By Danny R. Johnson – Jazz and Pop Music Critic
NEW YORK, NY – On May 3, 2019, the life of the musically and exceptionally talented and troubled jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden will be brought to the big screen in the creative and intuitive “Bolden.” The film by Daniel Pritzker, was executive produced by American virtuoso trumpeter, composer, teacher, and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis, and Gary Carr (HBO’s ‘The Deuce’) stars as the brilliant musician whose life story is widely wrapped in a complex web of obscurity.
Set in the scorching heat and racial strains of New Orleans 1900, Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden surfaces as an innovator of a genre of music that will become the foundation for modern American music. Unfortunately, little is known about Bolden who died in 1931 at 54 inside a Louisiana State Insane Asylum and was buried in a cemetery for the down-and-out.
The early 20th Century trumpet player Bolden must be counted among the central figures in American history if only because we cannot imagine jazz without the trumpet, just as we cannot imagine modern America without jazz. And while it’s impossible to imagine either jazz or the trumpet without Louis Armstrong, Bolden comes first. Because he stands at the tipping point between pre-jazz and jazz, we would have had to invent Bolden had he never existed. In fact, so much emphasis has been placed on the singular importance of this scarcely recorded musician that maybe we did invent him.
Louis Armstrong may have been contributing to that invention when he said he heard Bolden’s band in New Orleans at the Union Sons Hall on Perdido Street, a dance joint so hot and crowed that regulars call it “Funky Butt Hall,” which came from one of Bolden’s song and is featured on the “Bolden” soundtrack. Armstrong could not have been no more than six, but he lived down the street from Funky Butt and almost surely heard Bolden play. Nevertheless, it is tempting to connect Bolden, born in New Orleans in 1877, with Armstrong born in 1901. Jazz historian Krin Gabbard once wrote it was like “A black Sistine God touches the finger of a black Adam.” The image is not entirely fanciful, since Bolden is as inscrutable and distant as a Greek God.
What comes out in full force on the “Bolden” soundtrack is the spontaneity aspect of early 1900s New Orleans jazz. Marsalis did an incredible feat in reproducing Bolden’s music to the point where we as listeners can feel the expressive techniques such as half-valved effects, slurred notes, burnished glissandi, and fast tonguing.
The “Bolden” soundtrack contains dramatic and rhythmic talents which permitted Marsalis to reshape classic musical compositions to maximize their effectiveness. It is often said that Marsalis could take commonplace melodies worthy and worthy melodies vital, but he also took commonplace melodies vital, such as the soundtrack selections “Red Hot Mommas” to “Dinah” to “Tiger Rag.” In other words Marsalis infused the 26 musical selections on the “Bolden” soundtrack with distinctive and ardent qualities that enchant or disturb a listener in a good way.
Preaching the blues, imitating the cadences and the improvisatory spirit of the preacher, helped Bolden prevail in the cutthroat contests among New Orleans musicians, where innovation was the smart way to defeat the competition. This not to say that no one before Bolden had taken liberties with rhythm and melody. As early as 1885, even white bands were “ragging” the tunes in parades, giving them syncopation and a rhythmic bounce composers never imagined. But Bolden made the cornet the main attraction, loudly talking over the violin and essentially ending its dominance in turn-of-the-century dance bands. You can especially hear this musical phenomena in the “Timelessness” track.
Marsalis does an exceptional job in imitating Bolden’s ability to delight crowds by imitating human speech and even animal sounds. Listen to the “Shake It High, Shake It Low” track and you will hear what an indisputable African American jazz instrumentalist technique deploying a sound that recalls vocal inflections. Like Bolden, Marsalis makes his cornet growl and moan as in the case of the “Don’t Go Away Nobody” track.
Like so many legendary jazz artists, Bolden’s flame burned bright and fast. We have no idea what Bolden’s trumpet actually sounded like, although his group may have recorded on a primitive wax cylinder sometime before the turn of the 20th Century. It may have been nothing more than a rumor, but the cylinder will always be the Holy Grail of jazz history. Without it, the sound of Bolden’s horn has lived on only in the music of his disciples, a group that includes, arguably, every single person who has ever played intense, African-inflected music on the trumpet.