Where Bolden boldly fails, City of a Million Dreams enchants

By Quin Hillyer | Washington Examiner

With 2019 being the year of movies celebrating British-originated rock music of the 1960s (Beatles) and 1970s (Elton John and Queen), Americans should take time to view a film about our own most indigenous and ingenious music: jazz from the 1890s and 1900s.

Bolden, now available to stream, is an uneven, less-than-fully satisfying flick about traditional jazz pioneer Charles “Buddy” Bolden. But its soundtrack, arranged by the Lincoln Center’s Wynton Marsalis, is marvelously listenable all the way through the must-remain-for credits. Moreover, for all its narrative failures, Bolden succeeds at communicating an appropriate sense of the mythic to viewers unfamiliar with jazz’s hazy origins.

No known recording of Buddy Bolden’s music is extant. Only one known photograph of him remains. But everybody who was anybody in early jazz, including Louis Armstrong, credits Bolden’s seminal work in melding the traditions of ragtime, blues, black church music, and African rhythms into the new musical form called jazz. Famously and tragically, though, Bolden suffered from acute psychoses and alcoholism, and spent the last 24 years of his 54-year life in a state institution.

Boldly but ultimately unsuccessfully, the movie tries to tell Bolden’s story through disjointed, non-chronological flashbacks within Bolden’s own suffering mind inside the asylum. Despite the narrative failures, though, a viewer receives a resonant sense of the wonder of the music, of the wild and tortured culture of black, Belle Époque Louisiana, and of the way jazz helped make that culture transcendent. If a viewer knows not to expect the story to fully cohere, Bolden is tremendously worth renting.

For a more coherent account of Bolden’s influence, and of the whole majestic scope of the New Orleans musical tradition, please read 2018’s City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300. Written by New Orleans-based journalist and cultural chronicler Jason Berry, the book reads like a haunting, polyrhythmic ode to a place and a people both tragic and magical — much like Bolden himself.

“Bolden was like many poor, darker players of the Uptown inner city; he learned melodies by ear, improvising on what he heard,” Berry wrote. Berry quoted classically trained Bolden contemporary Paul Dominguez: “If I wanted to make a living … I had to jazz it up or rag it up. Bolden cause[d] all that … Can’t tell you what’s there on paper, but just play the hell out of it.”

To get a visceral sense of that sound, rent Bolden. To understand and fully appreciate it, read City of A Million Dreams. You’ll experience traditional New Orleans jazz as a treasure. Rightly so.