At the Nasher Museum, a Haunting Look at the First Jazz Musician

New three-screen film by John Akomfrah remembers the legendary 'Buddy' Bolden

In his brief musical career "Buddy" Bolden set the template for the jazz musicians who followed him. Filmmaker John Akomfrah uses his career to explore New Orleans, "the ultimate Creole city."

The Nasher Museum presents “Precarity,” a new three-channel video installation created by John Akomfrah, a London-based artist and filmmaker. “Precarity” works with the themes of risk, hybridity and the unfathomable to explore the city of New Orleans through the remarkable life and times of Charles “Buddy” Bolden, the first person known to have explored the sonic tonalities of the music we now call jazz.

Beginning in 1900, Buddy Bolden was the most popular musician in New Orleans, playing everywhere from Uptown to Storyville. Celebrated for his raucously loud coronet, innovative improvisation and down-and-dirty style, “King Bolden” reigned until 1907, when he was permanently committed to the State Insane Asylum in Jackson, Louisiana, with schizophrenia. An almost mythical figure, he left behind no known recordings and only a couple of grainy images.

One of the few known images of Bolden (top, second from left). “Precarity” is consequently as much a ghost story as it is a portrait of a historical figure. It is also a lyrical exploration of the city that gave rise to jazz, the preeminent art form of the 20th century—a development that owed itself, in large part, to New Orleans’s position as a cultural crossroads.

Akomfrah has also situated “Precarity” at a crossroads, or intersection, of genres: namely, of the film essay, the historical documentary, the costume drama and the music video. In that fertile space, “Precarity” presents a sonographic and visual history of Bolden and his legend, the emergence of jazz and the incomparable city of New Orleans. (Left, one of the few known images of Bolden. He is top row, second from left).

Akomfrah is known for his distinctive, polyrhythmic visual and sonic style. His work moves across cultures to seamlessly meld history with mythology, the archival with the contemporary and image with sound. Recognized as a trailblazer in the world of British cinema, he makes films that challenge prevailing narratives and gives voice to underrepresented communities.

"Precarity" makes use of New Orleans locations to evoke Bolden's memories as he languished in a sanitarium.

In 1982, Akomfrah cofounded the influential and forward-looking Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) with Lina Gopaul and several other artists; although the BAFC disbanded in 1988, Akomfrah still collaborates today with Gopaul and their longtime partner David Lawson through their production company Smoking Dogs Films. In 2017, Akomfrah won the UK’s Artes Mundi Prize.

“Precarity” is part of the Nasher Museum’s collection.

Nasher visitors take in the screening of

Nasher visitors take in the screening of "Precarity." Photo by J Caldwell

Editor's Note: Trevor Schoonmaker is chief curator and Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Curator of Contemporary Art. "Precarity" was originally commissioned for the 2017 New Orleans Triennial, Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp, curated by Schoonmaker. Its presentation was made possible by Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger and the VIA Art Fund, with additional support from the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, and Smoking Dogs Films.