The Resurrection of Buddy Bolden

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On Bolden: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack—a 26-track collection on Blue Engine Records—Armstrong’s ensemble, as well as the smaller Bolden group, is musically embodied largely by members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra playing standards and eight Marsalis originals. Most feature him on trumpet or cornet, along with Marcus Printup (trumpet), Wycliffe Gordon (trombone), Victor Goines (alto saxophone, clarinet), Ted Nash (alto saxophone), Walter Blanding (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Don Vappie (guitar), Dan Nimmer (piano), Carlos Henriquez (bass) and Ali Jackson (drums). Marsalis arranged most of the numbers—one noteworthy exception being “Stardust,” arranged by Armstrong.

Compared with the configuration of the Armstrong band, that of the Bolden band demanded more assumptions. “I figured they were playing in a marching formation,” Marsalis said. “They had two clarinets, so one was probably playing an octave above the trumpet the way they do in a marching band, and one was probably playing the improvised part.” In those roles, Goines and Michael White on clarinets join Marsalis on cornet. Rounding out the group are Vappie, Henriquez, Jackson and Gordon or Vincent Gardner on valve trombone.

Marsalis said the music had to reflect the wide range of sources from which Bolden drew, including hymns, folk songs, blues, the sounds of the street—and of the boudoirs, especially in “dirty songs” like “All The Whores Go Crazy (About The Way I Ride).” As the title suggests, the piece, a traditional number played by the septet, becomes a rough-hewn evocation of the atmosphere in the red-light district where Bolden and his cohort often pursued their art.

In the spirit of the film’s ethos, Marsalis allows himself the freedom to explore the bawdy side by invoking more contemporary styles. “Phantasmagoric Bordello Ballet”—which alone employs an eight-piece group of Marsalis and Printup on trumpets, Gordon on trombone, Sherman Irby on alto saxophone and Blanding on tenor saxophone along with the rhythm section of Nimmer, Henriquez and Jackson—connects the dots between Bolden and more recent forms of jazz.

“That’s the vocabulary I write in most of the time,” he said. “I try to combine many different things. In a way, it’s like what Mingus was doing, with people improvising on the top and the bottom, unusual harmonies that you wouldn’t think go with that kind of sound, people hollering and screaming on mutes in the tradition of Duke Ellington—but really in the tradition of Buddy Bolden. He was the first person to do that on the horn.”

Marsalis throws more light on Bolden’s romantic appeal by varying the form in a stripped-down version of “Make Me A Pallet On The Floor,” a traditional number he scores for himself on cornet, Julie Bruskin on cello and a sultry Catherine Russell on vocals. Russell, whose come-hither reading leaves little to the imagination, also serves as a connection to Armstrong: Her father, Luis Russell, fronted Louis’ orchestra when work was otherwise scarce in the 1930s.

Any relationship between Bolden and Armstrong would likely have been indirect. Armstrong, born six years before Bolden was committed to the asylum, would have had little chance to know him personally or hear much of his music. Had they met as adults, their personalities might have clashed: Bolden, for all his charisma when he was at the top of his game, fell prey to substance abuse and violence—a descent shown on-screen in mind-bending detail—while Armstrong, historian Marquis said, “had a lot of things together—not only musically, but he knew how to get along with people.”

Nonetheless, the connection between the two artists is fundamental to the film. In fact, Pritzker began the project in 2007 with the intention of making two films at once—one the current dark feature on Bolden, the other a whimsical silent movie about Armstrong. As it turned out, Pritzker initially stepped away from the Bolden film after shooting footage—once in the editing room, he said, he found he “didn’t have it”—choosing to release the Armstrong film, Louis, alone. In 2010, Marsalis and his band toured a half-dozen cities, providing live accompaniment for screenings of the film.

But in 2014, after living in Italy and falling under the spell of the allegorically themed work of Renaissance artists, Pritzker resumed shooting in earnest with a new script and a new lead actor, Gary Carr, who replaced Anthony Mackie. Known for his work in British theater and TV, Carr said his affinity for the music got him through the deep immersion that the Bolden role required. Pritzker’s attention to detail was such that Carr, who had played jazz singer Jack Ross on TV in Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey, had three trumpet tutors and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis on hand to guide the way.

“It would have been difficult to learn the songs if I didn’t love it,” Carr said.

The movie—shot on sound stages in Wilmington, North Carolina, at Preservation Hall in New Orleans and at an arts center in Atlanta—ultimately jettisoned secondary narratives and focused on Bolden’s primary connections, real and imagined. Those connections, which ebb and flow in Bolden’s mind as he absorbs the radio broadcast in the asylum, are brought together through the use of Marsalis’ sweet and swinging “Timelessness,” which Pritzker said was intended as a “fantastic, monumental melody that is kind of a signature melody of Bolden.”

The piece, heard in bits and pieces throughout the film, becomes central to it in a scene that depicts a moment of mythic proportion in Bolden lore: a session in which Oskar Zahn, who made wax cylinders, recorded the Bolden band. No one knows whether that session actually occurred or, if it did, whether it would have yielded a recording of good quality. “It would have been a disappointment—that’s my personal feeling,” Marquis said, noting that key members of Bolden’s band, like trombonist Willie Cornish, would have been fighting in the Spanish-American War at the time. In any case, Marquis added, Zahn’s great-granddaughter told him that the family’s collection of cylinders had been destroyed in a garage fire.

But whatever the fate of the cylinder, “Timelessness” has a second life in the film. Armstrong, portrayed in a singing role by Reno Wilson, is heard riffing on the tune during the radio broadcast—and, in a final act, Bolden, wielding a cornet in the asylum, plays along. After setbacks that have seen him taken down by a racist white judge (Ian McShane), an exploitive black manager (Erik LaRay Harvey) and his own demons, the moment is a triumphant, if ironic, one. “This one’s going to go out to King Buddy Bolden, the first king of New Orleans music,” Armstrong says in introducing the tune to the roadhouse crowd.

“What I needed was some semblance of an uplifting ending,” Pritzker said. “It’s a dark story and it’s grim. The guy dies in an insane asylum at 54 years old. But the idea that he hears Armstrong and ultimately he duets with the guy, even just in his own mind, on a song that he had come up with—that’s what I was always driving towards.” DB

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