His ingenuity directly influenced America’s one true original art form, but Charles “Buddy” Bolden, acknowledged by music historians as the “king of jazz” (the moniker etched on his gravestone), is all but unknown to the general public—that is, until now.
The glorious and gorgeously shot musical drama Bolden, which opened on Friday, May 3rd, introduces the world to the unsung New Orleans-born hero. Bolden inspired well-known greats like Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, but spent the last two decades of his life in an asylum, dying in obscurity at age 54. Starring Gary Carr (The Deuce) in the titular role, with Yaya DaCosta (Chicago Med) as wife Nora, the film, written and directed by Dan Pritzker with music by Wynton Marsalis, chronicles Bolden’s rise to the top of the New Orleans music scene at the turn of the last century, and the tragic decline which led to his forgotten legacy.
Costume designer Colleen Morris took on the role of recreating this pivotal era in American music with her own deeply personal motivation to uncover the truth of Buddy Bolden. A second-gen costume designer who is British by birth, of Jamaican heritage, and New York-based, Morris told The Glow Up she first learned of Buddy Bolden from her jazz-loving father. After seeing a 1970s interview in which Louis Armstrong cited the unknown musician as an influence and inspiration, the elder Morris was on a quest to find out more. After his passing, Colleen remained interested in the jazz legend, but Bolden’s largely forgotten story has only survived through word of mouth; to date, only a few photographs exist, and his single recording has long been lost to the public.
Morris, also a fashion designer, began her career as a model and stylist for MTV in the 1990s, and has since amassed credits on The Deuce, Sex and the City, Law & Order, and The Sopranos. She admits she was hesitant when called to lead the design team for an independent movie about an unknown musician filming in rural North Carolina. But her reticence soon gave way to feeling she’d been offered a destined opportunity when she heard the project’s name.
“I was like, ‘Whoa… I will do the film,” she recalled. “[I thought] this is too strange; my dad needed to know who he was.”
But the search for Bolden also required extensive research of his era; the pivotal antebellum period epitomized in other artistic works like Ragtime. Born in 1877, Buddy Bolden’s New Orleans was a city of newly liberated, but nevertheless still oppressed blacks, many of whom were making money through prostitution, fueling much of the nightlife of the famed city.
“It’s a fascinating time, because you have the legalization of prostitution—you have black people actually making money from prostitution, not just white people,” Morris told us. “[But] I love how Dan [Pritzker] wrote the film, because all the female characters are well-rounded—including the prostitutes. … He didn’t write them as whores; they were literally Buddy’s muses. They gave Buddy life. They made him make his music.”
As a counterpoint, Bolden also recognizes the humanity of the other black women of that era, including maids and factory workers. It was a legacy that Morris, who has extensively studied fashion history, wanted to ensure was infused with both dignity and nuanced authenticity as she and her team built most of the film’s wardrobe from scratch.
“What I did with the costumes is I made sure all the women—and especially the maids—I made sure they were all well-dressed,” she said. [Their clothes] may be older, but [they] were always put together. I never liked how when you looked at some of these films, that the maids were always never well put together. How is that? Why are they not clean? Why are their hands dirty? They are cleaning your house, they look after your children, they are cooking your food; these are proud people. ...
“I also wanted to make it look a certain way; you know, make it Black,” she continued. “New Orleans—especially for me in America—was always a black culture; a Creole culture. [For example], you had head wraps—and you see a lot of head wraps in the film, because that’s where, at first, they tried to make black women look bad, saying ‘we don’t want to see your hair; it’s ugly, wrap it up.’ And [the women] said, ‘okay, we’ll wrap it up, but we’re going to do it beautifully.’
Morris was also keenly attuned to the profound pleasure and pride black people across the diaspora take in dressing up; particularly in the context of the Saturday night-to-Sunday morning culture immortalized in so much of early blues and jazz music.
“We’re working all the time—especially back then, we were working six days a week. The only day we had for ourselves was Sunday,” Morris told us. “So, Sunday morning, going to church, you are dressed to go to church—I don’t care how little it is, I don’t care how threadbare it is; it is starched, it is pressed, it is clean, it is perfect. Because that was our only way of expressing who we are. We didn’t have homes, we didn’t have cars, we didn’t have money.
“So we always—and I think it’s something we take to this point [in time]—we always look the best that we can,” she continued. “And I think it’s something that comes from that time when we had to look so poor, and make our white counterparts feel better [because] we looked ‘less than.’ So on the day that we had left to ourselves, boy, were we ourselves. So, we took pride in our clothes.”
Of course, there’s also tremendous tragedy in Bolden’s story; a decline told as much through the stunning visual shifts in Bolden as the acting of its stellar cast.
“The jazz scene was so happy, it was so freeing,” Morris said. “So, that’s a happy period—the colors are happy, the clothes are happy—even if they’re worn or taken down, it’s still happy clothing. The asylum, on the other hand … In white asylums, they give them uniforms. There’s no way they would’ve even bothered with that in black asylums. It would’ve literally been that what they’d worn in, they would still have on,” she noted. “And it’s the same thing with Buddy: He went in there as a sharp jazz player [at 31 years old], but in the end, he was 54, and he probably looked like he was 80.”
Understanding racial nuances like these speak to the importance of having black creatives on hand—at the table, behind the scenes, and on set. After two decades in the industry, it’s a dynamic Morris is relieved to finally see shifting, for good reason.
“I’ve seen enough [black] films done by white costume designers that it’s almost a caricature of what black people wear, especially if it’s a film that’s set in the past,” she says. “And it’s never quite the right look ... I think you need to be a part of the culture to get it—there are certain things you can’t research, I think, personally. You have to experience it, and you really have to know.
“And I think finally, there is more realization that you need to have a black input in films—not just in directing, not just in writing, and not just in acting, but the whole back of it,” she adds, referencing the tremendous work of Black Panther’s Oscar-winning production designer, Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter. “You can see it; there are just little nuances that we will know automatically that will not be known by someone else. There’s only so much you can research. And because it’s not widely known, and it’s not widely seen, it has to come from a black point of view.”
Another difference between creatives of color and white creators? Perhaps it’s a rare advantage of marginalization, but as Morris observes, the pressure to assimilate forces an understanding privilege doesn’t.
”It’s not only that we bring in our own point of view, but we also bring in everyone else’s,” she says.
With Bolden now on screens across the nation and already garnering acclaim, Morris is moving on to her next project, returning to her native England as assistant designer on next Bond film. But the experience of Bolden and the indelible impact one man made upon American music is one she hopes reminds us all of the richness and pride within black culture and artistry.
“I want everyone to know his name,” Morris says. “Even if they don’t appreciate the music—even if they don’t love jazz—to know [Bolden’s] name, and know that we’re all here listening to music through him. … He fought for it, he lived for it, and we need to appreciate it, [because] he literally gave up his life for it.”