The central irony in director Dan Pritzker’s film about Buddy Bolden, the first jazz musician to become known for his individual sound, is that no recordings of Bolden are known to exist. (He was active at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, and he died in 1931.) But if the soundtrack to Bolden begins as speculation, that’s not the same as groping in the dark: We know about aspects of the cornetist’s eclectic repertoire and how he transformed it, in an ensemble style which can be gleaned from the sole existing photograph of Bolden, standing amid his band with trombone, two clarinets (in B-flat and C), upright bass, and guitar.
Adding drums (a logical step), Wynton Marsalis and a seasoned group of players, drawn mainly from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, play with high spirit and deep knowledge in this setting, nailing the rigors of early New Orleans polyphonic improvisation. Far from quaint or sentimental, this music leaps with what clarinetist Michael White calls in the album's liner notes “a celebratory jump rhythm” that became the bedrock of American music. Some tracks are Marsalis originals in the period style (“Come On Children,” “Gone My Way”) or pieces from Bolden’s era that he reportedly put his stamp on (“Funky Butt,” “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor”). Some have a 1930s swing aesthetic, tracing Bolden’s larger legacy with deliberate references to Louis Armstrong on “Dinah,” “Stardust,” “Black and Blue,” “Basin Street Blues,” and more. The playing is deft and in the pocket, vividly capturing how Bolden and other musicians, according to White, sought “social justice through artistic truth and visibility through self-expression.”