I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say

Alan C. Elms

Midnight in New Orleans.  Mud beneath his feet.  Above, more stars than he had ever seen at one time.  Around him, the smells of a city that might have just entered the twentieth century: horse droppings, raw sewage, a hint of honeysuckle.  Wood smoke.  Maybe coal smoke too, though he hadn’t smelled a coal fire since childhood visits to history centers.  Or perhaps it was just a stronger version of the fried-air smell that had been part of every practice jump he’d made.

He could see nothing beyond the end of the dark alley, but he knew he had gone back a lot farther than the practice jumps.  This was not the smell of his America.  No methanol freeway haze, no fake pine-forest fragrance seeping out of the giant malls.  And it was quieter than any city midnight he could remember.

He might have landed on another part of the planet, of course; the geographic stabilizers did sometimes malfunction.  Then in the distance he heard a trumpet begin to play a tentative melody, growing stronger as another trumpet joined it from several blocks away.  His chest suddenly swelled with emotion.  This was surely New Orleans.

New Orleans, April 15, 1898.  The date held no particular meaning, but he had been required to be specific when he filled out the grant proposal.  1898 was a convenient year to begin his data samples, a point from which he could work forward and back.  April was a good month: the Mardi Gras disruptions of daily life were out of the way, spring was well begun, the mosquitoes wouldn’t be as bad as later in the year.  A researcher had to think about such matters.  He could arrive with one suit of clothes on his back and not have to worry about enlarging his wardrobe for a few days.  That would give him time to get a job as a store clerk or bookkeeper, rent a room, get the feel of the place, before he had to start collecting data.  Attitudinal and Behavioral Responses of Nonwhite Residents to Political Change in Post-Reconstruction New Orleans. The sort of thing you couldn’t get from books or newspapers or government documents or old letters; you had to be there.  You had to be able to talk to people, ask questions, revise your informal interview schedules as new information presented itself.  The topic wasn’t one that really intrigued him, and he wasn’t sure who would read whatever he published about it.  But it was the kind of thing the ChronoAssay Institute could appreciate as requiring on-site study.  It wasn’t so flashy that it scared them, but it would get him back to a time and place that he really wanted to visit.

New Orleans.  City of the great jazz horn players.  Louis Armstrong.  Sidney Bechet.  King Oliver.  Bunk Johnson.  Buddy Bolden.  Dozens of unknown geniuses.  He was too early for most of them, but could one of those horns in the distance be the fabulous cornet of Buddy Bolden?  Could he be listening right now to the youthful notes of the Grandfather of Jazz, a man who never made a record but became a legend that would forever outshine every other legend in the musical history of New Orleans?

That was how his fascination with time travel had begun.  The first jazz history he had ever read quoted one of Bolden’s biographers: “You want to go back there, but can’t; you can only imagine how it was on a New Orleans morning in 1905.”   He had memorized the quotation; he had imagined how it had been; but he hadn’t been content with just imagining.  So he had majored in American ethnic history, he had specialized in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, he had done all the things he needed to do to satisfy the ChronoAssay review boards.  Of course he couldn’t specialize in the origins of jazz; that was just too frivolous to compete for the scarce resources of the Institute.  He had to develop a Plan of Serious Research.  But the Serious Research held his interest well enough, and in his free time he could dream about jazz.  Within jazz itself, his attentions were divided in much the same way: his fingers were more nimble than his lips and he always wound up playing piano in the amateur bands, but he loved the brass instruments, the cornets and clarinets and valve trombones.

So get serious right now, Randall, he told himself.  Even if you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be–blind alley off the 400 block of South Rampart–who knows where you could find Buddy Bolden?  Those distant trumpets are quiet now and the cool night air carries no other clues.  You didn’t come to see him and you shouldn’t be tempted.  Of course you could walk out of this alley, turn down South Rampart to the corner of Perdido, and stroll right past the Masonic and Odd Fellows Hall that will become Buddy’s favorite venue at the height of his career, or so people will remember it later.  But this is 1898, not 1905, and the records are hazy.  So why didn’t you ask for 1905?  Because the date would have looked suspicious, given your research topic.  Because it would have been just too damned tempting.  1898 is fine.  1898–you’re really here, sniffing the breeze and opening your ears and being almost blinded by those stars overhead.  1898 is terrific.

Anyway, you’ve got to find a place to sleep.  Full day tomorrow, serous business, no fun and games.  Out of the alley, down toward Lafayette Street.  Should be a cheap rooming house there if you’re headed in the right direction.  Pretty late at night, to be on the street in a strange city–strange even though you’ve lived here for five years, walked every block of this area dozens of times, a long time from now.  But nobody will hurt you if you don’t do anything stupid.  That old black man–he won’t hurt you if you ask whether you’re in the right place.

“Yes sir,” the old man said carefully, “this is Rampart Street and that’s Lafayette.  You from out of town, son?”  He moved his head closer to Randall, to look him up and down under the streetlamp.

Randall almost looked at his own clothes, his own hands.  A gradual darkening of his skin over the past several weeks, a tighter curl to his hair, so that he could pass for mulatto–or octoroon, anyway.  His clothes had been carefully selected: just what a small-town dude would wear to New Orleans, if the fellow had a little taste but less money or experience.

“I’m here to visit my cousin,” Randall began with the prepared cover story.  Then on impulse he named a different cousin: “Maybe you know him–Buddy Bolden is his name.  Cornet player.  A bandleader.”

“Bolding, is it?  Buddy Bolding, did you say?”

“Bolden, B-O-L-D-E-N,” Randall spelled, then felt himself blush beneath his darkened skin.  Probably the old fellow couldn’t spell.  “He’s getting to be very popular, I hear.  He said if I came to New Orleans, he’d help me find a place to work.  I play piano.  Ragtime.”

“Buddy Bolden, you say.  They’s plenty of Boldens and Boldings around here, but I don’t know that any is called Buddy.  And horn players is a dime a dozen.”

“Well, perhaps you could direct me to some Boldens,” Randall said.  “Maybe the Boldens you know are kin.  Maybe they can help me even if I can’t find Buddy right away.”

The old man pursed his lips in an indecipherable expression.  “Well now, I couldn’t rightly say who is kin to who.  Charley Schneider would probably know, if you keep on moving down Rampart Street to the Hardware.  But it’s too late to find him up.  Maybe you would do better to find another horn player who might know your Buddy Bolding.  They’s supposed to be a lady cornetist in one of the houses in the District–a Spanish lady over on Basin Street, I think it is.  If anybody has heard of your friend or uncle or whoever, maybe it would be this lady cornetist.  But you be careful, hear?  They’s mean people in some of them places.  Some bitchy women and some vicious men.”

“Well, thank you, sir,” Randall said as the old man pointed vaguely up the street, toward the District.  The District, which he knew would become famous as Storyville.  He hadn’t planned to visit Storyville, even when he’d fantasized about finding Buddy Bolden;  Buddy usually played outside its official limits.  But Storyville carried fantastic associations for anyone interested in early jazz, especially jazz piano.  Tony Jackson.  Jelly Roll Morton.  Kid Ross.  And it was just a few blocks away.  “Thank you very much indeed,” and he handed the old man a nickel.

“Why, thank you, Professor,” the old man said.  He bowed and shuffled away.

Randall suddenly felt the chill of the night air.  Professor, was that what the old man had called him?  Was he so poorly disguised?  Did he look like a professor, even in this cheap suit?  Did he sound like one, despite his attempts to keep his vocabulary and accent close to those of a turn-of-the-century, modestly educated young black man?  If so, he would have to be much, much more careful than he had realized.

Then he remembered, and felt foolish for not having remembered before, that every piano player in the Storyville whorehouses was called “Professor.”  Whether the term had started as a joke, to make fun of some pianist’s affectations, or more respectfully to acknowledge the musicians’ skills, nobody seemed to know.  Or at least the jazz historians didn’t know.  Maybe he would find out.  Anyway, it would be tremendous fun, as he thought more about it, to go in one night from turn-of-the-twenty-first-century Assistant Professor to turn-of-the-twentieth-century Professor.  What stories he would have to tell when he got back!  Maybe he wouldn’t be able to tell all of them–not to his academic superiors and the ChronoAssay hierarchy, anyway.  But even if he had to keep his mouth shut about certain experiences, he would know what wonderful stories he carried inside him.

The District at one a.m. was far busier than he had anticipated: fine carriages, service wagons, men on horseback, pedestrians strolling singly and in groups.  But of course these were business hours for Storyville.  The streetlights were bright and the windows of every house along Basin Street shone with promise.

With only a few questions to passersby, Randall had determined the location of Miss Gonzales’ house–“across from the tracks and near the cemetery,” everybody said.  Compared to the castle-inspired mansions adjacent to it, the one-story brick house was rather disappointing–until a girl opened the front door to his knock.  The girl herself looked thirteen or fourteen, with a plain white smock over her olive skin; the room beyond was sumptuously furnished, with a white grand piano in the center and velvet drapes on the walls.  Three women and two men, all white, were clustered around the piano, where a young black man played and sang a song Randall did not know.   A cornet lay on top of the piano.

The girl in the doorway narrowed her eyes and said, “Go away.  You don’t belong here.”

“I was told I should speak to Miss Antonia Gonzales,” Randall said.  “She knows my cousin.”

The girl began to push the door shut, but one of the women, dressed in a green velvet gown, said, “Thank you, Marylou,” and came to her side.  The woman was darker than he had at first thought–perhaps Spanish, perhaps a mixture of several racial strains.  The gown came up to her neck, but a black lace inset displayed a dramatic cleavage.  She said to Randall, “State your business, please.”

He repeated his new cover story about his cousin Buddy and his own ambitions as a piano player.  “I have a good man on the piano already,” Miss Gonzales said, “and I don’t know your cousin.  I might of heard of him, but I don’t get out of the District much and he hasn’t played around here.  If you want work, though, maybe you can find it.  Edna Hamilton’s professor got cut up a little last night–he’ll live, but he ain’t going to work for a while.  Her piano’s not the best, but it’s playable.  Tell her I sent you.  She’s around the corner on Conti, at the end of the block.”

Randall was almost to the corner, feeling great and whistling “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” the way Bunk Johnson would do it, when a wave of guilt hit him in the gut.  Wonderful, wasn’t it?–he’d been here for less than two hours and he’d met the magnificent Antonia Gonzales and he was on his way to a new job in a Storyville bordello, and wasn’t that exactly what he’d been sent here to accomplish?  Of course it wasn’t.  He had been trained for nearly a decade at public expense, he had monopolized the time of some of the most brilliant historians in the world, he had pushed his own brain cells to the maximum for longer than he cared to remember, he had consumed untold amounts of raw energy to be sent back a century–and here he was, about to start playing rinkydink piano for the bored patrons of a second-rate whorehouse.  When was he going to get serious?

Tomorrow morning, perhaps.  Wasn’t he carrying out his duties as a historian right now, absorbing all this atmosphere at first hand, observing the black and nonblack residents of New Orleans in significant behavioral interactions?  Could he as a jazz fan ever forgive himself if he ignored the opportunity to track down the greatest of all the early jazz musicians, the one man whom every jazz historian had yearned to go back in time to hear?  And what would he be doing if he wasn’t walking down Basin to Conti Street right now?–sleeping, or more likely trying to get to sleep while all those incredible lost opportunities were racing through his head.  Tomorrow he could get serious in the way the ChronoAssay Institute and Professor Tomkins and the American Historical Association expected him to be serious.  Tonight was his to be serious with as his own heart demanded.

Miss Edna Hamilton was not nearly as impressive physically as Antonia Gonzales had been.  She was older, thinner, whiter, more like one of his grade-school teachers than his image of a madam.  Her house was a good deal larger than the Gonzales one, but it looked cheap: a rambling wooden structure, leaning heavily toward mirrors and peacock feathers for interior decoration.  At any rate, she did need a pianist.  “What can you do?”

“I’m pretty good at ragtime,” he said, demonstrating with a few bars of “Heliotrope Bouquet” on the old upright at the far end of the long parlor.  “And some classical, if you like”–a little of “Fur Elise.”  “And,” trying to think what he had practiced from the classic Jelly Roll Morton recordings, “I can play for the, um, the Naked Dance.”

“That mean old Nekkid Dance, hmm?”  Miss Hamilton smiled tightly.  “Well, let’s try you out.  Roberta, go get Vida Jane, if she’s not too busy.  And let’s wait for a few more customers, then we’ll see what moves them.”

There were already half a dozen white men sitting around the parlor, chatting casually with as many young women, who were distinctly darker than the women of Antonia Gonzales’ house.  Occasionally another woman would join the group from a side door, and other men entered from the front.  Randall sat down at the piano.  Miss Hamilton drew a translucent drape in front of him, so the piano could be heard but not seen from the rest of the room.

Randall could see through the curtain into the better-illuminated remainder of the parlor, well enough to get a good view of a small black woman who walked into the room in a thin blue robe.  She stepped onto a raised square of mirrored tiles, set into the hardwood floor just on the other side of the curtain.  The men began to gather around her as though they knew what was coming next.  Miss Hamilton leaned around the curtain and said, “Ready, Mr. Randall–now.”

Randall began Jelly Roll’s version of “Naked Dance” at a moderate speed, and the black woman dropped her robe to one side of the mirrored surface.  She did not do a striptease in any sense; she was, simply, naked, and she danced.  It was a very basic shimmy, quite unimaginative as a dance.  But she managed to move all her parts, and as he played faster she danced faster.  The men looked from her to her reflection and back to her body.  They never looked toward the piano behind the curtain, but she seemed to be looking toward him often.  When he ended the piece with two crashing chords, sweat was glistening all over her body.  She picked up her robe and disappeared through the side door.  The white men went back to their conversations with the other women, but soon the parlor was empty except for Randall and Miss Hamilton.

Miss Hamilton pulled back the curtain and said, “Good enough, Mr. Randall–you’re hired.”  He wiped the sweat from his forehead as she continued, “I’m not sure for how long, however.  I am under some degree of obligation to take Baxter back when his wounds heal, and I don’t want to antagonize him.  Let’s just take it night to night.”

They settled quickly on his hours, 10 to 4 six nights a week, and on the distribution of tips and pay.  He’d be able to live fairly comfortably even if he didn’t find a bookkeeping job during the day.  Besides, he told himself, working at night would leave him free to do his research during the daytime–a much better arrangement than the ChronoAssay planners had worked out for him.  The piano felt good.  It was a little out of tune, but Miss Hamilton said she’d get that fixed before tomorrow night.  He played softly as a few men left the house and others entered.  Miss Hamilton asked him to play the Naked Dance every half hour.

The small black woman was named Rita.  After the final Naked Dance of the night, she disappeared with her robe in her hand.   Almost immediately she reappeared at his side, behind the curtain, still sweating through the thin robe.  “You play good,” she said.  “Have I seen you here before?”

“No, but I’ll be around for a while.  You dance good.”

“Thanks.  Maybe after I get a little rest you could come up to my room, third floor back?”

“Well, I do thank you,” Randall said, “but tonight I have some business to attend to.  I need to find my cousin, maybe you know him–Buddy Bolden, cornet player?”

That wasn’t altogether an excuse for not joining her later.  He’d suddenly realized that he was about to forget not only his primary mission here, but even the secondary one that he had recently adopted and might still achieve before the night was over.  However, it was an excuse too.  Rita was tempting–God, after those four Naked Dances, she was tempting!–but he had his obligations.  He had a fiancée at home, for one thing.  Of course she’d never know if he didn’t tell her, but he would feel obligated to tell her.  There were also ChronoAssay Institute rules against consorting with civilians.  The Institute didn’t want any foolish love affairs developing that would somehow mess up the time stream.  They had already taken steps to make sure he wouldn’t become his own great-grandfather or whatever; he’d been made sterile for the duration of his mission.  But they’d also drummed into him his obligation to avoid any behavior that could generate strong emotional attachments on either side–attachments that could have unforeseen effects on the current of history.  That was one reason the ChronoAssay Institute chose only researchers who already had a firm emotional attachment in current time.

He was so immersed in those thoughts that Rita had to repeat her response.  “I said, the name sounds sort of familiar, but I don’t believe I’ve seen him around here.  Your best bet is to go to Louie Jones’s barber shop over on Liberty Street.  That’s where the horn players hang out when they’re not working.”

“Well, thank you again,” he said.  “That sounds like a good idea.  I’ll let you know tomorrow night if I found him.”

Yes, there were those old stories about Buddy Bolden working as a barber.  The stories had turned out to be less than believable, or at least nobody could find any evidence that Buddy had ever barbered.  But there were other stories about his socializing at a barber shop near his house, and maybe this was the place.  Maybe, just maybe, Randall would indeed find the great Buddy Bolden before the sun came up.  And what a fine night’s work that would be!

By the time he neared the corner of First and Liberty, all the stars but one had disappeared into the dawn.  He was humming, then singing, “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” the dirty verses first, then the cleaner ones from Jelly Roll Morton’s commercial Bluebird recordings:

“Thought I heard Buddy Bolden say,
You nasty but you’re dirty, take it away,
You’re terrible, you’re awful, take it away,
I thought I heard him say.

“I thought I heard Buddy Bolden shout,
Open up that window and let that bad air out,
Open up that window and let that foul air out,
Yes, I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say.”

Not great lyrics, hardly timeless–but the melody, that was timeless, and he wanted to hear it played on Buddy Bolden’s horn.  Maybe he and Buddy could even play a duet.

The barber shop was a shabby one-story corner building with red-and-white barber’s stripes painted on one of the poles that supported the porch overhang.  The building was dark–nobody around at 6 a.m., naturally–but he tried the front door.  It opened easily.

Inside were several ordinary wooden chairs and a couple of modestly upholstered ones–not real barber’s chairs.  In the farther wall was another door; he thought he saw light through a crack.

He knocked on the inner door, feeling his hand tremble.  He almost expected Buddy himself to answer.  Indeed someone said, “Come in,” and he pushed the door open.

In the inner room, sitting around a small wooden table in half-darkness, were three figures: his old dissertation adviser, Professor Tomkins, and two muscular young men in ChronoAssay Security uniforms.  Randall started to back out of the room, wondering if he had gone to sleep after that strenuous night, wondering if he was dreaming.  Or perhaps Professor Tomkins had come here on a research project of his own?

“Sit down, Randall,” Tomkins said, waving toward an empty chair.  “You got here faster than we expected.  Sorry you fell for the bait.”

“Bait?” Randall said.  “What bait?  I’ve just begun my first day of research. What kind of joke is this?”

“No joke — bait,” Tomkins said, as Randall slumped onto the chair.  The security men watched impassively.  “You know what the rules are.  You know you’re not allowed to pursue dangerous issues that could disrupt the time stream.  You know that’s why the ChronoAssay Institute is strictly limited to noninteractive academic research, why the military uses of time travel were banned as soon as the first plans for them were discovered.  You know the ChronoAssay motto, I’m sure, in Greek and Latin and English.  Tell it to me.”

Randall glanced at the security men and mumbled, “‘To know, not to change.'”

“Absolutely,” Tomkins said.  “‘Not to change.’  You know the whole damned human race is afraid they’ll be wiped out without a blip if any time traveler significantly alters an earlier sector of the time stream.  Why, for God’s sake,” as his voice increased in intensity, “why do you think we gave you all those years of training, why do you think we screened you out of hundreds of applicants, instead of letting just anybody and everybody mess around with history in a totally irresponsible way?”

Randall knew why.  He’d studied all the theories of temporal elasticity in graduate school, he’d memorized the results of the small and large experiments that made sure people could travel back in time without measurable effects on the present, as long as they didn’t kill the young Richard Nixon or father a pharaoh by Cleopatra or some stupid thing like that.  “But I wasn’t being irresponsible,” he said, knowing how irresponsible that sounded under the circumstances.  “I was just looking for Buddy Bolden.”

“Right,” Tomkins said in a sarcastic tone.  “And you were going to give him a few little hints about jazz improvisation, probably, years before he or anybody else was getting into serious improvisation.  Or you might have found a way to introduce him to Tom Edison, so he could record a few cylinders.  That wouldn’t change our cultural history, not at all.”

“But maybe,” Randall offered his last weak defense, “maybe I’d have inspired him to do what we already know he did anyway?”

“I really am disappointed in you, Randall,” Tomkins said.  “I thought you were going to be one of the best.  But we never know, until we let people loose in the field.  That’s why we set up the bait.  That’s why we invent those tempting figures like Buddy Bolden.”

“Invent?” Randall was suddenly staggered by the vastness of his own naiveté.  “You’re saying there’s no Buddy Bolden?”

“You know better than I do,” Tomkins said, “how insubstantial the historical record is on Buddy Bolden.  No recordings, no contemporary accounts of his playing, no clear documentary records–just a blurred photo or two, a few hazy recollections from old men who contradict each other and themselves.  That’s the ideal situation for us to use in manufacturing bait.  We touch up the historical record a bit, we assemble a harmless legend out of an assortment of unrelated facts, and we set one of our ChronoAssay interns down nearby.  If he doesn’t swallow the bait, we trust him on bigger projects with less supervision.   If he swallows it, he gets promoted to a permanent desk job in the ChronoAssay Institute.  You swallowed, I’m afraid.  Time to go back home.”

Tomkins rose, and the security men came around the table to grasp Randall’s arms firmly on each side.  Randall said again, “No Buddy Bolden?  But there really are documentary records!  Charles Bolden, plasterer.  Charles Bolden, music teacher.  Charles Bolden, musician.  Later on, Charles Bolden in the lunatic asylum.”

“More than one Charles Bolden in eighteen-nineties New Orleans, I expect,” Tomkins said. “But we haven’t found a trace of Buddy Bolden, great jazz musician.  Sorry to destroy your dream, Randall, but we don’t want you destroying our reality.  Now stand still, here on this mark, and I’ll signal for our return.”

Randall remained so stunned that he didn’t resist the pressure of the security men.  He stood passively in an almost dreamlike state, while the familiar fried-air smell began to surround him and Tomkins and the guards.  The walls of the barbershop’s back room began to fade into darkness.  Then he heard the sound of a trumpet somewhere outside, maybe a cornet, faint at first but growing louder as the walls continued to dim.  It was that same old melody, DA-da-da, DA-da-da, DA-da-da-DAA, achingly beautiful now. The last thing he saw before the entire scene disappeared was a young black man with a silver horn in his hand, jerking open the door and shouting, “Phee-yew!  Bad air in here — somebody really stunk this place up.  Take it away!”


2 comments on “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden SayAdd yours →

  1. The late Billy Bible used to have a couple of records with the phrase “I thought I heard Buddy Bolden Say, Funky Butt, Funky Butt, take it away” at the front before some march music. Supposedly they had Buddy’s name on them. When I moved here my girlfriend told me the guy that delivers newspapers named Billy Bible supposedly had some old time edison cylinders she called them. She got the story from being a bar tender from a guy everyone knows is the town drunk is two of the boxes had the name “Buddy Bolden”. This drunk guy said they sounded like crap but Billy Bible thought they were gold. Anyway, he’s dead now. Bible. Don’t know who got his stuff. He also chased UFO’s so go figure so they say. Bible.

  2. Interesting — thanks. IDK Billy Bible; the original recording of “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” was by Jelly Roll Morton, who also claimed he had written the song.

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