There are four types of films: one is a straightforward audio-video recording of a Jazz concert, but in general we do not get much information about the life of the musician and the context in which they lived their music. The second is a fictional approach to Jazz, presenting the lead character as a Jazz musician, and telling a compelling story, for example the film ’Round Midnight by French director Bertrand Tavernier. The third is a fictional biography where the director takes liberties with the main character in order to tell an engaging story, for example Bird based on the life of Jazz legend Charlie Parker and directed by Clint Eastwood. The fourth is a straightforward documentary film, and there are many such documentaries on Jazz music, and the most ambitious is Jazz: A Film By Ken Burns, a 10 part documentary that is 19 hours long.
None of the four genres of films fully do justice to Jazz music, its culture, and the human element of the musicians. So depending on your own predilection, I would suggest starting with any one of these three films and making your way to the others as time permits.
’Round Midnight stars Jazz legend Dexter Gordon, playing an expatriate African American Jazz musician who leaves the US for Paris in the 1950s for greener pastures (Gordon did this too in the early 60s). It is clear that the director Bertrand Tavernier has passion and knowledge for Jazz, and he features many well known Jazz musicians in the movie including Herbie Hancock. The film won a best actor Oscar nomination for Dexter Gordon, and an Oscar for Hancock for the movie score.
Bird in terms of pacing is a more decidedly upbeat affair, and Forest Whitaker is an excellent actor: the main problem with this film is that the character is actually not that close to the actual Charlie Parker, and is some sort of caricature of the real deal. It is also historically quite off the mark in the sense that you do not know about why Parker became so great, the complexity of his character, and the unique relationships he had with other musicians that was crucial to his own creations. What you see is a “typical child like autistic genius” who needs to be monitored by his white American adult wife, and some dramatic flashbacks. Problematic though as the film is, it might be worth a viewing just once, and you can move to other films.
The relatively recent Ken Burns documentary mainly focuses on Jazz music from its inception to the 1960s using Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington as the main musical examples that enter the story as the film rolls along the decades. While I find the conscious omission of crucial Jazz musicians who kept the music alive from 1960 – 1980 troubling, Ellington and Armstrong ARE the pillars on which Jazz music rests. I like to see the film especially for the informed comments of musicians such as Wynton Marsalis and intellectuals Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray. Also the film connects Jazz with America, and this is important.
Try any of these three offerings on film, and see for yourself how you connect to Jazz music: you just might connect to the music a little stronger, in which case the films have done their main job in my opinion!
This is a continuation of the series of articles gifted by Madhav Chari, the eminent Jazz pianist and educator. His audio CD, Parisian Thoroughfares, is available from Landmark On The Net.