Jackie Paris'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris
Written and Directed by Raymond De Felitta
Producer: David Zellerford 2009
"You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody."Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront
There are three quintessential types of American biographies: "The Success"; "The Tragedy"; and "The Faded Glory" (a variation being "The Anti-Hero"). Jackie Paris was a singer who "coulda been a contender" but faded into oblivion for several decades. In jazz, there have been the successes: Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, George Shearing, Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan, Art Blakey, and Oscar Peterson immediately come to mind. They led mostly exemplary lives and maintained a long-time output of stellar recordings and performances. There have been the tragedies: Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Chet Baker, for example. They were stars who changed the face of jazz forever, led troubled lives, and, like moths into the flame, died young. Of the faded glories, we know little or nothing and they are therefore hard to name. Singer Jimmy Scott almost fell into undeserved oblivion, but he did make a solid comeback as he grew older, and similarly with the saxophonist Frank Morgan and the bassist Henry Grimes. As for the rest, well, they just fell below the radar screen, left to a few enthusiasts and record collectors to reminisce about.
Jackie Paris was a singer who almost made it to "the big time" but, when jazz encountered a dry period business-wise in the 1960's, he fell under the radar screen until 2004, when he made a brief comeback only to die soon afterwards. A rising star during the bebop period, singing with groups led by the likes of Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus and appreciated by colleagues like Nat "King" Cole, Sarah Vaughan, and Peggy Lee, Paris somehow couldn't make it, and at one point was reduced to working as an elevator operator in New York.
Cut to the 1990's, when film director and jazz fan Raymond De Felitta is driving his car along a West Coast highway, hears an old Jackie Paris recording on the radio, and becomes obsessed with "whatever happened to" a singer he perceives to be on a par with Nat "King" Cole and Tony Bennett. De Felitta subsequently pursues the question with avengence and he takes his cameras and film crew on a journey to find the answer. Finally, he ends up meeting Paris in New York when the latter opens at the Jazz Standard after a long hiatus. The two have a warm encounter that reveals the singer as a sensitive and life-affirming human being beneath the egotistical and perfectionistic exterior for which he was erstwhile known.
De Felitta puts it all together into a film which tries to answer the question of how success can turn into failure and oblivion, how a "somebody" can turn into a "nobody." He probes this question with musicians, critics, and producers like Will Friedwald, Gene Davis, Dr. Billy Taylor, Ira Gitler, James Moody, Phil Schaap, George Wein, and others, including also, along the way, family members, friends, observers of the time period, and even the comedian Lenny Bruce, whose enthusiasm for Paris was expressed in a letter that ironically was never mailed. Musical excerpts, film and video clips, and street scenes lend life to these commentaries and recreate the ambience of the 1940's and 1950's when bebop emerged and Paris made his pitch for fame.
The present writer was a kid growing up in Brooklyn at that time, and an avid Dodger fan. Watching the film, he thinks of a parallel with Billy Cox, the "Bums'" great third baseman, who spent his post-baseball life as a "nobody" tending bar in a small town in Pennsylvania, only briefly to resurface in Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer. That was a time when, for an adolescent, the world seemed divided into winners, losers, and the anonymous masses. Paris, who became a hybrid between the loser and anonymous categories, is somewhat rescued from this destiny by a brief nightclub appearance and De Felitta's personal grace and devoted filmmaking.