The Resurrection of Buddy Bolden

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Shrouded in mystery, Buddy Bolden’s life has proved more than a match for most of its would-be chroniclers. Information about the New Orleans cornetist, who vanished permanently from public view upon entering a psychiatric hospital at age 29 in 1907, is limited: No recording of his playing is known to survive, and most contemporaneous documents have been unreliable—despite his significant role in the creation of jazz.

But for Dan Pritzker, a musician and filmmaker, the mystery suggested an opening. Enlisting Wynton Marsalis as composer, performer and executive producer—and consulting legendary Big Easy historian Donald M. Marquis—Pritzker directed the feature film Bolden, a pioneering attempt to dramatize the musician’s life and times.

“There’s so little known about the guy that it gave me the opportunity to make a much more allegorical story that was bigger than the man,” Pritzker said. “It’s not a biopic of Bolden; it’s really a biography of the soul of America.”

By Pritzker’s own admission, the film (which will be in theaters Friday) engages viewers with a disorienting experience. Told from Bolden’s point of view as he languishes in what was known as the Louisiana State Insane Asylum, where he spent the last 25 years of his life, its narrative plays out in a sometimes hallucinatory style—mimicking the workings of Bolden’s mind as he wanders the asylum’s dank corridors in a schizophrenic haze.

The bleak setting—and Bolden’s fate within it—are plausible, according to Marquis, who, in researching his 1978 book In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz, spoke with people who had worked at the asylum. “They said they remembered him walking around and touching the walls and touching the pillars, but he never played music. There was no cure. When a black man went into an insane asylum in those days, he didn’t come out.”

In Pritzker’s telling, fragmented memories appear to Bolden amid the haze—images triggered by a 1931 radio broadcast of Louis Armstrong performing with his band at the Suburban Gardens roadhouse in New Orleans. The broadcast (an actual event that occurred in the months before Bolden’s death) echoes through the asylum, as Armstrong’s buoyant sounds become the catalyst for a series of scenes that unfold in the protagonist’s consciousness.

“That just opened up the opportunity,” Pritzker said. “Thoughts give way to other thoughts.”

How Pritzker proposed to spin those thoughts into a mythological tale—one that integrated the musical and social context—helped convince Marsalis to work on the project. “I was impressed by his connection of it to American history, his understanding of the importance of Bolden,” Marsalis said. “From our first meeting, he came at it from a very soulful place: What is the aspect of Buddy Bolden that’s inside all of us?”

Discovering that aspect began in 2005 on a snowy night in New York, where Marsalis, having enjoyed dinner at a restaurant with Pritzker and his producer, Jon Cornick, invited the men up to his apartment for a drumming session. In the apartment were other friends of Marsalis. Each was given a part to tap out, and together they wove a polyrhythmic tapestry that illuminated the musical essence of Bolden.

“It absolutely blew my mind,” Pritzker said. “When we were all done, Wynton said, ‘That’s African drumming. That’s what it’s all about.’”

Marsalis recalled the exercise as a demonstration of Bolden’s new take on the old march beat: “It was a matter of showing how the interlocking rhythms work with each other. Part of the challenge is finding rhythms that really work well with the syncopation. When you add harmonic sophistication and melody, it becomes very complicated. But the foundation of it is rhythm.”

Pritzker’s experience in Marsalis’ apartment has a rough analog in a scene from the film in which the secrets of syncopation are imparted at a rehearsal. “It shows Buddy Bolden teaching his musicians how to play the music, which is what he would have done,” Marsalis explained. “You go through the history of jazz, or the history of music, anybody who comes up with a new way to play teaches it to other people.”

Bolden as guru materializes elsewhere in the independently produced film, most notably in an interaction with clarinetist George Baquet (1881–1949). A Creole who had until that point played notated music before largely white or mixed-race audiences, Baquet, swept up in a wave of segregation reinforced by the Supreme Court’s 1896 separate-but-equal ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, finds himself in a different social category—one in which he must adjust to executing Bolden’s style of swing before mainly black audiences.

In a short but pivotal exchange, Bolden, apparently sensing in Baquet a potential recruit with promise, explains to the inquisitive clarinetist—a real person who ultimately contributed to the development of jazz—how his emerging aesthetic is built around aural acuity and a facility for improvisation, rather than fealty to notes on a page.

“You don’t know what you’re going to play?” Baquet asks.

“Sometimes I think it’s better not to play anything at all,” Bolden responds.

In interpreting Bolden’s response, Marsalis enters the realm of philosophy: “It’s a Taoist line. It’s about the importance of space, but it’s also about the importance of listening. You could be playing and not play. When you’re playing with a group of horns, the horns are occupying the same space. You have to know when to assert and when not to assert.”

Pritzker, who wrote the Bolden screenplay with David Rothschild, also sees the line working on multiple levels: “This music is about time and space, and sometimes playing the note is great and sometimes not playing the note is even better. That’s jazz to me. It speaks to the humanity of this kind of music.”

The subtext is that the freedom attendant to jazz filled a cultural need at a time of heightened restrictions in society at large. One impressionistic scene suggests that Bolden—born in 1877, the year Reconstruction and the racial reforms it tried to foster officially ended—already felt the urge to inject greater freedom into the music as a young boy who, lying beneath his mother’s sewing table at the textile mill where she works, hears the stirrings of syncopation in the beat of the machines.

The scene, part of the origin-of-jazz narrative, rises to mythological status when the boy imagines the transformation of the seamstresses into dancing angels. “On the one hand,” Pritzker explained, “it’s the story of him hearing these sounds and synthesizing them in his brain and coming up with this beautiful rhythmic thing. But the other equally important aspect is that, in my view, he was taking these working women in the sweatshop and elevating them, and they were his muses.”

For Marsalis, developing a strategy for translating the mythology into music—he provided the cornet and trumpet playing for both Bolden and Armstrong—required some self-analysis, if not soul-searching. “I don’t try to recreate anybody’s sound,” he said. “That’s not possible. So, I try to find what it is in their sound that resonates in my playing.”

The task of finding his inner Armstrong was facilitated by recorded material from the 1930s, the period in which he is shown in the film. For Bolden, however, the process was far more complex. “We don’t have recordings of Buddy Bolden,” Marsalis said. “So, I idealized his sound. I tried to find a composite for Bolden—a person who came up under ragtime, played blues, grew up in the church, had a singing sound, played loud with a lot of lead power, played sweet, too—women said that when he played, their hearts broke. But he also was a composite from all the best trumpet players.”

In fashioning his synthesis, Marsalis drew on a lineage of 19th-century players that stretched from Francis Johnson to Ned Kendall to Patrick Gilmore. After Bolden’s innovations, the lineage continued with Joe “King” Oliver (1881–1938), Freddie Keppard (1889–1933) and Bunk Johnson (1879–1949)—all of whom led to Armstrong.

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June 2019
Jeremy Pelt
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