A new jazz-theatre piece explores a forgotten American icon.
No one knows the story for sure, but let’s proceed with this version: In the spring of 1898, a procession of musicians strode down a New Orleans city street swaying their trumpets to a tune. Blocks away, a young cornet player tapped his horn against the curb, put it to his lips and began to blow so loud and so powerfully that the parade stopped. Spellbound, it detoured toward his sound.
With that first improvised riff, jazz was born from syncopated ragtime, and the horn player, Charles “Buddy” Bolden, sealed his place in history. In the years that followed, Bolden built a band, took improvisation to new levels, innovated traditional horn rhythms and played countless gigs—from dance hall shows for the city’s upper crust to gritty club gigs. Then he lost his mind.
At age 27, Bolden was committed to a Louisiana mental institution and, over the next 25 to 30 years, became deathly afraid of his instrument. He heard voices, talked to people who were not there. Bolden eventually died on Nov. 4, 1931.
This month, actor/playwright Reginald Andre Jackson and director Robin Lynn Smith bring Bolden’s story to the stage with Emboldened, an original work debuting July 22 at Theatre Off Jackson. Neither traditional theatre nor traditional jazz, Emboldened brings the “King” of New Orleans music to life. Produced by Freehold Theatre, the two-act play spans the rise and fall of Buddy Bolden, played by Jackson. It features eight actors and an original score by D’Vonne Lewis, who performs live on drums alongside trumpeter Ahamefule J. Oluo.
Emboldened is not a note-for-note factual representation of Bolden’s life but a fictionalized version of his story. There are no existing recordings of his music and most of the existing text about his life is either embellished or written so long after his death that it’s difficult to corroborate. Jackson’s research on Bolden included Donald M. Marquis’ In Search of Buddy Bolden, the most thorough biography on Bolden, and Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, a brilliant novel, according to the playwright. Jackson and Smith wanted to license Ondaatje’s book, but when they couldn’t get the rights, they decided to write their own original work.
“There is this legendary person and there are things out there about what he did, who he touched,” Smith says. “He had a huge effect on a generation. We want to explore his journey, but we’re doing it with a lot of poetic license. Like how Shakespeare did with kings in his plays.”
Known primarily as an actor, Jackson played Martin Luther King, Jr. in The Mountaintop at ArtsWest last fall, as well as both Jimmie Lee Jackson and James Bevel in The Great Society at Seattle Rep last winter. He’s also adapted a couple of plays from books, namely Bud, Not Buddy, a Christopher Paul Curtis novel, and The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, also by Curtis. Emboldened is his first original play. To write it, he tried to get into Bolden’s head to figure out what it’s like to be a bandleader, a composer, improviser and horn player—not to mention a man plagued by mental illness.
“What can that possibly be like? What will that sound like?” Jackson asks. “That way I can sit down with D’Vonne and figure out the sound of a mental break.”
Bolden has been described as a genius often enough. But what does genius mean? That’s the central question for Smith, the director. How did Bolden create his magic and what were its repercussions? “Human conflict, accountability, costs. What does it take to break new ground?” she wonders.
In February, Jackson, Lewis, Oluo and Smith workshopped their play with about 30 inmates at Monroe State Prison, where Smith and Freehold provide a Shakespeare program, and they plan to return with the finished play this month. “The men were extremely receptive and connected to the story and the music,” Smith says of the workshop. “Some knew about Bolden or had done research about him before coming to the play.” Smith says the inmates were particularly fascinated by the story of Berta Bolden, a fictional character who attempts to find her own identity through a search for Buddy.
Jackson’s own search for the spirit of the musician led to early 20th century New Orleans, where jazz musicians engaged in musical street battles. “They were called cutting contests,” Jackson says. “Bands would meet in the street and compete for the crowd’s affection. Buddy would often do really well. The force with which he played was a major factor in his success, but the other thing was him getting lost in the music. People thought he was touched.”
Bolden’s ability to innovate drew Smith and Jackson to Industrial Revelation, an avant-garde quartet that includes Lewis and Oluo. “The music for the play,” Smith says, “needed to be something that can transcend normal structures,” because Bolden himself transcended the era he was born into. Industrial Revelation is known to traverse pop melodies and mind-bending rhythms.
“They do what Buddy did: take from the base elements and have a vision and get us to a place we haven’t been before,” Jackson says.
Oluo has a flair for the dramatic and experience with staged performances; in 2014 he performed his pop opera, Now I’m Fine, to rave reviews at On the Boards. And Lewis has a musical aesthetic firmly rooted in Seattle’s jazz history.
“My great-grandfather played guitar,” the drummer says. “He’s the one who gave Jimi Hendrix some lessons—Jimi would come to the house and learn blues licks.” Lewis’ father is a singer and his mother played violin. “She went to school for it,” he says. “From her I learned different styles of music, from old soul stuff to reggae to jazz and pop.”
With Emboldened, Lewis explored a method of writing that’s new to him. “I’m trying to work by putting myself into the era of Buddy’s life, as if I know Buddy,” he says. “It’s almost like method acting; I’m trying to be an actor myself. Then, in that headspace, something will hit me and I’ll hum it into my phone to save it. I’m working with simple themes and melodies and telling Aham he can riff off it as long as the mood is there.”
Lewis acknowledges the parallels between Bolden’s life and his own band and the kinship he feels with the New Orleans King: They played similar sized gigs, played similar raucous, off-the-cuff music. “There’s a scene of him in the club—he was known to play places equivalent to Seattle’s Blue Moon Tavern [where Industrial Revelation has played many times]. So, in my head, I’m trying to channel Buddy Bolden through Industrial’s vibe and sound,” he says.
“When we’re playing well together and we don’t realize it and we’re in some other place, that’s where the beauty is,” Lewis continues. “But Buddy took it to that place and couldn’t handle it. Music can make you go crazy if you always want to get to that place. He always wanted to blow people’s minds every time he played, so much so he blew his own mind.”
Emboldened plays at the Theatre Off Jackson July 22, 23 and 26 and again July 31 through Aug. 3. Tickets here.