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Buddy Bolden: Out of History's Shadows

Victor L. Schermer By

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Bolden
Directed by Daniel Pritzker
Abramorama; King Bolden LLC
Release Date: May 3, 2019

Buddy Bolden was a legendary African American New Orleans cornet player at the turn of the twentieth century. His career was cut short by a psychiatric condition initially diagnosed as alcoholic psychosis but later changed to schizophrenia (then called dementia praecox), and he spent the remaining years of his life in a mental institution. But during his tenure as a musician, he excited audiences and developed a new rhythmic pattern soon called "jass," which had a real jump to it and allowed musicians greater freedom for improvising. Although precursors of jazz, like ragtime, marching bands, gospel, and the blues, were already present, Bolden is credited with having been a key figure in the creation of jazz as such. The rhythmic pattern he devised, which has its roots in Africa and the Caribbean, changed the face of American music from jazz to the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and beyond.

As the new film, Bolden notes, little is known about Buddy Bolden. What we do know comes mostly from the recollections of those who knew and performed with him. Documentation is sparse. He is said to have made several recordings on the cylindrical disks of the time, but none survived. The lack of biographical detail, and the absence of an opportunity to hear him in retrospect, lends an air of mystery to Bolden, which renders him an almost mythological figure. The film, conceived and directed by Daniel Pritzker, with music scored, arranged, and performed by Wynton Marsalis, takes full advantage of the mythic dimension. Rather than purporting to be a biopic, it is an epic dramatization of African American life, music, culture, racism, violence, and sexual passions in New Orleans in the early 1900s. That it turns out to have universal significance beyond that time and place is to the credit of the film makers.

The film develops as a series of flashbacks, thoughts, and emotions of Bolden during his time in the mental hospital, a sad and lonely place where he desperately tries to hold onto his past. The contrast between such utter devastation and the powerful, life-giving music provides the dialectic that governs the story. Gary Carr portrays Bolden as man of reserved demeanor, not at all like Reno Wilson's Louis Armstrong, who, a few years later, would be entertaining audiences with his casual charm. Bolden looks back, and as he does so, we witness the times and places of his life, replete with the fantasies and distortions that haunt him. The film has an intense, surreal feeling, a little like being stoned on pot, where the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred.

In a scenario where his business manager, Bartley, portrayed as vain and self-aggrandizing by Erik LaRay Harvey, celebrates Bolden's success by taking him on a hot air balloon ride, Bolden jumps off without a parachute in an apparently suicidal fall. But the fall immediately replays with a parachute landing him safely where people are picnicking, implying that the suicide drop was a bad dream. In another scene, where he remembers hiding under a table in the clothing factory where his mother works, he is adored by the women, and walks out with one of them into a whiteness that must be heaven. The creation of such dream-like imagery is state of the art, undoubtedly helped by the magic of computer film editing. The parachute scene is a vague echo of the flight scenes in Inarritu's Birdman. In some respects, Pritzker's Bolden is a fine example of postmodern cinema.

As the music excites us almost continuously with its spark and intensity, we see a panoply of New Orleans life vividly layed out before us. We see the upper class whites in their Sunday best, living in blissful ignorance of the Post-Reconstruction poverty, disarray, and violence that surrounds them. We watch the gilded age men puffing on cigars as they bet on African American men fighting to the death like pit bulls. The raw sex scenes in a brothel contrasted with Bolden and his wife lovingly caressing, and his wife in painful birth labor, are intimate and distressing at the same time. The bands' carefree playing at mindless clubs and parties as if on the Titanic contains the irony of the jazz idiom. Beneath the glitter, disarray, and the violence is the overt and disgusting racism before it hid under the mask of political correctness. The hospital psychiatrist spews hate and contempt on Bolden. The cowardly white emcee refuses to introduce a black band. Black musicians are ripped off by mercenary businessmen. The pervasive feeling is that if you were black, you were nothing more than a servant and your life itself meant nothing. This is a film that portrays racial hatred in some of its most raw and repulsive forms. If nothing else, it deserves great praise for its courage in doing so.

Because of its bluntness, intensity, and intimacy, and because of its plastic use of the cinematic magnification of life, I suspect that Bolden will receive mixed reviews depending upon the eye of the beholder. Pritzker is almost naïve in his passion for getting everything out of a film that he can, ignoring the fault lines. But I think this film ultimately places itself well among those of Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, Inarritu, and Alfonso Cuaron (Roma). And the music is a stunning if not precise recap of the time period. For jazz musicians and fans, Bolden should serve as a stark reminder that jazz was born in the heat of the night, the darkness and passion of the flesh. Never forget.
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