is profoundly sad watching Gil Scott-Heron in his prime, knowing how terribly he
would struggle with drugs in his later years. Of course, the gifted artist who
sabotaged a potentially long and fruitful career through substance abuse is one
of the oldest stories in jazz. However, Scott-Heron was supposed to be the heir
to Oscar Brown, Jr., shining a light on the nation’s urban pathologies with his
socially conscious lyrics. Instead, he was largely undone by the very dangers
and malaise he decried. Happily, it is the forceful Scott-Heron music
documentarian Robert Mugge captured in performance at a DC club and
pontificating on the streets of the capitol in Gil Scott-Heron: Black Wax (trailer here), which releases
today on DVD as part of MVD’s Mugge reissue program.
consider Scott-Heron the forefather of rap, but his concert at the Black Wax
club is very much in a jazz bag, albeit a decidedly funky one, thanks to the bluesy
guitar work of Ed Brady and a swinging horn line featuring Ron Holloway. Even
though Scott-Heron has plenty to say, he and his band definitely keep everyone’s
toes tapping. If only all protest songs were as groovy as “Johannesburg.”
can better see why Scott-Heron is considered an apostolic link to rap and hip
hop in the monologues and poetry he recites during various DC location shoots.
Again, the talent is clear to see. Frankly, Scott-Heron could have easily
pursued a stand-up comedy career, in the Richard Pryor-George Carlin tradition.
Unfortunately, his political commentary is so dated, it is truly painful.
Seriously, he offers up chestnuts like Ronald “Ray-Gun,” the actor playing the
role of president. From a post-Cold War, Twenty-First Century vantage point, even
William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech
holds up better.
the music still grooves. Despite his crossover jazz-soul-funk status,
Scott-Hero could really swing a band. He also had a sly delivery that suited
his hipster-prophet persona quite well. Clearly, the Black Wax concert is the
main attraction, but Mugge has a keen eye for ironic backdrops. The wax museum
sequences are particularly surreal, in a playful sort of way.
is a shame Scott-Heron’s demons did not allow him to fully capitalize on his
stature as a crossover jazz great in the 1990s and 2000s. Such opportunities
might have challenged some of his hard left preconceptions, but they also would
have helped spread awareness of his music. Instead, Scott-Heron will largely be
remembered as he is seen in Mugge’s film, which makes it a rather important snapshot.
A must-see for fans and a good time for anyone with ears for jazz-funk (even
with the polemical interruptions), Gil
Scott-Heron is now available again from MVD on DVD and BluRay.
Labels: DVD, Gil Scott-Heron, Robert Mugge