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Jazz on Film: Caveat Emptor


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A person can see jazz documentaries and walk away without reaching for the gas pipe. But, as the furor around the film Whiplash (well, to jazz people it was furor) reminds us, it's wise to keep the bar low.
There are good documentaries about jazz. A person can see the films listed on this site and walk away without reaching for the gas pipe. But, as the furor around the film Whiplash (well, to jazz people it was furor) reminds us, it's wise to keep the bar low.

When Hollywood does jazz, it should stick to hagiography and cheesy romance: The Benny Goodman Story, The Fabulous Dorseys, The Glenn Miller Story; these are really just the Lindbergh, Curie and Young Abe Lincoln stories with clarinets and bobby socks. Henry Fonda coulda played Miller and Jimmy Stewart coulda been Lincoln. Fred Astaire and Burgess Meredith as trumpet players in Second Chorus, competing for Paulette Goddard? No problem. These movies are a nice, comfortable roll in the lowest common denominator hay. And, of course, any time Louis Armstrong is on, he lights up the screen. Ditto, Hoagy Carmichael.

But, when the egomaniacs in L.A. go all arty and pseudo-egghead on us and decide they have to "explain" jazz and jazz musicians, it's a formula for disaster.

Remember your initial excitement when you heard about Round Midnight, and about Bird? Remember your disappointment after you saw them? Why didn't they let Dexter play anything up tempo! Why did they make Bird a man-child! Why did they strip the original rhythm section off the sound track! Bird didn't look like that when he played! Is every black man a tragic figure and every white man a dolt?

Possibly the most exasperating example of the genre is Jung Man With a... Sorry: Young Man With a Horn. The insane ilk of psycho-babble that oozes through this movie like celluloid arteriosclerosis makes me think Professor Irwin Corey had a hand in the screenplay. Kirk Douglas/Bix Beiderbecke has "one wing" then falls for the broken pseudo-shrink Bacall who has a pet macaw? She smashes your 78's? I hate to see that; even if they're just Caruso on Victor. You're right, Kirk/Bix, she is "dirty and twisted inside," while you-were-born-to-play-the-trumpet-and-can-only-communicate-through-that-damn-horn. Why, oh why do they try and foist off that juvenile premise: "I want to play the note that no one else has ever played?" Bejasus.

Don't ask me if the same 4th-class Freudianisms befoul the Dorothy Baker novel it was based on. I can only deal with psychic effluvia in one genre at a time. "Based on the life of Bix Beiderbecke"-my moldy toenail. Harry James is the film's music adviser and dubs the trumpet parts. James is a great player, but his style bears as much resemblance to Bix's as, well-you finish the analogy. Kirk Douglas pushes the trumpet valves convincingly and has the appropriate unyielding embouchure and convincing lunatic gleam in his eye.  

Happily, the movie is quite informative for all you trumpet players out there, as there are at least four mentions of the loathsome "roll" in this movie. You know, where the mouthpiece gets too low on your lower lip? You better correct it pronto, or I will strap you in this comfy chair and force you to listen to cinematic dialogue about trumpet rolls until your chops fall off. I suppose it's not really the aspiring filmmaker's fault. They're not gonna raise a lot of money to make a movie-insightful or not-about jazz, unless it's about [Miles Davis], who is now the only jazz musician that Americans can name. We'll see how Mr. Cheadle makes out with Miles, but when you walk into the multiplex, my advice is: caveat jazz emptor. 



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