Round Midnight Film Revisted.

by Joseph Powell

'Round Midnight is twenty seven years old and when it first came out, it did a great job of representing a era twenty years before. This film still holds up-now representing a era fifty years ago.'

Those were the words of noted jazz writer and historian Ashley Kahn at a recent screening of the 1986 jazz film. Kahn's opening remarks marked the point at a movie event which was a part of the recent Blue Note Jazz June 2013 Festival in New York City. The screening which included a panel discussion took place on Monday June 24th, at the IFC Movie Center in Greenwich Village.

Ashley Kahn moderated a panel which included Former President and CEO of Blue Note Records, Bruce Ludvall, saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Greg Osby. Also appearing were Maxine Gordon, the widow of the late Dexter Gordon and jazz record producer and founder of Mosaic Records, Michael Cussina.

The movie is about a American jazz saxophonist named Dale Turner who is living and working in France during the late fifties. The film centers around him trying to stay afloat professional and personally while maintaining a friendship with a French jazz fan. It stars Dexter Gordon in the main role and Francois Cluzet as is friend. The movie has a large cast which includes such jazz musicians as Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson and actress-singer Lonette McKee. It was directed by Bertrand Tavernier and the main character Dale Turner was based on a composite of real life jazz musicians Lester Young and Bud Powell. This fictional movie is based upon on the real life late years of Bud Powell and his friendship with Francis Paudras. Upon it's release in 1986, the movie was well received. Dexter Gordon was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Herbie Hancock was nominated for and won the Acamedy Award for Best Music,Original Score.

The panel shared some special memories as well as personal reflections of the film. Michael Cussina reflected on how smooth and relaxed the film shoot was in France.

Maxine Gordon shared some rare information by stating that actor-director Clint Eastwood was somehow indirectly involved in helping the project get green lighted. He was at Warner Brother's studio on the same day that the director Bertrand Tavernier was there trying to get the project approved. It seems that Eastwood heard about it and like the plot so much that he encouraged the studio heads to green light the film. Eastwood told Tavernier and the studio heads that he himself was working on a jazz film about Charlie Parker called 'Bird.' Apparently he felt it would be wise for Warner Brothers to make two movies dealing with the subject of jazz.

Jimmy Heath found the movie touching, but stated, 'But a film based on Bud Powell should have centered on a pianist and not a saxophonist.' Heath also confirmed that in real life, the name 'Buttercup' was what people called Bud Powell in France. It was a very interesting fact that Heath shared due to the name of Dale Turner's female manager in the film is called 'Buttercup.' The character is played by blues singer Sandra Reaves-Phillips.

Maxine Gordon talked about how happy Dexter was in getting the part and insisted that drummer Billy Higgins and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson be cast as well. The audience laughed when she added, 'But Dexter insisted that they both get new teeth since they would be in the film with him.'

Bruce Ludvall who was in a wheelchair and spoke slowly-but clearly offered some warm reflections of the star and the film. He said, 'Dexter Gordon was a great friend and I missed him dearly. Quincy Jones was supposed to do the musical score, but he was too busy producing "The Color Purple" soundtrack for Steven Spielberg. Herbie Hancock ended up getting he gig and won a Oscar for it.'

Ashley Kahn asked Greg Osby his opinion of the movie and his response was very interesting. Osby admitted that this was his first time seeing the film, having only seen clips of it. Osby confirmed he normally avoids jazz films due to the stereotype images that are always attached with the main characters. He cited movies as 'Bird' and 'Lady Sings the Blues' as soley focusing on the negatives and never the brilliance these artists bought to their art. Osby concluded, 'I enjoyed "Round Midnight" very much. but my favorite music film is "Amadeus." I feel it's the best example of a musician's life for it shows Mozart's musicianship and it celebrates music.'

Jimmy Heath commented, 'This film you see real life musicians acting instead of actors.' He added to Osby's view of negative images by stating that jazz musicians should produce their own films on the subject. Heath stressed, 'We have to make it.'

Michael Cussina pointed out that both the director and producer relied heavily on the musician's input regarding dialogue and music since this was their world. Cussina would go on to discuss how Gordon added to the party scene in the movie by insisting that a jazz tap dancer be included. The producer Irwin Winkler found out that veteran tap dancer Jimmy Slyde was performing in France that week and was invited to join the film.

The party scene in the film which comes midway in is very interesting and shows a historical perspective. At Francis's house, a party is thrown which includes his family, friends and all the musicians involved. The scene shows the usual moments of people laughing, playing games, singing and piano playing. Everyone is drinking and enjoying eating the food which is American Southern cuisine. While watching, I couldn't help realizing that this film shows the love affair that the French have always had for African-American culture. This admiration is now a century old and still continues to this very day. While watching the musician characters interact in the party scene and throughout the film-it indirectly shows what life must have been like for the dozens of American Blacks who visted France in the post world war two years and ended up staying there becoming expatriates. Bobby Hutcherson plays a character named 'Ace' who is when he is not playing the vibes, is always cooking. His southern dishes is a huge delight to the other musicians for it's a reminder of life back home in the states.

Maxine Gordon mentioned that Dexter loved being cast in the lead role, but hated the fact that his character had to died. To the amusement of the audience, Bruce Ludvall was quick to add, 'I told Dexter it's a French film and that you have to die in the end.'

Greg Osby talked of loving the music and the way the film captured the personality of a older generation. He said, 'The film captured the family connection of the jazz community and how the older generation would reach out to the younger generation and vice versa. Sadly, that is something that is missing with today's musicians.'

The final part of the panel discussion dealt with the acting aspect and how it was received. There was a general consensus among those on the panel who felt that the critics were wrong in their assessment that Dexter Gordon wasn't acting, but yet portraying himself. Bruce Ludvall commented on how the director Bertrand Tavernier felt that Dexter Gordon was the best actor he ever worked with. Maxine Gordon felt that her husband should of won best actor for he wasn't playing himself. Cussina said, 'Dexter Gordon gave a solid performance and wasn't portraying himself at all. The critics were wrong.' It was mentioned that Dexter would act in a another movie a few years later called 'Awakenings' along with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. Gordon would received another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. The panel agreed that had Dexter not have died in the early nineties, he could of gone on to have a
major career in acting.

The famed director Martin Scorsese had a small role in the film as Dale Turner's New York based manager. Maxine Gordon spoke on how when the film wrapped shooting, that Scorsese was predicting the film would gather Oscar nominations.

She stated, 'We were at our New Mexico home watching "The Today Show" and the Oscar nominations were announced. The first call we received was from the director Bertrand Tavernier. However, later on Marlon Brando called and told us he screened the film at Michael Jackson's house. Marlon felt that Dexter's acting was the best since his.'

The panel and audience were treated to two film clips during the discussion. The first was of Dexter Gordon's screen test for the film. The second was a clip of Bud Powell playing in France in the year 1962. The tune that Powell was playing was none other than Thelonious Monk's 'Round Midnight.'

This special screening showed that 'Round Midnight' is a classic film. It is available on DVD and is worth owning. If you spot it playing at a movie revival house or part of any film festival, it's movie that is worth seeing on the big screen. Along with the music and first rate acting, it's a beautiful looking film which captures the feel of late fifties France. It also has a film noir touch to it as well with scenes of gray raining days and nights in the back stone walk alleys of Paris. As noted earlier, Herbie Hancock won a Academy Award for film's music. The soundtrack was released in two parts: 'Round Midnight' and 'The Other Side of Round Midnight.'


  • Aug 18, 2013 at 04:42AM Lafayette Harris

    What a great read! Thank you. I recently had another gig with Sandra Reaves Philips in Cape May, NJ this August of 2013. On the drive back we got to talking about her performance in this movie and all the joy she had making the film and relating with Herbie and Dexter and the others. (I'd seen it back in 1986 when it came out since I was both a Bud and Herbie fan of the highest magnitude!) I told her about one of my first meetings with Herbie and how much love he had in his eyes when I mentioned that I played piano for Sandra. He stopped talking to the people he was talking to after his show at the Blue Note in NY and gave me his full attention, writing Sandra's name at the top of my business card!
    She related that the party scene had no music beforehand. And the director said it needed some music that would uplift the scene. Sandra would always travel with some arrangements, just in case, so pulled a Bessie Smith tune out of her bag and voila: instant party music! She was hoping that it would go on the later soundtrack albums but it didn't happen.

  • Sep 30, 2013 at 12:01AM Joseph Powell

    To Mr. Harris,
    Thank you so much for your nice comments and sharing a story about the film and the singer Sandra Reaves Philips!

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Joseph Powell