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“I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say….”

I am occasionally asked why my professional card, letterhead, website, and blog are headed by the phrase “I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say. . . .” Sometimes, a person will inquire, “Who is Buddy Bolden?”

Well, the phrase comes from, “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” which was originally titled “Funky Butt” when it was a song in the repertoire of New Orleans cornetist and bandleader Charles “Buddy” Bolden (1877-1931), the legendary father of jazz. You can read about Buddy here. For further reading, I recommend Donald Marquis’s In Search Of Buddy Bolden: First Man Of Jazz and Danny Barker’s Buddy Bolden and the Last Days of Storyville.

Some consider “Funky Butt” the oldest known jazz tune. It was Jelly Roll Morton (1885-1941) who bestowed the title “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” upon it and fashioned his own lyrics. Jelly made two commercial recordings of the song, in 1939, rendering it as a solo piano piece and as a band number. It is also included in the epic 1938 Library of Congress session that folklorist Alan Lomax recorded of Morton telling the story of his life, providing an account of the early years of jazz, and expatiating upon New Orleans history, all to the accompaniment of his piano. Jelly does the vocal on all three versions. And here is what he sings:

Buddy Bolden’s Blues
(Lyrics by Jelly Roll Morton)

I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say
You nasty, you dirty—take it away
You terrible, you 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 the foul air out
I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say

I thought I heard Judge Fogarty say
Thirty days in the market—take him away
Get him a good broom to sweep with—take him away
I thought I heard him say

I thought I heard Frankie Dusen shout
Gal, give me that money—I’m gonna beat it out
I mean give me that money, like I explain you, or I’m gonna beat it out
I thought I heard Frankie Dusen say

Jelly Roll Morton has long been one of my main jazz heroes. In a 1945 letter that I wrote to my older brother Turner I told of several recent 78 rpm record acquisitions. I was fifteen at the time and had been obsessed with jazz for three years. In the course of a visit to Baltimore’s General Radio and Record Shop, “I miraculously ran across a reprint of an out-of-date Jelly Roll Morton piano solo album which contains ten sides and costs $4.72. His name practically means jazz he’s so famous. He’s a famous New Orleans blues piano artist who’s been dead for four years. . . . The album is terrific.”

I began my decade and a half on radio in late 1972 in Washington, D.C., playing early jazz selections as a Monday guest of WGTB-FM’s three-hour Spritus Cheese, hosted by Mark Gorbulew. The second week into my several-month ride on Spiritus Cheese, Mark turned to me as he prepared to open the show and asked what I would like to call my feature. He gave me no more than a few seconds to come up with a name before going on air. I blurted out what came to mind, Mark flipped a switch and, leaning forward to the mike, announced, “Mark Gorbulew here with Spritus Cheese this beautiful afternoon, and once again we have with us Royal Stokes and his ‘I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say. . . 
,’ an hour of old jazz records culled from his personal collection.” I soon had my own Saturday morning three-hour slot and, of course, I called it “I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say
. . . .”

The phrase has always seemed to me an apt metaphor for all that followed in the wake of Jelly Roll Morton’s major contributions to the jazz idiom. He was not only a virtuoso pianist and pioneer bandleader but, in Martin Williams’s term, “the first master of form in jazz.” You can read about Jelly here.

Solo piano version of “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”:

Band arrangement of “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”:

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