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Like Don Byron, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon is shedding light on the lost art of live silent film accompaniment. On September 20, Gordon conducted the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in a public tech rehearsal of his new original score to "Body and Soul," Oscar Micheaux’s classic 1925 silent film. (The piece officially premiered at Avery Fisher Hall on September 24.) Gordon’s project was commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center and presented as part of the 38th annual New York Film Festival. Not only did the event showcase Gordon’s compositional and arranging skills, it also offered a valuable retrospective on Micheaux, one of the most prolific and innovative African-American filmmakers of the early 20th century. "Body and Soul" features Paul Robeson in his screen debut, playing a fugitive posing as a preacher in rural Georgia under the alias "Reverend Jenkins." Jenkins drinks, gambles, blackmails local residents, and shamelessly takes advantage of the young Isabelle and her unsuspecting mother, Martha Jane. While it may not seem outrageous by today’s standards, Micheaux’s unflattering depiction of a clergyman generated heated controversy and calls for censorship back in 1925. In addition, Micheaux’s use of flashbacks, dream sequences, simultaneous action, and other modern devices established him as one of the most radical filmmakers of the era. Wycliffe Gordon captures the ethos of the movie brilliantly, delving deep into his Georgia upbringing and infusing the score with hymns, work songs, and the timbres of early-to-modern jazz. Specific themes and motives recur throughout the 86-minute film, such as the foreboding bass line that announces Jenkins; the delicate jazz waltz that connotes the home-and-hearth intimacy of Isabelle and her mother; and the merry gospel theme that accompanies the comings and goings of Martha Jane’s friends, the two elderly church ladies. Victor Goines, Ted Nash, and Wynton Marsalis are the prominent soloists, often paired in arresting flute/clarinet or trumpet/clarinet combinations. Gordon makes use of silence now and then, letting brief portions of the film proceed without sound before entering with a mournful trombone soliloquy of his own. Farid Barron and Eric Reed are often featured together, on two pianos. And on several occasions, the entire band breaks into handclaps, rhythmic knee-slapping, and singing. Of the vocal passages, "Blood Money," a somewhat chilling work song, heightens the tragic scene in which Reverend Jenkins robs Isabelle and Martha Jane of their hard-earned cash.
By using Micheaux’s film as a vehicle for its historically conscious (some would argue self-conscious) approach to jazz composition, the LCJO raises important issues about racial representation in the arts. During the Q&A session that followed this screening, for instance, an earnest audience member seized upon the hoary stereotypes and "black" dialect featured in the film, intimating that Micheaux’s work was perhaps less than worthy of celebration. This comment provoked a rebuttal by LCJO bassist Rodney Whitaker, who insisted on the importance of dealing with, and even embracing, the most uncomfortable aspects of African-American history.
The debate was inconclusive, but an article in Lincoln Center’s FilmComment magazine by Yale film studies professor Charles Musser puts the matter into clearer perspective. Musser reminds us that, in the 1920s, black and white moviegoers were strictly segregated and so did not view the same films. Upon its release, therefore, Micheaux’s "Body and Soul" was shown exclusively to black audiences. Many at the time were angered by what they understood as Micheaux’s attack on the southern black clergy, not by his use of racial stereotypes. Of course, in this day and age such stereotypes are offensive, but Micheaux could not have intended to smear African-Americans in the eyes of whites — a fact that ought to diminish our present-day concern.
Even more to the point, Musser notes that "Body and Soul" is a thinly veiled critique of two Eugene O’Neill "race" plays, "The Emperor Jones" and "All God’s Chillun’ Got Wings." By borrowing and then altering certain plot details from the O’Neill plays, Musser argues, Micheaux subtly "turned the tables" on what he saw as O’Neill’s racism. Our disgruntled audience member would have had Wycliffe Gordon issue a disclaimer about the film’s supposedly harmful racial politics. But far from a distasteful example of early cinematic bigotry, "Body and Soul" is in fact an anti-racist statement. If anything, Gordon and Jazz at Lincoln Center might have drawn more attention to this aspect of the film.