Before Louis Armstrong, before Jelly Roll Morton, there was Buddy Bolden—the brash, hard-drinking, hard-blowing New Orleans cornet player who may have been to jazz what Benjamin Franklin was to electricity. There are no known recordings of Bolden's band, but oral accounts say his mania for improvisation and playing loud in the late 1800s framed the house of jazz before "jazz" was even a word.
According to his hagiography, Bolden played so hard he blew his brains out through his horn—by the age of 30, he was living in a Louisiana State asylum, a terminal schizophrenic who would die there in 1931.
Appropriately, it sprawls like a solo through a few generations. In one scene, young Bolden (Jackson) is learning music from his mother's lover (Kevin Warren), who, when he's running off to the bedroom, commands the kid to sit with his face to the window and practice for a solid 20 minutes. "It don't matter what you play," he says as Bolden's mom beckons from the next room. "Make up your own song if ya gotta. Just play loud!" In another, Bolden's estranged and pregnant daughter (Felicia Loud) is sitting in the parlor of the voodoo/Santeria queen Delphine (Tracy Hughes), learning that her boyfriend is secretly trying to induce an abortion with pennyroyal tea. Emboldened takes us to the barbershop where Bolden convened his band's first rehearsals, nightclubs where "King Bolden" was challenged to musical battles by jealous rivals, the run-down shack where trumpeter Bunk Johnson (Earl Alexander) retired—and, inevitably, Bolden's asylum. Catherine Cornell's impressive scenic design, which covers the black box in Theatre Off Jackson with wood slats and windowpanes, is specific enough to old Southern interiors—but, at the same time, general enough—to serve convincingly as all these settings.
The most electric scene takes place roughly a third of the way through Emboldened as Bolden, who's just been dubbed the leader of the band he's been playing with, has to negotiate between the musicians who play only by ear and the Creole clarinetist (Richard Sloniker) who can only play written music. The tensions are racial as well as artistic. "You're wastin' time, Buddy," the trombone player (Kevin Warren again) says about the clarinetist. "He's Creole... Put on so many airs to where, whats-n-ever air come out yo’ body can’t keep from soundin’ snooty."
Bolden, who wants them all to play something different from what they've been playing—to play what's in his head—goes into an artful mode between tough love and diplomacy. "The United States has declared ain't no such thing as Creoles," Bolden announces. "Creoles is now Negroes." He challenges the Creole to play something by ear, challenges one of the others to play something written, and uses their failures as his starting place. Slowly, he coaxes everyone into singing songs they're familiar with—lullabies, field songs, camp hollers—and they find a way to play together that has more life, more dynamism, than anything they'd been playing before.
And this, according to Emboldened's version of events, was the moment jazz was born: from an argument that Buddy Bolden turned into a jam session.
The nine-person cast, assembled by Jackson and Robin Lynn Smith of Freehold Theatre Lab, seems three times as big as it really is—perhaps because it's full of powerful Seattle talent: the profound voice of Felicia Loud, the wonderfully mercurial Tracy Hughes (who put the city back on its heels with her lead performance in Intiman's Trouble in Mind in 2013), the expansive Kevin Warren (Master Harold... and the Boys at West of Lenin), and Jackson as the cocky then crushed Bolden.
If you really want to sink into the experience, arrive early for Unsung Heroes of Seattle Jazz: A Live Installation in the cavernous room above Theatre Off Jackson. Affiliates of the Emboldened crew have turned it into a speakeasy where the audience can drink and watch vignettes from Seattle in its Jackson Street After Hours years, when young Ernestine Anderson sang in local clubs—and club owners saw to it that she got out the door first in case of a raid so she wouldn't get in trouble with her father. (Felicia Loud does double duty as Anderson in the "installation.")
Together, Emboldened/Unsung is an evening-length music/theater kaleidoscope, as well as a bold experiment in historical fiction. Let's hope it has another life after its August 3 closing date. This is a bittersweet trip worth taking.