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 Rag

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

                                                    Daniel Hardie

The Bolden Orchestra
         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 wrote:

“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.

Louis Nelson de Lisle
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 for Johnson.

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 to time.

Potted History

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 nation-wide 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 The 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” 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 latest hits.

Performance Practice

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 after beats.

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.

Musical Comparisons

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.

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 leader.

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 jazz.

 Daniel Hardie

February 2008

 *At the time of writing Karl affirms the conventional view expressed in his article  that Warner is holding a clarinet pitched in C major.

Return to the Early Jazz History Home Page Click Here