The Jazz Evangelism of Woody Allen

Clarinet in hand, the director defends one of America's disappearing art forms

The Jazz Evangelism of Woody Allen
John Rogers
Play it again, Sam: Allen and the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band

The Carlyle Hotel on Monday nights is, like all great Manhattan institutions, a carefully romantic transaction. For sale is a moment in Old New York, a composite of faded glamour too delicate to survive and too perfect to have ever really existed. Beneath the soft, earthy brushstrokes of an original Marcel Vertes mural, amid the soigné murmur of rustling silk and clinking stemware, 90 eager patrons of all ages gather in the Café Carlyle supper club to soak up pristine, antique luxury.

They've paid $100 or so apiece mostly to see the musician seated in the perfect center of the room, at the carpeted meridian of this alternate universe—and "see" is truly the impetus here, as the music he offers is secondary to the draw of his enormous celebrity, as contemporary a fame as the music he loves is traditional. Illuminated in dim, flickering light, the man handles his clarinet with ardor, scarcely glancing up through his ensemble's two-hour performance; he knows the reason we all came, and doesn't need to squint into camera flashes for a reminder. But he embraces his part in it all, because he believes in the romance, too.

"Jazz has a mythological feeling to it—time has done that," Woody Allen tells me beforehand. "And early jazz especially, since it was the birth of the art form. I just love it."

He loves jazz, but the sold-out audience loves the proximity to his fame even more. He uses this, with some combination of resignation and shrewdness, to expose new audiences to his favorite, increasingly obscure style of jazz. And in the troubled, rapidly shrinking world of that music (especially here in New York), his currency is crucial in ways no one predicted, least of all him.

"I'm not just saying this to be amusing: To be even as bad as I am, you do have to practice every day," says Allen, with a small, almost imperceptible chuckle. "I'm a strict hobby musician. I don't have a particularly good ear for music. I'm a very poor musician, like a Sunday tennis player."

When it comes to jazz, he has never wanted to be amusing. Allen is notorious for approaching the music with complete gravity, both in performance and in the few interviews he grants, an indication of his larger proclivity for being "off" in real life from his skittish comic persona. When he rings the Voice from his Upper East Side apartment one warm Tuesday afternoon, he is somber and languid with his answers, far removed from the familiar flurry of neuroses he has exhibited for decades onscreen. But jazz gets him (relatively) animated, as it has been the most enduring passion of his 74 years, and is well documented in the filmmaking that made his name.

"I've been a great jazz fan my whole life," he says. "I certainly like modern jazz as well, but my favorite kind is New Orleans jazz. Something about the primitive quality, the simplicity of it, the directness. It is the one style of jazz that stays with me the most."

As a teen growing up in 1950s Brooklyn, Allan Stewart Konigsberg made frequent pilgrimages into Manhattan to the Jazz Record Center and the performance hall Child's Paramount. At 17, he persuaded Fats Waller's clarinetist, Gene Sedric, to give him private lessons for $2 an hour (this including the toll for Sedric's arduous subway journey from the Bronx to outer Flatbush, according to Eric Lax's 2001 book, Woody Allen: A Biography). Allen's first ambition was to be a professional musician, though, of course, he ultimately followed the paths of his other childhood heroes, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, to the tune of approximately one movie annually for the past 40 years.

Through his decades of stylistic departures—from the one-liner slapstick Bananas (1971) to the bittersweet romantic fantasy The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) to the heterodox tryst Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)—jazz has been a constant, loving presence. It's part of almost all of his soundtracks: James P. Johnson & Cecil Mack's "Charleston" was adapted for Zelig (1983), Bix Beiderbecke's "Singin' the Blues" was an undercurrent in Bullets Over Broadway (1994), and Jelly Roll Morton's "Wolverine Blues" floated through Interiors (1978), to name just a few. Often, Allen makes vintage jazz integral to the plot: 1987's Radio Days recounted golden AM-radio vignettes of the 1930s and '40s, while Sean Penn's irascible guitarist Emmet Ray in 1999's Sweet and Lowdown was second only to "that gypsy in France," the real-life Django Reinhardt. Traditional jazz films, meanwhile, have affected his other creative venues: Singer/actor Al Jolson, star of 1927's The Jazz Singer, is a character in the short story "Fine Times: An Oral Memoir," from Allen's 1972 fiction collection Without Feathers.

"Woody is a very musical fellow—really a very knowledgeable musician," says Dick Hyman, Allen's longtime film-score com- poser and arranger. "He consciously, deliberately uses jazz, and understands how it works with the kinds of scenarios he writes."

It's all a process of familiarity, explains Allen. "Everyone loves the music of his childhood, and for some reason, it has a disproportionate impact on the person," he says. "When I was growing up and I got up in the morning to go to school, I would turn on the radio and it would be Billie Holiday and Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman. This is what you heard in your house with popular music back then."

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