By February 8, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

Let’s watch a movie! About jazz!

In 1944, the then-young jazz impresario Norman Granz was asked by Warner Bros. to put together some musicians for a short subject film about jazz. Granz had been recommended by photographer Gjon Mili, an Albanian-born engineer and technical photographer who had recently become famous by using his freeze-motion photographic technique on a series for Life magazine about jazz musicians. Mili was signed on as titular director, but it was Granz who ended up actually supervising, relegating Mili to the task of photographing the proceedings. The result was the first genuinely jazz-centric film, Hollywood revues like “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky” notwithstanding, and it holds up today as a wonderful glimpse into the time during World War II when jazz was on the cusp of transitioning from Swing to Bebop.

Tragically, but predictably, the sound isn’t live. Instead, it uses the established technique of filming the musicians with silent film, then having them record an audio track in a sound studio and reuniting the two parts later on. It was a reasonable technique for non-improvisational music and dialogue, but jazz wasn’t served well by it. The filming was also subject to all manner of studio interference, from racist shenanigans to odd changes of script, and all of this is addressed in detail in our friend Tad Hershorn’s great biography of Norman Granz, “The Man Who Used Jazz For Justice” (University of California Press, 2011). Regardless of these Hollywood shortcomings, it’s  beyond cool to be able to see some of the greatest jazz musicians of that era up close and personal. Nothing before, and very little after, provided a better visual portrait of the music and its practitioners.

The film is about nine minutes long, and features the musicians jamming on three numbers: a slow, ad lib blues, “Sunny Side of the Street”, and a fast blues. We’ve been discussing saxophonist Lester Young in the context of individualism in general, and this is a wonderful opportunity to see him just before he left his prime as a musician. Photographer Mili takes a lot of visual chances here, and also falls victim to plenty of cliches, but the focus—pun intended—is on the music. The film opens with an overhead shot of Lester’s famous pork pie hat, then slowly reveals him playing an oblique blues line. We then see a very young Red Callendar on bass, followed by a solo from trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison. Both Young and Edison, after a couple of attempts at external careers, were back with Count Basie’s band at this juncture. As a recent ex-smoker, my mouth positively waters at all of the delicious cigarette smoke evident by now. Effective visually, to be sure, and authentically generated, given the participants and the times.

Next, we see pianist Marlowe Morris playing the intro to “Sunny Side of the Street”, followed by a vocal from Granz’s love interest of the moment, singer Marie Bryant. We dig the conked Carmen Miranda ‘do the most. Oops, sorry. We couldn’t help it. Anyway, then Lester returns with a delightfully abstract solo; one that—in addition to being way outside the norm for 1944—also begins to portend the slow disintegration of his abilities over the next 15 years.

Moving on to the finale, we see drummer Sid Catlett give way to Basie’s man, Jo Jones, with a slick, if showy, exchange of drumsticks. There’s some obligatory jitterbugging on screen, but the music is getting especially hot at this point, making it easy to forgive what was obviously a missive from the studio to “put something in there that normal people will like”. Lester, meanwhile, takes a nice, long solo behind the dancing fools, and then a very young, and glaringly white, Barney Kessel takes a tasty turn on guitar. Another Sweets Edison solo is followed with a chorus by Morris on piano and a peek at John Simmons—who has taken over for Red Callendar at this point—on bass. Finally, in comes the young—and soon to be both famous and infamous—Illinois Jacquet on tenor. His screamer of a solo takes us out of what’s still an exciting thing to behold. Real jazz musicians! In Hollywood, fachrissakes! Who woulda thunk it?

If you want to own this film, it shows up on various DVD collections from time to time. Look for it. It also shows up occasionally between feature films on Turner Classic Movies. Check  here, at http://www.tcm.com/schedule/. If you would like to own Tad Hershorn’s biography of Norman Granz, and every jazz fan should, you can buy it from Amazon here: Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice.

Posted in: Jazz, Videos

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