By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 15, 2014)
“I have a dream that my four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
Contextual to a curiously overlooked component within the annals of American jazz music, it’s tempting to extrapolate on Dr. King’s dream. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a nation where one is not only primarily judged by the content of their character, but can also be appreciated on the merits of their creativity, or the pure aesthetics of their artistic expression, as opposed to being judged solely by the color of their skin…or perhaps even gender? At the end of the day, what is a “black”, or a “female” jazz musician? Why is it that a Dave Brubeck is never referred to as a “white” or “male” jazz musician?
Of course, in these (allegedly) enlightened times, these might be considered trite questions. But there was a time, not so long ago, in a galaxy pretty close by, when these questions would be considered heresy by some. For example, back in 1938, the venerable (and otherwise progressively-minded) music magazine Down Beat ran an article entitled “Why Women Musicians Are Inferior”. This is but one of the eye-openers in an overall eye-opening documentary by Judy Chaikin called The Girls in the Band, which aims to chronicle the largely unsung contributions that female jazz musicians have made (and continue to make) to this highly influential American art form.
I know what you’re thinking. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington…they’ve had plenty of press over the years, right? Yes, they have. But (and not to denigrate those jazz giants) there is an important distinction…they are vocalists. Traditionally, as Chaikin points out in her film, that was a woman’s most accepted “place” in jazz. Piano? Sure, that was “allowed” (Hazel Scott, Jane Jarvis, Dorothy Donegan were early pioneers), but drums, vibes, guitar, horns, sax…fuhgettaboutit. Those take a man’s strength and stamina! But it turns out that female players have been acing it all along, having no problem keeping it (as my friend’s dad, a veteran jazz pianist, was fond of saying) “in the pocket”.
Utilizing rare archival footage and interviews with veteran and contemporary players, Chaikin has assembled an absorbing, poignant, and celebratory piece. Among the veteran interviewees, 88 year-old saxophonist Roz Cron gives the most fascinating perspective regarding the double roadblock of sexism and racism that she and her contemporaries bumped up against time and again (and not just from their male counterparts, who at times out-and-out mutinied against band leaders who invited female players to join or even merely sit in). As the only white musician in the all-female outfit, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, she experienced some Kafkaesque moments, especially while touring the deep South. Thanks to the pretzel logic of then extant Jim Crow “laws”, Cron was once arrested and jailed on a charge of “associating with negroes”.
While things have since obviously (and thankfully) loosened up on the “judging by gender” front, some of the old prejudices die hard. One interviewee, composer/band leader Maria Schneider recounts one experience with an interviewer, who opened with “So, what’s it like to be a woman composer?” To which she replied “What’s it like to be a male journalist?” But there is optimism as well. As Schneider offers later in the film “I hope we get to the day soon where it’s not something people think about, and categorize.” I suppose you could say that Maria Schneider also has a dream…and it is a good dream.
In keeping with the spirit of jazz, I thought I would improvise a bit on tonight’s theme and offer all you hep cats and kittens my righteous picks for the Top 5 jazz movies. Dig:
All Night Long– Directed by Basil Deardon (The League of Gentlemen, The Assassination Bureau) this 1962 UK film stars Patrick McGoohan (still a couple years shy of achieving international fame as TV’s Secret Agent Man) chewing all the available scenery as an ambitious, conniving jazz drummer. Nel King and Paul Jarrico based their screenplay on Shakespeare’s Othello, with the action taking place in an upscale London jazz club over the course of one evening. While it’s quite entertaining on its own merits, the film’s rep is bolstered by the then-contemporary jazz heavyweights who appear onscreen (most notably, Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus). Richard Attenborough and Betsy Blair are also on board, and McGoohan proves that he isn’t half bad on the skins!
Jazz on a Summer’s Day– Bert Stern’s groundbreaking documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is not so much a “concert film” as it is a pristine, richly colorful time capsule of late 50s American life. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gorgeously filmed numbers spotlighting the formidable chops of Thelonius Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, etc., but the film is equally captivating whenever cameras turn away from the artists and casually linger on the audience or the environs (like showing sailboats lazily puffing past the festival grounds), while the music continues in the background. The effect truly is like “being there” in 1958 Newport on a languid summer’s day, because if you’ve ever attended an outdoor music festival, half the fun is people-watching; rarely do you affix your gaze on the stage the entire time. In fact, Stern is breaking with film making conventions of the era; you are witnessing the genesis of the cinema verite music documentary, which wouldn’t flower until nearly a decade later with films like Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.
Let’s Get Lost– The life of horn player/vocalist Chet Baker is a tragedian’s dream; a classic tale of a talented artist who peaked early, then promptly set about self-destructing. Sort of the Montgomery Clift of jazz, he was graced by the gods with an otherworldly physical beauty and a gift for expressing his art. By age 24 he had already gigged with Stan Getz, Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan. He began chasing the dragon in the 1950s, leading to jail time and a career slide. There are conflicting versions of the circumstances that led to a brutal beating in 1968, but the resultant injuries to his mouth impaired his playing abilities. While he never kicked the substance abuse, he eventually got his mojo back, and enjoyed a resurgence of his career in his final decade (he was only 58 when he died). The nodded-out Chet Baker we see in Bruce Weber’s extraordinary warts-and-all 1988 documentary (beautifully shot in B&W) is a man who appears several decades older than his chronological age (and sadly, as it turned out, has about a year left to live). Still, there are amazing (if fleeting) moments of clarity, where we get a glimpse of the genius that still burned within this tortured soul. One scene in particular, where Weber holds a close up of Baker’s ravaged road map of a face while he croons a plaintive rendition of Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue”, has to be one of the most naked, heartbreaking vocal performances ever captured on film. Haunting and one-of-a-kind, this is a must-see doc.
‘Round Midnight– Legendary sax player Dexter Gordon gives a knockout performance in Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 drama (set in the late 1950s) about an American jazz musician who is invited to Paris for an extended engagement. Gordon’s character, Dale Turner, has been fighting a losing battle with the bottle, which has led to a dearth of gigs stateside. Turner is initially taken aback, but soon bolstered by his apparent cachet among the French (it’s no secret that African-American musicians were held in higher regard and treated with more respect abroad in those days that they were back home). Still, every day is a struggle for an addict, and as they say, “Wherever you go-there you are.” Excellent performances and magnificent playing from Gordon make this film a winner.
The Warped Ones– The protagonist in this New Wave-influenced offering from director Koreyoshi Kurahara may not be a musician, but the film itself is permeated by an energetic jazz soundtrack, and assaults the senses like the atonal screeches in an improvisational sax solo. Tamio Kawachi gives a surly and unpredictable turn as Akira, a jazz-obsessed young hood who bilks tourists at the seedy jazz club he hangs out at every night with his hooker girlfriend (Noriko Matsumoto). A nosy reporter narks him out and he does a stint in jail. After Akira gets out, he and his girlfriend are tooling around one of their favorite beach haunts in a stolen car when they happen upon said reporter, strolling with his fiancée. On the spur of the moment, Akira runs the reporter down and kidnaps his fiancée; launching a spree of uninhibitedly narcissistic and decidedly anti-social behavior by this rebel without a cause. Not for all tastes (the film truly lives up to its title) but a prime sample of Japan’s unique take on the late 50s/early 60s youth rebellion genre.
…and here’s the “next five” that I’d recommend for your queue: Bird, The Gene Krupa Story, A Man Called Adam, Pete Kelly’s Blues, Sweet and Lowdown.