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After having seen four narrative films and one documentary this year based on jazz musicians, I am prompted to offer some reflections on the films and on the state of jazz today. Once called America’s classical music, there are obvious reasons to be concerned about its future. Whether or not you believe that it is our classical music, we should all understand that its artists have never benefited from the kind of institutional support that is given to opera, ballet or the symphony orchestra. Except for Jazz at Lincoln Center, musicians have to fend for themselves, working in nightclubs where conversation between hedge fund managers and their dates compete with horn players trying to convey transcendental insights over the chord changes of “A Night in Tunisia”.
Let me start with my own connections to jazz that run as deep as those to Marxism and film, the other two passions in a long and largely quixotic lifetime. In the summer of 1961, just before I headed off to Bard College for my freshman year, I sat at a table in a pizza parlor in the Catskills enjoying a pie with my buddies when someone put a dime in the juke box to play a tune that left me thunderstruck: Miles Davis playing “Summertime”. That it was on a juke box in 1961 should tell you something about the difference between now and then.
After finding out more about Miles Davis, I began taking jazz records out of the well-stocked Bard music library and became conversant in the music of the day, which was arguably jazz in its classic period with hard bop and the West Coast style prevailing but with the avant-garde making its first appearances. In my freshman year, I heard the Paul Bley quartet in concert featuring saxophone player Pharaoh Sanders whose “sheets of sound” paved the way for the New Thing a few years later. As New Thing icon Albert Ayler put it, “Trane was the Father, Pharaoh was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost”.
In my senior year, I organized a jazz festival that featured groups led by Freddie Hubbard and Art Farmer, as well as the rhythm section of the Miles Davis band at the time (Tony Williams who arrived at Bard in a Shelby Cobra, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter). All of the performances were rooted in the Charlie Parker bebop style but with traces of the avant-garde that would eventually overtake it in popularity, largely because its dissonances were consonant with the antiwar movement and the Black struggle of the 1960s.
Two years after graduating Bard, I ended up as a Welfare Department caseworker in Harlem. Among the cases dumped on my lap was a Home Relief client named Jonathan “Jo Jo” Jones, who was the son of Count Basie’s drummer Jo Jones. Using the ploy that he needed household goods, I procured the funds that Jo Jo needed to get his drums out of hock and back to work playing jazz. In 1967 there wasn’t much of a market for the mid-50s stylings of Jo Jo Jones and the musicians he preferred to work with. One time I traveled out to Newark with him to watch him perform with Duke Jordan, who was driving a schoolbus in Brooklyn at the time. Jordan wrote “Jordu” in 1953, a tune that was immortalized on Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” album. Jones and Jordan played with guitarist Les Spann that night in a club that was obviously a mafia hangout. The men, who wore sharkskin suits and pinky rings, chatted at the bar while the trio played bebop standards. At least the gangsters spoke in a whisper to each other and were not nearly so intrusive as the hedge fund managers I’ve had to put up with in Manhattan. The musicians could have cared less about whether they were being listened to or not. They were getting paid rather well by the bar owner, who was a jazz fan, and clearly appreciated having a fan like me in the club.
The lives of jazz musicians have always intrigued me. I don’t think I have ever read a biography or autobiography that failed to excite me. Billie Holiday’s “Lady Sings the Blues”, Charles Mingus’s “Beneath the Underdog” and Anita O’Day’s “High Times, Hard Times” are great autobiographies but nothing comes close to “Straight Life”, an autobiography co-written by Art and his wife Laurie Pepper, who was the stepdaughter of a Trotskyist steelworker in Los Angeles. Yet you can’t detect any politics in the book except criticism of America’s insane drug laws. Finally, there’s the rather immodestly titled “Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography” by Scottish trumpet player Ian Carr that I do have to admit is likely about as definitive as they come.
It is a shame that Don Cheadle failed to stick to the details that were contained in Carr’s bio or any others for that matter and preferred unwisely to concoct a fiction in “Miles Ahead”, a film that he directed, wrote and starred in as arguably the greatest jazz musician of all time. Yes, Cheadle did a fabulous Miles Davis imitation but spoiled it by writing a screenplay that resembled a Miami Vice episode. Set during Davis’s cocaine-befogged semi-retirement, he and a Rolling Stone reporter (played by Ewan McGregor) trailing after him to get a story show up at the offices of a Columbia records bigwig to wrangle over a tape that might serve as Davis’s return to recording and performing. Subsequently it is purloined by another shady white executive and guarded by his gun-toting Black bodyguard. This leads to a series of confrontations involving car chases and gun battles that turn the jazz legend into a character out of a gangsta rap-inspired movie like “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”. In depicting the Rolling Stone reporter and Miles Davis as Black and white “buddies” taking on bad guys, it has the same kind of vibe as “Miami Vice”, “I Spy” or “48 Hours” but without the electricity.
If there was one thing that would have gotten my adrenaline going in this ridiculous film, it would have not been a car chase. It would have been Miles Davis and Gil Evans sitting over the kitchen table in 1956 discussing how to put together “Birth of the Cool”. In fact, the most dramatic thing that ever happens to jazz musicians is creative breakthroughs and not dealing with drug addiction, let alone clumsy attempts at crime melodrama like “Miles Ahead”.
Around the same time Cheadle’s film was released, a biopic about Chet Baker titled “Born to Be Blue” premiered. There was something of a trade-off here. The film was better than Cheadle’s but Baker was a lesser musician. Touted as the white Miles Davis in the 1950s, he was the quintessential junky musician like Art Pepper, Charlie Parker, Anita O’Day and Billie Holiday. That all of them spent time in jail is an indictment of a social system that punished them for a vice that was arguably less destructive than the alcohol that was foisted on nightclub audiences for as long as jazz has been around, except during Prohibition.
Although not nearly as egregiously as Cheadle’s film, it too takes liberties with the musician’s life in order to frame the story around a familiar plot that ostensibly catered to the audience’s expectations, namely a troubled romance between the musician and a Black actress named Jane who is entirely made up.
Not only was she a fiction, she was also supposedly playing Baker’s first wife in a biopic film within the film—an African-American as well. In fact, none of Baker’s wives were Black and the only purpose in introducing such a character was to serve as a peg in the plot development. When Baker meets her parents, they look askance at the musician who—like Davis—is temporarily out of the business. Not only is he a longtime junky, he is second-rate compared to Davis in the opinion of Jane’s dad.
In an earlier scene, when Baker meets Miles Davis at a club in Los Angeles in the early 50s when Baker was voted over Davis in a Downbeat poll as musician of the year, Davis contemptuously tells him that he was “the great white hope”.
Besides Chet Baker and Jane, the other major character is Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie), the founder of Pacific Jazz records, the label that marketed the so-called West Coast style and where Baker was once a major figure until heroin sank him into oblivion, deepened by a beating Baker suffered on the streets of New York that left him without his front teeth.
For most men in the music business, including club owners, agents and other musicians, Baker had become untouchable. In a poignant scene, Baker shows up at Bock’s elegant home in Los Angeles to plead for a second chance. After Bock turns him away, Baker picks up a potted plant with the intention (we assume) of tossing it at the front door. Catching him approaching the door, Bock intercedes and decides to give him a second chance. Like all other films about musicians with a drug habit redeeming themselves such as those about Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, “Born to Be Blue” moves along a fairly predictable but likeable story of overcoming the odds.
Most of you are aware that there is a film that opened this month titled “La La Land” that has the inside track at the Academy Awards. It was among the bumper crop of DVDs I received from the studios this year in conjunction with the NYFCO awards meeting held last Sunday. We named it “Best Use of Music” in 2016, which is logical given that it is not only the first musical out of Hollywood in a very long time but a homage to the Gene Kelly films of yore. I can’t say I hated the film but I would not put it in the same league as “On the Town”, a 1949 film starring Kelly and Frank Sinatra with music by Leonard Bernstein based on an idea by Jerome Robbins. That’s stiff competition for any filmmaker right off the bat. And that’s not to speak of Adolph Green and Betty Comden who wrote the screenplay as well as the one for “Singing in the Rain”, another Gene Kelly vehicle. All of these people—Bernstein, Robbins, Comden and Green—were part of the left and brought a deeper understanding of society to their work, even when it was not overtly political.
Directed and written by Damien Chazelle, who studied jazz drumming in high school, “La La Land” is essentially a two-character musical drama starring Ryan Gosling as jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder and Emma Stone as aspiring actress Mia Dolan who have come to Los Angeles to “make it”. Like most young people arriving there, dreams far exceed their ability to realize them. Wilder ends up playing in a piano bar for small change but only if he obeys the owner’s orders not to play jazz. As for Stone, she is a barista and not a very good one at that. In fact, neither is she a very good actress, at least in the opinion of the bored and distracted casting directors who keep nixing her at auditions.
One night as she is strolling down the sidewalk, she hears him playing jazz in the very club where he has been forbidden to do so. She wanders in just as he is about to be fired. This leads to them walking along a bit, the first step in a romance that unfolds in the film with many song and dance performances that while pleasant enough have little of the power of the Gene Kelly oeuvre.
Unlike Miles Davis or Chet Baker, Sebastian Wilder is not a tormented soul. He is drug-free and remarkably career-minded. His dream is to make it as a jazz pianist playing in the well-trodden modernist style and eventually successful enough to start his own club.
He accumulates sufficient funds to start such a club but only by “selling out”. He is invited to go on tour for $1000 per week with a kind of pop jazz electronic ensemble called The Messengers led by a high school classmate named Keith (John Legend). To dramatize how shallow if not plastic the gig is, Gosling is forced to grimace for a photo shoot promoting the tour, as if grimacing demonstrates creative intensity.
All one can say is that playing pop jazz is a whole lot more honorable than driving a schoolbus in Brooklyn as Duke Jordan was forced to do.
Although I didn’t really hate “La La Land”, I can’t say the same thing about “Whiplash”, Chazelle’s first film. Since I remembered that this highly acclaimed (94 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) was about a jazz drummer in a college-level music department studying under an overbearing bandleader played by J.K. Simmons, who earned an Academy Award for best supporting actor in 2014, I decided to watch it on Amazon. Even if you’ve never seen the ubiquitous Simmons in a movie, you’ll probably be familiar with his Farmers Insurance TV ads. Frankly, I find those ads more compelling than “Whiplash”.
It seems that Chazelle had a rather obnoxious instructor in high school who provided the inspiration for Simmons’s character Terrence Fletcher. While tacitly about the challenges put forward by an exacting bandleader/instructor, the film is much more in the genre of Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”, a film that featured an actual career Marine drill instructor playing a sadistic drill instructor who torments a recruit to the point where he decides to kill him and then take his own life.
Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, the young drummer who Fletcher both promotes and demotes at will, always playing one young student against another in a mind game forcing them to compete with each other. In all the years I have read about musicians and gotten to know them as good friends, I have never encountered the kind of dog-eat-dog ethos that Fletcher symbolizes. All you need to do is read Anita O’Day or Art Pepper affectionate tributes to Stan Kenton, a supportive and beloved band leader they worked under. You could say the same thing about Duke Ellington, Count Basie or Gil Evans.
Not only does Fletcher force musicians to compete directly with each other, he humiliates them as if he were addressing recruits at Parris Island. He calls the Jewish Neiman a kike. Another drummer, who is gay, is called a fag. And so on. He also beats them, slapping Neiman in the face until he gets a tempo right. He also throws a chair at him at one point, when the tempo is too slow—barely missing his head. On multiple occasions, he invokes Jo Jones, father of my old friend Jo Jo, throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker for playing out of tune (when he only experimenting with bebop chord changes). In reality, Jones threw a cymbal at Parker’s feet, not trying to injure him but only to tell him “that’s enough”, like hitting the gong in a talent show.
The film left a very bad taste in my mouth, thankfully to be relieved by the documentary on Vince Giordano titled “There’s a Future in the Past” that opens at the Cinema Village in New York on January 13th.
Giordano is the ultimate anti-Fletcher, a genial band leader whose Nighthawks I used to hear every chance I got at the Red Blazer, just three blocks from my apartment building in New York. Like Hanratty’s, a piano bar only a block from my apartment, the Red Blazer featured traditional jazz although that label hardly does justice to what Giordano is doing. Both clubs are long gone.
One of the reasons I had no particular interest in jazz until I heard Miles Davis is that for the most part it meant Dixieland bands that used to perform on the Ed Sullivan show. This was music that did not swing, even if the musicians’ lives depended on it.
The Nighthawks are up to something else entirely. Giordano has amassed a virtual library of arrangements dating back to the 1920s that are part of the early swing tradition, both Black and white. His favorite band was led by Paul Whiteman but he is likely to play a Duke Ellington or Fletcher Henderson arrangement just as easily in performance. Early jazz is something that is a bit of an acquired taste. It took me some years to understand its appeal, largely from listening to Phil Schaap’s “Traditions in Swing” on the Columbia University FM station. But it was really hearing the Nighthawks in person at the Red Blazer that made me a passionate fan of a genre that deserves to be heard in recreations. As the musicians in the documentary readily admit, they play note for note the solos that men like Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and King Oliver made famous as improvisations. Hearing someone play Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” note for note would get me out my chair and over to a night club any day of the week, even if I had to put up with loudmouth hedge fund managers.
“There’s a Future in the Past” is not only an homage to the music that Giordano has devoted himself to; it is also a revealing look at the lives of professional jazz musicians who unlike the character in “La La Land” are happy to earn money playing any kind of music as long as it affords them the opportunity to play what really inspires them as the opportunity arises. Giordano and his group have played at debutante balls, on Garrison Keilor’s radio show, for the HBO Boardwalk Empire series and Woody Allen’s musical comedy film “Everyone Says I Love You”.
Most jazz musicians are open to any kind of gig and are fortunate enough to live in New York where there is still a demand for skilled musicians. I suspect that very few of them see themselves as the next Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis and are content to have a job that demands creative insight rather than muscle and sweat. The studio musician is our age’s cathedral builder, men and women who are building monuments to the glory of god but without ever being credited.
Let me conclude with some very tentative notes on the status of jazz today, especially the apparent lack of innovators such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman who were able in their time to elevate the art form to new plateaus.
If you see jazz in terms of a Hegelian dialectic, it is not hard to see it evolving according to an inner logic where each stage provides a seed bed for the stage that succeeds it. To give just one example, even though Charlie Parker was considered a revolutionary, it is doubtful that he would have been able to conceive of the harmonic innovations in tunes like “All the Things You Are” without standing on the shoulders of Lester Young. By the same token, Charlie Parker was necessary as a precursor for John Coltrane who was immersed in the bebop revolution in Philadelphia after leaving the navy in 1946.
However, the New Thing revolution of the 1960s was a conscious break with the past, even to the point of totally discarding the chord changes that could be found in all earlier music from Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis. Also called “Free Jazz”, it was vital for its time but with little long-lasting impact. It exemplified what some have called the negative dialectic.
Most top-tier musicians today such as Wynton Marsalis are “neo-traditionalists” playing in a style that is very close to what I heard at Bard College in the 60s or in New York’s thriving club scene from the Village Vanguard to the Five Spot after graduating.
Wynton Marsalis and his ideological guru Stanley Crouch emerged as a dialectical contradiction to the avant-garde of the 1960s and 70s, seeking to return Jazz to its “classic” roots. This means performing Ellington at Carnegie Hall or recording standards for Columbia records (Marsalis Standard Time, vols. 1-3). Neo-classicism of this sort has also encouraged a kind of very safe and commercially ambitious careerism of the sort typified by musicians such as Harry Connick Jr. (a neoconservative like Stanley Crouch) and Canadian Diana Krall, who is as esteemed for her blond good looks as she is for her warmed-over re-interpretations of Nat King Cole.
If and when jazz becomes popular again, it will have to figure out a way to return to its roots as a dance music. We should never forget that people went to the Cotton Club to dance. Chick Webb, Count Basie and Duke Ellington performed for dancers. When big bands were no longer commercially viable, small groups took their place and lost the capacity to create music to dance to.
In a way, Miles Davis was on to something when he moved toward integrating jazz with funk just as Gil Evans was doing when he made an album of Jimi Hendrix tunes. Ironically, the most interesting music in the entire 128 minutes of “La La Land” was that performed by John Legend’s pop-jazz group. Legend, a pop singer, co-signed a public letter to Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations this year calling on him to provide leadership for a more enlightened drug policy. Throwing people like Art Pepper or Anita O’Day in jail for taking drugs was a way to retard the advance of jazz. Legalizing drugs would not only benefit future pioneers in a field that for reasons having to do with its historical legacy make them a fact of life, it would also benefit young men and women everywhere whose “crime” is no more harmful to society than drinking scotch on the rocks.