Buddy Bolden is one of the mythological figures of jazz, considered by many as the “father of jazz” even though no recordings of his music remain and little is known of his life. Charles “Buddy” Bolden (1877-1931) was a New Orleans cornetist at the turn of the 20th century. He fused ragtime with the blues and was a key influence on Louis Armstrong. A combination of alcohol abuse and mental illness put him in an asylum in 1907, where he stayed until his death in 1931. He died unaware of his impact on the world of music.
Bolden has been the subject of several books — including the novel Coming Through Slaughter (1976) by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Ondaatje. A major film titled Bolden, released in 2019, features music by Wynton Marsalis.
Atlanta saxophonist Jeff Crompton now adds to the Bolden canon with the chamber opera Buddy Bolden. Since live performances are impossible, Crompton opted to film the piece and release it online on Friday (October 16) via his website and YouTube. He plans for live performances once we’re past the pandemic.
Crompton is a cofounder of the Edgewood Saxophone Trio and a retired public-school band teacher. His musical credits include Darryl Rhoades and the Fourth Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra. He talked to ArtsATL about his inspiration for the opera, Bolden’s legends and the challenges of producing a new opera in the midst of Covid-19.
ArtsATL: Where did the idea to do this come from?
Jeff Crompton: I never wanted to do an opera, but I woke up New Year’s Day 2018 and I thought, “Oh, I’m going to write an opera.” It wasn’t even a decision. It was a realization. I started thinking about stories and one was the Buddy Bolden story, which has fascinated me since I was a teenager.
ArtsATL: How do you approach composing an opera about a jazz musician?
Crompton: I didn’t set out to make it “jazz with a capital J,” and I certainly am not imitating the music of that era at all. It’s kind of an abstracted version of early jazz styles. I wrote more or less in my usual style, which is one foot in jazz and one foot in new classical music. The orchestra is my saxophone trio, and we’ve played together for nearly a decade — I write all the music for that. I know those guys and how they play and what they can do. The vocal parts were a little harder because they were written abstractly. I didn’t know who would be singing them.
ArtsATL: How did you choose the role players?
Crompton: Since I’ve never thought about doing an opera, I reached out to the one opera singer I know — Audrey Gámez, who is singing the part of Beatrice. I just said, “OK, I’ve written this opera. I don’t know any opera singers. Can you point me in the right direction?” With this story, most of the characters were African American, so she steered me toward Jayme Alilaw, the wonderful soprano. Jamie not only became Alice Bolden, she also became my right-hand person. She’s kind of a coproducer — she put together the cast because she knows all the singers in Atlanta. She is just indispensable to the whole project, really.
ArtsATL: What challenges did you face producing this during a pandemic?
Crompton: When we recorded this under Covid-19 conditions, I made backing tracks for all the singers, sent the tracks to them and they sang their parts on cellphones with video in their homes. How they managed to act and get across the story while just standing there is amazing. We recorded the saxophone parts in my home studio one at a time, with me sitting 20 feet away. I’ve got a video editor, Blake Helton, who’s also an audio engineer. He put this together and made it sound and look great. I’m really pleased with how it turned out.
ArtsATL: Did it feel weird writing a trumpet opera using saxes and no trumpets?
Crompton: It didn’t feel weird because it’s all a step removed and abstracted. The singers thought it was pretty weird until they heard it. There was one place where Bolden used to do this thing. He called it “Calling my children home,” where if there weren’t enough people that went to his dances, he’d stick his horn out the door or the window and do this “blues call” and people would come from the other areas and come to his dance. So that was the weirdest part — I had to figure out how to do that with three saxophones. I think I succeeded.
ArtsATL: Is there a book you recommend about Bolden?
Crompton: The best single book about him on my shelf right now is called In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz by Donald Marquis. It’s a little bit of a disappointing book because he shows that a lot of the “legendary” stories about him probably weren’t true. But he did his research. Just about everything we know about Bolden is pretty much in this book. It’s accurate but a little dry. I’m going to recommend one other book, by a New Orleans musician, Danny Barker. It’s called Buddy Bolden: In the Last Days of Storyville. I spent a morning in his house — one of the great days of my life.
ArtsATL: What’s your opinion of the Bolden movie? Did it influence you in any way?
Crompton: It didn’t influence me because I haven’t seen it yet. I made a decision not to see it until after my opera is on the Web. I know that may be eccentric, but I just didn’t want to know. I’ve seen trailers and it looks like the movie used a lot of the legends about Buddy Bolden, and I was more interested in his mental illness and decline. It touches me how he had the best band in New Orleans. He created this whole new kind of music and at the height of his powers, he was institutionalized and spent the rest of his life — like 30 years — in a mental institution. He changed the world and probably didn’t know it. There’s just something about that. That just gets to me.
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