Shunzo Ohno is like the Timex of jazz, or even its Job. The record shows he took the
blows, but still found a way to keep doing his thing. It is an inspiring story
of repeated triumph over adversity that Sean Gallagher chronicles in his short
but remarkably eventful documentary Never
Defeated: the Shunzo Ohno Story, which premiered before Ohno’s Cutting Room
gig this past Wednesday in New York.
from an economically challenged family, Ohno was not given a trumpet until late
in his school years, but he quickly made up for lost time. He was one of many
international jazz artists who came to America as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz
Messengers. He experienced considerable initial success, but Ohno subsequently found
himself scuffling to the point of actual homelessness, during what were lean
years for real deal jazz in general. Of course, he bounced back personally and professionally,
but his greatest trials were yet to come.
Somehow, Ohno survived a serious car
accident (that caused the sort of damage to his jaw and teeth that make trumpet
players shudder) and fourth stage throat cancer approximately eight years
later. In each case, Ohno had to radically reinvent his embouchure to keep
playing, which is sort of like a sculptor learning to mold clay with his feet.
Yet, Ohno continues to play at a lofty professional level.
Never Defeated could easily be expanded
to feature length without requiring much padding. Gallagher is a tremendously economical
storyteller, shoehorning some epic tribulations into a mere ten minutes.
Wisely, he also incorporates plenty of Ohno’s music, including a studio
performance with his working group and an all-star ensemble concert at Carnegie
Hall, featuring musicians like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Larry Corryell,
and Steve Turre.
an additional attraction for jazz fans, Never
Defeated is narrated by Buster Williams, the accomplished bassist who
featured Ohno on his Something More album.
Williams is a selfless leader. You might hear him give nearly all the solo
space to his sidemen at his own gigs, but he always plays with top musicians,
so nobody complains. He is always more concerned about serving the music than
vice versa, so it makes perfect sense he would sign on to promote awareness and
appreciation of his friend and colleague.
Defeated is the sort of short doc
that deserves a chance to be reincarnated in a larger format. It is tightly
constructed and gives the audience a richly flavorful taste of his somewhat
Miles-esque music. Ohno next plays at the Bean Runner Café in Peekskill on 6/27
and as part of the Sunset Jazz concert series in Lyndhurst on 8/13, but the
venues are sadly not equipped to screen the film, so hopefully shrewdly
programmed festivals like AAIFF will be picking it up in the near future.
Recommended for jazz fans and “inspirational” audiences, Never Defeated: the Shunzo Ohno Story is definitely worth keeping
an eye out for.
Labels: Buster Williams, Documentary, Short Films, Shunzo Ohno