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A Conversation on Jazz & Hollywood

Way Out West

Denzel Washington in "Mo' Better Blues"
Miles Teller (l.) and J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash"
Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in "Miles Ahead." Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Keyon Harrold, Gary Bartz, Robert Glasper and Steven Bernstein (from left) at the Jazz Connect Conference, January 2016, NYC
Barry Shabaka Henley in "Collateral"
Joshua Redman and James Carter in "Kansas City"

The idea was to consider the overlap of jazz and Hollywood, historically and in the present day-jazz as soundtracks, jazz as narrative focus, jazz as plot points and side references-all in one hour.

There’s certainly a lot to talk about: Jazz and popular movie-making have both been around for over a hundred years, have met, influenced and bumped into each other repeatedly as each form evolved, with results that range from historic and sublime to cornball and groan-worthy.

Covering this topic at this year’s Jazz Connect conference in January was a timely choice. There’s been a crop of jazz-focused films of late, including well-produced documentaries (Jaco, Keep on Keepin’ On), scores and soundtracks created by jazz musicians (Jason Moran for Selma, Antonio Sanchez for Birdman, Kris Bowers for Seeds of Time) and movies centering on the lives of jazz musicians (Low Down, about the pianist Joe Albany, and the highly debated Whiplash, depicting the painful trials of a student drummer). This year brings the long-awaited Miles Ahead biopic, starring Don Cheadle and slated for limited release April 1; a film about Chet Baker, Born to Be Blue, starring Ethan Hawke; and the first John Coltrane documentary in over 10 years. It also marks the 30th anniversary of Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight, starring Dexter Gordon, which is regarded almost universally as the high-water mark of jazz filmmaking.

Four panelists of jazz and movie experience participated: Gary Bartz, who relocated to Los Angeles in the mid-’70s to create music for films and television; Steven Bernstein, who wrote and/or arranged music for Kansas City and Get Shorty, among other titles; Robert Glasper, musical director for Miles Ahead, who was involved in all musical aspects of the film; and Keyon Harrold, who played all of the trumpet parts on the movie’s soundtrack. Each chose a favorite jazz-and-movie moment to present as well. I served as moderator.-ASHLEY KAHN

Ashley Kahn: When movies either use jazz or refer to it, or fully focus on the music, when do they get it right and when don’t they, and what’s your standard for how jazz should be presented on the big screen? Gary, can we start with you?

Gary Bartz: For me, the best use of the music was Round Midnight because the musicians actually played their instruments; they weren’t synching anything like they normally do. It’s so easy for us musicians to do that-all you have to do is just film us playing-so I don’t understand why they don’t do that more often. Maybe it has to do with the sound, but [in Hollywood] they’ve got the best sound technicians, the best engineers!

I lived in Hollywood for about five years, from ’74 to ’79. I moved out there because I wanted to do film scores, and I learned how hard it was to be able to break into that. While I was there, Benny Golson, J.J. Johnson and Oliver Nelson were all out there trying to do the same thing; many great musicians, but many of us couldn’t get into the business because it’s kind of passed on through the family that’s there. If you’re an outsider it’s really hard, and you really have to know somebody who’s making a movie, like Quincy [Jones] was able to do. But if you just go out there and send in your résumé to the studios, it’s not going to happen.

One other thing I found out: They might have a budget for the movie that is $30 million, but you might get $30,000 for the music. They don’t pay musicians much; at least they didn’t when I was out there. A grip might make more money than the music budget. It’s a shame, but we need to make our own movies.

The other way I think this music could and should be used is like Miles Davis did on the soundtrack to Elevator to the Gallows. They played the film for him and he and the band played and they synched everything while [they were] looking at the film. They played what they thought the film was portraying. In the days of silent movies they did it that way: They had a piano player or an organist who played while the film was shown, or they had bands come and sit in the pit and play along to the movie. To me that’s still a better way to use jazz, rather than always doing the same thing.

Keyon Harrold: I think it’s very effective having movies that portray jazz or have the music in them, [because] I think the majority of Americans, they probably don’t know about jazz. So it’s a chance to introduce someone to the idea of jazz.

The clip I’m thinking of was in the Tom Cruise movie Jerry Maguire, when the [quirky nanny character] gave Jerry that cassette and was introducing people to jazz, and to Miles and Trane. I think that’s very effective because that gives people the opportunity to check something out that they don’t know. Another way of looking at this idea would be some of the movies that Miles scored-not a lot of them but some really good ones.

Robert Glasper: Like Gary said, it’s hard to break into [the Hollywood scene], and I think a lot of people that are in it don’t know what good jazz is. A lot of the jazz you hear in movies-like when somebody walks into a bar and there’s a band playing-sucks. So the music director or music supervisor must say, “Well, my cousin likes jazz, so, ‘Hey, cuz, do you know anybody that plays jazz?'” So in a lot of movies jazz is portrayed as something that’s actually really bad. You’re watching and listening and thinking, “That’s not it.” I don’t know how to get people to understand that if you’re going to do something that involves jazz, maybe have a credible jazz mind there.

Kahn: I guess it comes down to music supervisors, music directors, the people who are given the responsibility in Hollywood for making those decisions.

Glasper: They have to realize where they fall short. Fuck it, I’m gonna say it: This music is on a higher level than any other music-you know what I mean? Technically you can’t play it without being somewhat a master of your instrument; just to be bad at it you have to be good. It’s not like that in any other music except maybe classical.

Kahn: No one likes mediocre jazz.

Glasper: No. I think if we just had people overseeing this stuff to get a credible person who really understands the music to place these things in the films, I think jazz would look better and the average person could have a better concept of what it actually is. Even in modern days, a movie can come out now and if they reference jazz it will probably have to be something old. They wouldn’t even think, “Oh, let’s put Marcus Strickland in here,” or, “We gotta show a clip of this or Charlie Parker.” So I think if we just put people who actually know the music in those positions it would make us all look better.

Steven Bernstein: I guess I was kind of lucky, because when I did films it was this brief era when there were people in film who knew about jazz. I actually did a lot of films then where we would watch the film and play and there would be the score-a slight score, but the reason they hired us instead of the regular studio musicians was because we could actually play the picture.

[In the mid-1990s] with Kansas City, it was very interesting because the original music person they hired had put together a very typical band, and I think [director] Robert Altman wanted something more exciting. We were able to get real working jazz musicians from different parts of the community. We had people like Nicholas Payton and Joshua Redman, then we had Victor Lewis and Ron Carter, and then we had Olu Dara and David Murray! What that did was create a good amount of tension, because a lot of these people didn’t really know each other’s playing and didn’t necessarily trust each other. Everyone had to really play at their highest level, so we actually got real music out of people listening to each other.

I would also like to say that for a long time jazz represented freedom. In the postwar years, when people had been dancing to jazz, it was still popular music, and so usually when you saw jazz on the screen that’s what it was representing. Now there’s a whole generation of people who don’t know much about jazz. This started 20 years ago. They might know a lot about some good music; they might know about Björk and Kanye [West] and all this. But now there’s less and less people in those positions [of music supervision and direction] who know much about jazz. So I think that is something we need to try to figure out-how to get these people to realize that this music is exciting and real and has something to do with your life.

Kahn: That’s a great point, how what jazz represented has changed. I think the Jerry Maguire clip from 1996 that Keyon referenced hits on that idea. Let’s play that. [Watch Keyon Harrold’s clip pick from Jerry Maguire.]

[In the scene, the bookish nanny Chad, played by Todd Louiso, passionately offers Jerry a cassette featuring Miles Davis and John Coltrane in Stockholm-he dates it, erroneously, 1963 instead of ’60-and “some Mingus.” ]

That’s a rare moment of insight into the way jazz likes to speak about itself, and how some people can be almost over the top in their sincerity. Why did you choose this scene?

Harrold: I was actually thinking about the scene in the movie when a Mingus song was playing, but when I Googled it this came up, which to me actually gives more insight into the importance of jazz and the people who play jazz. [To] anybody who doesn’t know about jazz, you would say, “You should check out Miles, you can’t go wrong. Check out Trane, check out Mingus, you can’t go wrong.” So I was into this scene. Not the musical aspect but the informational part was very important.

Kahn: I think Cameron Crowe, who wrote the film, was showing the other side of jazz enthusiasm-that the music does have that top-shelf reputation and mystery about it.

Harrold: Yes, I guess he tried to put that character over the top, but in a way he was letting Jerry Maguire know that this music is very important, just like [Renée Zellweger’s character, Dorothy] is: Take care of this lady, take care of this music. That’s what I feel we need to do with jazz today; we need to take care of this lady to keep it alive.

Glasper: I think Tom Cruise is a big jazz fan, because it seems like in a lot of his films, like…

Bernstein: Collateral.

Glasper: Yeah, that’s the one that freaked me out! This is funny. [Cruise and Jamie Foxx’s characters] show up at a [jazz] club and it’s the [early 2000s] and everyone is wearing suits and clean-cut, but the music that’s going on is electric Miles, with bass clarinet. If you know anything about jazz, it’s the most ridiculous scene you’ve ever seen because you know the people who are playing this music were wearing dashikis and had naturals, so for me it was kind of silly. That would never happen in sports. Can you imagine if you had a football scene and everyone was wearing baseball outfits? Of course everyone would say, “Oh, nooo!” Me, I would say, “That’s cool, it’s sports.” [laughter]

Kahn: We have another clip-jumping back to 1954. Gary, this is your choice from the film Carmen Jones and a great star turn for Max Roach and Pearl Bailey: a lot of screen time. [Watch Gary Bartz’s clip pick: Max Roach in Carmen Jones.] Did he ever tell you about this moment in that movie?

Bartz: He probably did but I forgot it.

What inspired me to go do music for movies was just movies, period. I love movies and I love music and so that’s what I wanted to do and I do that in my mind all the time. One of my albums is called Cinderella and was actually supposed to be a musical but it never saw the light of day, but I’ve been dabbling in this idea for quite a while. I did do one film for the American Film Institute; I don’t even know the name of it or what happened to it, but I learned how to score music for movies. Los Angeles has some of the greatest movie scoring studios, with the big studios, where the orchestra can sit and look at the film on the screen and synch it. It was interesting just to see how that all worked and like I said, you were talking about having someone in the business, in the movie industry that knew about music, people that choose.

I think Round Midnight came pretty close [to an accurate jazz representation] though, because they used the musicians as actors. I have yet to see an actor portray a musician that was believable to me. The only person who pulled it off, I think, was Jamie Foxx [in Ray], and that’s because he is a musician and you just can’t do it, you have to learn the instrument in order to play the role. I hope Don [Cheadle] pulls it off. He’s a hell of an actor, and if anybody could pull it off I think it would be him.

Glasper: I was saying that the beauty of Don Cheadle [in Miles Ahead] is that he actually learned how to play the trumpet. It amazed me just watching him, going over different things at different times.

Kahn: Everyone should know that when you see Don blowing trumpet in the movie or the other trumpet-playing character, Junior, you’re actually hearing Keyon. Robert, let’s play a clip that you chose from Mo’ Better Blues, from 1990, when Spike Lee’s character is getting beaten up in the alley while the band’s playing inside. [Watch Robert Glasper’s clip pick from Mo’ Better Blues.] Why this scene?

Glasper: I love this score and the film has some of my favorite musicians in it. Most movies you see don’t have any modern jazz in it, so it was great to see Jeff Watts on the screen, and it was great to hear Kenny Kirkland. I’m a Kenny fanatic-my son’s name is Kirkland. When I moved to New York in 1997 to go to the New School, on my first day I was walking across the street, a Lexus pulled up and a guy got out to go to the Citibank, and it was Kenny Kirkland. My first day of school. I almost died. I ran up to him-“Mr. Kirkland, I love your music. Do you give lessons?” He gave me his card and was really nice. “Come see me at the Zinc Bar.” So this is one of the only movies I feel portrays modern jazz at its best. [In this scene we’re hearing] Kenny, Jeff, Terence Blanchard [and Bob Hurst].

It’s all my modern jazz heroes so it was good to see that-the people I grew up listening to, and see them in that light, and also the way that the composition complements what you’re seeing on film-because normally when stuff is synched you don’t get that kind of energy. You wouldn’t have been able to do that if the drummer wasn’t playing live, and to play the shit Tain’s playing, that’s impossible. You have to get Tain, period. Roll the film. I always wanted to say that.

Harrold: Denzel [Washington, lead actor in Mo’ Better Blues] did an amazing job [portraying a trumpeter], fingering-wise. That’s a lot of trumpet for anybody to play and it was accurate. That scene draws a parallel in my mind to the Miles film with Don, except that [Don] actually knew how to play the trumpet. It messed with my mind to see him do it.

Glasper: Don said this was the motivation. He was like, “I gotta get Denzel!” [laughter]

Harrold: He did an amazing job, learning how to play jazz. Maybe you can sit down and learn how to play an instrument, but to actually pick up on the nuances of jazz? Don did that. I’ve heard him play Miles Davis transcriptions.

Glasper: We were in rehearsal one time and he went to the piano and took a solo on the blues. He played alto [saxophone] in junior high and high school, and he said he could have gotten a scholarship to go to college.

Harrold: CalArts.

Glasper: Did he go?

Harrold: [For Don it was] acting or sax. He chose acting.

Glasper: One of the greatest stories I have about doing that movie was something I was only a part of. We were filming the very last scene of the film, and I was behind Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter] onstage, and I was watching them watching Don. They were talking, like, “Wow, he even stands like him. You see the little thing he did? That’s Miles.” Don wasn’t even playing the role; he was talking to one of the assistants but was still in the vibe of Miles. They could have been like, “He got the wrong boots on.”

Kahn: Keyon, you were there too for that scene, right?

Harrold: I was there. I was offstage making sure I was playing what Don was playing at that moment, because we needed to lock everything in. So I had to watch him doing what he was doing, and at the same time play what was correct with the action and with the music. If he played E-flat over a C-major chord we might have a problem. I had to make that make sense musically, so that was an interesting thing when it comes to synching, what Gary was talking about: making it make sense to what he looked like he was doing, and whether I felt like he was playing hard or soft. That was my role.

Glasper: What was interesting is that a lot of the time when I was working on the Miles movie I was touring. Some of it I scored when I was on a duo piano tour with Jason Moran, and Jason was scoring some of Selma at the same time! So we would do these concerts, and after the show we’re like, “Let’s go to the room and work on these scores.” And Keyon, you were on the road with Eminem while doing the music for the Miles Davis film. That’s just so awesome.

Harrold: Yeah, Eminem and Rihanna.

Kahn: And with D’Angelo last summer! 2015 was an incredible year for you, Keyon. I think we have time for some questions.

Q: I’m Gene Seymour, hi. The one aspect of this music that hasn’t quite made the leap to films is whatever we call progressive jazz or avant-garde jazz. I listen to some of what Ornette [Coleman] did over the decades and I think to myself, “There’s such rich material here for scoring and for appropriation.” I just wonder why there’s always been this disconnect, and is there any possibility for that to take place? Steven, maybe you’re the guy who can answer that.

Bernstein: I had a funny story I was going to tell anyway, so this is a perfect setup. The great Butch Morris was doing a TV score. I think the show was called A Man Called Hawk, with Avery Brooks, and he had done the music for the pilot in his style. So they have a big meeting with the president of ABC or whoever, and if any of you knew Butch, he was the charmer of all times. He shows up in the meeting and the president says, “Mr. Morris, you’re such a fantastic artist, your music is so visionary, we’re so proud to have you involved with this project, we can’t tell you how much this means. But I need to tell you that [despite the] incredible amount of respect we have for your ability to create brand new music, for TV it’s just not commercial enough, you know?” Butch looks at him and says, “Well, you’re the president of this TV network, right? Well, make a decision-you call it commercial.” [laughter]

I think the people at the top just don’t want to hear that kind of music. Sorry.

Q: Hi, my name is Nick Bewsey. I’m with Icon magazine in Philadelphia and WRTI. In the jazz community I think there’s a burden for this music to be presented accurately in films, and we’re seeing great examples today. I’d like your impressions of Whiplash.

Bartz: Well, I like the fact that Whiplash introduced a lot of Americans and people around the world to Buddy Rich. That’s a good thing. But the movie really wasn’t about the music; it was really more like a horror story. [laughs] I mean, seriously, because I’ve never had a music teacher that even thought about hitting me. I know some piano students have said, “Yeah, they would hit your fingers with a ruler if you did it wrong,” but I’m glad they used the music and it was valid.

Glasper: It’s almost as though the people who wrote the [Whiplash] script didn’t really communicate with actual musicians. Some of the stuff [the music teacher] was saying, and the [scene with the drummer’s] hands bleeding-I don’t know.

But a lot of this I liked. Like I said, as far as musicians go, if a lot of the movie has something to do with what you do for a living, you’re going to look at it through a different lens. You’re not even watching the movie anymore, you’re zoning in on what’s wrong. If I was a wardrobe person I’d probably be like, “Oh, really, are they going to wear beige socks with that? Oh my God, this movie is horrible…”

Overall I’m not mad at Whiplash as a movie. They could have chosen another art form and not used jazz at all. I wasn’t necessarily mad at it. I probably won’t ever see it again but it was cool, whatever. It wasn’t a bad movie. But the reality is-and even Don [Cheadle] told me this-the people who go see this movie, maybe three percent are musicians, so you have to please the other 97 percent. You’re going to make the musicians mad at some point because you’re not going to get everything correct. You just take that loss because the bigger picture is to make a great movie.

Kahn: We’ve run out of time, but we’re going to play the sax battle that features Craig Handy and Joshua Redman on “Yeah, Man!,” from Kansas City. [Watch Steven Bernstein’s clip pick from Kansas City.]

Bernstein: We’re going out with a pretty damn good movie. Well, if you like movies and jazz. They’re really playing-give it some volume, baby!

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