The Jazz Evangelism of Woody Allen

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

The music he has performed devotedly for the past 37 years actually predates those artists by several decades—it's a joyous, disciplined strain from the 1910s–'30s called traditional New Orleans jazz, "traditional jazz," the truncated "trad jazz," or the somewhat contentious "Dixieland jazz." Dramatically different from the brass-heavy front-line style of modern New Orleans, it's the earliest form of jazz, the fundamental foundation for all splintered subgenres known today, from bebop to free to swing. Compared to those mutations, traditional jazz is an affable, communal conversation, favoring polyphony (different instruments weaving independent lines together) and structured for shared expression within an ensemble. Derived from regional ragtime and blues (bred specifically in the prostitution quarters known as Storyville), it flourished via such eminent players as trumpeter Buddy Bolden, clarinetist Sidney Bechet, cornetist King Oliver, and pianist Jelly Roll Morton. The first jazz ever recorded was in this style: the raucous and comedic "Dixieland Jazz Band 1 Step," cut by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917.

"Early jazz was very pleasurable and very simple," explains Allen. "After a while, that stuff became concert music, and the chord progressions got very complicated, and the harmonies got very complicated. It became less pleasurable. Not less great—it certainly was every bit as great and, in many cases, stupendously great and greater. But it required more concentration and more effort from the audience."

The word "pleasurable" comes up often in jazz talk with Woody Allen, a telling trait given his famously skittish personality. But he's increasingly alone in this adulation: Today, few performers specialize in traditional jazz, and even fewer listeners seek it out, which makes his loyalty all the more notable. He first began performing on clarinet in New York with a casual, social ensemble called the New Orleans Funeral and Ragtime Orchestra at Michael's Pub in 1973 (the year he sent a hapless jazz-clarinet player 200 years into the future in Sleeper and played horn on the soundtrack), refusing all payment for the residency and infamously keeping his weekly Monday-night gig in lieu of attending the 1978 Academy Awards to accept his Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Screenplay trophies for Annie Hall. (Reportedly, Michael's carted in a television, and he watched the ceremony with dispassion between songs.)

In 1996, he formed a more stridently traditional New Orleans ensemble (adding the early-'20s innovation of short, fluid solos) with banjo player Eddy Davis, with whom he'd first jammed in 1963 while a young stand-up comic in Chicago. Together, they created a structured, professional band emphasizing 1910s–'20s repertoire and the classic lineup of piano, upright bass, banjo, drums, clarinet, trumpet, and trombone; the outfit was soon hired at the Carlyle and endures there still. (Allen now blithely accepts payment.)

Woody Allen and the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band's subsequent tour across Europe was the subject of Barbara Kopple's 1998 documentary Wild Man Blues, which captured both the clarinetist's unwavering seriousness for the music—"We're going to play hardcore New Orleans music, esoteric tunes," he grumbles at one point to his dubious entourage—and also his relationship with soon-to-be wife Soon-Yi Previn, adopted daughter of his former partner/muse Mia Farrow. (For further reference, consult every tabloid from 1992 onward.) The film catches several moments of agitated self-flagellation—that first tour gave him an Alvy Singer–worthy anxiety attack, say his bandmates—and apparently, some things never change.

"If I don't practice for a day for any reason, which is really rare, I feel so guilty that it's not worth it to me," Allen says. "If I was able to practice a lot more, if I was able to practice five hours a day, I would never be great. It's not in me."

And with a small sigh transmitted clearly from the Upper East Side, we are reminded that the universe is, indeed, expanding.

"Of course he undersold himself to you—I hate that he always does that!" exclaims Eddy Davis a week later. The band is moments from taking the Café Carlyle stage, but Davis is resolute on defending his friend from himself. "He thinks he shouldn't in his own mind put himself with the musicians he's loved in the past. Trouble is, the musicians he's loved in the past never made two cents."

In many ways, Davis is the antithesis of Woody Allen: At 69, he is booming and friendly, with a gregarious stream of opinions no tape recorder can fully contain. Though Allen demonstrates a confident, easy delivery on his antique Albert System clarinet that night, he positions himself meekly onstage, with rare glances into the audience and a practiced, stoic demeanor; Davis, meanwhile, seems to smile more often than he breathes, a broad beam of delighted musicianship. And just as readily as Allen discounts his influence on the music he has devoted his life to—"It's a very specialized thing in the United States, like Gregorian chants or something; it just doesn't interest people very much, and why should it?"—Davis disputes his bandmate's impact with zeal.

"The only reason younger audiences get to see this music anymore is because of the celebrity of Woody Allen," Davis says. "In the past 40 years, celebrity has been the only thing that people go to. Now they're driven by what's on the TV and what they're told to like."

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