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Bolden: A Movie Review And Beyond

Matt Lavelle By

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Bolden’s environment was as rough as his music. In the film we get the environment, but the music isn’t as rough.
Bolden
Directed by Daniel Pritzker
Abramorama; King Bolden LLC
Release Date: May 3, 2019

Bolden is a film about jazz legend and cornetist Buddy Bolden, released on May 3rd, 2019. There was only one theater playing it in Manhattan, all the way on 12th Avenue and 57th St. The author was the only person present there for an 11:50am Monday viewing on May 13th. The film only showed for one week in Brooklyn. Bolden was conceived by a white billionaire and jazz fan, Daniel Pritzker, who turned to Wynton Marsalis for the music and as an adviser, the latter a role he also undertook for Ken Burns' documentary JAZZ (PBS, 2001). Pritzker saw Bolden, in his words, as a way to create a film about the soul of America. Can a white billionaire teach the world about how jazz was created? My interest in the film was hoping to see on screen what I felt Bolden's music was all about. As a trumpet player myself, I wanted to witness the power of the blues on a horn. In the trailer, Bolden is seen playing music that sends a woman into spiritual catharsis. Pritzker pushes what he sees as the sexual aspects within the music, attempting to portray sexuality from another time. He heads directly into racism. In the film he also deals with mental illness in jazz, another subject that demands further research. All of this is delivered in a musical fantasy, somewhat removed from reality, that borders on science fiction through its abstraction.

Bolden largely takes place in the Louisiana State Insane Asylum where Bolden was committed in 1907, at 30 years old. He remained there for the rest of his life until he died in 1931, at 54 years old. Throughout the film he wanders the hospital while most of the inmates/patients are asleep. It seems to be dark and raining outside throughout the film. Bolden is in the last four months of his life and he hears a live radio broadcast of Louis Armstrong through a vent coming from the nurse's office. The music causes him to have flashbacks of his life before confinement. The entire film then follows a back and forth between Bolden in the hospital and extremely vivid flashbacks created with incredible cinematography. There is a loose forward motion narrative, but Pritzker is more interested in creating scenes from turn of the century New Orleans. These moments are when the film is mesmerizing. King Bolden holding court at Funky Butt Hall -just what could that have been like? Pritzker, Marsalis, and Gary Carr as Bolden try to take you there.

Bolden is also seen being forced to severely restrict his music playing at white society events, where entitled white people come across like secret alien lizard's incapable of emotional expression. The film has three white villains that want to destroy Bolden. A Judge Perry played by actor Ian McShane proclaims that the soul of black people must be destroyed. Further flashbacks bring Bolden deep into acts of sexual expression from his and his partner's perspectives. As the film progresses, all of these issues are exacerbated with Bolden losing a battle with schizophrenia. There is one particularly haunting scene where Bolden is challenged by possibly a young King Oliver or Freddie Keppard, and when he goes to play, his cornet has no valves, at least in his mind. No valves, no sound, no music. Bolden's mother Alice and wife Nora love him but are unable to help him during his decent.

During the film, Marsalis teaches us how Bolden liberates his band by teaching them the beat known as the big four. The big four is when you accent the second and fourth beat of a march. Bolden supposedly accented the fourth beat with the drum and cymbal, liberating himself from the stagnant rhythm and feeling of the time. Throughout the film you can hear Marsalis speaking through Bolden, explaining how music is a conversation. In one sequence of events, a creole clarinetist of color named George Baquet, a real-life musician that played with Bolden in 1905, tries to learn from Bolden and ends up integrating some of Bolden's concept into his straighter concept. This exchange speaks to the relationship between proper technical execution and pure emotional expression. It's important to witness the exchange, but surely not everything in life and music needs to be broken down into an intellectual concept. Marsalis recently described Billie Holiday as floating over 4/4 swing in a long meter subdivision of three. Is that her musical message to the world? Bolden may have introduced the big four, but wasn't his music about all the feeling he had? The power and the strut? In the film you can see it during the dancehall scenes, but do you feel it? Marsalis is all about his version of blues and swing, but when Bolden teaches his band the big four, the audience is taken into the classroom at JALC. Marsalis growls so much during the music. Is that how he feels, or is he doing that because that's what you're supposed to do if your Buddy Bolden? Growling does not always communicate power. Growling is a vocal and emotional expression, not a demonstration of correct musical execution. It's like orchestrating and conducting laughter. Can't some things in music just be human? If something is funny, should we pick a tempo and key, count it off, and with the "correct" feeling begin?

ha ha ha ha ha ha ha HA

Through my own lens looking at Bolden, I'm haunted by Don Cherry speaking about how music shouldn't sound written down. Bolden may or may have not read music. Some people write out improvisation these days. Ornette Coleman said you can transcribe a solo, but you can't transcribe an environment. Bolden's environment was as rough as his music. In the film we get the environment, but the music isn't as rough, to me. Some people might prefer it that way. I think it's who Bolden was and what he played that drove the dance floor at Funky Butt hall, not how he did it. I think it was the sound and feeling from his soul played through that horn. Did the dancers stop and point out to each other how much they enjoyed Bolden's intonation and articulation? The environment is seen as a catalyst for Bolden losing his battle with mental illness in the film. As it worsens, he continues to attempt to play. In one scene late in the film Marsalis plays with this in mind, and in an unsettling way, he starts playing the way some avant-garde trumpet players play today. With all of his technical command, Marsalis could be seen as an incredible free player. In the Omni-book of his solos available today, the author of the book wrote that Marsalis sometimes plays things that simply defy analysis. Some of his playing during these moments in the film seem totally improvised and are indeed incredible.

There's no record that Bolden played this way as his illness progressed. Is Marsalis unintentionally suggesting that avant-garde trumpet players today are losing their minds? I'm thinking he just hasn't heard any of that music today, but you never know. Roy Campbell Jr and I listened to him play a piece called The Magic Hour on Blue Note and tried to figure it all out. Mental illness in jazz is a real issue. I've always been haunted by the cover to Branford Marsalis CD Crazy People Music (Sony Music, 1990), with the guys in the quartet on the cover trying to look like they're crazy. I recall Marsalis said he was responding to a fan who called jazz crazy people's music. Are we all crazy? If we look deeper at it, Bolden, the very first jazz musician, and here in the film stated as the inventor of the music, spent the last 24 years of his life in an insane asylum. Charlie Parker spent time at Camarillo. Charles Mingus may have checked himself into Bellevue. Donald Ayler lived in a mental home for many years. My friend Giuseppi Logan has been living in a mental facility for several years now. The history and reality of mental illness in jazz is certainly worth a dissertation at least, maybe a book. Of course, the evils of alcohol, and the venom drank during Bolden's time is certainly a major factor in relation to this. In the film, I recall only one scene with Bolden drinking, but for some reason they do suggest he was involved with heroin in a full abstract scene, rescued by his manager, who stalks Bolden throughout the film.

Sex in the film is intense. There are at least two mostly nude sex scenes with Bolden. The front row at Funky Butt Hall is deep in the groove with Bolden, and Bolden with them, almost dancing as he plays. Bolden seems to love his wife Nora who becomes pregnant, but he cheats on her. In one flashback Bolden seems to possibly see all the women he has ever been with frolicking at some kind of fantasy picnic. The film is not appropriate for an audience hoping to see black women treated as equal human beings. There is one woman that plays a cello in visions that Bolden has that are confusing. Bolden's mother tries to help him as his illness worsens and he strikes her with a water pitcher, an event that is supposedly true.

Lost in all of this is real Buddy Bolden. Donald M. Marquis has written the definitive work on him, spending years doing exhaustive and extreme research. In his book In Search of Buddy Bolden First Man of Jazz (LSU, 1978), he uncovered a multitude of facts. Marquis has evidence of Bolden attending parades as a kid and participating in the Baptist Church. In his music, Bolden combined both. Marquis draws attention to Bolden using his name for his band, an important aspect of his musical personality, that he was a leader for virtually his entire musical career. He was unable to find evidence that Bolden could or couldn't read and write music. Some musicians claim he could read, some say he didn't. Bolden did have haters in his day, ready to draw attention to possible shortcomings, even many years after he was done blowing. Marquis draws attention to how Bolden's substantial popularity was based almost entirely by word of mouth, and based on his powerful personality, not his technical skill and execution. There was no social media back then of course. Bolden's relationship with his audience was real, personal and authentic. He could reportedly hear another band and memorize an entire arrangement, and then teach each part to his band. He had a teacher named Manuel Hall, through he may not have been a mentor. Bolden was late coming to the horn, at 17 years old. He was adept at playing his version of spirituals and played them quite often. It would have been nice to hear Marsalis as Bolden play a spiritual.
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