'The Last of the First', A Jazz Documentary

Louis Heckheimer BY

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A tender tribute to a generation of musicians, many of whom are passing from the scene.
This year's Tribeca Film Festival was held from May 1st through the 9th. The Last of the First , a documentary by Anja Baron was of interest to jazz fans. This film explores the world of the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, a group put together by Al Volmer, an orthodontist and amateur jazz musician in 1973 to give an opportunity to play for aging musicians who were veterans of the big bands of the 1920s and 1930s. It is a tender tribute to a generation of musicians, many of whom are passing from the scene. The film follows the musicians on tour and explores the problems that they face of aging, infirmity and death which happens to two of them, singer Laurel Watson and tenor saxophonist Bubba Brooks.

The 1920s and 1930s were the most important periods in the development of Jazz. Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman are still household names and almost every jazz fan knows the names of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Roy Eldridge. Most of us don't think of the sidemen who played important supporting roles. These names are known perhaps to a select few. In the 1970s music of that era was an after thought and many musicians who were sidemen and even some stars were not able to find work. Most of these musicians who did not have musical careers outside of jazz had retired from the music business.

The film follows the band over several years during their long Saturday night residence at the Louisiana Community Bar and their tours of Europe and Mexico. We get to know several musicians including Al Casey who was Fats Waller's guitarist, guitarist Larry Lucie, singer Laurel Watson , drummer Johnny Blowers, tenor saxophonist Bubba Brooks, pianist Ed Swanston and bassist Ivan Rolle.

Guitarist Al Casey, who was the Esquire poll winner for 1944, is prominently featured as he remembers his experience with Fats Waller and deals with his own infirmities. Particularly tender is a visit to the Waller home in St. Albans, Queens, his first visit since Waller's death.

Guitarist Larry Lucie, the oldest active jazz musician at 97, is featured as he reminisces about his work with Louis Armstrong among all the other stars that he worked with. We see him as he goes about his life teaching and playing.

Drummer Johnny Blowers discusses his career with Frank Sinatra and how having the opportunity to play gives life meaning to him.

Perhaps the most touching are the parts in which we see the band touring Europe and Mexico. Clearly the members are dealing with their age and frailty as we see them struggling to get in and out of vans and otherwise enduring the long trips. We see saxophonist Bubba Brooks as he struggles to climb the pyramid at Chichen Itza. We do see the gratification that they receive from being out in the world and the warm reception they receive from the audiences. They receive a particularly warm reception at a Russian Conservatory where a student dixieland band plays tribute to them.

The documentary is particularly effective in that we get to know the musicians as people. We learn to care about them as they deal with the difficulties of old age while they continue to rely on the pleasure musicians get from playing. The only complaint is that more extended performances of the music could have been featured.

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