Most jazz and blues fans have heard the name “Buddy Bolden.” The name is not attended by a great deal of information, and without in-depth research, that information is likely to remain missing. Still, Bolden’s legacy runs deeper than most people realize. The discussions of the musician are fleeting, like a whisper or dizzy spell. His legend looms large, an appendix in a larger conversation then disappears. A new art installation tells what it can of Bolden’s life.
Buddy Bolden: life and legend
A great deal of what most people thought they knew about Bolden appears to be wrong. He was thought to be a barber who ended up excelling at cornet playing. However, there are no readily available sources to verify that. In fact, because Bolden lived in a time when records about black Americans were scarce, documentation of his life before his decline is difficult to piece together.
Charles Joseph “Buddy” Bolden was born in 1877 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was widely believed to have gone to Fisk University, but again, reputable sources seem to be guessing at this fact. What is known is that Bolden was an innovative musician. He played loudly and he improvised. Bolden’s take on ragtime paved the way for jazz and blues. Numerous sources bear out Bolden’s nickname, “King,” and his love of women and money. What is also known about Bolden is that little of his work survives, and according to nola.com, he died in 1931 in an insane asylum, suffering from mental illness.
Bolden is not the first musician with a sordid backstory. But what is known about him makes him seem like someone who lived by his own rules and reaped the benefits (financial and social) like any popular musician. According to musicrising.tulane.edu, and other sources, Bolden is credited with being the first musician to use the word “funk” in relation to music. He used the term in 1907. So his legend extends beyond jazz and ragtime to the genres of soul, disco, and r&b.
Buddy Bolden’s life in art
British artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah has created a non-linear film about Bolden’s life, “Precarity, 2017.” The installation is exhibited at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., New Orleans, Louisiana.
Meant to be viewed across three screens, the installation symbolizes the contradictory facts of Bolden’s life. He was both schizophrenic and stable; a cheater and a good husband, and so on. Nola.com reports that the dialogue such as it is, comes from novelist Michael Ondaatje’s book about Bolden’s mental illness. In the film, Bolden the character is the only one who speaks. His voice is provided by actor Christopher Udoh. “Precarity” focuses on the last 25 years of Bolden’s life, when he suffered greatly from mental illness.
According to a museum employee I spoke with, the film is installed on the fifth floor and runs for 45 minutes. It plays on a continuous loop, and visitors can just stop to watch regardless of where the film is in its cycle.
While more research and documentation on Bolden is necessary, the exhibit seems to be an effective means to start. The museum with its public accessibility has the potential to reach a great number of people.
“Precarity, 2017” will be on display until Feb. 25, 2018. For more information on museum hours and the installation itself, visit http://ogdenmuseum.org/exhibition/prospect-4/.