44 recommended jazz docs: Pt 1/10

1. Mingus: Charlie Mingus (Thomas Reichmann, 1968)

I have a thing for this uncooked, ‘straight, no chaser’ style of documentary, where there is no illusion of an invisible camera. When the subject is as authentic as Mingus (Where else are you going to see a man blow a hole in the ceiling with a shotgun?) then there’s little else I’d rather see.

The film documents Mingus’ eviction for non-payment of rent from the Lower East Side loft where he’d planned to open a music school. So, a combustible character in a personal setting, at a particularly turbulent point in his life. It actually plays out a little like Mingus’ autobiography “Beneath The Underdog” reads; in both, it’s difficult to know exactly when Mingus is being deadly serious or putting us on - you can’t quite work out whether he’s Father of The Year here or the world’s worst parent - but as in “Beneath..” it just keeps on rolling, allowing Mingus the time to develop his points, and we soon come to see the world as he sees it.

Mingus is fucked-off with the city he lives in and those who run it; he’s fucked-off with “white America”. With good reason; the concert footage that intercut the loft scenes are a reminder, for those who needed it, that Mingus was one of the great composer-musicians in American history, and that for such a demeaning situation to befall him is nothing short of tragic.

Producer and director Thomas Reichmann was just 23 at the time and his unflinching approach to the subject is possibly the only way to lift the hem on the walking contradiction that is Mingus. For all the tragedy in the situation, a more brutal edit would have simplified Mingus and painted a less engaging figure. Perhaps Reichmann felt he’d met a kindred spirit, for the filmmaker was a man with troubles of his own – perhaps some of the marginalized artist troubles of his subject - and would later succumb to depression and commit suicide.

2. Dexter Gordon: More Than You Know (Don McGlynn, 1996)

This is a different animal. Even when he talking about racial injustice or prison time, Dexter Gordon is coolness incarnate. He was Oscar-nominated for essentially playing himself in Bertrand Tavernier’s “Round Midnight” but here you get Dexter across the different stages of his life and that’s more of a life than most.

“More Than You Know” is the doc that keeps on giving. Although it’s an ambitious cut - edits whip back and forth in time, so that sentences beginning in the late 70s are completed in the mid-60s – it’s rarely less than watchable. Amongst other things, all that time travelling gets us Dexter walking, Dexter cycling and Dexter talking…in Danish (29:50).

There’s some rare footage of Dexter playing backstage at Montmarte, and a very funny “Round Midnight” screen-test. It also contains some concert material - including a fantastic “Soy Califa” - as well as clips from Dexter’s stints with Billy Ekstine and a young Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen. Speaking of material, Dexter’s wardrobe (fine jackets, neckerchiefs, leopard skin waist coat) could be a documentary all of its own!

Try to ignore the watermark. In the middle of the fucking screen.

3. Jaki Byard - "Anything For Jazz" (Dan Algrant, 1980)

The problem with no-budget films where people chew the fat, pondering on the hand that life has dealt them, is that if you’d rather see them maimed, then there is no reason to stick around. Mercifully, this one is about Jaki Byard and Jaki is a character.

He's also a player. A well-respected pianist who not only features heavily in Charles Mingus', Booker Ervin's and Rahsaan Roland Kirk's recordings but deputized for Duke Ellington when he became ill at the end of his life. He was a great mind and an important figure in jazz education, lecturing at the New England Conservatory of Music for several years. Someday, someone, somewhere will make a full-length doc on Jaki's life - maybe even shed light on why he was murdered in 1999 - but for now we'll have to make do with this small treasure.

Again, it’s another straight-shoot. No voiceover. Very Les Blank. Hear Jaki talk about how he beat disco to the '1 and 3' punch in 1964, discover the meaning of phone-itis and the Shammy awards and watch Bill Evans look almost embarrassed that not quite Everybody Digs Jaki Byard. Ron Carter shows up too, but then Ron Carter ALWAYS shows up.

4. Life Is a Saxophone (S. Pearl Sharp, 1985)

Who’s the cat who won’t cop out when spoken-word jazz peters out?

This 16mm doc features poet Kamau Daaood who along with Haki Madhubuti emerged as a “word musician” in Horace Tapscott’s Pan African People’s Arkestra. He was the youngest member of the Watts Writers Workshop, founded in the 60s by writer Budd Schulberg following the Watts riots and remained in the workshop right up until it was burned down by an FBI informant in the early 70s.

Filmed in 1984 Los Angeles, the film focuses on the local creative scene interpreting Daaood’s material and it’s uplifting to see the city giving something back to a man so connected to it that aged 18 he turned down an opportunity to move to New York and join The Last Poets. He might never have been as internationally celebrated as The Last Poets, Amiri Baraka, The Watts Prophets or Gil Scott Heron but his impact on local artists is very apparent here. Not just renowned jazz musicians like Billy Higgins, Dadisi Komolafe but dancers, visual artists and martial artists.

That said, “Life is a Saxophone” is really about an artist striving to keep the oral tradition alive in a electronic hip-hop era that, ironically, he and his peers influenced and precious scenes like the one of Daaood’s poetry backed up by Higgins on woodblock will make you yearn for some sort of humane power cut.

George Nelson

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