Wynton Marsalis on Bringing the Story of Jazz Originator Buddy Bolden to the Big Screen

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Fred Norris
Gary Carr stars as Charles “Buddy” Bolden

Like many music fans, even now, Wynton Marsalis did not grow up familiar with the Charles "Buddy" Bolden story. But the dramatic tale of the singing cornetist -- a key figure and to some the inventor of jazz -- eventually became an inspiration that made Marsalis the perfect choice to helm the music for Bolden, the upcoming biopic based on his life.

"I grew up in the '60s and '70s -- the Civil Rights movement, Motown, James Brown, Marvin Gaye," Marsalis, whose rendition of "Funky Butt" you can hear below, tells Billboard. "I was playing in a funk band. I didn't know anything about (Bolden's) story or who he was or what he played. I didn't have proper respect of the music. I didn't respect historical things in general." But Marsalis did learn -- through his father, Ellis Marsalis Jr., and by getting into Louis Armstrong, which led the then-fledgling Marsalis back to Bolden, partially via Donald M. Marquis' famed biography In Search of Buddy Bolden. The latter in particular was primary source material for Bolden director and co-writer Daniel Pritzker, chronicling the musician's life during the early 20th century in his native New Orleans, leapfrogging off ragtime to create his own style of music that influenced dozens of other musicians before Bolden was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 30, living out the final 24 years of his life in the Louisiana State Asylum.

Over the years Bolden has become as much myth as man, which Marsalis and Pritzker both found appealing for the film, which opens May 3.

"It is a myth because we don't have a recording of him," Marsalis explains. "(Pritzker) wanted to do it as a mythic story and just tell the tale and show what Bolden put together and his place in mythic America. And I think on a certain level our myths are important because it's what we will recreate. There's a certain reality to his story, most of which is what he put together to invent jazz. And with Dan also being a musician, I like the direction he spoke in."

Marsalis -- who was approached about Bolden, via management, by co-producer Jonathan Cornick -- recorded the 26-track soundtrack in New York, deepening his knowledge and understanding of the repertoire as he composed and arranged the pieces.

"We knew what he played," Marsalis says. "We knew his repertoire; Musicians played it and people talked about it. I did a lot of research -- we even know what he opened his set with. So there was knowledge of him and who he was and what he played. As I've grown older I've tried to fill in gaps in my knowledge, and this was a perfect opportunity to do that. I did figure out how to make the alignment of the band with two clarinets so it worked. We have Michael White, who's our real, true historian, is playing like a wild man on the record."

Bolden stars Gary Carr in the title role, with Reno Wilson as Louis Armstrong and Ian McShane as the villainous Judge Leander Perry. Marsalis' hope is that bringing the story, and the music, to the big screen will vault Bolden to the kind of deserved stature in music history that's eluded him so far -- at least with mainstream audiences.

"I just hope it brings people's attention to who he was and highlights his genius and achievement -- plus it puts the issue of mental illness in front of people some more," Marsalis notes. "It may be the kind of film that lets people understand the kind of conflicts that we have in our country, and that we've had them a long time, and what we need to do to become more harmonious and in tune with the best of what our traditions are. Ultimately I hope it makes a statement about expression and that we don't have to segregate ourselves from ourselves and to appreciate something great, no matter where it comes from."