Swingin' Cinema: Hollywood and K.C. Jazz.
The highlight of filmmaker Robert Altman's upcoming crime drama Kansas City is a spirited and energetic "cutting contest" at the renowned Hey Hey Club. Celebrated jazz musicians Joshua Redman and James Carter engage in a sax duel, recalling the lengthy and legendary jam sessions of Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins which helped establish Kansas City as a center of musical innovation in the 1930s. Although purists may argue that the efforts of Altman and company are not musically accurate, the ghosts of the great artists of that era must have been hanging around. And they surely liked what they heard.Altman and company make a commendable effort to create a "world class" jazz soundtrack that reflects the greatness of the Kansas City swing era. Among the many other fine contemporary artists he and producer Hal Willner have recruited are pianist Geri Allen, bassist Christian McBride and trumpeter Nicholas Payton. KC's own silky-voiced Kevin Mahogany makes a brief appearance as a blues singer reminiscent of Big Joe Turner.But let's face it, the importance of Kansas City in the creation of jazz is a fact that is largely unknown except to locals and music historians. Dick Wright, professor at the University of Kansas, is one of those historians who can put it in perspective."Kansas City groups swung more than groups from any other part of the country," Wright explains. "Being geographically central, KC became famous for it's jam sessions which pulled in (the great musicians of the time) from all over the country."Documentarian and jazz film distributor Bruck Ricker is equally effusive in his praise of KC's musical history."Kansas City...(also) generated modern jazz through Charlie Parker and rock and roll through Big Joe Turner," Ricker says. "So many original thinkers and leaders developed there: Young, Basie, Jo Jones, Jay McShann...it is a comparable companion piece to the development of black culture in the U.S."Perhaps Kansas City's critically acclaimed soundtrack will help put the swing sound back in the spotlight. The sight of construction crews working on the jazz museum at 18th and Vine should also be heartening to music buffs, especially plans for a "video room" where visitors could view films about the musicians being honored there. But are there many films about Kansas City jazz?Surprisingly, there are several films besides Kansas City which celebrate the sound. For those inclined to search them out, these movies will not only entertain, but will help provide evidence of the importance of Kansas City in the development of a unique American art form. These are some notable examples:The Last of the Blue DevilsHere is the indispensable film about Kansas City jazz. Joyous, rousing and warm, this documentary by Bruce Ricker highlights a 1974 reunion of consummate jazz artists at the Mutual Musicians Foundation hall at 18th and Highland. Not only are viewers treated to some tasty music from the likes of Count Basie, Jay McShann and Big Joe Turner, but are also provided with a painless lesson in music history via the fond recollections of these elder statesmen.Several of the gentlemen who participated in this effort, such as McShann and Claude "Fiddler" Williams, are still going strong. (In fact, Ricker plans to feature them as well as Kevin Mahogany in a Charlie Parker tribute concert to be filmed at Carnegie Hall on October 17. It will become a PBS special as well as a video and CD release.)Obviously a labor of love for all involved, The Last of the Blue Devils demonstrates that "harmony" has more than one definition.Pete Kelly's BluesJack Webb, Joe Friday of TV's Dragnet fame, produced, directed and starred in this 1955 crime melodrama set in Kansas City in the 1920s. Jack plays a jazz musician who (surprise, surprise) unwillingly gets involved with gangsters. Featuring a topnotch supporting cast that includes Lee Marvin, Janet Leigh, Edmund O'Brien, Andy Devine, Jayne Mansfield and Martin Milner, Pete Kelly's Blues does a good job of capturing an authentic feel of time and place. Even though it is slow moving and realistic to a fault, it is still worth viewing because it serves as a vocal showcase for Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. Miss Lee even snagged an Oscar nomination!The DelinquentsKansas City is not Robert Altman's only feature set in his hometown. In 1957, he made The Delinquents, his filmmaking debut which starred Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack). Although it is a notably bad movie about nice teenagers who get caught up in gang violence, it has at least one unique feature that makes it worth seeing. In the opening sequence, legendary vocalist Julia Lee performs "Dirty Rock Boogie." If you haven't heard Lee's raunchy style before, this movie may help explain why the new compilation of her classic recordings is doing so well.The Cool and the CrazyMade in KC the year after The Delinquents and covering some of the same territory, this ultra-cheapie is a fitting example of exploitation films typical of the era. This time the evil "M" (marijuana) turns teens into deranged addicts. Leonard Maltin calls this one "...a great unsung j.d. melodrama." In one scene, the kids go to the infamous Blue Note Club to hear the Bill Nolan Quintet perform the title tune.Born to SwingShort and full of sweet music, John Jeremy's 1973 documentary focuses on the alumni of the Count Basie band. If you've ever wondered why many people rank Jo Jones as the greatest jazz drummer of all time, this movie will provide some clues. Not only is Jones profiled (with glowing comments from Gene Krupa, who admits copying Jones' style), so are Buck Clayton, Buddy Tate, Earle Warren, Dicky Wells, Eddie Durham, Gene Ramey, Tommy Flanagan, Joe Newman and Snub Mosley. Andy Kirk, one of KC's great big band leaders and the man who brought Mary Lou Williams to prominence, adds a few choice comments of his own. Born to Swing also features celebrated producer John Hammond's observations on what made Kansas City swing so great.The Kansas City MassacreDale Robertson starred as Melvin Purvis, G-Man in this 1975 TV movie about the famous gangland shoot-out at Union Station in 1933. The score by Robert Cobert is a mixture of bluegrass (a la Bonnie and Clyde), KC swing and Dixieland jazz with a depiction of some speakeasy venues of the era. This one has a certain camp value.City HeatIn 1984, director Richard Benjamin teamed the biggest stars of the day, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds, for a comedy-drama set in Kansas City in the 1930s. Sadly, there's not much comedy or drama here, but there's ample star power to keep things moving. Lenny Niehaus' score does a fine job of capturing an appropriate sound. Vocalists Joe Williams and Al Jarreau are on the soundtrack as is Eastwood on piano.'Round MidnightAlthough it is not technically about Kansas City jazz, Bertrand Tavernier's 1986 film about a booze-soaked sax player in 1950's France was loosely based on the life of Lester Young. Dexter Gordon, himself a gifted artist on tenor sax, is perfect as the musician whose friendship with a young Parisian man (Francois Cluzet) saves them both. Herbie Hancock handled the score and won an Oscar for his efforts. (Speaking of Young, another available title is Song of the Spirit, The Lester Young Story, a 100-minute documentary released in the early 1990s. The tape also includes Jammin' the Blues, a rare 15-minute session featuring the celebrated master.)BirdClint Eastwood's 1988 biopic of Kansas City, Kansas' gift to the world of music is very long (160 minutes), very slow and doesn't quite capture the essence of what made Charlie Parker one of the great musical innovators of all time. Still, it has some good things going for it. First, there is Forest Whitaker's terrific performance illuminating Parker's self-destruction and his painful battle with drugs. Second, there's the music. Thankfully, the sax playing you hear is the genuine article, culled from Yardbird's matchless recordings. All of the attendant music, however, was rerecorded by contemporary musicians. The end result is an altogether satisfying soundtrack.Mr. and Mrs. BridgeThis 1990 adaptation of two Evan S. Connell novels by the renowned Merchant-Ivory filmmaking team is every bit as austere and stuffy as its characters. There is a brief party scene, however, where musicians Milt Abel, Charles Perkins, Richard Ross and Allen Monroe do their risque stuff. They manage to provide some relief from the utter ennui.If these titles have whetted your appetite for jazz movies, you should know there are a lot of other jazz-influenced videos to savor. Since the first talkie (1927's The Jazz Singer), America's indigenous music has played an important role in film. (What would a film noir detective thriller be without a haunting jazz sax to set the mood?) Here are some noteworthy jazz movies with a critical rating of 1 to 10, with 10 being highest:Jazz on a Summer's Day: This concert film of the 1958 Newport Festival features Monk, Louis, Dinah Washington and many more. (8)Anatomy of a Murder:Duke Ellington's evocative score and brief personal appearance enhance this classic courtroom drama. (10)Paris BluesHere's another fine Ellington score supporting the story of jazz musicians (Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier) in France. (6)The Man With the Golden Arm:Elmer Bernstein's brilliant score sets the mood for Frank Sinatra's expert portrayal of a drug addict. (7)Young Man With a Horn:Kirk Douglas plays a nasty character based on trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. Harry James dubs ably for Kirk. (7)Thelonius Monk:Straight, No Chaser: A terrific portrait of the legendary jazz pianist, this documentary is a must for his fans. (8)A Song is Born:A silly Danny Kaye musical comedy which features jam sessions by Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet and Tommy Dorsey can't be all bad. (6)Mo' Better Blues: Spike Lee's portrait of a trumpeter is his weakest film, but the score by his father Bill and performances by Brandford Marsalis' Quartet with Terrance Blanchard are choice. (5)Taxi Driver:Bernard (Psycho) Herrmann's final score is among his best, sweet and hauntingly creepy at the same time. (10)The Bridges of Madison County:Only Clint Eastwood would use jazz music in a movie set in Iowa. It works beautifully. (8)Leaving Las Vegas:Director Mike Figgis is also a jazz trumpeter and pianist who provides his own, appropriately moody score. (7)Finally, here are three excellent alternative sources besides your local video store for finding that jazz video title: Rhapsody Films, 212-243-0152; The Jazz Store; 1-800-558-9513; and Music Video Distributors, 1-800-888-0486.