Charles “Buddy” Bolden: The Man Who Invented Jazz

Updated on June 24, 2019
Kenna McHugh profile image

Kenna has worked in the entertainment business for over 20 years, promoting special events with musicians, celebrities, and dignitaries.

Gary Carr stars as Charles “Buddy” Bolden, the pioneer of Jazz
Gary Carr stars as Charles “Buddy” Bolden, the pioneer of Jazz | Source

Charles "Buddy" Bolden's story is haunting and captivating with excessive highs and terrifying lows. Few people are familiar with his influence on the music culture, yet his musical ingenuity touches each of us fundamentally and socially.

He invented one of America’s few homegrown art forms, including its first and most important cultural export known as jazz.

Growing up in New Orleans toward the end of the 19th century, he developed a new style of music. Some describe it as fusing blues, gospel, and ragtime with a calling for rapid improvisational rhythm. He played his cornet’s warmth and arousal sound like no other.

“Very little is known about musician Buddy Bolden:

He was born September 6, 1877.

He was committed to an insane asylum in 1907, where he died in 1931.

Very few pictures of him exist….But Buddy Bolden invented jazz.”

Jazz is as an American made as apple pie. The art form arrived about 120 years ago when musicians gathered through inspiration, devotion, angst, and revelation. The splendor of jazz is between the musical notes, and its origins veiled in an alchemy of mystery and allure.

Source

Quite possibly the mystery of the origins of jazz stems from one of the first gifted musicians in this genre. Charles “Buddy” Bolden remains virtually unknown. Born in New Orleans in 1877, he became a bandleader spectacle before Louis Armstrong. He was the first cornet player to surface from ragtime and blues, playing a fresh, new form of music. “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” (“I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say”) by Jelly Roll Morton is one of the first and rare acknowledgments to the shadowy artist called “King” Bolden. Director and writer Dan Pritzker decided to change that and shed light on the life and times of Bolden.

Motivated by the musician’s life and based on the screenplay by Pritzker and David Rothschild, Pritzker decided to be innovative with the movie’s story by creating an atmosphere of energetically immersive style through imagines of Bolden’s lively and tragic life comprising the social framework where Bolden grew up and developed the revolutionary music. Pritzker focuses on the inspiration from artists like Louis Armstrong and the musical style of the period.

Bolden engages the audience, starting with the early 1900s New Orleans. Buddy Boden, played by Gary Carr, was broadly known as the “King” of New Orleans jazz. He took an innovative approach to music by merging ragtime, gospel, blues, and distinct improvisational riffs.

A clip from the movie shows a young Bolden sheltered under his mother’s sewing machine at the sweatshop. He fantasizes the beat and sounds of the shop with woman workers ballet dancing to the sounds of the machines. The movie trailer and other clips from the movie show Bolden at different points in his life. Most of the clips are jubilant, and some tragic but the story is tragic.

“Coming Through Slaughter” by Michael Ondaatje, who wrote, “The English Patient,” tells the story of Bolden in poetic passages of his life. Ondaatje writes how Bolden drank heavily as a barber by day and a musician by night. One night he went crazy and was locked up in a pre-Civil War asylum.

On the contrary, the movie introduces us to his wife Nora, played by Yaya DaCosta. She profoundly loved him and endured emotional pain because his personal life was not stable. His manager Buddy Bartley, played by Erik LaRay Harvey, managed him through jubilant highs and precarious lows.

Yaya DaCosta as Nora Bolden with Gary Carr as Buddy Bolden
Yaya DaCosta as Nora Bolden with Gary Carr as Buddy Bolden | Source

The film jumps forward to 1931, showing the incredibly trendy trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong, played by Reno Wilson. He comes back to New Orleans and becomes one of the first African-American entertainers broadcast on the radio. Ironically, Bolden was experiencing his lasts days in the Louisiana insane asylum at the same time.

Reno Wilson as Louis Armstrong
Reno Wilson as Louis Armstrong | Source

Pritzker’s passion for telling Bolden’s story goes back decades. A guitarist for the Chicago-based rock/soul/R&B band Sonia Dad introduced Bolden’s story to Pritzker by recommending the nonfiction book “In Search of Buddy Bolden” by Donald M. Marquis.

Marquis is from Indiana but lives in New Orleans. He works at the New Orleans Public Library spending most of this time researching jazz history and writing for jazz publications. He is well-researched, compared to Ondaatje’s book, with documentation and acknowledges a team of researchers who helped him uncover the life of Bolden.

“Jazz does not belong to one race or culture, but is a gift that America has given the world.”

— Ahmad Alaadeen

Pritzker recalls reading Marquis book for the first time when he toured with Sonia Dada. A friend introduced him to a book about Bolden who invented jazz. It got his attention, but a ridiculous concept, like saying this guy invented water or lightning. The truth is Bolden set the stage jazz. Pritzker says it as a tragedy because Bolden's music impacted his life, even though he never heard of him until now.

Dan Pritzker (Director) and Wynton Marsalis.
Dan Pritzker (Director) and Wynton Marsalis. | Source

Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis orchestrated the music for the movie and is Executive Producer. He hopes the movie shines a positive light on the cornet player, so people respect our musical history and culture. Marsalis is from New Orleans and plays the trumpet, who won multiple Grammys and the only entertainer to win Grammys for jazz and classical records during the same year, and the inaugural musician winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music.

All the music that came after Bolden, Marsalis related it to cornet solos, and the style of variations. But, he was surprised people didn't talk about him as a cultural influence. He played loud, had many women, and he drank too much.

Legendary jazz musicians recall Bolden’s work and life, almost like a myth, there are no recordings of his music or documents of his life. His career started as the famous King Bolden but ended in a Louisiana insane asylum where he lived the last 25 years of his life.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Kenna McHugh

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      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        2 months ago from UK

        This is a fascinating, but very sad life story. I had never heard of Bolden before. This is a very well-illustrated article about him.

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