Telling the Story of Buddy Bolden, the Man Who 'Invented Jazz'

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The Bolden Band around 1905. (Top: Jimmy Johnson (bass), Bolden (cornet), Willy Cornish (Valve Trombone), Willy Warner (Clarinet) Bottom: Brock Mumford (Guitar), Frank Lewis (Clarinet)). Wikipedia Commons

Daniel Pritzker strolls the gritty streets of 1901 New Orleans with a light touch and a low-key confidence. A chat with the marching band, a question about continuity and he’s ready for another take on Bolden!, his film about Buddy Bolden, the doomed cornet player credited with inventing jazz. Nine hours later, the temperature has dropped 25 degrees and midnight has long passed, yet Pritzker patiently works through minor glitches derailing a fight scene, seeming for all the world like an experienced director.

In a weird way he is. This is Pritzker’s third film—kind of. This shoot represents his third attempt to make his first movie, this movie, one of the most unusual sagas in obsessive filmmaking since Werner Herzog hauled a ship up a mountain in the Amazon to make Fitzcarraldo. “I'm trying to do something I hope is worthy of the subject,” he says referring to Bolden, New Orleans and jazz.

In 2007, Pritzker began filming Bolden!, starring Anthony Mackie, Wendell Pierce and Jackie Earle Haley. Dissatisfied with the results, he undertook extensive reshoots two years later. Frustrated by conflicts on-set and unable to captured the movie he saw in his head, he put Bolden! aside. But this year, with a fresh approach, a handpicked crew and new leads—Gary Carr, Erik LaRay Harvey and Ian McShane—he returned to start over. “We might be making the first $50 million art house movie,” jokes McShane.

Directors who don’t succeed at first don’t typically get to try, try again. But most aren’t billionaires, a scion of the family that founded the Marmon Group (an industrial conglomerate) and the Hyatt Hotel chain, and one of 10 siblings or cousins in the Forbes 400. So Pritzker, 55, answers to no studio or backers watching the bottom line.

Amiable and open, Pritzker does not wear his wealth on the sleeve of his flannel shirt (which goes with his understated jeans, T-shirt and sneakers), but he is aware of his good—and vast—fortune. “I’m in the lucky position to have the opportunity to do this,” he acknowledges in October in a trailer on the set at Atlanta’s Goat Farm Arts Center, where he has re-created the New Orleans that made Bolden a household name in his time.

Bolden was an innovative cornet player; beginning around 1895, he blended gospel, blues, ragtime and improvisation in a unique style that was loud and fearless. It might be a tad hyperbolic to claim Bolden invented jazz, but he was certainly a founder and the man who made the trumpet this new form’s centerpiece. “Jazz doesn’t seem radical now, but imagine what this sound was doing to people at the time,” Pritzker says.

Bolden was a womanizer and heavy drinker, and after an alcohol-induced breakdown in 1907 he was institutionalized with what would probably be diagnosed as schizophrenia, and he deteriorated, largely alone and forgotten, until his death in 1931. Pritzker, who once operated on the credo “the movie will be done when it’s done,” has changed his tune. His new mantra: “I have to get Buddy Bolden to go crazy in this movie before I do.”

11_28_BuddyBolden_01 Director Dan Pritzker, right, is seen on the set with actor Dick Gregory, playing old Buddy Bolden, during the filming of the movie "Bolden" at Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, N.C. on July 23, 2010. Gerry Broome/AP

Pritzker never planned on directing a film, much less devoting years to an obscure historical figure. In Chicago he had founded a rock-soul-funk band, Sonia Dada, which achieved modest success in the early 1990s with a single, “You Don’t Treat Me No Good.” He veered onto this new path in 1996 after a stray comment backstage between sets. Pritzker asked an acquaintance what he was reading; it was a book about the man who “invented jazz.”

Pritzker was instantly intrigued. “It struck me as ridiculous [to say] that someone invented jazz,” he recalls, “but [it also struck me] as tragic, poetic and quintessentially American that [jazz]— which changed not only music but the way we walk, the way we talk, the way we look at time”—was started by a black musician who had been forgotten.

He dug in, studying Bolden, early jazz and the racial and cultural history of New Orleans after Reconstruction, such as the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson. Only one photo of Bolden and his band exists, and no music (if any was ever recorded) survives. Much of his story is shrouded in myth, tales told after his death by aging jazz musicians.

When Pritzker began writing his movie, he called Donald M. Marquis, author of the meticulously researched In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz, and visited him in New Orleans for a personalized history tour. Marquis showed him Bolden’s now vacant home on First Street and the sites of long-gone spots where Bolden played.

Pritzker approached a friend who was a movie producer, Jon Cornick (State and Main). He had no script—“I didn’t know POV from LSD,” he says—just a raw, lengthy outline. “I didn’t know what Final Draft was,” he says, referring to the computer formatting program many screenwriters use. “Jon looked at me like I was crazy.”

“I thought it was very ambitious to say the least,” Cornick says, laughing. And Pritzker was just getting started. He’d originally intended to hand over his script to a director, “but my wife, Karen, said, ‘You’re a megalomaniac, you're going to want to be in control of this.’” Suddenly, Pritzker was also a film director.

Cornick brought in Derick and Steven Martini (Lymelife) to help write a shootable screenplay. He also connected Pritzker with New Orleans native and jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, who agreed to score the film. By 2007, Pritzker was ready, though he remained shockingly naive—he decided he’d simultaneously make a silent film about a young Louis Armstrong with the same cast and set. “I thought, There are efficiencies here, and I'll shoot this in the morning and that in the afternoon,” Pritzker says. “I had no idea.”

He was unprepared for the demands of directing: being on his feet, peppered with questions, solving problems for 12-hour stretches. “It really ran me down,” he says. But the biggest surprise was the politics of a movie set. “I figured it’s my show, so I get to do what I want,” he says, but certain crew and cast members saw things differently. “It was an interesting lesson. The conflict really beats the hell out of you.”

Despite these woes, Martini says Pritzker had the makings of a good movie, potentially a Robert Altman–esque period piece (think Kansas City). “But it was not what Dan wanted.”

Pritzker says he wanted something more “ambitious” and “surreal” than what he got from his first two rough cuts, and Cornick knew Pritzker would not settle. “The great thing about this project is that only one person has to like it and that’s Dan,” he says. (He did create his silent film, Louis, from the footage, and Marsalis brought a live orchestra to accompany it at screenings around the country in 2010.)

Beyond his inexperience in figuring out how to achieve his vision, there was one other crucial issue—the leading man. “Dan just wasn’t satisfied with Mackie [Hurt Locker],” says Marquis.

Pritzker prefers a tactful silence (and Mackie would not comment), but he says Mackie’s replacement, Downton Abbey’s Gary Carr, was an eager student. When he was told to learn to fake playing the trumpet, he instead took lessons and can now play the instrument. He also went to New Orleans, researched schizophrenia and peppered Marquis with questions about Bolden.

Pritzker immerses himself in every detail—from making sure the actors in that fight scene don’t seem too polished to discussing how the transverse abdominal muscle looks in the pregnancy prosthetic—but he’s happy to seek advice, especially since it keeps the cast and crew emotionally invested in the movie.

This time he’s more comfortable being the boss. In his band, his leadership style had been fairly loose and informal, which didn’t translate well to the large-scale operation of a film, and he was taken aback by the expectations of an almost military organization on the set. “It’s just not my character,” he says. (His approach includes having his wife and daughter, Cindy—one of five children—helping on the set; Cindy deferred college to work on the film.)

Cornick says this evolution was all part of Pritzker’s “learning curve.” But there was a price to pay for making this movie at his own pace. While Pritzker trumpets the talents of Pierce and Haley and both had been eager to return, his timetable meant both men had other commitments when shooting commenced. (Pierce and Haley would not speak for the story; neither would Marsalis.)

Adding McShane (Deadwood) as the powerful and immoral Judge Perry, was a coup. McShane not only read the script but read up on Pritzker and came away impressed. “He’s a billionaire renaissance man,” McShane says, adding that Pritzker was open to discussions about making his character more than “a one-dimensional evil white guy.”

The film wrapped after six weeks in Atlanta in October, and by mid-November they were in Wilmington, North Carolina, for interior asylum scenes. Everyone will move to New Orleans for a week in late January to film exteriors and club scenes in Preservation Hall, and shooting should wrap, Cornick believes, by early March. He says it is now a question of when, not if, the movie ever sees the dark of theaters.

Just a few days earlier, Pritzker says, after Cornick had praised a completed take of a scene, “I pulled on Jon’s sleeve and said, ‘So does this mean I shouldn’t go home tonight and work on rewriting the scene again?’ And Jon said, ‘No, it’s over.’”