JAZZ & CINEMA (PART 2)

After the end of the Second World War, a new generation of innovatory cinema directors emerged who believed that abstract, non-conformist jazz was suitable not only for detective films, but also for psychological films and for those dealing with the lives of modern youth. John Cassavetes' 1960 film, "Shadows", had its own particular form of expression; the soundtrack was composed by Charles Mingus. The films "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959) and "Paris Blues" (1961) were, without doubt, films of high quality. Duke Ellington's music featured in these films. For most jazz musicians working in the cinema, this became one of the most important outlets for their self-expression. For example Lalo Schifrin composed about 70 soundtracks. Quincy Jones, Dave Grusin, Herbie Hancock and other composers also worked very fruitfully.



Today soundtracks are composed in many different ways. The simplest way is to select fragments from existing albums and fit them to the visuals. In this way, if the screen shows events of the recent past then sounds are selected from the archives; but this approach is not for all composers. In order to preserve authenticity of sound and style some composers update old music; for example Marvin Hamlisch, in the film "Sting" (1973), 'dressed up' Scott Joplin's ragtime with modern instrumentation and in 1984, the film "The Cotton Club" modern jazzmen imitated the sounds of the 'Swing' era. The composers of a film about Charlie Parker came up with an original solution: they isolated the saxophone from this legendary musician's original recordings and had modern musicians record anew the other parts. The result exceeded their expectations. But most soundtracks consist of original music. From this point of view, French director Louis Malle, while making his early film, "Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud" (Lift to the Scaffold) (1957), took a very courageous step: He took advantage of the Miles Davis' group's presence in Paris, standing them in front of an all-night screening and encouraging them to improvise. Although later this became common practice, at the timer this was a real innovation.



Usually, discussions about film and jazz concentrate on American films. There is a good reason for this: until the Second World War the 'old world' could not compete with the 'new world'. Although some films made in Europe between the wars, especially by Holywood-influenced directors, used music very close to jazz: in 1934 Soviet film director Grigoriy Alexandrov entranced audiences with his film "Happy Guys" which retains its freshness to this day, and in 1937 there was a British film, "Sing as You Swing".



In the second half of the twentieth century, the position changed completely. Europeans made a number of outstanding films, featuring elements of high quality jazz. The French director Bertrand Tavernier's film "Round Midnight" (1986) became something of a sensation in the cinema world. The music for the film was composed by Herbie Hancock. In the 1950s, in Paris, heroes of jazz like Buddy Powell and Lester Young were depicted in stories about jazz. Together with the prestigious "Down Beat" this is one of the few films which it is pleasing to both watch and listen. You may hear in this film musicians of the like of John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter among others. Also playing in the film was a teenaged Palle Mikkelborg, later to be a guest of the festival 'Kaunas '99'. The main role is played by Dexter Gordon, who had had some experience as an actor. The film, "The Awakening" premiered in 1990 but, sadly, Gordon was unable to attend the opening; this talented musician died some months before. European directors, when making soundtracks, usually invited the leading lights of American jazz; but there were exceptions, one such is the film, "Dingo". French composer Michel Legrand composed the soundtrack together with Miles Davis.



A musician who made a particularly valuable contribution to soundtrack work was Polish jazz pianist Krzysztof Komeda. A measure of this musician's success and talent is indicated by the fact that Komeda's album "Astigmatic" was voted No 42 in the 100 best jazz albums by the world's top critics.
Komeda's music can be heard in over 70 films. Collaborating with Andrej Wajda, Henning Carlsen and working with grants, Krzysztof Komeda also composed the music for all of Roman Polanski's celebrated films. He was accepted by Hollywood but, Just as his American career was getting underway, he met a tragic death.Biographical films of famous jazzmen are not so rare in cinema. 'Biopics', as they are known, began in 1942 with "Syncopation". Seven years late, director Michael Curtis made "Young Man with a Horn".


Both films were concerned with events in the life of talented cornettist Bix Beiderbecke. Antony Mann's film, "The Glenn Miller Story" (1953) was incredibly popular. The film's commercial success was such that more films followed within a very short period. "The Benny Goodman Story" (1955), "The Gene Krupa Story" (1959) etc.



The overtly sentimental nature of these films outplayed the biographical content. "Lady Sings the Blues" (1972) about the ups and downs in the life of the great singer Billie Holiday, may also be placed in this category of film. Although the soundtrack was composed by Michel Legrand, it centred upon the performance of Diana Ross in the lead role.
Within this genre there were some worthy films, one of them, "Bird" (1988), dedicated to Charlie Parker as mentioned above. In this film Forest Whitaker, playing the main role, took first prize at the Cannes Film Festival.



There are many cinema luminaries who have transferred their love of jazz to the screen. Woody Allen (himself, by the way, an accomplished jazz clarinettist) contributed much in this respect. "Sweet and Low Down" was a fine film about Emmet Ray, who bore comparison with legendary jazz guitarist of the era of swing, Django Reinhardt. Lovers of jazz recognise Allen's mystic character; there is no prototype for the hero of this film. Sean Penn, faced a difficult problem in taking on the main role: nicknamed 'Bad Boy' and never having played guitar, he had to mimic the playing of dozens of different guitar pieces. It was no surprise that an actor who could master such a role would find himself among the nominees for an Oscar.
The film was very faithful to the period: the detail of clothes, cars and interiors produced an authentic look. In this respect Allen's film recalls Martin Scorsese's film "New York" (1977)in which Robert De Niro played impressively the main role of a saxophonist. It also brings to mind Francis Ford Coppola's film "Cotton Club" (1984) with Richard Gere in the main role.



The creative union of cinema and jazz is strengthening. Last year the Lincoln Centre in New York began to realise its project "Jazz on Film". A cycle of thematic evenings dealt with aspects of the mutual embellishment provided by the two art forms in combination.
In 1999, a festival of music and cinema held in Poland attracted luminaries of all styles of music: these included Jean-Luc Ponty.
Jazz continues to be a focus for makers of documentary films. Elements from the history of jazz have been the subject of many short documentaries. Cinematic portraits of musicians have been particularly prominent.
The unique film, "Jazz", is generally accepted to be the apogee of documentary jazz films. This modern film, directed by well-known American documentary film-maker Ken Burns, clarifies the most important values of American society. Burns had already gained popularity with his films "Citizen War" (1990) and "Baseball" (1994). His 20 hour, multi-part series of films dedicated to the history of jazz cost over $30 million and has been shown in all parts of the USA. Each episode was shown at 9pm, ie at prime time.
This series contributed much to a growing interest in jazz; for the first time competitive studios Columbia/Legacy and Verve cooperated in the making of these films - the archives of both these huge studios were used. The 22 CD set of Ken Burns' "Jazz" also brought success to the labels.
Although there are those for whom watching the series is a euphoric experience, it has its critics, too. For some experts Burns' opinions are tendentious: the director largely ignored developments in jazz beyond US borders, he focuses on the period 1900-60 and gives scant attention to modern jazz. In addition, one wonders how he missed the brilliance of Errol Garner, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, George Russell and others. For all this, the film "Jazz" deserves respect for the history of the mutual love between cinema and jazz, and will delight our senses of sight and hearing for years to come.

by Alfredas Kukaytis