The Jazz Evangelism of Woody Allen

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

"Well, he's a better actor than a musician," cracks Gordon, who once booked him as a young stand-up at the Village Vanguard. "But listen, he's trying and he loves it, and it's all to the good. I think it's adorable."

Of course, given the steep Carlyle cover, Allen is not accessible to everyone. To a less expensive, less mainstream degree, other traditionalists are boosting the NYC jazz community: David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band plays swing-based trad on Wednesday nights at Birdland, while Vince Giordano's Nighthawks offer early New Orleans jazz Monday and Tuesday nights at Sofia's at the Edison Hotel, both with door prices that are a fraction of Allen's. West Village clubs the Ear Inn and Arthur's Tavern also host trad-jazz jams with generally younger musicians.

So, has Allen inspired these up-and-comers? As usual, it depends on whom you ask. "I've strictly been influenced by the clarinet players that I mentioned to you—Johnny Dodds, George Lewis, Sidney Bechet," Allen says. (In fact, his two adopted children with Previn are named Bechet and Manzie, the latter after drummer Manzie Johnson.) "But I don't think I've, God forbid, ever influenced anybody. It's more like I'm an eclectic copycat. I probably influence them to practice harder or to give up their instruments."

A strict hobby player, but a tremendously important one
A strict hobby player, but a tremendously important one

This, according to someone once praised after a 1973 gig by premier Crescent City trombonist Jim Robinson (who, unaware of his screen fame, called Woody "Willard," according to Lax's biography). But so goes Woody Allen's great contradiction: His movies are intellectual and labyrinthine, yet his clarinet playing strives for a simplicity he still feels is unattainable. He exalts jazz for having "no cerebral element to it" in Wild Man Blues, yet for precisely that reason, he undercuts his own technical prowess.

"I think the first time people see him, they go to see a celebrity," says Marion P. Felder, 25, a Juilliard graduate and drummer for David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band and the Count Basie Orchestra. "But hearing him play myself, and going back for second and third times, you're going because you actually want to hear him play. Musically, he draws you in. It just seems so authentic, like he's giving you a piece of himself. It's like he's giving you something he really loves. You can tell he really loves the music, and he plays it to the best of his ability."

After his latest Carlyle run ends, Allen will resume his day job and begin shooting a new movie, Midnight in Paris, overseas; his films cost less to produce in Europe, and jazz is still quite popular there, so it's an ideal summer-break combination. And as for his hometown jazz scene? He's watching and waiting like the rest, but the decline, ironically, doesn't seem to make him as nervous. "Things go up and down in New York. . . . I visited my former neighborhood in Brooklyn the other day, and it's quite terrible now," he says. "I don't think anything here moves in one direction and stays in that direction. I think it's very fluid."

Woody Allen has imparted so much wisdom about life and love in his movies that maybe we can trust him about this, too. Maybe we can believe that even beyond his wide ripple effect of celebrity, his love for traditional jazz, mirrored in the millions of people who love it now or have the potential to start, is enough to keep this American art form alive. His vision of jazz can't die, right? Talking to him, it just seems impossible. Jazz is as tough and romantic as the city he loves.

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