J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Blue Notes on the Silver Screen

It seems like there’s a mini-boom of jazz movies on the horizon. Andy Garcia’s Lost City, featuring a great Afro-Cuban jazz soundtrack is currently playing in select cities. Rumors are swirling about Chet Baker and Miles Davis bio-pics. A film about Duke Ellington’s tour of Iraq on behalf of the U.S. State Dept. is in development at New Line.

On the documentary front, the Oscar Brown Jr. film Music is My Life, Politics is My Mistress screened at the Harlem Film Festival. 'Tis Autumn, a film on vocalist Jackie Paris debuted to great acclaim at Sundance, and This is Gary McFarland, a doc. about the musician-arranger-composer is also starting to make the festival circuit. At an IAJE panel in January, attendees saw a sneak preview of the nearly complete film Trumpetistically Clora Bryant, about the under-recognized bop trumpeter. On the further horizon, a doc on jazz violinist Billy Bang is in the works.

Perhaps the most intriguing film in the works is Crazy, the life story of Hank Garland. One of the top Nashville session men, guitarist Garland stunned the country music world by recording some excellent jazz sessions. Shortly thereafter he suffered an injury in a car crash that derailed his career for years. Presumably, green-lighted to capitalize on the success of Walk the Line, and starring Waylon Payne who played Jerry Lee Lewis in that film, Garland’s life seems like an unlikely choice to dramatize. If nothing else, it will certainly be interesting to see how Hollywood handles Garland’s jazz interlude.

Ironically, these films confirm the artistic advantage of a free market society. Labor of love documentaries would have a difficult time finding support from bureaucrats who control the state film resources under socialism. In our system, dedicated filmmakers, now frequently using digital video, can bring personal stories to audiences without the approval of any governing entity. It is often more costly in terms of time than resources. Free markets and free expression can lead to eccentric visions or crass commercialism. As consumers however, we can be the ultimate arbiters.

For now, I recommend Lost City, and Music is My Life if they happen to screen at a theater near you. From what I saw of the Clora Bryant film, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the finished film. Maybe the near future will bring a minor golden age of jazz on the silver screen.