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Voicing Silence: The Legend of Buddy Bolden

Joanne Saul, John S. Saul

Published: 2007-05-03

This article focuses on the legendary Buddy Bolden, a putative godfather of jazz improvisation in the very earliest days of jazz-like music-making in New Orleans. It first seeks to position him both within the New Orleans of his time and within the broader tradition of jazz's development to which he is deemed to have made such a singular contribution. Despite his legendary status, there is in fact no aural record of Bolden's actual playing and only fragmentary, often contradictory, accounts of his life. It becomes necessary to "improvise the improviser," to, in effect, give voice to Bolden's silence. By examining several efforts to imagine Bolden both as player and as person--by Michael Ondaatje, on the printed page, in his highly regarded "novel," Coming Through Slaughter, and on disk, aurally, by players like Jerry Granelli and Malachi Thompson--this article concludes that Bolden's rather shadowy person and performance make him especially available, in both song and story, for the kinds of improvisation of person that Joanne and John S. Saul pinpoint.

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Listening itself, an improvisative act engaged in by everyone, announces a practice of active engagement with the world, where we sift, interpret, store and forget, in parallel with action and fundamentally articulated with it ("Mobilitas Animi" 113).

– George E. Lewis