The best jazz films are not so much about jazz as they are of jazz, partaking of the music and finding ways to interpret it that honor the filmmaker as well as the musicians. That collusion is the guiding principle behind the “Jazz on Film” festival, beginning Saturday at the American Museum of the Moving Image and continuing every weekend this month. By avoiding chronic Hollywood entries in favor of personal and even obsessive films, the selection as curated by David Schwartz posits a jazz cinema brimming with intepretations as emotional as they are creative — joy, irony, paranoia, whimsy, anger, nostalgia, reverence, you name it, are all in play.
The last of eight double-feature programs is notable not least for the way time has deepened Ron Mann’s Imagine the Sound and Terry Zwigoff’s Louie Bluie. Mann’s film focuses on four figures of the jazz avant-garde— Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp, Paul Bley. In 1981, there was a feeling, expressed in the film, that he was 20 years late. But art is never late and Mann captured a remarkable moment, when the rhetoric had cooled and the neocon wave was just around the corner. He confines his subjects to ingeniously art-directed soundstages, each man a diamond in his own setting. Despite some good talk— Bley remembers the Hillcrest in L.A., Dixon the Lower West Side— and unintelligible but histrionic poetry, the film is most alive when Mann’s camera fixes on the musicians at work, slowly peering around the piano until it finds Taylor’s hands at the outset of a sensational performance, made surprisingly intimate by the medium.
The striking thing about Louie Bluie, a love note to a minor blues man and outsized personality named Howard Armstrong, is the degree to which it anticipates Zwigoff’s film about R. Crumb; indeed, the shot of Yank Rachel reading Income in a straw hat and Hawaiian shirt or Armstrong (himself a cartoonist and draftsman of real talent) showing his illustrated “pornograph” and expounding on the large butts of black women are Crumb strips come to life. Armstrong emerges as one of those seeming blowhards whose claims are borne out, an American original worthy of the portrait.
Collections of Vitaphone shorts and brilliant jazztoons, from the hot hallucinations of “I Heard” (Betty Boop meets Don Redman) to the whimsy of Faith Hubley (Dizzy and Ella) and the cool yet pious abstractions of George Griffin’s visual accompaniment to Bird’s “Koko,” are essential viewing. A tribute to Aram Avakian, the film editor, matches Bert Stern’s infinitely watchable Jazz on a Summer’s Day with Arthur Penn’s confused descent into the snake pit of showbiz paranoia, Mickey One; the score by Eddie Sauter and Stan Getz compensates some for Warren Beatty’s amazingly inept performance.
Paris Blues and Round Midnight are terrible movies that let you look at Ellington, Armstrong, and Dexter Gordon. Far better are the conventional but engaging documentaries: The Last of the Blue Devils, Duke Ellington: Reminiscing in Tempo, Texas Tenor: The Illinois Jacquet Story, and Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser. The last would have made an ideal companion for the prerelease screening of The Tic Code, directed by Gary Winick from costar Polly Draper’s screenplay, merrily exploiting jazz (Alex Foster’s tenor, mimed by Gregory Hines) in a disease-of-the-week venture (Tourette’s syndrome). More agreeable than it sounds, the movie idealizes the Village (and the Village Vanguard), racial accord, and an 11-year-old white boy who worships Monk and finds in Hines— maybe you heard this one
before— a black mentor and surrogate dad. Michael Wolff wrote the score and dubbed the boy wonder; look for drummer Dick Berk as drummer Dick Berk. On the same bill is Robert Altman’s Jazz ’34 (didn’t know he was playing back then), liberating Don Byron, Cyrus Chestnutt, and others from the jazz chorus of Kansas City.