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Sounds for Silence: Jazz & Silent Films

Jazz and silent film collide in Louis and projects by Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot

Bill Morrison and Dave Douglas (photo: Robert Cable)

The little man with the toothbrush moustache and the waddling walk looks familiar, but the scheming Judge Perry finds himself in situations that even Charlie Chaplin’s hapless Little Tramp managed to avoid: fathering a child with a New Orleans prostitute, say, or running afoul of a young Louis Armstrong and his street-urchin friends.

This odd mash-up of 1920s cinema and jazz history is Louis, one of two new films by director Dan Pritzker that take inspiration from the life of mythic trumpeter Buddy Bolden. The first-time filmmaker initially heard of the legendary bandleader in 1995 as “the guy who invented jazz,” and the mystery of his tale became an obsession. “It struck me as a very beautiful and tragic story,” Pritzker says. “In the course of studying Bolden I went to see Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, and decided that I wanted to make a companion piece that would be a silent film about a little boy name Louis who wanted to learn how to play the trumpet in New Orleans in 1907.”

A little more than 80 years since the dawn of the talkies, silent films are viewed by most modern audiences as artifacts of a bygone era, as relevant to modern life as horse-drawn carriages or radio plays. But Pritzker’s film was created with Hollywood heavyweights like cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, whose credits include Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Deliverance and The Deer Hunter. The picture premiered at the end of the summer with a five-city tour featuring live accompaniment by Wynton Marsalis, classical pianist Cecile Licad and a 10-piece jazz ensemble.

Nejla Yatkin as Mistress Henna in Louis (photo: Peter Sorel)

It didn’t hurt that Pritzker, also the founder of rock band Sonia Dada, could underwrite the multimillion-dollar budget himself, as the son of Hyatt Hotel chain co-founder Jay Pritzker and a regular entry on Forbes‘ list of the 400 richest people in America. But Pritzker is not the only artist combining jazz and silent films; a number of prominent jazz musicians have been composing and performing their own scores in recent years for silent films both classic and contemporary.

Of course, “silent film” has always been something of a misnomer. Even in the earliest days of the “flickers,” film screenings were always accompanied by music. “I think that music and image want to be together,” says Dave Douglas, who founded the band Keystone to perform music written for film. “Sometimes I have the feeling when I’m performing that the visual of us standing there on the stage isn’t really a natural reflection of what I think the music is about. It’s nice to be able to pick images and write music that goes with those images in interesting ways.”

Keystone’s first project, a self-titled CD/DVD package released in 2005, consisted of scores for the short films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Early film comedy is easily the most popular genre for live accompaniment, its kinetic physicality an ideal spur for musical invention. Bill Frisell began performing scores to the films of Arbuckle’s frequent partner, Buster Keaton, in the early ’90s, releasing two CDs of the music in 1995 and, finally, a DVD last year. “The first time we did it,” Frisell recalls, “it was complete panic, basically. I couldn’t believe we made it through the whole thing; it was really intense. But then we did a tour in Europe and there was a point where we knew the music well enough and our attention could really spread out into the film. It felt almost like Buster Keaton was another guy in the band.”

As much as those figures onscreen may appear to act as collaborators, one thing they can’t do is improvise, much to the chagrin of many a jazz musician. “Oftentimes I wish the movie would change itself to accommodate my desire to play another chorus, but it doesn’t,” shrugs Marc Ribot, who premiered his score for Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 feature The Kid at the New York Guitar Festival in January. Some of that music appears on Ribot’s new film-inspired solo disc, Silent Movies (Pi). “Film’s a medium that’s always falling apart because it’s made of individual cuts,” Ribot says of his approach to cinematic accompaniment. “When a movie’s really bad, you can see how it’s put together out of these little parts. And one of music’s functions is to hold it together.”

While Douglas’ Arbuckle scores lean toward the raucous and even funky, both guitarists’ takes on these comedians tend to illuminate aspects of their work other than the laughs. Ribot’s stark, lovely music for The Kid responds to Chaplin’s pathos, while the winsome, keening sound of Frisell’s guitar serves to underscore the loneliness of Keaton’s Great Stone Face. “My memory of Keaton’s films was from seeing some of them on TV in my childhood, [and I absorbed] the total comic aspect of it,” Frisell says. “So this process was also an amazing learning experience for me, seeing how deep the layers of emotion are in those films. It’s not just him falling down all the time.”

“I didn’t want to give The Kid an overtly comic reading,” Ribot explains. “I was a kid in the ’60s when I first saw that film on TV, and it seemed inherently funny because it was old. I thought everything old was funny: I thought my grandparents were funny, even when they were yelling at me. So it’s really odd that 40 years later the same piece of film should feel contemporary to me.”

Besides their scores for these and other classics, Ribot, Frisell and Douglas have all worked recently with experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison, who employs found footage, often in a state of decay, in his work. Morrison, who has employed pre-existing Frisell music in two earlier films, is now working with the guitarist on a true collaboration, The Great Flood, a 75-minute piece based on the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 and its ripple effects on the history of American music. He also recently unveiled “Release,” an installation at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary created in collaboration with pianist Vijay Iyer.

Morrison’s latest completed film, Spark of Being, reflects on his methods via a retelling of the Frankenstein story with a score, now on CD, by Douglas and Keystone. “Generally, our eyes and ears want to put music and images together,” Morrison says. “If you turn on the radio while you’re driving, more often than not you can feel like the music is the soundtrack to what’s going by. What I as a filmmaker am striving to do in my use of music is to create something where the two things seem like they’re melded-and that you’re not distracted by one or the other.”

Working with Morrison “is really a big step,” says Douglas. “We’ve been working with these old, old films, and suddenly there’s this living filmmaker who’s actually in the room, who came to the recording sessions and hung out and got to know everybody and almost become a seventh member of the band. I think we were able to bring a life to this film that was still changing as we were creating the music. That to me is the real living interaction between music and film.”

Originally Published

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.