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Chops: Branford Marsalis and Howard Alden on Ghost Performances in Movies

The saxophonist and guitarist discuss an unusual gig: working with actors pretending to be musicians

Branford Marsalis with actor Glynn Turman, who played Toledo in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Photo credit: David Lee/Netflix)
Branford Marsalis with actor Glynn Turman, who played Toledo in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Photo: David Lee/Netflix)

The history of jazz musicians “ghosting” parts in films for non-playing actors is a long and storied one, from Nat Adderley playing the trumpet for Sammy Davis Jr.’s character in A Man Called Adam to Keyon Harrold doing the honors for Don Cheadle in Miles Ahead. For every Jamie Foxx (who did play and sing for the title role of Ray), there are dozens of actors who merely mimed their way through their portrayals of gifted musicians. Hey, they’re actors. What did you expect? You didn’t really think that Cheadle learned to play the trumpet as well as Miles, did you? It’s true that many of the actors did learn the rudiments of their appointed instrument, but that was just so they could pass as a professional musician and not look like William Bendix standing clumsily at the plate in The Babe Ruth Story.

In the case of films about or involving jazz, someone has to teach the actors instrumental basics and someone has to play their (musical) parts, so that scenes featuring musical performances have at least a semblance of authenticity—enough to suspend our disbelief adequately. Generally well-paying, ghosting for film or television actors falls into the category of nice work if you can get it, but inevitably the musician’s contribution is underrecognized. For example, anyone who saw Born to Be Blue will surely remember Ethan Hawke’s riveting performance as Chet Baker, but few will know who played those trumpet parts. For the record, it was accomplished Toronto-based jazz trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, though you’ll have to search long and hard through the credits to see his name.

Branford Marsalis has had plenty of experience with this process, having ghosted the performance of Wesley Snipes’ saxophonist character in Mo’ Better Blues and, more recently, collaborated with George S. Wolfe in the film adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for Netflix.  Marsalis not only composed the latter movie’s music but also coached its actors on pulling off their performances as musicians in a 1920s Chicago recording studio. He says there’s a trick to ghosting, for both the musician behind the scenes and for the actor on screen. For the latter, it starts with the instrument. “Forget about your romantic caricatures in your head about what musicians are like,” he explains. “Deal with the physicality of the instrument. Your fingers can’t move when there ain’t no sound. This is the fundamental thing. When there is no sound, your fingers shouldn’t be moving. You have to learn the solos. You have to sing the solos.” Just like Don Cheadle learned basic fingering of the trumpet for his portrayal of Miles, Chadwick Boseman received rudimentary instruction from Chuck Findley in order to play the fictional trumpeter Levee Green convincingly.

Naturally, this also means that the musicians have to play material that can be easily mimed, something Marsalis now realizes he didn’t do on Mo’ Better Blues. “We weren’t thinking of that,” he says, laughing. “Denzel and Wesley did a fantastic job of fingering those complex-ass solos that Terence [Blanchard] and I were playing. I guess it was necessary for the movie, but for this [production of Ma Rainey], we didn’t need to go through that.” Instead, Marsalis endeavored to make solos singable and instructed the musicians accordingly, telling them, “You guys have to play something mindful that the actor has to learn it, so don’t go into your flights of fancy. It needs to be believable.” 

Guitarist Howard Alden was brought into the production of Woody Allen’s 1999 jazz movie Sweet and Lowdown by Dick Hyman, who worked with Allen on the scores for several films. Alden’s job was not only to play the guitar parts performed on screen by Sean Penn as the Django-like Emmett Ray, but also to teach Penn how to play guitar. He was thinking that it would be a few weeks’ work, but it ended up lasting for months; Penn was determined to really play, not just look like it. Ironically, even though Penn’s brother Michael is an accomplished singer/songwriter/guitarist, Sean had never picked up the instrument, so Alden began with the basics. “I just started getting [him] to put a finger on the string and hold it down and get it with a pick,” he explains. “It was mostly nonsense mechanical things, just to get him used to having that axe in his hands and making sounds and holding onto the pick without dropping it. We worked on some very basic exercises, all acoustic.”

Howard Alden on the set of Sweet and Lowdown (Photo credit: Courtesy of Howard Alden)
Howard Alden on the set of Sweet and Lowdown (Photo: Courtesy of Howard Alden)

In addition to working with Penn for months before filming, Alden became a fixture on the set.  “I was there every time he was,” the guitarist says. “I would spend some time with him, working on the guitar when he had a chance and then also when they would film a number, I would be on hand if it involved playing, just to coach him. We eventually realized after a while that he wasn’t going to be able to learn every note of every tune. So he worked it out and said, ‘Listen, if I hear the chords in the music, I kind of move my fingers like this.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s good. That looks reasonable.’ And then he said, ‘If I hear single notes, I’ll move my fingers like this,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s very good.’ In some of those scenes I’d be sitting off camera with my guitar and he’d take a look during the playback of the music, where he was miming to it. He would watch my fingers and try to get his hands in approximately the same position. The shame is that he actually did learn how to play several numbers note for note, just by memorizing them, and only a little of that made it on screen.”

Alden says that Allen was taken aback to discover how seriously Penn had taken the coaching. “We were sitting around and playing ‘Limehouse Blues,’” Alden recounts. “Sean is playing the melody and I’m playing with him. And Woody walked by and did a double take and just said, ‘I can’t believe it! What are you doing, Sean? You’re not really playing that, are you? I didn’t tell you that you had to actually learn how to play the guitar, I just wanted you to look like you’re playing the guitar!’ It was a funny moment.”

As for Ray’s rhythm guitarist in the film, played by James Urbaniak, the late Bucky Pizzarelli ghosted those parts. But his coaching approach was decidedly less hands-on than Alden’s. Pizzarelli’s son John says that Bucky’s Sweet and Lowdown tutorial mostly consisted of telling Urbaniak to come see him play a few sets at Zinno’s in NYC. Nonetheless, the education stuck—Alden says that Urbaniak, like Penn, still plays guitar to this day.

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