What is a jazz film? Does it have to be a film about jazz and the people who play it? Or can it also be a film that expresses at least some of the same spirit we find in the music, even if jazz isn’t its central subject? I’d say it can be either, as long as it’s good. And there’s the rub; as many of us know all too well, lots of movies that purport to be about jazz don’t capture enough of that spirit.
The first movie I recall seeing that did both—told a jazz-related story and felt like jazz—was the Bertrand Tavernier classic that Colin Fleming celebrates in this issue. I still can remember trudging through the snows of Cambridge, Mass., sometime in the winter of 1986-87, my big clunky rubber overshoes leaving black streaks on my sneakers, to see ’Round Midnight at the Harvard Square Theatre. It made such an impression on my 14-year-old consciousness that I felt compelled to go back and see it again later that same week.
Dexter Gordon’s magnificent performance in the role of Dale Turner was one of the biggest draws for me, not surprisingly. But there were others. The wistful, bittersweet mood that radiated from every frame was magnetic. The world that Tavernier and his colleagues created had both a down-to-earth reality and a metaphysical airiness. Decades later, it’s clear to me that the film engages in some mythmaking and doesn’t completely elude cliché. Still, that scarcely matters. As Fleming makes plain in his essay, the underlying artistic truth of ’Round Midnight remains indelible, and that’s what makes it a great jazz film.
There are quite a few more where that one came from in these pages. Lee Mergner spoke to several lauded documentarians about how they do their challenging work, while also noting the happy abundance of top-notch jazz docs that we’ve seen in the past decade or so; may it continue. In his Chronology column, Mark Stryker discusses eight collections of music that were conceived for use in movies—and work like a charm that way—but stand alone just fine without the visual stimuli too, from Ellington’s Anatomy of a Murder to the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Les Stances à Sophie. And, in a repeat appearance, Colin Fleming lists some noteworthy filmic jazz moments (with extras to be found at jazztimes.com). Some of these are explicitly about the music, while others simply (or not so simply) convey an essential jazziness.
Add to all this Ted Panken’s insightful Q&A with Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein, and Bill Stewart on the occasion of their 30th anniversary as a trio; Geoffrey Himes’ well-researched investigation of the cello’s role in jazz; our annual Jazz Summer Programs Guide; and our usual combo platter of reviews and other departments, and you’ve got yourself another jam-packed issue of JazzTimes.