Jazz Great Buddy Bolden Was a Mystery Hollywood Can’t Solve

Filmmaker Dan Pritzker’s biopic “Bolden,” about the horn player credited with inventing jazz, reaches for myth and misses the artist.

by Jason Berry

Early into Bolden, Dan Pritzker’s artful biopic on pioneering New Orleans jazzman Buddy Bolden, a lush scene unfolds as a hot air balloon rises over the city, circa 1900. Gary Carr, as the young horn player Buddy Bolden, evinces fearful wonder after taking the bait from his upstart manager, Bartlet (adroitly played by Eric LaRay Harvey), whose crafty grin suggesting a harvest of money provided the publicity stunt doesn’t get them killed.

Bartlet is based on Buddy Bartley, a hustler who managed Lincoln Park, a weekend hub for black folk on western fringes of the city. Bartley really did fly hot air balloons to advertise events and showcase himself; one time he crashed into Lake Pontchartrain but made it back to land.

Pritzker and cinematographer Ned Norton paint the scene with a dreamy realism; the balloon sways and rocks upward until Bartlet pushes Bolden over, telling him, now play! As Bolden plunges, people in the park gaze up. Carr’s face becomes a magic mask of comedy and fear, he lets out a stream of notes on the golden cornet and when the parachute pops, voila!, he’s a satiric angel.

Hitting the ground, greeting his band-members, Bolden ignites a sizzling rag that draws people away from the society orchestra of the colored Creole, John Robichaux, performing more refined music for people who nevertheless drift toward Bolden, moths to a flame.

The musical arrangement of the scene, between the blues-push of Bolden and sweet ragtime of Robichaux, yields an epiphany of jazz-becoming-jazz—an aesthetic achievement by Wynton Marsalis, the Jazz at Lincoln Center director and a producer of the film. Marsalis’s creative hand gives the musical score a seamless flow in other scenes, some quite challenging as the styles shift to the plot structure of Bolden’s floating memories, lodged in an asylum, his life an anguished come-and-go of flashbacks.

The balloon scene is gorgeous, riveting, and with concessions granted to Pritzker for creative license, preposterous. All those well-dressed white people in Lincoln Park clamoring for Buddy Bolden in a space that was illegal for white folks to attend. In truth, Lincoln Park is where Bolden used a powerful, improvisational horn to cut into Robichaux’s base of African American popularity. Robichaux had good business playing the high cotton society gigs that spread the new music into old-pedigree precincts.

Pritzker casts Bolden as a mythic figure, a fiery talent like Icarus who crashes before the artistry finds full flower; but in doing so, Pritzker and co-scriptwriter David N. Rothschild turn Robichaux into a caricature, a musical Uncle Tom at one point depicted serving white ladies at a luncheon. This moment, via Bolden’s imagination, suggests that he viewed the older bandmaster as a sell-out. Maybe he did. It’s just as possible that Bolden envied Robichaux, his competition, for the range of gigs his orchestra played, from raucous Lincoln Park to the bluebloods’ New Orleans Country Club.

Bolden’s inner life, apart from official reports on his breakdown, left scant information compared to the well-documented lives, and writings, of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Sidney Bechet, the trio of geniuses who helped shape New Orleans Style, the classic idiom.

Buddy Bolden was 18 in 1895 when his meteoric horn began galvanizing African Americans in parks, gritty clubs, and parade routes. Bolden played a fusion of church song, rags, and other styles—“the first man who played blues for dancing,” recalled Papa John Joseph, an influential early bass player.

Bolden’s path-breaking instrumental voice never made it onto records, yet he was the catalyst of the music that in 1917 became known as jazz. By then, in one of history’s coldest ironies, Buddy Bolden (“one fine-lookin’ brownskin man, tall and slender and a terror with the ladies,” said Bunk Johnson) had for ten years been housed in a rural Louisiana hospital for the insane. He was committed by the court at the request of his wife and family in 1907. There he sat when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s first records in New York in 1917 began to fuel a mass culture phenomenon, the Jazz Age, on which F. Scott Fitzgerald would capitalize amid Armstrong’s fabled rise from New Orleans to Chicago and then New York.

The word “tragedy” seems invented for Bolden, the pioneer of an idiom that would spread across the world, carted off to a mental tank in his prime, forgotten by the popular culture he helped make. His sound was so sonorous that on certain nights he could be heard several miles away, according to oral histories, and by 1905 he was called King Bolden. The end came, almost banally, in a 1907 Labor Day parade when he pulled out of the marching band, sat on the side of a street, holding his head. (A George Schmidt historical painting of this event hangs in the bar of the Inter-Continental Hotel in New Orleans.)

The hallucinatory outbursts at home suggest schizophrenia, given the documents discovered by Donald J. Marquis, author of In Search of Buddy Bolden, an industrious 1977 biography. Bolden spent his last 24 years in confinement, returning to New Orleans in a coffin in 1931 for burial in a potters’ field, his precise grave site unknown today.

 Pritzker’s casting of Bolden as a myth-figure makes perfect sense; but what kind of myth? The script reduces Bolden to a cipher. For most of the film we see Carr in a dank, Dickensian asylum, looking grim or bewildered, his flashbacks framed by the 1931 broadcast of a concert by Louis Armstrong in Suburban Gardens, just outside New Orleans. That actual event drew a huge crowd of blacks outside the venue, unable to sit inside with whites. Armstrong, then 30, was a celebrity returning to the town where he had grown up in severe poverty, before heading to Chicago in 1922. Reno Wilson as Armstrong well captures the verbal balancing act it took to entertain whites with geniality, while manifesting a witty coded banter for his African American base, outside or by radio. Film, script, and acting hit a high point in these scenes.

“The film suggests that the jazz pioneer, like the crushed fighters, was a sacrificial victim to blood lust of the white Southern male.”

In fashioning myth as plot line, Pritzker turns Bolden’s insanity into a drama of victimization under the evil hand of white racism. That’s any director’s artistic right, but as the Marquis biography makes clear, the women of Bolden’s family grew terrified of him, reported him to police, and had him committed. Bolden the film resorts to cardboard villains—a white boxing promoter and a crooked judge who together control Bartlet as a pimp, pusher, and swindler to throw boxing matches. Meanwhile sinister Judge Perry (Ian McShane of Deadwood fame) becomes the overlord of Bolden’s fate.

The violence in the boxing scenes with black men as slave-like gladiators, mauled down, crawling and bleeding from being pounded in service to rigged bets, while well-dressed white men in upper seats bray in silent, slow-motion scenes are stereotypical satire. What did boxing matches, crooked or not, have to do with Buddy Bolden? The film suggests that the jazz pioneer, like the crushed fighters, was a sacrificial victim to blood lust of the white Southern male.

African American women fare little better in Bolden. Breast-shaking hotties come on to Bolden in dense-packed clubs while his church-going wife, played by YaYa DaCosta, pines at home for the man she thought she knew. No one doubts how the fast life rolled through early jazz haunts, particularly in the Storyville red-light district where white males had their pick, the same Storyville that gave the piano professor Jelly Roll Morton his start. But many of the musicians who played the sawdust floors at night also sat in pews in the afternoons, playing hymns for funerals that went out through streets of the city. That irony of jazz hatched between the sacred and the profane eludes Bolden.

The groupies who threw themselves at the Beatles and Rolling Stones and other rock groups remind us that sex is a force in culture to be mined in any film. The question is how well it serves story, plot, and character. (I can hear Hollywood yawning.)

Graphic scenes show Bolden the whore-chaser who deserts his wife, without much on why. Because of Bartlet, or evil Judge Perry? YaYa DaCosta, as Bolden’s wife, pulls off the movie’s most powerful scene when she has their baby, alone on a bed, reeling in pain with a catharsis of delivery to whiten any viewer’s knuckles, a flash point of brave acting that ends with women at her side, the infant alive, a moment of gripping pathos.

The film degenerates to near-pornography when the camera goes behind Judge Perry’s desk to show a naked black woman tied at his feet, her breasts slashed from his sadistic pleasure. The message of the myth in Bolden that his insanity was triggered by white supremacy finds drama in sexual violence.

The violent root of white supremacy is undeniable; it has been treated with powerful effect in any number of books, and Twelve Years A Slave among certain films. As a thematic construct for Bolden, the dictatorial South as cause of Bolden’s fall clashes with the fact of jazz, a culture of African American arrival and becoming, a counter-narrative to the Lost Cause mythology of Reconstruction when lynching became the weapon to restore white supremacy. (The Lost Cause would reach its apogee in 1939 with the movie version of Gone with the Wind, celebrating a chivalrous South that never existed.)

The most inspired account of the birth of jazz was a 1965 piece in the avant-garde Evergreen Review, “Memory of King Bolden” by the late Danny Barker, a guitarist, composer, and memoirist whose career Jazz at Lincoln Center will celebrate in a May 31 concert by a New Orleans band featuring guitarist Don Vappie.

“Pritzker’s vision of the seminal jazzman as a tragic figure had the raw material for a greater film had the script avoided movie clichés”

Barker’s piece was, in fact, a short story recounted by one Dude Bottley, the same (renamed) balloon-flying hustler, this time with no claim on Bolden’s career. Dude Bottley witnesses Bolden’s collapse at a jazz funeral when he violates ritual by playing a fast blues instead of a slow dirge, mixing up the music styles of reverence in the march to the graveyard, and high-kicking “second line” music afterward. Playing the wrong music signals his mental collapse. Exiled from the band, Bolden sits alone in his house, playing a meld of blues and church-song, the fusion that became jazz, as a wide-eyed Bottley peeks through the window, “the first time that I had ever heard hymns and blues cooked up together.”

Pritzker’s vision of the seminal jazzman as a tragic figure had the raw material for a greater film had the script avoided movie clichés of sexual violence and instead gone deeper on what really happened—as in Barker’s short story. Sometimes, the truth of history holds greater art than a film “based on true events.”

The music that Bolden generated soon crossed racial lines and in the film’s most magical scenes, Marsalis’ orchestration finds a poetic essence. One dream sequence, as Bolden peers out a window from his seclusion, features women singing around a tree, a rhapsodic moment that seems to echo the mythical moments of O Brother, Where Are Thou?

For all of the cinematic beauty Pritzker brings to Bolden, the movie seems to be still searching for its subject as credits roll.

Jason Berry, the author of City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300, is producing a documentary of the same title, using burial traditions as a lens on the city’s evolution.