1. Thelonious Monk: American Composer (Matthew Seig, 1991)
"If you can sit and play a tune... in tempo. For an hour. I don't think they're too many cats who can do that"Barry Harris
Although this was the first thorough portrait of Monk, an artist that’s been photographed, described, analysed and discussed as much as he has isn’t necessarily the ideal subject for this sort of conversational documentary. That it comes across so fresh has much to do with the superb performance footage & the individual contributors, of which Ben Riley, Billy Taylor and Randy Weston offer the best value.
Weston, who genuinely loves Monk’s music, is on particularly stellar form. He’s a top pianist in his own right and if you’ve spoken to enough accomplished pianists, you’ll know they tend to split on Monk. I’d say 70%+ think he’s an elite improviser: A genius from another Venus. The rest have him down as a trickster whose uniqueness barricades him from serious analysis. Nobody thinks he’s just decent. So, it’s interesting to hear Randy Weston describe his week long journey to enlightenment.
...and as if that wasn’t enough, their ensuing rendezvous at Casa Weston makes any shortlist of indelible jazz anecdotes.
2. Dizzy Gillespie (Les Blank, 1964)
“He never starts, he erupts."Whitney Balliett on Dizzy Gillespie
Lively & joyful much like its subject, Les Blank’s first film is a small treasure and one of the most accomplished ciné-vérité shorts I’ve seen.
The staccato opening credit sequence sets an unpredictable tone that continues throughout & marries happily with both Dizzy and the music. The zoom lenses too will surprise those more familiar with the unobtrusive style in Blank’s later works - of which “The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins” is a must-see – more so because with a character as big as Dizzy, it’s usually best to step out of the way & keep the ‘filmmaking’ to a minimum.
Blank’s conceptual garnishes don’t spoil this at all though. It’s subtly deferential, leaving enough space for Dizzy to discuss his ideas on music and of course to do what he did better than most; play the horn.
3. Art Pepper - Notes From A Jazz Survivor (Don McGlynn, 1982)
Art Pepper’s wife, Laurie, - who he first met in a drug treatment community - is a strong presence throughout this film. She’s still alive today, and recently started uploading sections of her own home made Art Pepper story: a 3-part, 3-hour long animated retelling of the periods of Pepper’s life in between the jail terms.
Here, she comes across as some sort of Jainist-Buddhist on uppers. Makes ol’ Mahatma G seem pitiless. I mean, watch her as Pepper talks alcohol, drugs, ex-wives, estranged daughter, losing his looks, theft, prison…
If you are an Art Pepper fan, you’ve probably neglected any number of your core responsibilities in fruitless pursuits of a clean picture version of "Notes From a Jazz Survivor". Not necessarily for the tales of unrelenting excess (you’d have already combed his autobiography “Straight Life” every year of your literate life), but for the thumping rendition of “Red Car” captured on a live date in a Malibu club.
Make no mistake; Pepper’s best playing happened almost immediately he kicked his dope habit, which for those with romantic notions of the drug-ridden genius, is quite a jolt.
4. Blues and Swing (Stanley Dorfman, 2002)
Mo' Wynton. ..
By now we know Wynton loves him some Blues and Wynton also likes saying "swing" a lot. So this kinda names itself. Whatever, Wynton is impressive, as is this film.
A tidy tricolore of Wynton concert footage, his master class at Harvard University, and a coaching session with an even younger group of students at the Duke Ellington School in D.C. So not only a chance to see the most enjoyable of all Wynton bands (the "Tain" and Roberts quartet), but we get Our Man From N'awlins in his element. Mentoring, jabbing, preachin', riffin'. All that.
Anyone who refers to the present as a “cultural dark age” without so much as a hint of hesitation, isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but I’m sure that’s just how Wynton likes it. These interviews and practice session scenes are everything I find fascinating about Wynton. Frequently witty, totally compelling, but always a word or gesture away from being damn patronising. That sure footedness that has me half wishing he’d just stumble over a word or, heaven forbid, miss a note and miss it badly. Or course he never does and you'll just end up wishing he was your teacher.