Tag Archives: documentary

“WARNE MARSH: AN IMPROVISED LIFE”

In my childhood, my parents were towering figures — ever-present, vocal, impossible to ignore.  I was so busy interacting with them that daily routines drove out the possibility for deeper introspection about them.  I had only to venture out of my room and there they were.  Even if they were not physically present, they were my interior soundtrack — approving or disapproving, lecturing, reminding, explaining.

But they are now physically absent, although spiritually present.  As I age, I wish I could speak candidly with them, to ask the questions my younger self was unable to phrase and they might have been unwilling to answer.  My parents now seem characters in an unwritten novel, unpredictable, complicated beings I muse over. They have taken their secrets with them, but I imagine their spirits approving of my efforts to understand, my willingness to keep them alive in my thoughts.

I believe that other adult children feel as I do.

I have always been especially interested by the children of jazz musicians, whose parents must have been equally fascinating but perhaps more inscrutable, because of atypical nocturnal lives. So I am particularly intrigued to learn of a new documentary in the making, WARNE MARSH: AN IMPROVISED LIFE — not only because I admire the music that saxophonist Marsh created, but because the documentary is being made by his adult son, K.C. Marsh.

Details (and a short video) here.

I have some ambivalence about putting appeals-for-money into this blog, but I applaud K.C.’s efforts to make this film — both as a tribute to a musician who should be known more widely, and as his own effort to find out who his father was and is.  (So, yes, I have sent a little money of my own.)

Here is a sample of Warne’s music — he, Paul Chambers, string bass; Philly Joe Jones, drums, playing JUST SQUEEZE ME in 1958:

I look forward to K.C. Marsh’s attempt to understand both that floating sound and the man who made it.  Perhaps, as he comes to comprehend his father, it will help others of us unlock the lives of our parents as well. For their sake and for ours.

May your happiness increase!

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“PRESIDENT OF BEAUTY”: A FILM ABOUT LESTER YOUNG

Here is the link to what promises to be a beautiful film — Henry Ferrini’s documentary about Lester Young, PRESIDENT OF BEAUTY.

If anyone ever deserved a gentle celebration of his life — while the people who saw him are still on the planet — it would be Lester, and I look forward to this film.

May your happiness increase!

THE BRAVE JOURNEYS OF JENNIFER LEITHAM: “I STAND CORRECTED”

Jennifer Jane Leitham by Garth Woods

Jennifer Jane Leitham by Garth Woods

I first encountered the virtuoso jazz string bassist Jennifer Jane Leitham at the Sacramento Music Festival a few years ago — and was impressed by her eloquent improvisations.  Not only did she have technique, but she was a powerfully focused musician. Although I had never encountered the jazz string bassist John Leitham in person, I had heard him on recordings with Mel Torme, George Shearing, and other jazz notables. I STAND CORRECTED is a marvelous film documentary that traces the transition from John to Jennifer.  It is a deeply felt collaboration between Jennifer and filmmaker Andrea Meyerson. You don’t have to be a jazz fan to admire the film or its subject. It chronicles  the life-long journeys of Jennifer Leitham, who courageously exists in two simultaneous realms.  One story — more familiar — is how a young person born in Pennsylvania (not New Orleans, New York, or Kansas City) becomes a jazz musician in a time and place not all that hospitable to jazz.  Or perhaps not to larger kinds of improvisation. But I STAND CORRECTED is about much more than “becoming a musician”: early inspirations, good teachers, learning one’s craft, breaking in, getting a nationwide reputation, working alongside famous players and singers — with heartbreaks that keep the story genuine, not an unbroken climb to the top. I STAND CORRECTED is about a young woman born into a boy’s body who, early on, knew she was in the wrong place, in a society that would not admit such things might be possible.  It is a record of how John became Jennifer while not letting her essence be destroyed in the process.  For  John Leitham was a wondrous musician before Jennifer emerged in the public eye, and one of the sweetest aspects of this saga is Jennifer’s awareness and acceptance of both selves: this isn’t a film about an enraged, wounded adult trying to obliterate her younger self, but an adult who wants to emerge as the person she knows herself to be. I STAND CORRECTED offers that human story and more in a most moving film. For one thing, Jennifer is an exceedingly likable guide, honest but not pompous nor didactic or narcissistic.  I STAND CORRECTED is not a sermon telling us that we should all be tolerant.  There are no scientific or academic talking heads, no instant revelations. The film is a casual but strongly felt journal of one woman’s struggle to be the person she was meant to be.  Jennifer is both candid and light-hearted without ever undercutting the seriousness of her quest.  The film touches on emotional crises (a divorce, family members unable to accept Jennifer when they knew only John) and medical catastrophes, without becoming bleak. Of course, it helps that an audience has seen Jennifer onstage, ebullient and serious at the same time, playing at the highest level of her art, testing herself while having the time of her life.  And the film is generously leavened with musical performances where Jennifer shows off her prodigious talents as improviser, composer, singer. But the real story is more than a music video. Along the way, John-in-the-process-of-becoming-Jennifer is forced to be a spy in enemy country.  But she finds allies, friends, and supporters.  Some of them are genuinely unaffected noble people: Doc Severinsen is someone you would always want in your corner — gentle yet unwavering, both parent and friend to someone who strongly needs both.  “I hired a bass player, not a man or a woman,” he tells her.  Bless him.  Ed Shaughnessy is not far behind.  (Jennifer’s younger brother is a prize, too.) I was reminded that Doc and Ed were born n an era of drinking fountains labeled COLORED and WHITE outside train stations in many states.  But they and other jazz musicians learned quickly that it didn’t matter what you looked like on the outside.  It didn’t matter who your life-partner was.  Black, white, gay, straight?  Could you play?  What was your heart like?  How well did you love? Meeting these gracious, generous people is one of the film’s pleasures.  But they are only reflecting back something shining out of the film’s heroine.  Jennifer Leitham is gently making her way, as we all must.  Her courage is admirable, for she made the transition at the height of her career, when “coming out as a woman” could have ended her life as a performing musician. I STAND CORRECTED introduces us to a person for whom making music was a way to save herself, to define herself . . . and her music is a great loving gift to all of us.  The salvation young John found while playing the electric bass left-handed (a conscious choice, perhaps an early sly way of saying “I am different”) radiates through this film — a gift Jennifer gives to us.  And as she trusts herself, we trust her. We are all trying to become the person we feel we are meant to be, and some get close to that goal.  Jennifer Leitham’s quest didn’t end when she came out of the hospital after surgery.  It continues every time she performs or tells her story — a story that will give some other young person courage to be him or herself. I STAND CORRECTED is beautifully yet unobtrusively presented: the film shifts back and forth from the early life of John Leitham to the music of Jennifer Leitham to her voyage of self-discovery, the situations she must face and the oppositions that result — as well as the emotional rewards. At the end of I STAND CORRECTED, we feel privileged to have met a happy, realized, creative human being: a woman with four birthdays. And as we are slowly — too slowly — leaving behind the world where skin color or sexual preference determines identity and worth, I STAND CORRECTED will be understood as a small milestone on the way to a world where the idea of MAN or WOMAN is put aside as irrelevant in favor of PERSON, of BEING. It is a rewarding film both musically and spiritually.  Make every effort to see it.  Its heroine’s courage and perseverance are inspiring.  In a world where many people make judgments based on someone’s external presence, we need to be reminded that the truths lie within. Here is the film’s website — where you can see trailers and find out where it is being shown. May your happiness increase.

A GREAT HUMAN STORY: “THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB and the MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA”

We have all seen our share of documentaries, perhaps beginning in elementary school.  The least successful are tedious although well-meaning, taking us year-by-year, serving up moral lessons.  Although they strive to inform and move us, often they are unsatisfying and undramatic in their desire to present us with facts.

Jeff Kaufman’s brilliant feature-length portrait is a soaring antidote to every earnest, plodding, didactic documentary.  It is full of feeling, insightful without being over-emphatic.  It tells several stories in affecting, subtle ways.

Chick Webb was a great musician — a drummer other drummers still talk about with awe and love.  He guided and lovingly protected the teenaged Ella Fitzgerald, helping her grow into a mature artist.  Crippled from childhood — he would never grow much taller than 4′; he was in constant pain; he died shortly after turning thirty — he was fiercely ambitious and ultimately triumphant in ways he did not live to see.

But this is far more than the story of one small yet great-hearted man.  It is much larger than the chronicle of one jazz musician.  It is the story of how Webb’s love, tenacity, and courage changed the world.  That sounds hyperbolic, and I do not think that any American history textbook has yet made space for the little king from Baltimore, who deserves his place alongside Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson.  This film will go a long way towards correcting that omission.  For Chick, tiny yet regal behind his drum set, helped create an environment where Black and White could forget those superficial differences and become equal in the blare of the music, the thrill of the dance.

Without Webb, would there have been a Savoy Ballroom where American men and women could have forgotten the bigotry so prevalent, lost in the joy of swing?  I like to imagine someone, trained into attitudes of racism from birth, hearing HARLEM CONGO on the radio and feeling transformed as if by a bolt of lightning, not caring that the players were not Caucasian, making the shift in his / her thinking from cruel derision to admiration and love.  How may people moved to an acceptance of racial equality because they were humming Ella’s recording of A TISKET, A TASKET?  We will never know . . . but just as the sun (in the fable) encouraged the stubborn man to shed his heavy coat where the cold wind failed, I believe that jazz and swing did more than has ever been acknowledged to make White and Black see themselves as one.

And the film documents just how aware Webb was of the reforming power of his music.  The idea of him as a subtle crusader for love, acceptance, and fairness is not something imposed on him by an ideologically-minded filmmaker: it is all there in the newspaper clippings and the words he spoke.

Here is Candace Brown’s superb essay on the film — with video clips from the film.

I must move from the larger story to a few smaller ones.  Put bluntly, I think filmmaker Kaufman is a wonder-worker, his talents quiet but compelling — rather like the person in the tale who makes a delicious soup starting with only a stone.  It took six years and a great deal of effort to make this film, and the result is gratifying throughout.

Making a documentary in this century about someone who died in 1939 has its own built-in difficulties.  For one thing, the subject is no longer around to narrate, to sit still for hours of questions.  And many of the subjects friends and family are also gone.  Chick Webb was a public figure, to be sure, but he wasn’t someone well-documented by sound film.  Although his 1929 band can be heard in the rather lopsided film short AFTER SEBEN, the director of that film cut Chick out of the final product because he thought the little man looked too odd.

I don’t think so.  Here is a still from that film (with Chick’s dear friend John Trueheart on banjo and my hero Bennie Morton on trombone):

But back to Kaufman’s problem.  Although there are many recordings of Chick’s band in the studios and even a radio broadcast or two, other figures of that period left behind more visual evidence: think of the photogenic /  charismatic Ellington, Goodman, Louis.  Of Webb and his band in their prime, the film footage extant lasts four seconds.

So Kaufman had to be ingenious.  And he has been, far beyond even my hopes.

The film is a beautifully-crafted tapestry of sight and sound, avoiding the usual overexposed bits of stock film and (dare I say it) the expected talking heads, droning into the camera.  The living people Kaufman has found to speak with love of Chick Webb are all singular: jazz musicians Roy Haynes (swaggering in his cowboy hat), Joe Wilder (a courtly knight without armor), Dr. Richard Gale (son of Moe, who ran the Savoy), dancers Frankie Manning and Norma Miller . . . their affection and enthusiasm lifts up every scene.

And Kaufman has made a virtue of necessity with an even more brilliant leap.  Webb wasn’t quoted often, but his utterances were memorable — rather like rimshots.  Ella, Gene Krupa, Ellington, Basie, Helen and Stanley Dance, Artie Shaw, Mezz Mezzrow, and twenty others have their words come to life — not because a serious dull voiceover reads them to us, but because Kaufman has arranged for some of the most famous people in the world to read a few passages.  Do the names Bill Cosby and Janet Jackson suggest how seriously other people took this project?

THE SAVOY KING is a work of art and an act of love, and it desrves to be seen — not just by “jazz lovers” or “people who remember the Big Band Era.”

It has been selected to be shown at the 50th annual New York Film Festival, tentatively on September 29, which in itself is a great honor.

That’s the beautiful part.  Now here comes four bars of gritty reality.  In the ideal world, no one would ever have to ask for money, and a major studio would already have done a beautiful job of exploring Chick Webb’s heroism, generosity, and music by now.  But it hasn’t happened, and we know what results when the stories we love go Hollywood.

Filmmaker Kaufman is looking for funding through INDIEGOGO to arrange a “proper launch” for this film — the goal being $5000 to cover the extra work of our PR team (media, publicity, sales, etc), and other key expenses that will help lead to a commercial release.  All levels of support (ideally $75 and up) will make a real difference.  Here is the link.

Think of a world made better by swing.

See and support this film.

May your happiness increase.

“WELCOME TO NUTVILLE”: A BUDDY RICH DOCUMENTARY

The filmmaker Brian Morgan seems to me to be someone full of energy, creativity, and humor.  And he’s set out on a course of action that seems both logical and daring: to make an expansive documentary film that will do justice to the life and music of the remarkable jazz drummer Buddy Rich.  From every bit of evidence we have — the recordings, the interviews, the television and film appearances — Rich was not only a monumental musician but someone determined to go his own way in all things — thus a first-rate subject for a large study on both counts.  And since so many jazz legends have been documented many years after they are dead, timing is everything . . . while the people who knew and worked with Buddy are still on the planet.

Brian has one great advantage in that he has the enthusiastic commitment of Cathy Rich, Buddy’s daughter — someone blessed with some of her father’s determination.

Projects like this are no longer funded by major grants or huge Hollywood studios (we know that if one of the latter got hold of this idea, it wouldn’t resemble Buddy’s life or music at all when it was through) . . . so Brian and Cathy are asking for your help, your support, and your contribution.  Even if you can’t bankroll the project in some dramatic way, I urge you to watch the video here.  This site is accepting one-dollar donations, although I am sure they wouldn’t mind more sweeping largesse — and since just about everyone who ever sat down at a drum set since 1937 has in some way been conscious of Mr. Rich, I wish that all the drummers — professional, amateur, and people who tap on the table — would take this appeal seriously.

And as a reward for your patience and generosity, here is a seventeen-minute collection of excerpts from the 1950 film Norman Granz never saw to its completion, tentatively titled IMPROVISATION, which finds Buddy among Hank Jones, Ray Brown, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Bill Harris, Harry Edison, Flip Phillips, and Ella Fitzgerald . . . not only showing off the fast company who worked with and admired Buddy, but how wonderfully he fit into this varied presentation by musicians with very different styles:

May your happiness increase.

HOLD ON TIGHT: “JAZZ DANCE” (1954): A FILM BY ROGER TILTON and RICHARD BRUMMER

Thanks to Joep Peeters for pointing out that this fascinating piece of cultural / musical anthropology is available on YouTube.  Without exaggeration, there is no film remotely like it:

This twenty-minute film documents what it was really like at New York City’s cavernous Central Plaza, with a band made up of Jimmy McPartland, cornet; Jimmy Archey, trombone; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; Willie “the Lion” Smith, piano; Pops Foster, string bass; George Wettling, drums — heroes! — as they proceed through a slow blues, a medium-tempo BALLIN’ THE JACK,  ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, and the SAINTS.

Here’s the fascinating commentary about how the film was shot:

Matrixx Entertainment is pleased to present the 1954 classic, JAZZ DANCE, produced and directed by Roger Tilton, edited by Richard Brummer.  Special appearance by Al Minns and Leon James.  Music by Jimmy McPartland (trumpet), Willie (the Lion) Smith (piano), Pops Foster (bass), Pee Wee Russell (clarinet), Jimmy Archey (trombone), George Wettling, (drums). Filmed at the Central Plaza Dance Hall in New York City.

This high quality version was digitized by John Fellers from Dick Brummer’s 3/4-inch video tape struck from the original 35mm black and white master, the only 35mm print in existence in San Diego with Pat Tilton, the wife of Roger Tilton who passed away in 2011.  Dick Brummer, mentor of James Jaeger and a stockholder of Matrixx Entertainment, granted permission to post JAZZ DANCE to this channel.  Below are some excerpts from letters and technical notes on how this pioneering film was made.

It might be of interest to note that Roger made many visits to the Central Plaza Dance Hall in the weeks before production and drew pictures of things he saw happen there.  These were given to the cameramen before the shoot with instructions to try to get these shots if they happened.  The two cameramen worked in such a way as to cover the same action from two angles when possible so that I could have the material I needed for synchronous action cuts when I edited the film.  JAZZ DANCE was shot with two 35mm hand-held WW 2-type cameras called Eyemos plus a 35mm Mitchell high up in a balcony. There were 2 cameramen with an assistant each.  When they ran out of their 100 foot loads (about 1 minute) the assistant ran out with another can of negative. Dupont 3 was used, the fastest film at the time.  Roger had been told that he would need arc lights and a generator in the street with big sound cameras to do the job but my associate at the time and I had a different idea.  We had arranged for the use of new lights just developed by GE that were the first PAR cans ever used on a film.  They plugged into the existing power.  The Eyemos were wild, but shot at 24 frames per second. My sound equipment also ran at 24 fps.  I did the sync later on a Movieola.  The crowd was told that, by signing a release that night, they would get in free.  I used 3 mics and a third hand-held when needed through a mixer.  The film is noted for being one of the first cinema verite films to take the audience into an event as participant.  The audience hardly noticed the cameras because they looked like amateur equipment.  The cameramen shot from behind shoulders and from the hip.  Ricky Leacock and Bob Campbell were the two cameramen.  For the JAZZ DANCE shoot, the cameramen used 100 foot loads and several cameras so that, when signaled, the assistants would give the cameramen a loaded camera and take away the camera with the exposed film to unload it and load a new 100 foot load.  This was done away from the crowd in black loading bags.  The cameras were spring-wound, but set by the cameramen to run at 24 fps, the same speed I was running my 17 and a half mag recorder (which was plugged in to the wall behind the band).  The entire dance was shot in about four hours.  Solving the logistics of the shoot, as I discussed above, was one thing, but documenting what actually went on at the Dance Hall every Saturday night on 35mm, with both sound AND picture, set a new standard for a “you are there,” cinema verite film.  The well-known documentarian, Mura Dehn, had shot footage of jazz dancers, including Minns and James, before, but such shoots were always staged and without sound (what we call MOS). This was true even when she shot at the Savoy Ballroom. You can see Dehn’s work on YouTube in the series is called “The Spirit Moves.” By the way, I worked with Mura on a documentary she made on modern jazz music where she DID record live music — but there was no dancing.  So JAZZ DANCE is the first to combine many techniques.


Almost sixty years later, this film captures an exuberant scene in exuberant ways.  I had not known of the one-minute film limitations, but now it explains the hectic energy of the finished product, cutting from one scene to another with restless rapidity.  The music speaks for itself: as I’ve been pointing out with advertising cards, bands such as this — at this level — assembled regularly in these huge downtown New York catering halls in the late Forties onward.  So JAZZ DANCE presents a wild audience responding without restraint to the music they hear.  It is also an amusing corrective to those who yearn for an imagined Golden Era when audiences sat silently, rapt, attentive . . . I suspect that hot jazz always provoked such energetic response.

May your happiness increase.

JAZZ MYSTERIES in A FASCINATING FILM: “FINDING CARLTON,” JUNE 11, 2012

Here’s where I’ll be on June 11.  I hope you can join me!

Monday, June 11, 7:30 pm

FINDING CARLTON:  Uncovering the Story of Jazz in India

Featuring a Q&A with director Susheel Kurien (who is also a jazz musician himself) and Michael Steinman, jazz aficionado and writer of the blog Jazz Lives.   PLUS get a peek at rare footage of American jazz musicians performing in India!

USA, 2011, 73 min. How did jazz from America find a home in India? And how did India respond to it?  Filmmaker Kurien tells the untold story that begins with Depression-era African American musicians journeying from Paris to Calcutta and Bombay.  This captivating and unique film takes audiences on a richly atmospheric journey into India’s little-known jazz age–which lasted from the 1920s to the 1970s–through a portrait of the maverick guitarist Carlton Kitto, who chose to continue as a be-bop guitarist in the relative obscurity of Calcutta over emigration, commercial studio work, or Bollywood.

Tickets: $15 ($10 for students); $20 at the door: call (516) 829-2570,  or click here to purchase online via PayPal.

The film will start at 7:30pm at the Clearview Squire Cinemas: 115 Middle Neck Road, Great Neck.   Visit our website www.greatneckarts.org/Film for more information about the Furman Film Series!

Here’s what I had to say about FINDING CARLTON after my first viewing.

Even people who are not terribly interested in jazz in the intricate ways some of us are will also find much to admire in the portraits captured in it.  And the jazz-fanciers in the audience sat up, enthralled, throughout it. 

The film concentrates on two musicians: guitarist Carlton Kitto, who found himself entranced by the sound of Charlie Christian on the records his mother played at home while she cooked or cleaned — and Louiz Banks, a Grammy-nominated producer and jazz pianist.  Carlton takes our attention and never lets it go, both because he swings delicately yet powerfully, and because he is a sweetly endearing character. 

Unlike some documentaries I have seen where the story is compelling yet the characters are off-putting, everyone in the audience fell in love with Carlton, his sweet sincerity and his devotion to his music.  It did not surprise anyone that when Carlton got pushed on stage when the Ellington orchestra played a concert in India, that Ellington himself warmed to the young guitarist, invited him to sit in, and that Carlton improvised six choruses on SATIN DOLL with the band.  I’m only sorry that the Duke wasn’t able to hire Carlton on the spot and take him on tour.

FINDING CARLTON is full of the results of the most fascinating archival research, but it is not simply a film for those people whose heads are full of record labels and matrix numbers. The fruits of that research are vivid onscreen, in the photographs, sounds, colors and textures of the Indian jazz scene from the Twenties onward — with quick but telling portraits of deeply inspiring players including the world-class pianist Teddy Weatherford, the elusive trombonist Herb Flemming. The stories Sushiel has uncovered talk of Larry Coryell and Billy Taylor, of Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, of jamming with Sonny Rollins in an ashram. As well as these famous names, we encounter people and players who go straight to our hearts: the first-rate singer Ruben Rebeiro, the devoted jazz fan Farokh Mehta, singers Pam Crain and Christine Correa — we watch the radiance on Christine’s face when she is able to hear a broadcast of her father’s band for the first time, music she heard as a child but never knew existed.

Kurien has a splendid eye — even though this is his first film — for the little human details that bring both individual characters and a larger world (now, perhaps no longer quite so vibrant) into focus and into our hearts. FINDING CARLTON blossoms with lovely montages of the present and the past, the aural and the visual, the moving and the still. It is respectful but never dull, informative but never preachy or didactic.

I urge you to make a small jazz pilgrimage to see it: it is fully realized, lively, and deeply moving. I came away from it with some feelings of loss: one of the later scenes shows Carlton at a gig in a hotel lounge, playing swing for an almost empty room, but I thought of his resilience and that of the music we love.

For more details, please visit http://www.findingcarlton.com.  And here is the link to Susheel Kurien’s blog, http://bluerhythm.wordpress.com/

May your happiness increase.