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What ‘Bolden’ Teaches Us About Creative Genius, Community Mental Health and New Technology

“Destroy a man’s soul and they will destroy each other.” – Judge Perry, Bolden

It is unlikely that you will hear much fanfare or discussion around the newly released Bolden, a biopic that centers on the life of once-famed cornet player Buddy Bolden. Once dubbed King Bolden, the man credited with inventing jazz died in misery and obscurity – confined to a Louisiana mental asylum – has been largely forgotten by the entertainment industry, holding no place in popular culture. Written and directed by Dan Pritzker, the film is an attempt to remedy that tragedy. While Armstrong, Fitzgerald and Ellington have all been immortalized in jazz history, the legacy of the man who is now credited with inventing America’s one true art form is in jeopardy of being widely overlooked and unremembered. That is a great shame.

As the opening credits of the film point out, very little is known about Buddy Bolden’s life. The riddle that was his life is part folklore, part hearsay, and part fact. We know for certain that the New Orleans native was born in 1877 and died in an institution on November 4, 1931, after 24 years of incarceration. In the film, it is the ruthless and sadistic Judge Perry responsible for locking Bolden away to rot. The move was to remind niggers like Buddy Bolden of their “place”, after his music was blamed for inciting a riot in which two white police officers were injured. At the confluence of the relationship between Buddy Bolden and said judge is Bolden Band manager Bartley, the walking archetype for the hustling, embezzling, swindling personality now synonymous with all who hold that particular title. It is his greed that entangles Buddy Bolden in a world that is still precarious for many entertainers of color in pursuit of “white money”. Highly eccentric and nonconformist, and in is his position as the band’s leader, Bolden finds himself on the receiving end of physical brutality from the agents of white capitalism and politics alike.

Though the film is based on events that took place 112 years ago, it is a stark reflection of modern American society and sobering reminder of how much change still needs to be made. In 1907 – at the time of Buddy Bolden’s involuntary confinement – Black Americans retained very little agency over their personhood. As in slavery (an institution that ended 44 years before) it was still entirely possible for a Black woman to be raped by a white man the crime go unpunished. It wasn’t even considered a crime. Black people could be harassed and accosted for wearing the wrong clothes, walking on the sidewalk, occupying space that the white majority felt they did not deserve or did not belong in. Sometimes, that space was in their own homes. This week we saw a story of an 8th grade boy who was shot in his backyard by a police officer as he was playing with a BB gun.

You may also have seen footage of a Black woman demanding officers leave her home after they entered uninvited – and frankly – unlawfully. These are scenes of Black life in 2019, and though the lens through which we view them may have changed, the details of the picture remain the same. To live as a person of color is to live in the shadow and fear of being hunted. Being situationally aware at all times, always on one’s gaurd… it’s a recipe for madness. Frankly, I have wondered that more Black Americans haven’t gone insane. And yet it is under these conditions that we create, curate and inspire cultural phenomenon that change the face of the world.

Aristoteles stated, “There is no genius without having a touch of madness.” In Buddy Bolden’s case, this was true both anecdotally and as a matter of fact. He has been posthumously been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and in the film we experience his life with him through that perspective, grim and terrifying. The bright spots are when he exists within his music, an ‘insane’ realm that broke rules, defied convention and inspired a visceral reaction from any audience. His genius coincided with the advent and growing popularity of another madcap invention, the phonograph, which is the earliest commercial device commercial for recording and reproducing sound.

As we have witnessed over the past 15 years with the Internet, we see through Buddy and the phonograph how easily the creator is separated from his/her content, over losing out on lucrative ventures to copycats and outright robbery. As a rule, creative minds generally do not care much for the minutia of business and are quick to trust others to handle those interests with integrity. A single clause can lead to destitution. We’ve seen the folly of this trait with the demise and setbacks in the careers of some of our most beloved artists, from Toni Braxton and TLC. Even Little Richard fell victim to this fate.

While there remain parallels between the ancient pitfalls of creative genius and emerging technology, I am heartened to see the most radical change in the third category I want to discuss: Community mental health. In the lede, I quote Judge Perry, a man depicted as orchestrating the fortunes and fall of the citizens of Orleans Parish. He said, “Destroy a man’s soul, and they will destroy each other.” That intention is the underlying premise behind the (fictional, yet accurate) Willie Lynch letter, a guideline on how to keep disenfranchised communities in stasis. Communities of color have always gone through cycles of joy, destruction and rejuvenation. The proliferation of drugs and guns and heavy handed policing in epicenters Black consciousness is not by accident. And though we do succumb to the pressures of these evil external forces, we find a way to rise again. We saw it during the Harlem Renaissance, through the activism of women like Fannie Lou Hamer, and today through the activism of the many remarkable creatives who inspire beauty and permit vulnerability in a generally harsh digital age. An empathetic soul would never intentionally seek to harm another, no matter how dire their straits. What we are witnessing now in our communities – after a long and painful absence – is a return to empathy. We are seeing the mental health of our communities being reshaped and restored, refusing any longer to see our souls destroyed. If only Buddy Bolden had lived in a more empathetic age…who knows what might’ve become of his legacy?

As I said, it’s unlikely that you will see the film. Mainstream critics have savaged it and only a handful of theaters are showing it on their screens, nationwide. We rented it on AppleTV, as it’s not showing anywhere near our zip. Those obstacles aside, I hope you do make an effort to see it. Wynton Marsalis did the soundtrack for the film, and it’s… Well, it’s jazz:Original. Unpredictable. Electrifying.  

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