The Buddy Bolden Case--a story by John Litweiler
New Orleans, a hot, hot night, July 1907. Five minutes after I got there my clothes were wet with sweat. In a big park, kerosene lamps hanging from low branches on live oak trees. Most of the merrymaking crowd was in shadows--hundreds of people, hundreds of shadows, most of them moving, dancing, arms, legs, torsos, heads in action. I got more than a few accidental pokes as I made my way through the crowd to the bandstand. There more lamps lit the stage where a band was playing. Even while I was drenched with sweat I got a sudden warm thrill hearing the music: leading the band was cornetist Buddy Bolden.
When I had edged to the front of the crowd around the bandstand, a stern, beefy presence suddenly loomed before me. She said, "What do you think you're doing here?" She had none of the prevailing party spirit, she was shouting over the music..
"How do you do, ma'am?" I shouted back. "I'm Archie Type, time-traveling noir detective. I've come from the year 2012 to meet Mr. Bolden."
The fact that I'd traveled back 105 years in time failed to impress her. She shouted, "He's working now. You can see he doesn't want to meet you. You can leave now."
"It's all right. I can wait," I shouted. I could have listened to that swinging music all night long.
She continued to loom. She shouted, "What do you want with Mr. Bolden?"
"I'd like to discuss business with him and make him an offer."
"Buddy Bolden has no time for you detectives. Go away." She didn't shout as loudly this time because the song was over and the band was starting to take a break. I was now looking at Buddy Bolden, who was walking toward us. The looming woman saw him too. She said to him, "This man here is a policeman come to arrest you. I told you you did a loony thing. He's probably going to send you to the loony bin."
"Yes, dear," Buddy Bolden said to her. To me he said, "Officer, I'd like to explain the situation to you--"
"Mr. Bolden, it's an honor to meet you," I said. "I haven't come to arrest you. I'm Archie Type, hard-boiled time-traveling detective from the 21st century. I'd like to make you an offer."
"Go ahead," the woman said to Buddy. "Pay him whatever he asks for. It's your own fault."
"No, no," I said. "It's not that kind of offer. I'd like to buy something from you."
"I understand. You see, my wife is upset about an article I published in my scandal sheet The Cricket. It was an expose of corruption in the New Orleans city administration. What is it you'd like to buy from me?"
"Sell him your horn," his wife interjected. "Then you can't play your awful jass music any more."
I said to Buddy Bolden, "Did you make a cylinder recording?"
"Why, yes, I did. I recorded one of my recent compositions. I happen to have a few of my cylinders here with me to sell tonight. Is that what you want to buy? They're 89 cents a cylinder."
"Actually," I said, "there's a great deal of interest in your music in the 21st century--"
"Humph," Mrs. Bolden said.
I said, "In my century there are many different kinds of jazz and although everyone knows jazz began with you, nobody knows what your music sounds like. That's why a committee of jazz scholars and critics hired me to acquire your cylinder."
Buddy Bolden: "Really? I wish I could meet them and play for them."
"You can. I'd be glad to take you back to the year 2012 with me."
"I'll come," he said. "When can we leave?"
Mrs. Bolden: "Jass scholars! Jass critics! Time travel! Buddy, if you believe that, you're a boob and you belong in the booby hatch."
"Yes, dear," he said, and I said, "We can leave right now, if you want. I have my specially customized Microapplesoft time-travelphone right here."
He said, "I'm done playing for tonight, so let's go right now."
"You're going with him? That's crazy!" Mrs. Bolden said. "Why, if anyone but me heard you say that they'd put you in the crazy house."
"Yes, dear," said Buddy Bolden as I pressed the 2012 app on my time-travelphone.
"So this is New York and this is the 21st century," Buddy Bolden said. "Oh, my. The legs on the girls. Why, their skirts are so short, and they're wearing pants, or those little pants--"
"Shorts, they're called," I said. We were in the window of a restaurant near a university. It was a warm day, students were walking and running past and sitting at tables around us.
"And their lovely bosoms. And they all look so healthy..."
"Surely you had plenty of pretty women in New Orleans in 1907," I said.
"New Orleans," he said with a shudder, "is a terrible place. The racial segregation, the heat, the humidity, the floods, the pollution, the lack of sanitation, the hurricanes, the mean people, the criminals, the political corruption. And all the violent funerals, it's no wonder life expectancy is so low there. And Storyville, how awful--all those poor girls forced to prostitute themselves. And the music is terrible, too, all those white musicians trying to steal my songs. Heaven sakes, look at the legs on that one. And the greasy food and the hot sauce that eats your stomach lining, it's nothing like this, what do you call this meal we're having?"
"It's so delicious. I wish I didn't have to live in New Orleans in my century. It's no place for a sensitive artist like me."
As he was talking, two young women approached our table. One of them, the dark-haired one with glasses, said, "'Scuse me, mister. We couldn't help noticing you. We were wondering--where did you get your cool clothes? They look so, so--"
"Archaic," the other said. She had light brown hair and batted her eyes at Buddy. "See, we'd like to know cause we like old-style things and we're looking for a store that sells them. Like, you know, old-time clothes for women too."
"I'm afraid I can't help you," Buddy said. "I bought my suit in New Orleans in 1907."
"Oh, wow, 1907," dark-hair said, and the two babes glanced at each other with big smiles. Brown-hair said to Buddy, "What were you doing in New Orleans in 1907?"
"I live there. I'm a jass musician. I lead the first jass band ever in the world."
"The first? Really? What's your name? I'm Maria and this is Lisa," Brown-hair said.
"I'm Buddy Bolden and I'm pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Buddy Bolden! I've read about you," said Maria.
"See, she has some really old jazz recordings on her Mp3 player. Like Albert Ayler and Sun Ra and things like that," Lisa said.
"Do you know Albert Ayler and Sun Ra?" Maria said.
"No, I've never met them. I've never heard their music, either. Is it good? What's an Mp3 player?"
I said, "It's a 21st-century kind of cylinder player."
"Why don't you come over to our place, Buddy? We'll play our jazz files for you."
Did they really believe he was Buddy Bolden? Or that he came from 105 years ago? Did it matter? He left with them. I wasn't invited. Too bad.
Two hours later he came back to the restaurant, where I was sipping a cup of coffee and reading my e-mails. His clothes were askew and his necktie was untied. He said, "Oh, my, what a wonderful century this is. That was so soft and warm and sweet and beautiful. And it didn't even cost me anything."
I said, "So you liked those girls' music that much?"
"The music? Oh, that too. That Albert Ayler band sounded just like my band. And that Sun Ra band, too--why, their jass sounds just like our very first hot jass. I've made up my mind. Now that I'm here in 2012 I'm not returning to New Orleans in 1907."
At the immaculate conference room of the World Jazz Center in midtown Manhattan, there was a group of us: Buddy Bolden, me, and some of the world's greatest jazz critics and professors, including Venton Flambeau, musician, composer, and director of the Center and of the Center's jazz orchestra. Said Flambeau to Buddy, "I hope you dug your tour of the Center and out 500,000-record library and our nine concert halls and recording and video studios. It gives you some idea, however small, of what you started over 105 years ago. And now my colleagues and I have some questions for you."
They sure did. Distinguished jazz scholar Ludwig von Schaffhausen said, "Buddy, what drugs do you take and are they legal in New Orleans in 1907? And did you bring any with you?"
Distinguished jazz professor Joe Mugwump said, "Yes, do you have to get high in order to play music?"
Jazz Hall of Fame composer Ford Madox Hitt said, "What do you mean by 'funky butt' ? And what is a 'jelly roll'?"
Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition jazz bandleader Orrie Ford said, "Is it true that your music leads many young girls into moral depravity?"
Distinguished jazz historian Fats Dostoevsky said, "Tell us about the New Orleans whorehouses, Buddy. What were they like?"
Distinguished jazz legend Thomas Aquinas said, "Yes, did the musicians and the girls get along freely, if you know what I mean?"
Distinguished feminist jazz scholar Charlotte Bronte said, "Would you please tell us the original, uncensored, obscene lyrics to 'See See Rider' and 'The Girls Go Crazy about the Way I Walk'?"
Extremely distinguished jazz professor Max Fumgoo said, "And is your music actually a cover for your real profession, pimping?"
Dean of jazz critics Len Beak said, "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?"
"Please," Buddy Bolden said. "I'll answer all your questions. But right now I have my cornet here and I'd like to play for you. Here is a song I often play at dances and New Orleans funerals."
Everyone was smiling and all ears were perked up as Buddy Bolden began to play his piece. It was a cheerful melody and yet when he was finished, there was no applause. Just the opposite, all the great jazz scholars and critics and musicians just looked at each other. Some were utterly aghast at what they'd just heard.
"Oh, dear," said d.j.s. von Schaffhausen finally.
D. j.p. Mugwump said, "Why, that's...it sounds like...like..."
"It's just like a Lester Bowie solo," said Dave Flexingburgstein of Jism Magazine. He said it brightly. The others just looked at him, dismayed.
"Um," said Venton Flambeau after awhile, "you'll recall that we sent time-traveling hard-boiled detective Type to retrieve the legendary Buddy Bolden cylinder recording. Buddy brought it with him for us to hear today. Perhaps now is the time to listen to it. I have here an authentic jazz cylinder player, manufactured in 1907."
"Oh, yes, play it," Buddy Bolden said. "It's a piece of music I composed recently. It's called 'The Dirty Nasty Lowdown Stomp.'"
The crowd of dignitaries seemed to brighten up considerably when he said that. They were eager again as Flambeau played the Bolden cylinder. They were all attentive until it was over. But again there were expressions of dismay on all faces except that of Dave Flexingburgstein of Jism Magazine.
Again, silence. At last J.H.o.F.C. Hitt, "Oh, no. What can that be?"
Said d.j.h. Dostoevsky, "It sounds like...like..."
"Like an Anthony Braxton piece," said Flexingburgstein happily. "It's just like Braxton's Composition 361 for 12+1tet. Anthony must have channeled Buddy Bolden when he composed that."
"You," said great critic Dan Bend, looking menacingly at Flexingburgstein, "get out of here."
After he left the room, gloomy e.d.j.p. Fumgoo said, "You all realize what this means."
"It means," said disheartened d.j.s. von Schaffhausen, "that the origins of jazz are not authentic."
"No," said despairing d.f.j.s. Bronte. ""What it means is, we've always been completely wrong about the origins and development of jazz."
"We've wasted our lives," T.D.o.W.R.j.b. Ford said. "All our polemics, all our struggles against free jazz and free improvisation and freedom of expression rendered meaningless. Destroyed." He started to cry.
"There's only one possible thing to do," said great critic Bend, drawing his gun.
"Yes," said Venton Flambeau, drawing his gun. "Nobody outside this room must ever find out about this."
As critic Beak and several of the other jazz greats drew their guns and pointed them at Buddy Bolden, I said, "Wait. You don't have to kill Buddy Bolden. There's another solution to your dilemma."
"This better be permanent," said d.j.l. Aquinas.
"Oh, it is," I said, my timetravelphone in hand. I pressed the 1907 app.
"Where the hell have you been?" said Mrs. Buddy Bolden in July, 1907. It was hot again in the Bolden home in New Orleans, I was starting to sweat already. She said, "You took off somewhere with your so-called detective friend last night and we've been searching high and low for you ever since."
"I'm sorry, dear," Buddy said. "Mr. Type and I time-traveled to New York in the year 2012 and I played my music for a group of jass experts."
"Jass experts! Time travel! That again! That's insane! That awful music of yours has given you a case of dementia praecox. I can't take it any more. I'm having you committed to an insane asylum."
Suddenly men in white coats burst into the room. Some of them grabbed Buddy Bolden. They almost seized me but I had my timetravelphone in hand. I pressed the 2012 app just in time.
It's 2012 and I'm back in New York City. Buddy Bolden is living here with me. He's switched from cornet to trumpet. He's changed his name--I won't say what his new name is--and grown a beard and he wears new suits now. The Buddy Bolden cylinder is in a safe deposit box in a bank.
He rehearses with other musicians. He plays sometimes in places--Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, New Jersey--where the jazz police never go. People like his trumpet playing. He's already played with Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, and Jason Adasiewicz and he wants to play with Cecil Taylor too.
About that Buddy Bolden who died in an insane asylum in 1931. That was somebody else. Clerical error.