King Bolden and the earliest known African-American guitarists


Until the 1890s, when mail order catalogues made
them more affordable and improved roads and rail links made musical instruments
more accessible, guitars were mainly a preserve of the American middle classes.

Most were much smaller than the guitars we know
today, probably because they were mostly played by women. Perhaps that’s why
they were (and still are) known as parlor or parlour guitars, because women
played them to entertain guests, usually in the parlour. Even so, parlour
guitars were also the guitars most early African-American players used in the
days before their folk music became known as blues.
Buddy Bolden band c. 1903. 
Jefferson Mumford’s on guitar.

But, as mentioned, very few African Americans could
afford such instruments. Two exceptions could be found on
the streets of New Orleans in the 1880s. Both were working barbers, the
fall-back career of so many musicians in those early days. The ground-breaking
guitar pair was Charlie Galloway, born in New Orleans around 1863, and Jefferson
Mumford, born in 1870. What style of
music they played around 1885 is debatable but, by the 1890s, both were known to be working in New Orleans
playing ragtime, blues’ direct forerunner. 

Charlie Galloway, the elder of of the pair, was leading an African-American string band around 1895 when he decided to spice things up by adding a line of brass – an innovative step that inadvertently helped give birth to jazz. One of his new black recruits was a 19-year fellow Charlie, and yet another barber, a cornet player called Charlie Bolden. Young ‘Kid’ Bolden, nicknamed Buddy, proved so innovative and inspirational, he soon took over leadership of Galloway’s band. After changing its name to the Buddy Bolden band, it
became the hottest outfit in New Orleans. Not that guitarist Charlie Galloway
was forced out. He still had an important part to play.

With guitar amplifiers not invented until
the 1930s, it was then impossible for acoustic guitars to be heard over the
rest of the band. What acoustic guitars could do, however, was lay down a solid rhythmic
foundation over which the horns could improvise. And so, the chord-strumming
rhythm guitarist was born, a feature still with us today. Explained, author Harry
O. Brun in his 1960 book, The Story of the
Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

“It was he (the guitarist) who would shout out the chord changes on
unfamiliar melodies or on modulations to a different key. It was through this
frequent ‘calling out’ of chords by the guitarist that many New Orleans
musicians of that day, otherwise totally ignorant of written music, came to
recognize their chords by letter and number; and though they could not read
music, they always knew the key in which they were playing.”

Charlie Galloway would eventually be replaced by that other guitarist from the 1880s, Jefferson Mumford, who was with Bolden during the glory years from 1897 to about 1905 when Kid Bolden got upgraded to King Bolden.

As students of jazz and blues will know, Buddy Bolden was the rock star of his day, one of the first known to overindulge on booze, women, sex and drugs; and also the first musician known to go into a trance when playing. Aged just 29, he was committed to an insane asylum in 1907 where he died in
1931, unheralded and unrecorded.

On a more academic note, Wikipedia reports
that Bolden is also credited with discovering or even inventing the so-called
‘Big Four’, a key rhythmic innovation on the marching band beat, which gave
embryonic blues and jazz musicians much more room for individual improvisation.
As the renowned New Orleans trumpeter, Wynton
, explains, “the Big Four was the first syncopated
bass drum pattern to deviate from the standard on-the-beat march. The second
half of the Big Four is the pattern commonly known as the habanera rhythm,
one of the most basic rhythmic cells
in Afro-Latin and sub-Saharan African

Duke Ellington in the 1950s, “Buddy Bolden was a suave, handsome and a debonair
cat who the ladies loved. He had the biggest, fattest trumpet sound in town. He
bent notes to the nth degree. He used to tune up in New Orleans and break
glasses in Algiers.”

Another influential New Orleans figure in
early ragtime, blues and jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, later immortalised Buddy Bolden in song.
Jelly Roll wrote the song, ‘I Thought I heard Buddy Bolden Say’, as a
fox trot in 1939; but it has always been known as ‘Buddy Bolden’s Blues’. You
might recognise the track from Hugh Laurie’s 2011 album of New Orleans blues
classics, ‘Let Them Talk’. 

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