David Meeker's Ten Favourite Jazz Films
David Meeker, the author of Jazz in the Movies (and its online, massively updated version, Jazz on the Screen, available on the website of the Library of Congress), has been kind enough to furnish me with the list of his favourite jazz films. I don't think anyone in the world has seen as many jazz films as David has and certainly no-one has bothered spending years retrieving information (including song lists and personnel) from these films, compiling the indispensable encyclopedia that he has given us. For that reason, I think this list should be cherished more than other similar listings — this is the work of a man who has almost seen everything! – EK
By my reckoning the first ever sound film of a jazz performance was produced in 1922, a short featuring pianist Eubie Blake. Therefore, faced with almost 100 years of world cinema and taking a degree of masochistic pleasure in sticking my neck out I have managed with considerable difficulty to reduce untold millions of feet of celluloid to a necessarily subjective choice of 10 favourite titles, undoubtedly quirky but hopefully not pretentious. Try and see them if you can – they all have much to offer both intellectually and emotionally.
BLACK AND TAN (Dudley Murphy, 1929)
A rare example of a movie which uses jazz both organically and dramatically with stunning effect. The slight plot serves as a background for the first appearance on film of Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra (including Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard, Sonny Greer, etc.) and above all the lovely dancer Fredi Washington who lies dying while the band comfort her by playing Ellington's tune Black and Tan Fantasy and as the final chords fade away the camera moves in to a giant close-up of Ellington's face as his eyes fill with tears…
THE SOUND OF JAZZ (Jack Smight, 1957)
Originally produced for US CBS television but luckily for us was eventually preserved on celluloid, a great musical package unsurpassed in jazz history by the sheer richness of the line-up, including Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Roy Eldridge and more. But never forgetting the jewels of the show as Billie Holiday and Lester Young transcend everyone and everything gently swinging through Fine and Mellow.
THE CONNECTION (Shirley Clarke, 1961)
Film adaptation of Jack Gelber's stage play following the making of a film about a group of jazz playing junkies waiting for their connection to arrive… The Freddie Redd Quartet (with alto saxophonist Jackie McLean) are on camera throughout performing some steaming numbers composed by Freddie Redd which have stayed favourites of mine since, well, 1961. But, it is true, that seeing the film again recently it does creak a bit in places since its improvisatory camera style is no longer fresh. However, it does contain a perfect cinematic non sequitur when a guy arrives with a portable gramophone and treats the cast to a Charlie Parker recording of Marmaduke (take 4) before packing up and exiting.
TOO LATE BLUES (John Cassavetes, 1961)
John Cassavetes first Hollywood studio movie has, I believe, been sadly underrated since its release. I can't believe that the so-called film critics who trashed it at the time had any understanding of the edgy camaraderie that exists between a close-knit combo of jazz musicians and just how brilliantly Cassavetes had captured their lives. There's terrific music by David Raksin played by top Los Angeles musicians, Benny Carter, Uan Rasey, Milt Bernhart, Jimmy Rowles, etc. Eminently memorable.
TALMAGE FARLOW (Lorenzo DeStefano, 1981)
A film portrait of jazz master guitarist Tal Farlow made with all the love and care that he so richly deserved. We see his friends and influences, rehearsals and work-outs with some New York concert footage in performance with Tommy Flanagan and Red Mitchell. Tal was simply one of the most charming people that I've ever met and this fine documentary does him justice and reminds us of what an amazingly brilliant, swinging musician he was.
ART PEPPER: NOTES FROM A JAZZ SURVIVOR (Don McGlynn, 1982)
A deeply moving portrait of the great Art Pepper which contains what must be one of the most touching, heart-breaking sequences in the genre as Art and his wife, Laurie, settle down to listen to Art's latest recording, dedicated to Laurie, the quite beautiful Our Song, specially arranged for Art plus strings by maestro Bill Holman. In the light of Art's death a few month's later the music's poignancy and the way that Art re-acts to it make the scene all but unbearable.
ARTIE SHAW: TIME IS ALL YOU'VE GOT (Brigitte Berman, 1985)
Filmmaker Brigitte Berman delighted us in 1981 with her fine documentary about the legendary Bix Beiderbecke which so impressed Artie Shaw that he agreed to co-operate on this first authorized production about the erudite, articulate and witty clarinetist and bandleader who twice quit the music business at the height of his fame but never lost the adoration of big band jazz enthusiasts and their love of his art nor of the notoriety he achieved with his 'bad marriages' and 'good divorces'.
THELONIOUS MONK: STRAIGHT NO CHASER (Charlotte Zwerin, 1988)
A celebration of the life and music of the great pianist and composer interwoven with unique performance footage from the late 1960s plus testimonies and music from colleagues including Phil Woods, Johnny Griffin, Charlie Rouse, etc. If proof were ever needed of Monk's genius, however idiosyncratic, simply listen to his interpretation of Sweetheart of All My Dreams and marvel. Produced by Clint Eastwood.
SWEET AND LOWDOWN (Woody Allen, 1999)
Whilst not exactly a "jazz film," I make no apology for including this Woody Allen picture as an example of the filmmaker's total commitment to jazz/big bands throughout his long filmmaking career. He has hardly made a film that hasn't showcased our music on soundtrack and often there is also plenty of it on screen ably directed by his longtime musical associate, the pianist/composer Dick Hyman. In this particular film, telling of the trials and tribulations of a sub-Django Reinhardt guitarist, the soundtrack features a selection of carefully chosen tracks performed by Howard Alden and Bucky Pizzarelli as well as a generous selection of appropriate jazz classics.
THE LAST OF THE FIRST (Anja Baron, 2002)
The behind-the-scenes story of some of the last living jazz pioneers from the 1920s/1930s produced by a German but New York-based documentary filmmaker with all the love and care for which one could hope. The story of The Harlem Blues and Jazz Band founded some 50 years ago provided the last links to the early roots of jazz. Members in 2002 ranged from guitarist Al Casey, drummer Johnny Blowers, pianist Edwin Swanston and the wonderful vocalist Laurel Watson. Musicians interviewed include Milt Hinton, Jay McShann, Nancy Wilson, Clark Terry, Jonah Jones and Lionel Hampton. A true celebration of the jazz spirit.