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."

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

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."

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."

Their ensemble's dynamic is unusual: Unlike other bands with musical directors (in this case, Davis), leadership here is shared. Davis guides the musicians and decides who will be featured on each tune, but Allen alone chooses the repertoire. The ensemble never uses a set list or sheet music, and must know all the approximately 1,500 tunes in Allen's arsenal: On their two-week March tour through Europe, the band played upward of 30 tunes each night with few repeats, culled primarily from New Orleans jazz's heyday, with some '30s and '40s standards and spirituals sprinkled in. The band's Carlyle dates are sold out months in advance; their current residency runs through June 7 and is entirely booked.

British-born pianist Conal Fowkes, at 42, falls on the youngest side of the band's spectrum and, not surprisingly, is the most fervent about why future generations should hear the music they play. "New York City is considered around the world as the home of jazz," he says. "Yet if you come here as a visitor, you will have to look far and wide to find traditional jazz, and it's amazing to me that it's not available or supported. The great thing is, once people come see us, nine times out of 10, they're really pleasantly surprised. They ask where they can find more music like this."

At one particular Carlyle gig in April, there's a perceptible moment when the attention shifts from Allen to the music itself. The concert begins amid the diners' social din and blinding camera flashes, but the starry-eyed thrall steadily softens, over the first hour or so, into sincere attention toward the performers and their nimble renditions of "Mecca Flat Blues," "Doctor Jazz," and "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall." By the set's coda, with the ensemble reduced to a more intimate quartet of Allen, Davis, Fowkes, and drummer John Gill, the room is dramatically hushed; when a woman in a satin dress brays a tipsy insight to her companion, her neighbors turn on her sternly. They've finally begun to hear the talented Woody Allen and the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band.

Further proof: Before the concert begins, a pair of twentysomething French tourists at the bar express no interest in Allen's music: "Just his movies . . . he is so funny with face!" But afterward, following Woody's brief, ritual autograph session in the Carlyle lobby (during which he is remote with his fans, though that ladykiller streak still exists: "If I were younger and single . . ." he tells me deftly, midway through our first face-to-face conversation), they find me outside the club and rave about, yes, the music. "It's wonderful music—so interesting!" they exclaim and, true to Fowkes's claim, ask where they might hear more jazz during their vacation in New York.

Too bad that answer ain't what it used to be.

"If God plays the baddest saxophone solo ever played in the woods, and nobody hears it, did He make a sound?" asks Jazz at Lincoln Center curator Phil Schaap, Charlie Parker audible in the background. Host of the so-themed "Bird Flight" hour on Columbia University's WKCR radio—and, owing to both its unbroken 29-year weekday run and his inexhaustible scholarship of all jazz, the subject of a lengthy New Yorker profile in 2008—Schaap is a stern critic of the jazz community's short-sighted direction of its resources. The Juilliard professor maintains that what scant funding remains is being funneled into performance studies while ignoring the substantial problem of how to fill the seats offstage, which is "fool's gold at best."

"There's no audience development—none—in the jazz-education system, yet they're turning out would-be professionals in the low four figures annually, and it can't work," says Schaap, 59. "It's a train wreck. The jazz community is a shrinking one, and part of this that is most glaring is with the young. If something isn't done, then the music will be further marginalized to the point where I'm not quite sure how it will survive."

Indeed, jazz audiences are skewing much older and scarcer than before. A National Endowment for the Arts survey showed that the median age for American adults who attended a jazz concert in 1982 was 29. In 2008, that median age had risen to 46. More alarmingly, the Recording Industry Association of America reported jazz sales to make up just 1.1 percent of all music sales in 2008 (the most current available stats), a precipitous drop from the decade high of 3.4 percent in 2001.

The overarching implication: Jazz is showing a dangerous lack of renewability with future generations, and what is not heard is not preserved. New York, while still a slightly stronger jazz microcosm than the country at large, exhibits the same warning signs: a shrinking number of venues, a lack of mainstream exposure to entice new audiences, and a splintered community of performers fighting stylistically among themselves. Clearly, the jazz community here is worried; many participants have a fatalistic spin Woody Allen could appreciate.

"I think jazz in general is about to die off," says Spike Wilner, owner of Small's jazz club in the West Village and himself a traditional-leaning stride pianist. "The most important thing is: You don't have, at all, the venues you used to have. . . . Young audiences aren't exposed to jazz early on anymore when there's no place for them to discover it. Where are they gonna discover jazz? It's not taught in their schools; you're not able to find it on the radio. They're not gonna stumble upon it."

In the 1930s, 52nd Street in Midtown was dubbed "Swing Street USA" for all the jazz clubs within its radius, including legendary halls such as Club Carousel and Eddie Condon's, along with the first incarnation of the Blue Note. But today, among the low-double-digit number of jazz clubs remaining, most are concentrated in the West Village and Harlem, with a more scattered scene in Brooklyn. (Larger, uptown institutions, such as Carnegie Hall and the Wynton Marsalis–led Jazz at Lincoln Center, are often criticized for institutionalizing jazz, but remain active in educational programs.) Trad-leaning clubs have fared especially poorly; Eddy Davis has wanted to open a club for years, but finds the finances too daunting. And while contemporary and brass-band jazz have enjoyed a modest resurgence lately, thanks to mass-media outlets such as the HBO show Treme, this hasn't affected traditional New Orleans jazz at all.

"Overall, the traditional jazz outcropping in New York is down well over 95 percent from my high school years," says Schaap, recalling his '60s upbringing. "However, jazz is down 95 percent from my high school years, so it's a lock-step diminishment."

Lorraine Gordon, owner of the Village Vanguard, the most venerated jazz hall in the world, recently feted her club's 75th anniversary; for more than a decade, she booked Dr. Michael White's traditional New Orleans band for New Year's Eve, but has since stopped. "There is no audience, quite honestly, to sustain traditional jazz constantly," she explains. "You have to fill your room to pay the musicians—you can't do it because 24 people are here because they like traditional jazz. I want to be part of that audience—I am, in my heart and mind—but I cannot use it in the club because it does not exist here. . . . Jazz is alive, but you have to move with it or you're a dead duck."

And if jazz isn't as inviting as it might be for the young, some blame the music and its practitioners. "One of the things with jazz now is that it's just not fun—people hear it, and it's either aggressive or very in-your-face, or very obscure harmonically or melodically," says Wilner. "It's so splintered, the factions. Extremely avant-garde improvising musicians play in a style that has nothing to do with traditional jazz, and they're basically hostile to anyone who plays traditional. And subsequently, you have traditionalists becoming more and more wrapped up in the bubble of what they wanted to play and not allowing any modern influences to come in. It's lent itself to a very divided art."

So why is Woody Allen the one man everyone can agree on?

There's a moment in Sweet and Lowdown when Sean Penn's virulent Emmet Ray says, "My feelings come out in my music."

This is not autobiographical, says Allen.

"I wish I could say that," he insists. "The problem is, not enough feeling comes out of my music. I mean, I play my heart out and I close my eyes and hunch my shoulders and do all the external motions that great players do to pump the feeling through their horn, but I can't get a lot of feeling through it. That's been one of the sad things in my life, that I hear a real great clarinet player and they'll just play two or three notes, and those notes are so beautiful and full of feeling. And I'm killing myself and trying so hard to squeeze that note out and get the feeling into it, but it's just not there. It has to be somewhere in your chromosomes or something."

As for the Carlyle: "The brunt of the audience doesn't know anything about jazz. They say, 'I've liked his pictures, and I'd like to see him,' or 'I've hated his pictures, and I'd like to see him.' "

But, hey, the heart wants what it wants. And here lies the unique privilege of Woody Allen: He introduces unlikely and disparate new audiences to his particular, esoteric brand of jazz, and into the jazz community at large. He's an accomplished musician but not a peerless one, though that hardly matters: Fame is today's currency, and he has it to burn. Allen is not jazz's savior—to say so would certainly mortify many people, most of all him—but his jazz-scene compatriots appreciate his unprecedented ability to interest people who never even knew they could be interested in it. To them, Allen is demonstrating the best chance jazz has for renewal—and survival.

"He's doing this the right way, which is major outcropping," says Schaap. "He's going in the right direction, in that he is not overly concerned with training someone to play clarinet like him. He's interested in having an opportunity to hear New Orleans polyphony."

"Woody Allen is a great artist, a profound artist," says Wilner. "He's a force on the music scene. He doesn't get the recognition that he deserves because of his fame as a filmmaker, an actor, and a comedian. He's propagated the music further worldwide than anyone else could have done."

"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."

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.

sanderson@villagevoice.com

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