[3 April 2009]
As a musically clueless teenager, I had little use for jazz. “That stuff they play in the background of TV shows?”, I mused, while giggling at Gopher’s insipid bumbling on episodes of that highbrow perennial The Love Boat. I’ve since evolved into an avid fan of numerous jazz standards, including the lovely “’Tis Autumn”, also discovered during prime-time, but brought to me by the gravel-voiced Redd Foxx(!)
Googling that tune led me on a circuitous route to Raymond DeFelitta’s 2006 documentary ‘Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris, and a heartfelt look at the life and times of a man billed as “The greatest voice you never heard”.
In 1991, while motoring around the beachside burg of Venice, California, jazzman and filmmaker Ray DeFelitta became entranced by a voice pouring from his stereo. It was a Charles Mingus recording, but DeFelitta drew a blank on the vocalist. Informed by a knowledgeable pal that the singer was a chap named Jackie Paris, DeFelitta quickly tracked down every Paris recording he could, desperate to discover more.
His search eventually turned up an obituary – in a reputable jazz encyclopedia – which claimed that Paris died in 1977. DeFelitta was amazed, then, to read a blurb in a 2004 issue of The New Yorker announcing Paris’ upcoming club date at Greenwich Village’s The Jazz Standard. Not surprisingly, DeFelitta attended the show, glued to his chair while the frail, septuagenarian Paris strolled through some classic numbers. But who exactly was this man, and why had he “vanished”?
In the words of a colleague, Paris was “Chet Baker times 10”, and a favored interpreter of many giants of mid-century American popular music, including the formidable Charles Mingus, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, and perhaps, as television stalwart Joe Franklin suggests, Frank Sinatra. Yet he remains largely obscure to generations of Americans, and DeFelitta sets out to unravel this mystery.
Paris was born Carlo Jackie Paris in the ‘20s to Italian-American parents in suburban Nutley, New Jersey. A handsome boy, he loved tap dancing, and found success in vaudeville, performing with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson after being discovered by Harry Mills of the fabled Mills Brothers.
After serving in WWII, Paris, inspired by his buddy Nat King Cole, formed The Jackie Paris Trio, handling guitar and vocals himself. The group took off immediately, playing 52nd St’s celebrated Onyx Club for an unprecedented 26 weeks, possibly the longest engagement in “Swing Street”’s history.
Soon after, Paris recorded “Skylark”, which some consider the seminal version to this day. Even composer Hoagy Carmichael insisted that “the kid sings the hell out of it”. Two years following that, Paris achieved the distinction of being the first white vocalist to tour with the renowned Lionel Hampton Orchestra, quite a coup for anyone, but after suffering Hampton’s punishing schedule, he declined an invitation from Duke Ellington, as he was simply too exhausted. Duke’s son Mercer told him, “You’re the only guy that ever turned down my old man”.
Jazz aficionados recognize Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” as a totemic example of the genre, a song used as a standard by which to judge myriad others. What many forget – if they ever knew – is that Paris recorded it first. He also served as the only regular singer to travel with the Charlie Parker Quintet, and apparently, it’s a sad fact for many serious jazz enthusiasts that no recording exists of the Parker-Paris duo.
The early ‘50s truly proved to be a fruitful period for Paris, as he was awarded New Star Male Vocalist in Downbeat magazine’s inaugural poll, fellow winner Ella Fitzgerald counted him among her favorites, and Mingus stroked his ego by naming Paris his favorite singer. He and Mingus had already worked together – 1952’s “Paris In Blue” was composed specifically for him – and would collaborate for decades to come.
Perhaps Paris’ oddest endorsement came from scabrous, authority-defying comic Lenny Bruce. The two often performed on the same bill, and Bruce had this to say: “I dig his talent. The audience loves him and he gets laughs. He is toooooo much!!” In fact, Bruce penned a salutary three-page letter to his agent, begging him to represent Paris.
For reasons unknown, the testimonial was never mailed, only to be discovered years later, after Bruce’s untimely demise. Considering the arc of Paris’ career after the ‘50s, the letter’s “disappearance” may have been a portent of stormy weather ahead.
For a sharp performer who had future legend written all over him, the ‘60s were no picnic for Paris, as was true for cocktail society in general. The country’s musical tastes were rapidly changing; the youth audience switched to rock n’ roll, and some of the celebrated night spots began to falter.
Paris found scant audience for his material, and settled for playing small club tours and recording with his first wife, singer Anne-Marie Moss throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. At one point, Vanishing Point star Barry Nelson finagled an appearance for them on “The Mike Douglas Show”. After their divorce, he continued to perform, but derived the bulk of his income from teaching classes and private vocal lessons. His final album, The Intimate Jackie Paris, was released on a small label in 2001, three years before his death.
How does one fathom the dissolution of such a promising career? Many feel that Paris could have been another Johnny Mathis or Tony Bennett, but he never scored any genuine hits, and little filmed record of his countless performances even exists. DeFelitta visits a record convention – popular among those with a fetish for artistic obscurities—in a doomed quest to track down the Paris original “Round Midnight”, but has no luck.
He questions surviving relatives of Paris. There are claims—not only from relations – that he was temperamental, perhaps egomaniacal, and thus disliked by club owners and promoters. There are suggestions of poor management in the ‘70s, and one relation contemplates that his career may have stalled because he angered La Cosa Nostra, who reportedly wanted to handle his bookings.
If Paris nursed an inner rage that made him difficult, there are potential wellsprings for this. He likely wanted better for his brother Gene, a heroin addict who never accomplished much in his life, and later passed from cancer. DeFelitta also delves into – or attempts to – his early romantic life, uncovering some disturbing secrets that Paris himself seems noncommittal about. Through much of the film, it’s implied that Jackie never produced any offspring. However, a later visit to the Florida home of an early wife/girlfriend? of his clearly suggests otherwise. There’s also the inquisitive phone conversation DeFelitta has with one Barbara Paris, a young singer who the director seems to think resembles Jackie. She insists no, but Defelitta has his doubts. And, as Billy Vera points out, it can wear on one’s soul to be anointed a genius, but still struggle to make the rent, as Paris surely did after the fertile ‘50s.
‘Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris’s primary importance is its role in exposing a great talent – who was recognized by other greats – but inexplicably passed over by the god of good fortune. The documentary’s pacing effectively captures the celebratory and melancholy aspects of Paris’ life, and we are treated to his mellifluous voice.
In his last years, its clears that age robbed him of the tonal silkiness and dexterity he enjoyed as a youth, but that’s par for the course for almost any singer. What we see is a somewhat delicate elderly man who still enjoys doing what he does best, but betrays a hint of sadness in his eyes.
As one might expect, the DVD, a single-disc package, comes with a complement of special features, chief among them a series of interviews with various musical figures who worked with or knew Paris. This includes DeFelitta himself, who spent many hours with Paris, and speaks of a “divide in his life”, a chasm between his swift rise, unexpected plateau, and rapid downfall.
We also get a photo gallery of Paris in his lush life years and beyond, the terse but effective theatrical trailer for the film, and grainy 1949 footage of Paris’ loopy, sombrero-clad performance of “Mexicali Rose”. Perhaps the greatest treat among the extras is a video of his comeback performance at the Jazz Standard, a highlight of which is his gentle, heart-tugging rendition of “’Tis Autumn”. Perhaps the “Skylark” realized, that evening, that autumn had come for him.