Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Clint Eastwood: Mise En Swing

Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood and Christian McBride
Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood - 1965
Kyle Eastwood

If jazz had a few more champions like Clint Eastwood, the music’s status in America’s cultural firmament would be much less tenuous. Then again, as an iconic actor and Oscar-winning director and producer, Eastwood is sui generis. And so is his broad commitment to using the various resources at his disposal to keep jazz in the foreground of the country’s consciousness. Whether artfully weaving jazz into his films, exploring the life of Charlie Parker in the searing biopic Bird, sitting on the board of the Monterey Jazz Festival or serving as a rainmaking executive producer for jazz documentaries, Eastwood has been as dogged in his support for the music as Dirty Harry Callahan was in pursuit of a bad guy.

In many ways, 1988 was the watershed year for Eastwood’s evolution from devoted fan to singular jazz supporter. It was the year he released Bird, and through his work on the film came into contact with Bruce Ricker, who was struggling to finish his Thelonious Monk documentary, Straight, No Chaser. A day after he learned about the budget shortfall, Eastwood lined up an investor who supplied the film’s finishing funds. It’s turned into a fruitful relationship, with Eastwood serving as executive producer on several of Ricker’s documentaries, including Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends, which is slated to air as part of the PBS American Masters series on Sept. 12, and a work in progress on Dave Brubeck (for more about Ricker’s Rhapsody Films, see sidebar).

“They wouldn’t be financed if Clint wasn’t involved,” says Ricker. “He’s become the cinematic Norman Granz, a cultural impresario. But the reason why these projects happen is that he’s in the ebb and flow, listening to music all the time. He’s out there going to clubs, helping with Monterey, and checking out new sounds.”

Born in San Francisco on May 31, 1930, and raised mostly in the Oakland area, Eastwood witnessed the rise of the West Coast jazz scene firsthand. His knowledge of the music is clearly extensive, flowing from more than 60 years of avid club-going, and his taste is catholic, encompassing a broad range of jazz currents. What’s most evident when he talks about the music is the pleasure he’s gleaned from being part of the scene.

JazzTimes: You discovered jazz at a young age. What was the first music you listened to?

Clint Eastwood: When I was a kid growing up in Oakland, I started listening to a program called The Dixieland Jubilee. For 15 minutes every day, they’d play the Frisco Jazz Band, Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band, stuff like that. Then there was a jazz store out near El Cerrito, and I went out there and started listening to things and purchased a few records. Bop was starting to come in pretty good. So I went over and saw Dizzy Gillespie with a big band in San Francisco. I was drawn to the whole improvisational element. It was great fun and very appealing, and just outside the mainstream.

I used to go out to El Cerrito to Hambone Kelly’s and listen to Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band. You’d go to places where they’d let kids in. In those days they weren’t too strict. If you had the money to go to the bar you were okay. If they wouldn’t serve you beers you could drink colas. I liked blues too. There was a lot of blues being played around Oakland at that time-Ivory Joe Hunter, Joe Houston, Wynonie Harris-and I got wrapped up listening to that. I loved the humor of it. In those days jazz had a tremendous sense of humor too, with great acts like Louis Jordan. It seems to have lost that nowadays, though it seems to be regaining it in some areas now.

JT: You caught Dizzy early on. When did you first hear Bird?

I didn’t see Charlie Parker until Jazz at the Philharmonic came through Oakland in 1946. I was interested in Lester Young. I thought he was the cat’s rear end. So I went down there to listen to him with Coleman Hawkins and Flip Phillips, and this cat Charlie Parker came out. I thought, well, this is really something. I don’t fully understand what he’s doing, but I’m interested in finding out. I started buying records.

JT: You were doing a little playing yourself around this time, weren’t you?

My mother loved Fats Waller and he died about that time, so she went down and bought a bunch of 78s, those albums with four discs in them. She brought it back and said we’ve got to have this stuff, it’s classic. At first I wasn’t too sure about Fats Waller, but I loved his sense of humor, and after listening to him I realized he was a pretty good stride player. I’d listen to his things and I’d try to imitate him. I’d try to imitate Meade Lux Lewis and people of that era. Everybody was listening to either stride, bop or boogie.

JT: The trad scene was really strong in the Bay Area, but it seems like you were gravitating to the more modern players, who were starting to make a name for themselves.

I started going over to the Blackhawk, and started listening to Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. I first saw Dave Brubeck on Lakeshore Avenue at the Burma Lounge in the mid-’40s. It was the Brubeck trio then and he was playing with Cal Tjader and Ron Crotty. Cal would play both vibes and drums. They couldn’t make it a quartet. They didn’t have the money, I guess.

JT: Did you have a chance to hang out with any of those players?

I was just a gangly kid sitting in the back. I didn’t get to know them, until years later. I would just go and listen to them.

JT: You were taking in a lot of movies at the time too. Were there any films with jazz themes that made an impression on you?

I liked movie scores but that was a different thing in those days. It was Max Steiner and Franz Waxman, who did big movie scores. I liked those, but they were a different kind of thing. I guess Elmer Bernstein and some of the guys came along with jazz scores, but that was later, in the 1950s. Sometimes jazz would be very effective on those scores if somebody knows when to turn it on and when to turn it off.

There’s been a lot of stuff over the years, and it would go in fads. Somebody would do a jazz score and it would be a hit, like Man With the Golden Arm, then people would do jazz scores for a while, and then back to something else. They’d do all country-western scores, pop scores, or rock-and-roll scores after Blackboard Jungle. Hollywood is a very faddish place. Whatever the fad is, I try to go against it.

JT: Music brought you to Hollywood long before acting ever did.

I’d travel to Los Angeles to hear bands that weren’t in the Bay Area. I’d go to Balboa Island and Rendezvous Ballroom and hear Stan Kenton back in the 1940s. Then I’d go up to the Beverly Cavern and listen to Kid Ory and then go down somewhere else and hear Charlie Parker. I’d go down to the Haig behind the Ambassador Hotel, and they’d always have great acts there. And then you’d go down to Central Avenue and there were a lot of good little crazy clubs you could fall into. There’s not much of that left. There’s a place in Santa Monica I went to the other night, the Temple Bar, where my son Kyle was playing. There used to be a place out there, the Loa, and the last person I heard out there was Stan Getz.

JT: That was Ray Brown’s club, right?

Yeah. I sat with Stan, and he had a gallon jar of water. His liver was obviously going, but he was still playing very well. I said, “Kyle, you gotta get down here and see this, he might not be around much longer; come and down and listen.” There are still some places out in the Valley, but not like what it used to be.

JT: You had discovered the Monterey area long before the festival started.

I was in the military in the early 1950s, and during the start of the Korean War there were a lot of people at Fort Ord who had been drafted: Andre Previn and Lennie Niehaus and all those guys. They’d have a lot of good music playing around the base, and we actually had a pretty good swing band there. With all these draftees you get all this top talent, who would have otherwise not joined the service. And later on I did go down to Monterey in 1958 and attended the first Monterey Jazz Festival, and I’ve been going to that for years.

JT: Is it just a coincidence that obsession and music are the themes of the first film you directed, Play Misty For Me.

No, It struck a chord with me. Originally the script was written as a late-night pop DJ in Los Angeles, but I took it up to where I lived in the Monterey area because I felt to make the character right, it should be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, so he would stand out more as a local celebrity. Then I made him a jazz-oriented DJ. I went and saw Jimmy Lyons and talked him into letting me shoot at the jazz festival to get some atmosphere in the picture. We recorded performances by Cannonball Adderley and Erroll Garner and various people.

JT: And “Misty” was the original song in the script?

Yeah, it’s what the writer had. Universal was the studio I was working for at the time, and they tried to talk me out of it. They thought it was too expensive a tune to buy, but I thought it was a good one, because it crossed over into pop and jazz and a lot of different things. It was in an era when music was turning more toward rock and roll, so this was a movie of a classic song that everybody would remember. I finally prevailed and used it and then brought Errol Garner back and recorded him for the end credits and turned it up a little bit.

JT: Obviously that wasn’t your last musical venture in film.

That was the beginning. I guess the ultimate thing was later on when I did Bird and I got to use all jazz because that’s what the story was about, and it was terrific. It was great fun, anyway. But I love all kinds of music. I’ve appreciated jazz and classical, but I’ve even liked certain country artists. I remember going to see Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys up near Eugene, Ore., when I was stuck up there with nothing to do. I just went out thinking this might be interesting and I was taken by how good some of the musicians were.

JT: You seem to work in jazz though, even when you’re not the director. The Secret Service agent you play in In the Line of Fire comes home and puts on Kind of Blue to relax. Was that something you put in the script?

I don’t recall whether it was in the script, but I think we put it in, and everybody thought it was good to have. It might have been written in by the author. If the writer knew me, he probably put it in (laughs).

JT: Whether it’s your agenda or not, you’ve been able to draw some attention to overlooked artists, particularly with Bridges of Madison County. How important was music when you were conceptualizing that film?

I just thought that these two people, Kincaid and Francesca, were sort of outsiders. She was a war bride from Italy, and Kincaid was a loner who traveled around trying to get photos into National Geographic. So they’re sort of outsiders and they listened to stations that played outside stuff. I picked Johnny Hartman because he was a guy who never made it into the mainstream but was really good, and Irene Kral was a great singer who didn’t do that much because she didn’t live that long. But what she did do was quite interesting. She and Hartman never became pop stars.

Whenever you do a period picture, okay, it’s the 1940s, so you’re going to play Glenn Miller. Or you’re going to go with more of a swing band, Duke Ellington or Basie, maybe. But nobody looks beyond that. They don’t look into Stan Kenton, Boyd Raeburn or other bands of that era. I tried to use Artie Shaw in Flags of Our Fathers, people who were great musicians and very popular at that time, but have sort of been forgotten as generations have gone on. People call attention to the musicians who are the obvious two or three, but they don’t really understand that era. It was a tremendous era musically. It’s lasted a long time, a lot longer than contemporary music today will last.

JT: So how important would you say the music is in how you conceive of a film? Can it end up affecting the structure?

I can’t say there’s any great intellectual thought that goes into it. To me, it’s just you hear something and say, “That’s great; wouldn’t that go nice with this?” Like I did a picture years ago, Honkytonk Man, about a sort of country singer, but we stopped at a blues club and he plays a little blues. He stops in a whorehouse and plays a little whorehouse piano. Whatever suits the project. Sometimes it can add a lot of shades to a movie. You can add a lot of different colors by utilizing source music, not even with the score. I did a movie years ago, The Eiger Sanction, and I had John Williams scoring the film for me. I shot some of it in Switzerland and some in the U.S., and I said, “Whenever we’re doing the Swiss scenes why don’t we use classical music, and when we’re in America why don’t we use a jazz score?” And he loved that and he did a very nice score on it.

JT: You’ve been involved in several documentaries as an executive producer, but it was only with the PBS series The Blues that you decided to direct one yourself.

[Martin] Scorsese did The Blues series and brought in various directors and said, “Choose whatever you want to do.” I felt, I’ll specialize on the piano. I had known what some of the archival elements were [that] I wanted, from looking at some old movie shorts and various things, some when I was growing up. If you’re going to do Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Dorothy Donegan, there were some pieces here and there. Bruce Ricker helped me out, finding out where that stuff’s located. I got to interview Ray Charles, probably one of the last interviews he ever did. I knew he was ill, but we got a chance to reminisce, because we’re both the same age and had grown up listening to a lot of the same music. It was great. I was able to utilize Oscar Peterson and Brubeck and all these players, plus some old-time blues players, trying to get a feeling of what the history of the piano was on the American scene.

Kyle Eastwood: Eastern Exposure

It wasn’t preordained that Kyle Eastwood would become a jazz musician, but when your father escorts you to the Monterey Jazz Festival at age 7, it should come as no surprise. That father, of course, was and is American film icon and jazz lover extraordinaire Clint Eastwood. “I grew hearing quite a bit of jazz since it was the only music played in the house,” says the younger Eastwood, who is 39. He particularly recalls the sounds of Louie Bellson, Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald while growing up in Carmel, Calif. One of Eastwood’s clearest remembrances is of meeting Count Basie after a particularly energetic set.

At 8, Kyle received his first piano lesson from his father. While Clint played the right-hand solos, Kyle worked the left-hand bass line as they navigated their way through a boogie-woogie jam. The lesson had a lasting impact. Although Kyle would go on to guitar lessons at 12 and actually perform at 14 in his father’s 1982 movie Honkytonk Man (he also played in an onscreen band 13 years later in Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County), he taught himself the bass and stuck with his chosen instrument.

Eastwood, who plays both acoustic and electric, has now released three solo CDs of music difficult to categorize. You might expect him to be strictly a straightahead man like his father, but his muse shifts easily from bop-styled jazz and contemporary rhythms to rock, electronica and even sweet-sounding, alt-jazz-pop. The latter is represented by four vocal tunes with Ben Cullum, brother of jazz-pop singer Jamie, on Now, his latest on U.K.’s Candid Records (released in the United States by Rendezvous Entertainment). The cover song, an instrumental, actually spent a few weeks on Radio & Records’ smooth-jazz chart.

Today, Kyle lives in a Paris apartment with his girlfriend and has a 13-year-old daughter, Graylen, with ex-wife Laura Gomez. He may live on a different continent, but he’s never too far, workwise, from family. He’s composed music for his father’s Academy Award-winning films Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, in addition to Flags of Our Fathers. But Letters From Iwo Jima marked the first time that Kyle, along with musical partner Michael Stevens, created the entire original music score for a film.

His next score will hit screens later this year with Rails & Ties, which marks the directorial debut of his sister, Alison Eastwood, an actress whose most memorable role came in the 1997 film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Also on his plate: a film with actor John Cusack and another on the life of the late photographer Eddie Adams, who won a 1969 Pulitzer Prize for his iconic image of a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong prisoner.

“I’ve got a lot going on,” Eastwood says, “but I’m also hunting around for some ideas for my next CD with my band.”

by Brian Soergel

Originally Published