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BOLDEN-Bad Movie, Much Better Music

Reviewed & Written by Ray Hogan

“Bolden: Music from the Original Soundtrack,” Wynton Marsalis


This space was originally meant to review my most anticipated movie of the spring, “Bolden,” the story of one of  jazz music’s earliest practitioners (some argue he invented the genre) and surely it’s first star. Well, after watching “Bolden” twice, Charles Buddy Bolden’s already murky biographical information has been overtaken by poetic license in Dan Pritzker’s phantasmagoric and hopelessly over-the-top and gratuitous film. An impressive cast — including great efforts from Erik LaRay Harvey, Reno Wilson and a scene-stealing breakthrough performance by Breon Pugh — is hamstrung by this mess of a script and reckless directing. If you want to know more about Bolden, I suggest Donald M. Marquis’  well-researched book “In Search of Buddy Bolden” or the first episode of Ken Burns’ PBS “Jazz” documentary.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Actually there’s a well-spring of music to be learned and enjoyed Wynton Marsalis’ brilliant soundtrack.

If you watch the movie, here is what little is known about Bolden’s brilliant, tragic life. He was born in New Orleans in 1877, the year Reconstruction ended. From the start, he blew his cornet and trumpet with more power, force and soul then any of those around him. By 1906, young children would hang outside his house just to hear him practice. King Bolden he was called in what would become tradition of great New Orleans bandleaders. Later that year he wandered off a parade route and would never be the same.  The following year, at age 30, would be admitted to the Louisiana State Insane Asylum at Jackson, where he would spend the remainder of his life. He died there in 1931. One blurry picture remains of him. Alcoholism was an increasing factor in Bolden’s demise. Pritzker’s film includes this biographical information, minus the alcoholism. The rest of the movie might best live in fiction, which would be fine, if the narrative was more tight. It’s not.

The difference is so great that it’s hard to imagine Marsalis and Pritzker were collaborating or even working from the same source material. This is the most joyous — and probably best — soundtrack to a film these ears have heard in many years. Of course, traditional New Orleans jazz runs through the Marsalis family DNA (his brother Delfeayo produced the disc)

Given the lack of source material (the only cylinder recording of Bolden is believed to be forever lost), Marsalis splits the music — and musicians — between the turn-of-the century earliest jazz of the Bolden 7-piece ensemble and the Louis Armstrong radio broadcast from 1930 (by way of explanation, the movie starts with Bolden hearing a nurse tuning into the Armstrong radio broadcast at the Louisiana State Asylum at Jackson. He died a few months later.)

“Buddy Bolden’s innovation of was one of personality,” Marsalis stated in the Ken Burns’ series. “So instead of playing all this fastt stuff, he would bring you the sound of Buddy Bolden.”

Bolden is widely credited with creating The Big Four, which accents the second fourth beat of a march, thus giving the music its lilt. In other words, he transitioned society music to jazz.

“Nobody took their hats off. It was plenty rough. You paid fifteen cents and walked in,” said clarinetist George Baquet, then considered the finest clarinet player in New Orleans, remembering his first encounter with Bolden at The Funky Butt Hall. “The band, six of them was sitting on a low stand. They had their hats on and were resting, pretty sleepy. All of a sudden, Buddy stomps, knocks on the floor with his trumpet to give the beat and they all sit up straight. They played ‘Make Me a Pallet’. Everybody rose and yelled out ‘Oh, Mr. Bolden, play it for us, Buddy play it.’ I had never heard something like it before. I had played ‘legitimate’ stuff. But this, it was something that pulled me in. They got me up on the stand and I played with them. After that I didn’t play legitimate so much.”

“Bolden: Music from the Original Soundtrack” is raucous and affirming, despite the dire subject matter. In his insanely productive and wildly varied career, Wynton Marsalis has never shied away from bringing legitimacy to anything he’s attached his name to.  This feels different. His trumpet and cornet playing has always displayed the strength, warmth and ebullience that was associated with Armstrong, Bolden and, say, King Oliver and Bunk Johnson. The 26 songs can be broken into three categories: those associated with Bolden’s era; those made immortal by Louis Armstrong; and thematic pieces Marsalis composed specifically for the project.  There is so much joy and feeling of love on display here, it would be wrong to put one category above another. Catherine Russell brings an early vocal highlight on “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor,” the small ensemble brings a remarkable power and bounce to “Come on Children,” actor Wilson acquits himself nicely on the Armstrong vocals (“Stardust” and “Russian Lullaby”). I’m never going to argue with the inclusion of early jazz classics like “Muskrat Ramble,” “Didn’t He Ramble,” “Tiger Rag” and, what is widely believed to be Bolden’s theme, “Funky Butt (I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say)” when they are done with such love and respect.

Marsalis calls on some traditional early NOLA jazz stylists Don Vappie (guitar) and Dr. Michael White (clarinet) to strengthen the already incredible authenticity factor. If there’s an MVP here, aside from Marsalis, it’s trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, who has been playing with Marsalis since 1989 with Jazz @ Lincoln Center band and other projects. He’s also a practitioner of early melodic jazz. As a team, they are untouchable with the trumpet and trombone slipping and sliding, dipping and diving around each other as a singular voice. It’s musical telepathy at its best.

To hear this music with modern production values and clarity is a gift unto itself. To hear it handled with such love, respect and facility, makes the “Bolden” soundtrack an event of its own, no matter how deep the film gets lost and confused in itself.

Let’s give the last words to equally important  jazz innovator, Sidney Bechet, another life deserving a biopic:

“When we started off playing Buddy Bolden’s theme song, ‘I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say,’ the police put you in jail if they heard you singing that song.”

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