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JT Notes: On Movies, Jazz and Jake LaMotta

As you might surmise from how the words “jazz,” “film” and “Hollywood” appear in different arrangements no less than 38,000 times throughout it, this edition of JT is concerned with when and where jazz crops up in the movies. In all the “jazz is/isn’t dead” tomfoolery, a rare discussion is one that realizes jazz-like classical music-finds its largest audience whenever it mingles with film. And as with any fusion of jazz and a popular medium, the public fawns and the jazzbos bemoan.

In this issue we have roundups on jazz cameo performances, a William Claxton photo collection, stories on the legendary jazz-centered film composers, an expectedly astute piece by Nate Chinen on jazz biopics, and an interview with the guy who has infiltrated more packed multiplexes with swing and bop than anyone, Clint Eastwood. The odd man out here is Woody Allen, the greatest writer/director/actor/Dixieland clarinetist who ever lived.

Allen released my favorite jazz movie, Sweet and Lowdown, in 1999. A faux biopic about an imaginary American Gypsy-jazz guitarist named Emmet Ray (played by Sean Penn), it’s a gorgeously shot pre-war period flick with expert guitar music by Howard Alden and talking-head appearances from our very own Nat Hentoff. (The presence of Nat and other real-life commentators, as well as a running gag about how Ray is second to only Django Reinhardt, are two ways Allen cleverly smears the line between history and fantasy.) It’s a masterpiece built to scale, too quaint, cute and idealized to spark controversy (even from jazz fans) or have social relevance. Still, it’s a sweet, brisk picture with performances that recall another Hollywood era without being corny or sending up the golden age. Best of all, it reminds us that the best music films only use the art as an accessory, or as a means to an end. You could say the same for the best sports films.

The greatest sports picture ever made-and one of the best films in the history of the cinematic art form-is Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). Yes, there are salaciously vivid boxing scenes that make Rocky and Apollo Creed look like they’re playing pat-a-cake, but the real brutality occurs out of the ring. For Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta, boxing is a vehicle he uses to exercise his jealousy, anger and crippling insecurities. Boxing is the frankest allegory for a man capable of LaMotta’s scary cruelty, but he could just as easily be a race-car driver, an abstract expressionist, a mad but brilliant mathematician or a veraciously swinging guitarist.

Likewise, the emotionally stunted musician Emmet Ray, a screwy, Chaplinesque character of infinitely lighter tone, could be a boxer. His comical egoism already suggests a prize fighter, and his skills grant him a pedestal from which he frustrates everyone around him. Ray falls in love, is too proud and foolish to admit it, and eventually ends up a broken man (like LaMotta). At the film’s finale, the heart-shattered musician weeps beside his smashed guitar. The film’s recurring love theme, Alden’s melancholy take of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” sounds its final refrain, and we’re reminded that movies, like great jazz recordings, are only as good as the stories they tell.

Originally Published

Evan Haga

Evan Haga worked as an editor and writer at JazzTimes from 2006 to 2018. He is currently the Jazz Curator at TIDAL, and his writing has appeared at RollingStone.com, NPR MusicBillboard and other outlets.