Reno Wilson Channels Louis Armstrong In “Bolden”

The actor gives a mesmerizing performance in the film about Buddy Bolden, the man who is credited with having invented Jazz.

If you’ve never heard of Buddy Bolden, it’s imperative that you check out the film that gives us a glimpse into the times and music of the man that is credited with having created Jazz, one of America’s few indigenous art forms and its earliest and most important cultural export.

His never heard before sound fused gospel, the blues and ragtime with his cornet’s improvisational genius to influence the course of popular music in ways that few ever have, before or since.

In the film “Bolden”, which premieres nationwide in movie theaters on Friday, May 3rd, we see the legendary Louis Armstrong, played by Reno Wilson, performing a seminal concert in New Orleans, which was the first time an African-American musician spoke on the radio.

During this incredible concert, we see the man who was once known as “King Bolden” wasting away in a Louisiana insane asylum as his mind wanders back to the days when the musical world of New Orleans was his oyster.

The movie, which features an intoxicating and mesmerizing score by one of its Executive Producers, the legendary Wynton Marsalis, takes one of history’s forgotten musical geniuses and places him where he belongs, sharing his remarkable legacy with a world that, unfortunately, knows little about him. 

We recently caught up with Reno Wilson, who gives an astonishing performance in the film. He doesn’t simply play the great Louis Armstrong, he channels him in a way that is both spooky and awe-inspiring.


The Shadow League: The film is remarkable, which speaks to our soul as a country in a way. How did you get introduced to this project?

Reno Wilson: It’s an interesting story because I was already working on my own project about Louis Armstrong, a live show. I was working on this story when I got a script from my agent and it said, “Bolden”.

I didn’t know what that meant, opened up the script and the first character I saw was Louis Armstrong. And I was literally holding a handkerchief and a trumpet in my hand. I was like, “Are you kidding me? This is kizmet.”

TSL: How did you freak it at the audition?

RW: I go to the audition, I’ve got my suit on, my horn, my handkerchief and signed “Pops” on the sign-in sheet. I didn’t know who else was auditioning, but I knew that the role was gonna be mine.

Originally in the script, it was written as a voice-over. The casting director comes down, I’m sitting in the lobby of the hotel. He walks over and I said, “Good Eeeb’nen!” in my Louis Armstrong voice.

He gives me a crazy look, leaves, comes back and tells me to come back the next week to meet with the director.

TSL: What happened when you came back to meet with the director?

RW: I came back the next week, had my suit, my horn, my handkerchief. I met with Dan Pritzker, and he looks like he’s just seen a ghost.

We sat, talked, and saw that we had similar ideas and thoughts. I read some scenes, played the trumpet and sang, and at a certain point we both found ourselves with tears in our eyes. That type of thing doesn’t normally happen at an audition.

He eventually said, “Do you wanna do the movie?” and I said, “Yeah, but you gotta make the role bigger and not just a voice-over.” And he said, “Done.”

TSL: That’s dope. So they re-wrote the script based on the power of your performance at the audition?

RW: Sure enough, he re-wrote the script and they gave me six or seven songs that Wynton Marsalis did for the film.

TSL: I know you’ve got a musical background, but you hadn’t played the trumpet before, right?

RW: Yeah, I wasn’t a trumpet player. But I’m the son of a blues organist and an opera singer. So I came from a musical background. I’ve played the piano since I was four years old. I was also a beat-boxer and had perfect pitch, so when I picked up a trumpet, I think that helped me in terms of getting the tone.

TSL: This project has been in production for a long time. It’s been rumored that every Black actor in Hollywood, at one point or another, was attached to it at various intervals.

RW: This thing has been a process and I’ve been a part of the project for over 10 years. At one point, I thought no one would ever see it. But I knew how good it was. And I knew how great the music was. It was an incredible experience.

TSL: It was kind of spooky to see how you channeled Louis Armstrong. When I saw you, I wasn’t seeing Officer Karl McMillan from Mike and Molly, I wasn’t seeing Howard, Theo Huxtable’s best friend in college from The Cosby Show. And I wasn’t seeing Reno Wilson. I was seeing Satchmo!!! It was a helluva thing to experience.

RW: All I knew prior to studying Louis Armstrong  was “Hello Dolly” and the older stuff like “What a Wonderful World.”

I started researching and came across a High Times Magazine where he was named their man of the year. I opened up the mag and was like, “Oh shit, Louis smoked weed!” I started seriously studying him and want everybody to get hip to this cat.

TSL: Through that process of educating yourself about him, what really made an impact on you.

RW:, Yo, in 1926 bro, Louis Armstrong was Jay-Z!  More than that, he was Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Jay-Z all rolled into one. That’s who he was. So my goal, with my own show and in this movie, was to bridge the gap between early Jazz and Hip Hop. Because when Jazz started, people said it was just a fad.

TSL: That’s a dope connection because they said the same thing about Hip Hop.

RW: They were like, “Ahhhhh, what is this crazy jungle music?”

And, word, they said the same thing about Hip Hop. Louis Armstrong was the first pop star, there’s no modern music without him. If he doesn’t exist, we wouldn’t have Hip Hop.

And without Buddy Bolden, we wouldn’t have Louis Armstrong. Buddy was the spark that inspired a young Louis Armstrong. That’s the lineage. That’s why this movie is important and for people to get hip to Buddy.

TSL: And I feel like, as you mentioned earlier, people are somewhat familiar with an older Louis Armstrong, but not the young cat you play in the film. 

RW: Maaaan, he was lean, had the suits and the style that everybody tried to mimic. He came to Harlem bro, to play with Fletcher Henderson and blew up the spot Uptown. People flocked from all over to come hear this cat. It’s an honor to be able to play him and tap into his source.

TSL: The movie has so many layers and Buddy Bolden has been such a mysterious character for over a hundred years. And then there’s the social context in which his revolutionary music was conceived. A lot gets touched on in the film.

RW: The film is a full tapestry. Sonically, the music pulls you in. This dude was unrecorded and there’s one little raggedy ass picture of him that exists, but we’re still talking about him.

That tells you how much a giant he was, and about the impression that he made on our culture and humanity.

TSL: So, with very little info about him and no recordings, how does one reconstruct his sound?

RW: Right, so musically, you have to ask, “What did Buddy sound like?”

And the best person to ask is Wynton Marsalis. That’s the go-to cat when you’re searching for that answer. And Wynton does his thing and says, “Well, Buddy probably sounded like this.”

You’ve got that aspect working, the Louis Armstrong aspect as well. And there’s the timeless song at the end of the movie that Wynton created that is reminiscent of The Godfather. Maaaan, I love that piece, and the entire soundtrack that Wynton composed.

TSL: The visual and musical aspects, the entire feel of the project is genuine.

RW: Visually, you feel the rhythm of the movie. It was beautifully shot, with the various colors, tones and filters. It’s a feast for the senses in many ways. It feels like a big Art House film. I’m excited for the masses to get wind of it.

TSL: And the tragedy of where Buddy eventually wound up got me in a tough emotional space. One of my colleagues made a very prescient point after the screening when she talked about the forces in America that can conspire to drive talented Black folks crazy.

RW: I feel like Buddy was this eccentric dude that was hearing stuff that nobody else was hearing. He had the courage to play it. It’s not unlike Mozart or Beethoven, Thelonious Monk and others. I mean, Van Gogh cut his ear off. When you’re a true artist, you’re tapping into the unseen.

The power that Buddy had as a visionary artist who was so far ahead of his time, as a Black man in the 1800’s, wasn’t cool to many people. So they put his ass in an insane asylum.

TSL: Which opens up a discussion that is no longer as taboo as it used to be, and that’s about folks dealing with their mental health.

RW: Obviously, the subject of mental health in the film is paramount. It makes me think of today and someone we’ve seen struggling, and that’s Kanye.

Imagine if Kanye, the creative genius that he is, was in the 1800’s. It makes me think, what would have happened if Buddy didn’t get put away? What would we have heard from him?

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