44 recommended jazz docs: Pt 4/10

1. Jackie McLean On Mars (Ken Levis, 1980)

He is a king, man. Can’t he be a God and a king? The man’s 60. He’s been out here starving all these years. Can’t he be a God and a king? Can’t he be, man? Let him be…..he’s not smiling because he’s getting $50,000 a week to be a hamburger. He’s smiling because the music he writes is being played, and artistically he’s being fulfilled. And he puts on a cape and plays his electronic piano and walks up and smiles and lives with his musicians and they have a commune. He’s a teacher and a great, great artist, man. And he is not accepted commercially. So he ain’t smiling because somebody from CBS or CTI is out there getting ready to give him a big contract and a worldwide tour. He’s smiling because he’s a king and he’s in heaven. Can’t somebody smile?” Jackie Mclean on Sun Ra

A great and original soloist doesn’t always make for a great and original story teller. John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk were both introverts and while neither was short on insight, their interviews don’t exactly reel you in. Jackie Mclean is the total opposite and probably closer to Mingus; frequently arresting, always compelling, though just as with his alto playing, nobody really tells it like Jackie.

By the time “On Mars” was filmed, McLean’s heroin issues were a thing of the past, and he was working as a professor at the University of Hartford. Levis’ film has scope - McLean is shown practicing in his apartment and gigging with his quintet – but it’s focus is mainly in the classroom where Jackie puts it all (Giant Steps, Lou Donaldson going pop, Sun Ra, Kennedy’s assassination )out there for his students. He is on a one man crusade to open young minds to the intellectual integrity of jazz and even if they don’t fully realise it, we very quickly come to recognise how fortunate they are to have Jackie.

There is something of the Melvin Van Peebles about Jackie. When he voices his misgivings about racial inequality in America and in Jazz, he articulates a lot more than just frustration and anger. Stanley Crouch has that quality too, I guess, but Jackie isn’t as puffed up as Crouch and his ridiculously impressive catalogue means I’m more likely to put up with him likening Donald Byrd to a hamburger than Crouch (or Stanley Crotch as Spike Lee refers to him) massacring Miles.

If you’re looking for more Jackie insight then A.B. Spellman's book “Four Lives In The Bebop Business” (1966) is the road to go down.

2. Sound: Rahsaan Roland Kirk and John Cage (Dick Fontaine, 1967)

Unsummarizable? Might be. Still, I picked it, so….

It’s essentially a study in sound, shifting between two of the most influential pioneers of the last century; Rahsaan Roland Kirk and John Cage. The latter swanning through the city, dropping “what is sound? Is music music ?” type rhetoric might be the sort of thing that makes you hate that you like Avant garde music, and loathe that you love Avant garde documentary about Avant garde music, but, hey, it looks great (at least you now know where Spike Lee gets ‘his signature’ dolly shot).

As for Rahsaan, what’s to say? Not content with doing his three saxophones at once bit (as astounding as the first time you saw it), he hands out whistles to an audience for an impromptu “blues in the key of W”. That’s great, but has nothing on “Rahsaan Goes To The Zoo”. Forget majestic waterfalls, lost cities and Pam Grier. Forget the joy of a new born. Forget it all. There is nothing in life; past, present, future, animal, vegetable, mineral or Creator that can step up to Rahsaan visiting the zoo. Nothing.

3. Elvin Jones: Different Drummer (Edward Gray, 1979)

“The only way to illustrate or accurately define Elvin’s contribution is to play a recording of a pre-Elvin Jones drummer, play a recording of Elvin Jones, and then play a recording of a post-Elvin Jones drummer. I think these three examples would best illustrate all of Elvin’s contributions to the drums better than words could ever say.”

Ron Carter

Ron’s right. Elvin Jones had much the same chastening effect on the jazz drummer fraternity that Marley Marl had on Hip-Hop producers. ALL Hip-Hop post-Marley Marl has something of Marley Marl. Both have another gear language-wise; an extra layer of grit, an additional sheet of sound.

It isn’t fair on his contemporaries to say that without Elvin Jones, mainstream drummers may never have evolved beyond the role of timekeeper, but neither is it the wildest claim in the West. Elvin looked beyond the constraints, his groove was ferocious, ear for melody impeccable and nobody got more mileage out of a ride cymbal.

The segment in which he breaks down and demonstrates the polyrhythmic development of “Three Card Molly” is often shown in isolation on drum courses and reveals a lot about his process, yet I think I learn even more hearing him speak about creativity in general. And that’s the thing. Elvin doesn’t put on airs, yet his thoughtful observations on music and life are rare in their depth of insight. You really get the sense that jazz is a spiritual exercise for him, the thing he believes in more than anything else.

The final third of the film is hijacked by The King in his court: Elvin with his group (Ryo Kawasaki, Pat LaBarbera and David Williams), doing what can never be fully articulated in words. A guy I knew – and a veteran of well over 1000 jazz gigs - insisted that this particular Elvin 4 were the most thrilling in jazz, post-Coltrane. A grand statement – perhaps too grand – but one thing’s for sure; the piece here – like the documentary - is heavy duty.

4. Blue Note: A Story of Modern Jazz (J Benedikt,A Morell, 1997)

It might sound slightly pretentious, but I rarely make distinctions between art that is represented through sound, art in text form, art in pictures or art in paintings. This blog is a nod in that direction, but an even greater testament to this is that I own more Blue Notes than I do records from any other label. The music on Blue Note albums is nearly always between 7 or 8/10, a handful of 9’s, no more. No shame in that either, but it perhaps suggests that I buy them for more than just the music contained inside the sleeves. To own a Blue Note is to own more than just music on wax: It is typography, photography, engineering & - at its best - literature.

Trying to contain all of this in one documentary is no little feat, and at times it seems as though the themes are just too numerous for the relatively modest running time (complicated further by the ill-conceived inclusion of Carlos Santana and Dj Smash?!). A tale of two German Jewish immigrants’ immersion into black music culture, and subsequent creation of the most iconic American jazz label is enough narrative by itself for a solid film. Once you throw in some of the greatest musicians of all time discussing their recording sessions, the liner notes, Reid Miles’ cover designs, Frances Wolff’s pictures & Rudy Van Gelder's sound; it can start to feel like a Marx Brothers lift scene. It perhaps warranted the Ken Burns epic treatment, which is ironic as most of the omissions (Sun Ra & Rahsaan apart) that folks cursed Burns out for in his “Jazz” series, are present in the 90 minutes here.

When it does lock in on a particular subject though, it comes up aces. Some valuable live bits too: Great period clips of Art Blakey, Monk and Horace Silver, Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock doing Cantaloupe Island, Sonny Rollins on poppin’ form, and some decent – if misplaced - footage of Albert Ammons on a boogie-woogie manoeuvre.

George Nelson

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