What do we really know about Buddy Bolden?
Out this Friday, Wynton Marsalis's Bolden serves both as a soulful, swaggering soundtrack to the film of the same name (in theaters May 3) and an attempt to summon Bolden—one of jazz's most mysterious and foundational figures—back to life.
We know Bolden was born in New Orleans in 1877. We know that he rose to local prominence as a gifted cornetist and that his bluesy, improvised brand of ragtime constituted an important next step in the development of jazz. And we know that his career ended abruptly at the age of 30, and that he subsequently spent the last 24 years of his life in a mental institution.
Listen to "You Rascal You" from the Bolden soundtrack:
But we don't have any recordings of Bolden, and beyond remembrances from his contemporaries and some knowledge of his compositions, his life remains an enigma. On this soundtrack, Marsalis takes the scant details we have and turns them into a rowdy celebration of Bolden and the turn-of-the-century New Orleans movement he led.
In his liner notes for Bolden (Original Soundtrack), Dr. Michael White—a noted jazz scholar who also plays clarinet on the record—takes stock of the record and tries to imagine what it might have meant to Buddy Bolden.
Read an excerpt:
"'King' Bolden was an underground legend and a hero in black community dance halls, public parks, and street parades. He left neither recordings (a mythical cylinder disc has never been found), nor a body of musical compositions. The press never celebrated him or acknowledged his popularity or his musical genius. The only time he was mentioned in the newspapers was when he was arrested for attacking relatives in 1906 during a psychotic fit. Less than a year later, he was sent to the Louisiana State Mental institution where he was confined until his death in 1931. Bolden was probably never consciously aware of how his innovative musical ideas had spread to thousands of musicians and countless fans throughout the world...
"This recording inspires us to imagine Buddy Bolden’s life, music, and era. It calls to mind the years I spent in the 1970s as a brass band clarinet player in dozens of black social club second line parades, jazz funerals, and church parades—many in Buddy Bolden’s uptown neighborhood, where his spirit was still felt. Many of these (largely unpublicized) events would draw hundreds of community members who would follow alongside for hours doing the free-form second line dance that encouraged and paralleled the freedom, excitement, and creativity of the hot brass band jazz style.
"It is hard to know what Buddy Bolden would have thought about all the fuss made over his music and about being the subject of a feature film. Until this film, he had only been the focus of one biography and a couple of books. Whether he would have liked the attention or not, he certainly would have been pleased that over 100 years after he stopped playing the style that he innovated, it is still being heard in many different forms, serving as an important musical challenge and source for experimentation and artistic creation. The music on this soundtrack does Bolden’s memory and legacy justice with a type of integrity that is long overdue."
Wynton Marsalis's BOLDEN (Original Soundtrack) is out April 19 on Blue Engine Records, and the film is in theaters May 3. Pre-order the soundtrack today from the Jazz at Lincoln Center webstore.