, there were the Boswell Sisters, still unrivalled in their vocal harmony arrangements, which were heavily influenced by the music of New Orleans, where they grew up. They made quite a few recordings that are among my favorites, with nary a disappointment in their entire recorded output.

…you get the idea that they developed a psychic connection that allowed them to anticipate every swoop, every tempo or rhythm change…

There’s certainly something to be said for the blend of contrasting voices (like the smoky baritone-against-brassy tenor of the Righteous Brothers—who weren’t brothers—or rough Lennon against smooth McCartney), but the complementary voices of Connie on the bottom, Martha in the middle, and Vet on top made the Boswell Sisters’ commingled syncopated phrasing impossible to imitate. Many have tried, including The Pfister Sisters and The Puppini Sisters (neither group actually sisters), and are enjoyable—but not Boswellian. The Sisters were very close, spending hours singing together from an early age, and you get the idea that they developed a psychic connection that allowed them to anticipate every swoop, every tempo or rhythm change, every pause, arranging songs on the spot as they went along. (Of course, I know their arrangements were carefully worked out and rehearsed, but I imagine the process was organic and smooth.)

The Boswell Sisters, the most musical of pop artists, recorded at least one great song about music in every year of their brief career as a trio: “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” (1930); “Sing a Little Jingle” (1931); “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (1932); “That’s How Rhythm Was Born” (1933); “Rock and Roll” (yes, “Rock and Roll”—in 1934!); “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1935); and “The Music Goes Round and Round” (1936). All fabulous!

Any of these songs—or any other Boswells recording—could represent this group’s special charms, but I settled on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” because that’s the only single of theirs I own. (I have it all on LP and/or CD, but, yes, folks, it’s at 78 rpm that the Sisters really shine.) It’s a 1938 reissue of their hit 1935 recording, with another 1935 hit, “Dinah,” as its A-side. You’ve never heard any other version of either song anything like the Bozzies’ renditions.

Another reason to use this recording to represent the Boswells is the New Orleans connection: Composer Irving Berlin wrote the song, his first big hit (in 1911), about an actual New Orleans bandleader named Alexander.

Now, Alexander Watzke was white, but Berlin’s song’s music owes a lot to black styles and innovations and the lyrics are in black vernacular. The white Boswell Sisters listened to and learned from black musicians and performers around New Orleans while developing their sound, which is hipper—“blacker”—than what any other white singers were doing at the time. (And their N’Awlins accents enhanced the effect.) Unfortunately, though, like Alexander Watzke’s band, the Boswells’ bands were always all-white. It was a reflection of the time: Bessie Smith got Louis Armstrong and James P. Johnson; The Boswells got Benny Goodman and the Dorseys.

Did the Bozzies want it that way? I like to imagine that they would’ve loved to work with black musicians and were open-minded enough to dream of a time, like their black counterparts often did, when black and white music-makers could make their music together, without apologies, without secrecy, without censure and rejection. I’ll probably never know the answer to that one, but I’m happy that the cathartic, expansive music of the Boswells was preserved long enough to be enjoyed in a more enlightened age.