Wynton Marsalis And The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra: Marsalis Plays Bolden: The 'Lost Napkin' Suite

Jack Bowers By

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After more than seven years of painstaking research and decryption, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra have recorded and released Wynton's epic six-movement suite based on music written by the legendary New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden. Working solely from the tattered remnants of a napkin on which Bolden is said to have scrawled a treble clef and three quarter-notes while dining and making whoopee at a New Orleans brothel shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, Marsalis constructed the seventy-minute-long opus "in the true Bolden style," which he describes as "deep but not heavy, powerful but not oppressive, simple but not unsophisticated, sweet but not saccharine, bold but not brazen, lyrical but not rhapsodic, traditional but not pedestrian."

Bolden, he avers, coaxed "a big, fat sound" from his horn, and it is that sound that Marsalis has replicated in the opening passage of the suite, which depicts a sunrise over the bayou, warming the Cajun fishermen as they troll for gumbo or whatever it is they troll for on the bayou. "Transcribing this incomparable music for a big-band format presented the biggest challenge," Marsalis declaims. "If it weren't for the help and encouragement of Ken Burns, one of the world's leading nouveau scholars on the genesis and evolution of early Jazz (and a helluva kazoo player), I don't think I could have completed such a monumental work."

The second movement, "Midday Meal," represents Bolden's more corpulent nature by adding strings, French fries ( écusez-moi, French horns), a 200-voice choir, banjo, musical comb and two dozen tubas to the core group, creating a pastiche that is best described as anarchic. While the ensemble is most conspicuous, each of the tubas is given sixteen bars in which to solo, and each of them sounds as if its custodian had been in sixteen bars the night before. "You see, Buddy loved to eat, drink and party," Marsalis pontificates. "Like when he wasn't playing, he was playing, you know what I mean?" But life wasn't all fun and games, Marsalis lectures. There were the inevitable losses owing to outbreaks of typhus, pneumonia and crawdad fever, and Bolden took part in many a funeral parade (including his own, but that would come later). "Jazz has always played an important part in the New Orleans funereal tradition," Marsalis sermonizes. "And Buddy was often there in the forefront, ambling behind the slow-moving procession and pouring such natural emotion into his horn that I'm sure I'd have bawled like a baby if I'd been there."

Wynton's soulful trumpet is featured in the unhurried "Funeral Parade" and "Sunset on South Rampart," which he philosophizes "reflects the hustle and bustle of people ending the work day and returning home to an evening meal before a night on the town, which sometimes included a trip to the Ratcellar to hear Buddy play. People once thought that was a nightclub," Marsalis expounds, "but historians have now concluded that it was simply a cellar infested with rats. But hey, it was a gig, and blowing was what Buddy was about, man. Did I mention that big, fat sound he got from his horn . . .?"

"Night Visions," the suite's penultimate movement, has much to do with those nasty vermin, Marsalis preaches, as well as with drinking, gambling, large-breasted women lurking behind red lights and general intemperance and debauchery, hence its carefree and — pardon the expression — gay demeanor, accented by prancing flutes playing a lively French quadrille. "This was the New Orleans that Buddy knew," Marsalis theorizes. "Yes, it was gay — but it was straight too. Something for everybody, you know what I'm sayin'?

"Anyway, Buddy didn't care much about that. Music was his life, and he spent most nights coaxing that big, fat sound out of his horn, drinking cheap whiskey and skirmishing with the rats. It was a helluva life, and Buddy froze in winter and cooked in summer, but he kept on playin', and everyone who heard him remembers the big, fat sound he got from his horn. What a player he was — and what an innovator too. Instead of playing 'doo-be-doo-be-dop-de-boo,' he'd go 'doo-be-doo-be- dop-sha-woo.' I mean, it blew people's minds. Nobody'd ever heard shit like that before. Kids used to stop him in the street and ask him to play those licks — which he'd always do, for the price of a beer. One of those kids — I know this for a fact — was young Louis Armstrong who ran straight home to his mama, Dolly Armstrong, and croaked, 'Hello, Dolly! You gotta get me one of those horns so I can become the greatest trumpeter who ever lived and wipe my gleaming brow with hundred-dollar bills!' The rest, as they say, is history according to Ken Burns."

The suite's last movement, "A Streetcar Named Buddy," is also the most controversial, as no one has yet uncovered any credible evidence that streetcars actually existed in New Orleans when Bolden left town in 1907 to spend the next twenty-four years in an asylum for the mentally deranged (or mentally challenged, as we would say today). "But that's not really the point," Marsalis admonishes. "What we're tryin' to do here is portray the spirit, not the letter, of Buddy's New Orleans while cashing in on a really cool title that Tennessee Williams saved us the trouble of coming up with ourselves." Cashing in is what Marsalis and the LCJO have done, as the album went platinum less than a week after its release and has earned more money in less than a month than the combined box office receipts of the films Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Titanic.

"Sure, I'm surprised," Marsalis rhapsodizes. "This is a real phenomenon. I mean, Jazz doesn't usually sell like this. Last month we were scuffling for coins, this week we're opening for the Rolling Stones' seventy-fifth anniversary tour. This is heady stuff, man. But we owe it all to Buddy and that big, fat sound of his — not to mention the napkin with those three quarter-notes on which the suite is based. Who ever dreamed it would turn up after all those years under some droppings down there in the Ratcellar. We got lucky that day, that's all I can annunciate."

Track Listing: Sunrise Sketch; Midday Meal; Funeral Parade; Sunset on South Rampart; NIght Visions; A Streetcar Named Buddy (70:23).

Personnel: Wynton Marsalis, composer, arranger, trumpet, with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

Title: Marsalis Plays Bolden: The 'Lost Napkin' Suite | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: NawlinsSound

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