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Smokey Bob's Cafe

Robert Altman has always riffed to the beat of a different drummer. In 'Kansas City,' he casts some jazz all-stars to rekindle the spirit of his '30s hometown.

August 11, 1996|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

The setting is Kansas City's rough-and-tumble Hey Hey Club. It's 1934, and the Pendergast political machine has insulated the city from the Depression, supporting a string of taverns, bars and nightclubs and attracting some of the finest jazz musicians in the country. Kansas City, Mo., in 1934, is a city that never sleeps.

Poised on opposite sides of a bandstand inside the Hey Hey, horns brandished, tenor saxophonists Joshua Redman and Craig Handy have the look of reet-pleated, zoot-suited gladiators, fully prepared for jam session combat.

As the rhythm section begins to churn and the energy rises, they toss riffs back and forth, propelling each phrase with a cool, top-that-one-if-you-can attitude. After a few exchanges, Handy pauses, eyes his opponent carefully and, as if to take the game up a notch, slowly removes his jacket. He kicks into another driving, virtuosic set of choruses that is instantly answered by Redman.

The other musicians cheer encouragement as the back and forth continues, the solos building into rich-textured mixtures of sound and style and feeling, resonating with the spunk and spirit of the '30s, alive with the nervous tensions of the '90s.

Redman and Handy are offering their impressions of legendary jazz stars Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins in an atmospheric heart-of-the-movie scene from Robert Altman's new film "Kansas City," scheduled to open nationally on Friday. As admired as he is controversial, Altman has been challenging the film establishment since 1970 with a genre-altering approach to almost everything he touches, from war movies ("MASH") and westerns ("McCabe and Mrs. Miller") to detective stories ("The Long Goodbye") and his own trademark multi-plotted ensemble productions ("Nashville," "A Wedding," "Short Cuts," "Ready to Wear").

The encounter between Redman and Handy is the picture's musical counterpoint to the complex relationship of the two female leads, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Miranda Richardson. And the parallel between music and drama is what provides "Kansas City" with the dramatic kernel that allowed Altman, with 30 films under his belt, to make the jazz movie he has long had in mind.

"The problem," Altman explains in a telephone interview, "is that most jazz is very hard to use as background music in film, because it has such an insistent voice. I'm a jazz fan, obviously, myself; it was the first music I ever heard. But I didn't want to do a film where the characters are jazz players. Which makes it very hard. How do you do it?"

The answer, for Altman, was to transform the whole movie into jazz by constructing the story--a dark tale of Depression-era politics, love, drugs and murder--like a song.

"And the song goes like this," he continues. " 'They Took My Man, So I Kidnapped This Girl, and I'm Going to Get Him Back, but in the End It Didn't Work Out Blues.' That's the song, and it's three minutes long. And then, when people start doing their improvs, and their takeoffs on that--when the band gets finished jamming through that--the song's complete."

Altman sees Leigh and Richardson as "two tenor saxes in all their scenes," replete with the contradictions of challenge and attachment typical of the jam session encounters between saxophonists.

"I looked at Harry Belafonte [who plays the role of Seldom Seen, the tough gangster owner of the Hey Hey Club] as the brass, as the trumpet," he says, "and the Johnny O'Hara character [played by Dermot Mulroney] as the trombone in his one solo thing. And if you think about the film this way, all the characters have some sort of musical quality. The story's just this little story, detailed all the way through with fairly truthful events. But the whole film is jazz."

Why Kansas City, instead of Chicago, New Orleans or New York City? In part because, in the early '30s, its wide-open night life made it a magnet for musicians. As a further attraction for ambitious young jazzmen, the big bands that toured the Southwest--bands led by Bennie Moten, Count Basie, Alphonse Trent, Andy Kirk, George E. Lee and others--often used Kansas City as a launch pad. The city, as a result, was usually brimful of first-rate players, and the clubs, many of which never seemed to close, played host to free-floating, perpetual jam sessions.

But equally important, Kansas City is the 71-year-old Altman's hometown.

"It's where I was born and grew up," he says. "And almost every character in every situation, except for the main story, was truthful. Not quite factual but truthful. Belafonte's character, for example--Seldom Seen--was a real guy. He went to prison, I think, three times for murder and died when he was 97."

Most of all, Altman remembers the jazz--the nonstop jam sessions, the loose-swinging big bands, hearing a youthful Charlie Parker playing with Jay McShann's group.

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