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Music is an abstraction. How do you paint a picture of a melody? How do you tell a story about a D-major-7 chord or a C-minor-melodic scale? How do you make a film about harmonic innovation or the division of a measure into overlapping polyrhythms?


When filmmakers have set out to address music—particularly jazz, which is defined by the most abstract musical elements of all: “swing” to name just one—they fall back on biography and personality. Music is made by people. Tell their stories and perhaps you can get at the art.


Movies about jazz have tried this tack with fairly dreary success over the years. The personalities in jazz are often huge: the orphan Louis Armstrong who invented so much but was defined by his white handkerchief and his smile; the eccentric Lester Young, who invented cryptic nicknames for everyone; Miles Davis, who notoriously turned his back on the audience in concert; Lester Bowie, who wore a lab coat. Good stories. But what made Davis’ art so arresting? How did Young’s tenor saxophone change the art? Where, exactly, in Armstrong’s playing lived the majesty?


Good luck with all that. In seeking to capture jazz, filmmakers have mostly thrown up their hands.


Jazz Fiction, Jazz Truth
In feature filmmaking, results have been melodramatic and hard to love. In the ‘50s, The Glenn Miller Story, Young Man with a Horn, and The Man with a Golden Arm were noble attempts to dramatize jazz, but they were hardly at all about the music. The last two were junkie tragedies, the first was mostly myth. The music was mere coloration. 


In the last 30 years, Clint Eastwood tried to capture Charlie Parker (Forest Whitaker), Robert Altman tried to dramatize the territory bands (Kansas City), and Bertrand Tavernier used Dexter Gordon to portray a figure similar to Bud Powell in the fine Round Midnight. Even in the best of these films, the stories couldn’t easily touch the magic of jazz itself. The drama of inventing melodies on the spot, of improvising, consistently eluded the filmmakers.


Documentarians have tried harder to capture jazz lightening. Many people are fans of Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a narration-less recording of acts from the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival—Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Anita O’Day, and lots and lots of sailboats. For jazz specialists, there are many recent performances on film, such as the June 1989 premiere of Charles Mingus’s lost work, “Epitaph”. Yet jazz docs for general audiences are more rare. Most famously, Ken Burns followed up his public television successes on the Civil War and baseball with a ten-part series on jazz. 


Ken Burns’ Jazz
Burns made his long-form documentary watchable by giving it a few “through lines”, elevating the stories to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to mythic levels. He gave it substance by including the commentary of historians, critics and musicians as guides to the music itself. Criticism of the production came from a thousand directions, particularly in the jazz world. Burns’ take on jazz was reductive and over-traditional, with much too little leeway for the real magic of the music’s vast diversity, they said; he turned his “main characters”—Armstrong, Ellington and small bunch of others—into dominant super-heroes who overshadowed the very art that they served. What Burns covered was covered quite well—but the focus was somewhat narrow.


In the end, Burns’ Jazz is indispensable because, despite being narrow, no other documentary has been as ambitious or pulled together so much incisive footage. It contains a string of filmed gems: Armstrong’s “Dinah”; Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit”; and countless others. Even in an expansive documentary of almost 20-hours, though, Burns felt he could not simply let the great performances stand on their own at full length. Nor did he try, ultimately, to get into the musical magic of jazz. 


For example, using violinist Matt Glaser’s commentary, Burns compared Armstrong’s approach to time to the Einstein’s revelations via relativity. Cool, intriguing… but what did it really mean? Any technical (that is to say, musically technical) explanation was abandoned for what I imagine are obvious reasons.


Perhaps the deepest problem in making a meaningful and coherent jazz documentary is simply this problem of technicality. What is the difference between “jazz” and other popular music? What makes something “swing”? What is the difference between Helen Forrest singing with Artie Shaw and Billie Holiday singing with Artie Shaw? 


Forrest was acceptable to whites while Holiday, perhaps, was not. What made Billie a sublime jazz singer and Forrest a very popular band singer without much jazz in her style? Filmmakers have little to say on these topics.


cover art

Masters of American Music, Vol. 1: Celebrating Bird - The Triumph of Charlie Parker

(US DVD: 17 Nov 2009)

Masters of American Music Series
A decade before Burns sought to freeze jazz in celluloid, the Masters of American Music Series produced a string of interesting documentaries about the music and its greats. Four were released on DVD at the end of 2009: The Story of Jazz, Lady Day, The Many Faces of Billie Holiday, Theloonious Monk, American Composer, and Celebrating Bird, The Triumph of Charlie Parker.


In the wake of Burns’ work—and his well-known methods of zooming in slowly on still pictures, blending talking heads with stentorian narration, and highlighting societal themes over time—it’s hard to see this batch of jazz documentaries as revelatory. Their quality varies, and they suffer from relying on certain bits of old footage that are frequently repeated across different episodes. Still, they are welcome additions to the short list of jazz movies, and they are near-perfect for teachers looking for ways to bring jazz into the classroom.


Serious jazz fans will find few if any revelations, alas. With the exception of some well-chosen interviews, you’ve seen it all before. Then again, serious jazz fans will likely relish the chance to see it all again.


cover art

Masters of American Music, Vol. 2: Lady Day - The Many Faces of Billie Holiday

(US DVD: 17 Nov 2009)

Billie Holiday
The Billie Holiday installment is the finest of the bunch because it uses an interesting structure and includes dead-on interviews. Holiday “wrote” an autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues based on interviews she did with a guy named William Dufty. This early ‘90s documentary has actress Ruby Dee read portions of the book amidst narration, film, and interviews—then toward the end the narrator and interview subjects question the accuracy of the book, noting that “it’s the elegance, the universality of her musical statement that matters” (Albert Murray).  While this film certainly leans on some of the melodrama of Holiday’s life, it also has the intelligence to question it.


The sharpest commentary comes from singer Carmen McRae, who was a younger friend to and protégé of Holiday. Her memories are lively and real, and she speaks about a great artist both knowingly and as a fan. Toward the end, when she talks about Holiday’s last album, Lady in Satin, the feeling is paramount—what difference did it make that Lady Day’s voice was shot? Singer Annie Ross remembers her as a storyteller as well as a jazz singer; her life came out in her art.


The Holiday film is best when it carefully marries the words of its interview subjects to images and sounds. The best example, perhaps, is when trumpeter Buck Clayton describes his attitude when accompanying Holiday. He didn’t want to get in the way of the singer’s own remarkable melodic invention, so he would only “fill up the windowpanes”—and this line is followed by a perfect example of Clayton making it work, improvising around her lines. In these moments, director Matthew Seig comes close to explaining the music itself, to decoding the art rather than just the society and personalities around the art.


cover art

Masters of American Music, Vol. 3: American Composer

(US DVD: 17 Nov 2009)

The Story of Jazz
When this connection—between commentary and music, between music and image, between music and culture—is being made effectively, the Masters of American Music Series is working well. In other places, these connections fail and everything goes south. Because the filmmakers see no way of addressing the music directly, only careful juxtapositions help the viewer to get to the real musical history. The 90-minute overview in the series, The Story of Jazz includes plenty of great interviews, but its musical examples aren’t up to snuff.


For example, after Lester Bowie says that the whole concept of playing jazz trumpet comes from Louis Armstrong, the film shows an Armstrong solo that consists largely of playing certain held notes an unusually long time. It’s an interesting solo, but an idiosyncratic one and hardly the epitome of jazz trumpet. Weird—bad—choice.


The most interesting portion of The Story of Jazz is the prominence it places on the mid-19th century composer Louis Gottschalk who, apparently, visited New Orleans’s Congo Square as a kid and later recreated some of that African-American sound in written compositions that would go on to influence Scott Joplin in creating ragtime. That’s not a standard part of the Jazz Creation Myth.


But the rest of the myth is here, with its attendant chronologies of Buddy Bolden begetting King Oliver begetting Armstrong begetting the whole concept of jazz improvisation and jazz singing; Jelly Roll Morton begetting Fletcher Henderson begetting Coleman Hawkins begetting every great saxophonist to come; Duke Ellington begetting just about everything else you can think of. New Orleans—up the river to Kansas City and Chicago—swing bands and Harlem—the bop revolution—“cool” music—free jazz. 


The good stuff here is mostly small bits drawn out of the interviews. Tony Bennett talking about Armstrong’s phrasing as “indelible”, Annie Ross saying that Billie Holiday “had an intimacy. You felt that she had lived through the lyrics she was singing. She knew what she was singing about.”  Wait. Wasn’t that exact bit of film used in the Holiday documentary? Exactly.


The four documentaries released here are oddly chopped up and redundant. Randy Weston, McRae, Ross, Ben Riley, Jay McShann, Dizzy Gillespie, and Billy Taylor show up again and again, saying the same things.  Unlike the Burns work, which presented itself as a connected whole, these films collide and intersect with each other awkwardly.


Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk
Celebrating Bird was written and directed by the terrific jazz scholar and writer Gary Giddins, so it ought to be better than it is. The narration tells the standard Parker story (but light on his drug problem, happily), which is a story of a kind of genius. What made Parker so brilliant? Giddins knows the answer to this, but his film isn’t telling.


We hear a good deal of Bird’s playing, of course, and it doesn’t get any better than that. A television appearance by Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie playing “Hot House” is shown in its entirety, no interruption. There’s a sweet piece of footage with Parker playing in front of his string group that I had never seen before. However, when Giddins is using clips of other players to illustrate influence or connection, he seems to be limited to a standard batch of clips that this series had licensed: again and again we see the same stuff, such as Armstrong singing “Dinah”. Great, but it shouldn’t represent everything.


It’s intriguing to hear both Parker’s first wife Doris and his common-law wife Chan talk about the man and his unique connection to playing music. although their insights are largely personal. Monk gets a similar treatment his installment, with his son Thelonious Monk delivering riveting details about family life in the household. He tells us that Monk and his wife Nellie loved to play games and that the pianist was often happy to spend the whole day in bed with his kids playing cards. Monk’s sister Marion White talks about growing up with him and how she took piano lessons and Monk started on trumpet.


cover art

Masters of American Music, Vol. 4: The Story of Jazz

(US DVD: 17 Nov 2009)

Thelonious Monk, American Composer is among the best of this quartet because the “witnesses” called on here are utterly invested in Monk’s greatness and uniqueness. Pianists Weston, Taylor, and Barry Harris, and producer Orrin Keepnews talk about Monk’s art with more musical specificity than is typical in a jazz documentary. They explain darn well how he combined his roots in stride piano (demonstrated not only by archival footage of James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith but also by Weston at his own piano) with dissonance and modernism. All the musicians involved discuss chord voicings—and the music by Monk himself is simply so different from most jazz that the music story comes through.


Keepnews has some nice moments discussing the recording and nurturing of the music, commercially. He talks about how Riverside Records started with an album of Monk playing only Ellington tunes, then another of standards, only moving to Monk’s own tunes with the third recording, Brilliant Corners, “which was the first album for me that made a big splash”. The witnesses also discuss the support (Keepnews calls it “patronage”) Monk received from the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the importance of Monk’s stint with John Coltrane in his quartet at The Five Spot Café, and the effect of losing his cabaret card. Monk was a sufficiently peculiar man that the question of how the world could help his genius to be revealed is fascinating.


There’s a great section where Randy Weston talks about a visit to Monk’s house when he was a young pianist. “I’ll never forget this because Monk had a picture of Billie Holiday on the ceiling, and he had a red light and a small piano. I started to ask him a lot of questions… and he never said anything. I stayed for nine hours, and he never said anything. I was completely perplexed. I realized that in the ancient cultures a lot of the masters communicate without words. Monk was a master of that.”


Music, of course, is all about communicating without words. Film about music is the same.

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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