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Jazz and Film: Evolving Together

'Harlem Connection' series celebrates intimate links between two art forms.

September 17, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1927, movie-mad American audiences were startled when the screens in their local theaters suddenly came to life not just with picture and live musical accompaniment, but with synchronized sound.

They saw Al Jolson, one of the major stars of the period, singing. For the first time in motion picture history, they could hear a performer's voice as they watched his visual image, even though the sound was limited to a few songs and several bits of dialogue.

The film, the story of a cantor's son with entertainment-world ambitions, was titled "The Jazz Singer." And, if few would categorize Jolson as a performer even remotely connected to jazz, both the label and the subject underscored the intimate association between jazz and film, art forms that have evolved in remarkably parallel fashion.

In the '20s, for example, prior to "The Jazz Singer," more than 30 films were produced with jazz-related titles, among them "The Jazz Monkey" (1919), "The Jazz Bandits" (1920), "The Girl With the Jazz Heart" (1920) and "Children of Jazz" (1923). With the arrival of sound, jazz popped up all over the place, often in musical features, even more frequently in short subjects that showcased dozens of big jazz bands and small groups.

In later decades, biopics of players such as Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman and Red Nichols arrived, along with fictionalized jazz tales such as "Young Man With a Horn." And jazz has frequently served as scene-setting music, especially in film noir, but occasionally in more offbeat settings (such as the whimsical appearance of the Count Basie Orchestra in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles").

Friday night the Los Angeles County Museum of Art celebrates the link between jazz and film with the first installment of "Jazz on Film: The Harlem Connection," a two-week series developed in collaboration with film archivist Mark Cantor and sponsored by the Playboy Jazz Festival.

The series will examine the wide variety of jazz and film interaction, from documentaries to dramatic films, musical specialty numbers to early film "videos." Friday's program includes the documentary "A Great Day in Harlem" and the dramatic film "Bird."

On Saturday Cantor screens his "All Roads Lead to Harlem," a feature-length compilation of jazz, swing and rhythm and blues film clips illuminating the Harlem music scene.

Filmmaker Jean Bach's much-acclaimed "A Great Day in Harlem" chronicles the 1958 making of a photograph in which dozens of jazz greats gathered on a Harlem doorstep for an Esquire magazine photo session. By using archival footage, home movies and interviews, Bach fashioned a visual document that provides a fascinating perspective into the offbeat character of the jazz world. (Interestingly, another magazine recently arranged for a similar photograph of rap music performers.)

"Bird," director Clint Eastwood's idiosyncratic take on the darker aspects of the life of alto saxophone icon Charlie Parker, was made with great fidelity to the music. And, although some observers were distressed by the picture's unrelenting darkness, there is no denying the impact of Forest Whitaker's rendering of Parker, with its poignant blending of the tragedy and triumph that characterized the saxophonist's life.

On Sept. 25 the series presents "Out of Central Avenue," an evening of three documentary films by Don McGlynn examining the lives and the work of bassist-composer Charles Mingus, and saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper. Despite their seeming differences, each musician is linked by their common background in Los Angeles, by their work with big bands and by their frequent appearances in the legendary Central Avenue jazz scene of the '40s.

McGlynn, who describes himself as a flat-out jazz enthusiast, started his career as a documentarian in 1982 with "Art Pepper: Notes From a Jazz Survivor."

"I was really lucky to have such a subject the first time out because Art was determined to be honest in the movie," McGlynn says. "One of the things he does, for example, is to show his tattoos, which sort of connect the points in his life. And then he actually goes so far as to show what happened to him as a result of an operation for a hernia and a ruptured spleen. He felt a real mission to get something straightforward and honest on the record about himself."

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The Gordon film, "More Than You Know," is a more typical biography, in part because, according to McGlynn, "we had a ton of footage, interviews and performances, which was great because it pretty much made it possible for us to have him explain his experiences in his own words."

"Triumph of the Underdog," the Mingus picture, was a thornier project, in part because of the musical and emotional complexity of the subject. The title, in fact, is intended as a kind of commentary related to Mingus' autobiography, "Beneath the Underdog."

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