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.
De Felitta does not come up with a definitive explanation of Jackie Paris' failures. Rather, he garners a multitude of theories such as the singer's erratic personality, the sudden drop in jazz's cache after the bebop period, the mercenary ignorance of record producers, a troubled marital and family life, and a lack of etiquette on the vocalist's part. None of these answers are quite satisfactory, because one can easily think of performers who encountered or possessed all of the above qualifications yet were enormously successful. (Just the name Frank Sinatra says it all.) The aforementioned factors were probably contributory, but the essential truth boils down to something that De Felitta, in his idealization of Paris' talent, overlooks. Paris never forged a strong persona and musical identity that could carry him forward.
Multi-talented (he was a competent tap dancer and guitarist) and unsure of where he belonged, Paris could have gone the route of either a serious jazz singer or a popular entertainer. He never made that existential choice, and so fell between the cracks. Adept as he was with the modern jazz idiom, he might have done well as a jazz vocalist like Johnny Hartman, Chris Connor, or Joe Williams. (Hartman and Connor made brief attempts at pop singing, but both wisely returned to the jazz venue, and while they never became rich, their excellence is memorable.) Equally, he could have become a top popular singer like Tony Bennett or Andy Williams. But he bounced around these possible career tracks and never fully defined himself. This ambivalence is disturbingly reflected in the film's excerpts of his singing. Paris comes across well in his definitive version of "Skylark," his Jazz Standard rendition of"'Tis Autumn," and his various forays into bebop. He does much less well on "Mexicali Rose," and some other clips where he tries to be an entertainer as such.
Paris' failure was also due in part to his androgynous singing style at a post-World War II time when male and female singers needed to sharply differentiate into "guys" and "gals" in order to reinforce the romantic aspect of their songs. Paris sometimes sang in an almost hermaphroditic manner during an era of male and female stereotypes prior to the David Bowie, Johnny Mathis, and "Metrosexual" vogues. In fact, De Felitta uncovered the existence of a female singer with the same last name who could have been Paris' doppelganger! In all, it could be argued that Paris possessed an identity problem, that he never forged a forceful musical persona for himself.
Such an analysis points to an essential limitation of the film. Great documentaries, like all art, remind us of our common strengths, shortcomings, and destinies manifest in a unique person or situation. The film's understanding of Paris' downfall does not achieve such a status. Rather, the viewer is left with a confusing view of the human condition. The one redemptive aspect, however, is the touching way in which the narrative ultimately portrays Jackie Paris as "everyman," as one who, in the end, reflects on his life with both genuine joy and sorrow. And when De Felitta takes an aging Paris on a short drive to his home town of Nutley, New Jersey, where they walk among the people of a middle-class neighborhood with echoes of a time gone by, there is a simplicity there which reminds us all of where, whether "winners," "losers," or somewhere in-between, we acquired and shed our "training wheels," in a family and a community that, even in our modern state of alienation, which jazz partly contemplates, we called "home."