Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Improvisation (Norman Granz Productions/Eagle Eye Video, 1950/1996/2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Improvisation, a compilation of uncertain date — the DVD offered three sets of copyright dates, including 1996 and 2006 (and imdb.com dates the set from 2004) — of various films of jazz musicians produced under the aegis of Norman Granz. The main raison d’être of this disc was to present two rare film clips of Charlie Parker performing instrumentals called “Ballade” and “Celebrity.” Film of Parker performing is almost as rare as audio recordings of Harpo Marx’s voice; he was never in a movie and, though audio recordings of some TV shows he appeared on exist (and a few of them were released by the dear departed Stash Records label in the late 1980’s), the one known kinescope of him is of a performance of “Hot House” with Dizzy Gillespie, Dick Hyman (piano), Sandy Block (bass), Charlie Smith (drums), Leonard Feather and an unidentified announcer from the DuMont TV studios in New York on February 24, 1952. I remember seeing this film for the first time in 1976 during a “Jazz and the Movies” series at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco — and there was a galvanic shock that ran through the audience as this completely unannounced attraction (the clip had just been discovered and was being shown without notice) came on and everyone in the audience who hadn’t been around when Parker was alive and active got to see a live performance of his for the first time ever. The clips here are not quite as galvanic, mainly because they come from an aborted 1950 follow-up Granz produced to his 1944 Warner Bros. short Jammin’ the Blues. This one, like Jammin’ the Blues, was directed by Gjon Mili, whose main reputation was as a still photographer, but whereas Jammin’ the Blues had been shot on the Warners lot (albeit with the musicians miming to pre-recordings they had made on a Warners studio — something that’s obvious during Marie Bryant’s vocal feature, “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” where Lester Young’s tenor sax can be heard on the soundtrack while on screen you see him with the sax either in his lap or him carrying it, but with the mouthpiece nowhere near his mouth as it would be if he were playing it), this one was shot in Mili’s own studio.

Since the studio wasn’t soundproofed, Granz had to abandon his original plan of having the musicians filmed playing in real time and instead go back to the pre-recording that was the standard system for filming musical numbers (when I watched the 1996 compilation film The Art of Singing I noticed how much more exciting the opera clips were when we got to the TV era and the singers were performing in real time, and the same applies for the jazz musicians featured here). Parker is seen performing “Celebrity” with Granz’s house rhythm section of the time — Hank Jones on piano, Ray Brown on bass and Buddy Rich on drums (later Oscar Peterson would take Jones’s place — it’s a good section for Parker and Rich, who played way too loudly and obnoxiously on the 1950 Diz and Bird session for Granz and thereby weakened its value as the one recording the three greatest geniuses in the formation of bebop — Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk — made together, is on his best behavior here) — and “Ballade” adds Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax. The recordings were well known because Granz released them on disc — though my copy of “Ballade” (on a compilation called The Charlie Parker Story, Volume 3) had the tenor solo misattributed to Ben Webster! (That’s not too surprising because Hawkins and Webster sounded so similar they were often confused; the 1964 Hawkins tribute LP Body and Soul contained a 1939 Lionel Hampton side, “Early Session Hop,” on which both Hawkins and Webster played but the solo was Webster’s.) But the films weren’t known at all because Granz, who got the project as far as a rough cut but then ran out of money to pursue it further, just sat on the films until he gave them to a French collector to curate shortly before his death in the 1990’s.

The rest of the “Mili Studio Sequence,” as it’s called here, includes an on-the-spot piece called “Ad Lib” with the Jones-Brown-Rich rhythm section and two jams, one on the song “Pennies from Heaven” and one an improvised blues called “Blues for Greasy” with Lester Young (showing off the same icon-of-cool look he had in Jammin’ the Blues) and Joe “Flip” Phillips as the tenor saxophonists, Harry “Sweets” Edison (Young’s old band-mate with Count Basie) on trumpet, Bill Harris on trombone (for some reason Harris, who had a major reputation as one of the stars of Woody Herman’s First Herd in the 1940’s, fell from grace with the jazz intelligentsia thereafter — oddly, because he’s in excellent form here, fully worthy of his more prestigious confreres — with the same rhythm section backing them up and Ella Fitzgerald coming in on a scat vocal on “Blues for Greasy.” (I admire Ella’s ability to improvise with her voice and hold her own with major jazz instrumentalists, but I’d much rather hear her at slow and medium tempi singing actual words and using her musicianship and phrasing to put over great songs.) The rest of the disc is bits and pieces of later performances: the marvelous film of Duke Ellington and his trio (bassist John Lamb and to my mind the best drummer Ellington ever had, Sam Woodyard) in the sculpture garden of the Foundation Maeght at the Côte d’Azur in southern France playing a piece listed here as “Blues for Joan Miró” but later recorded by Ellington as “The Shepherd.” Alas, the version of it we get here is a rough cut of Ellington’s actual performance — it’s nice to have but I miss the full version we got on the Côte d’Azur movie, released by National Educational Television (the precursor of PBS) at the time, which was briefly available on Video Yesteryear (though with Ella Fitzgerald’s contributions deleted), which featured some marvelous cut-ins of the sculptures, including a quite nice scene in which some quick cuts between angles and reverse angles of sculptures by Giacometti made it look like the Giacometti figures were dancing to Ellington’s music. (That whole movie should be reissued on DVD; it contains some of Ellington’s most remarkable late performances, and it would be nice to see Ella’s contributions at long last!)

Then there were jam sessions from the Montreux Jazz Festivals of 1977 and 1979 — the only clips here that were in color — including a trio blues by Count Basie with Roy Brown and drummer Jimmie Smith (though when I heard that name announced in the credits I was hoping it would be the far more famous electric organist Jimmy Smith!), which Basie played in a much fuller style than usual (probably because he didn’t have his faithful second, rhythm guitarist Freddie Green, bolstering the section) and leaped into two interludes of pure stride piano that reminded us that Fats Waller was one of Basie’s teachers. These also featured some jams, including the Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson blues “Kidney Stew” with a vocal by Roy Eldridge (close to Louis Armstrong’s level as a trumpeter but far below him as a singer, though his voice was serviceable enough for a song like this) and an all-out performance that, since this took place right after the famous world-championship prize fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Basie called “Ali & Frazier” when it was released originally on LP. The participants included Eldridge, alto saxophonist Benny Carter (who also performed an amazing version of “These Foolish Things” with Basie and the rhythm section), tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims and trombonists Vic Dickenson and Al Grey. There’s a kind of relentless competitiveness to these sorts of sessions, which Granz had been famous for since his first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in 1944, but they can still be fun.

Interspered with these clips were shots of guitarist Joe Pass performing solo versions of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” (oddly, these are in black-and-white even though they were dated 1979) and Ella Fitzgerald doing a medley of two more Ellington tunes, “Do Nothing ’Til You Hear from Me” and “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” with her regular accompanists c. 1979: Paul Smith (piano), Keter Betts (bass) and Mickey Roker (drums). Though Ella’s voice had clearly lost some of its sheen between 1950 and 1979, her superb musicianship remained and, as I noted above, I’d much rather hear her doing this type of singing, eloquently phrasing a lyric and showing off her musicianship within the context of a great song (or two) instead of doing that rapid-fire scatting I admire more than I actually enjoy. (I remember when Verve Records released an LP in the 1980’s of Ella’s recordings with Jazz at the Philharmonic from 1949, 1952 and 1954 — records Granz hadn’t been able to issue at the time because he didn’t yet have Ella under contract — and as she does some of the most delicate, sensitive, beautiful ballad singing of her life on songs like Ellington’s “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So,” insensitive boors in the audience are calling for her big scat feature, “How High the Moon.” I joked once that these were the parents of the kids who yelled “Free Bird!” at the Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts.) The Pass pieces are also remarkable, especially “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” a typically rambunctious Waller song Pass transforms into a sensitive, eloquent ballad. (He’s equally eloquent on “Prelude to a Kiss,” but that song we expect to hear as a ballad.)

Improvisation is a mixed bag of clips, none of them truly deathless jazz masterpieces (though the Parker and Pass tracks, as well as the Carter/Basie “These Foolish Things,” come close), and the implication on the tape — especially in the long, sententious introductions by Nat Hentoff and Granz himself — that the assemblage will somehow have something to say about how jazz musicians take a piece and remold it in their own image by improvising on it doesn’t really materialize, but still it’s a fascinating sampler of filmed jazz history, including rare glimpses of under-filmed people like Lester Young (whose only other surviving footage is in Jammin’ the Blues and the 1957 CBS-TV special The Story of Jazz, yet another legendary jazz movie that isn’t available complete on DVD and deserves to be) and Charlie Parker (who was so under-filmed that no footage of him was known to exist until the DuMont “Hot House” surfaced over two decades after his death in 1955). The reason Parker’s other TV appearances are lost is probably that they were strictly local shows, and therefore there was no reason to kinescope them (a kinescope was simply a film from a camera stuck in front of a TV screen, and it was used to be able to show national shows on the East and West Coasts in the same time slot: the show would air live on the East Coast and the kinescope would be flown across the country to be shown three hours later on the West Coast, albeit in much worse image quality: reason enough for Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball to want I Love Lucy to be done on film, so the image quality would be consistent everywhere in the U.S.), and as I told Charles the holy grail of Parker’s known TV appearances would be his guest shot on the first Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon in 1953, when he was only supposed to be on for 15 minutes but got so into the spirit of the thing he played for a full hour. (Alas, not even an audio recording is known to exist of that one!)

Improvisation is presented as a two-DVD set, with the jazz clips on disc one and an odd set of bonus features on disc two: a half-hour of silent outtakes from the 1950 Mili film (which is interesting but gets quite wearing after a while), including one song that was not included in the rough cut and whose soundtrack frustratingly does not survive: Ella Fitzgerald singing “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Ella didn’t record the song commercially for another 12 years, when Granz produced a pair of albums with Nelson Riddle arranging for her, Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson and Ella Swings Gently with Nelson; “I Only Have Eyes for You” is on the Swings Brightly album and she does it uptempo, with a typically brassy Riddle arrangement that just tends to get in the way (he wrote some great charts for Ella on the Gershwin songbook album they’d done together in 1959, but this one is him at his loud, obnoxious worst, setting up a cacophonous din behind her; Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole and Judy Garland could fight back against a Riddle arrangement like this, but Ella’s more delicate art didn’t stand a chance), while even without the soundtrack (with subtitles giving the lyrics) one can tell that Ella is singing this very slowly, stretching vowel sounds over several notes (a sort of ornamentation that was one of her trademarks). Some of director Mili’s close-ups of her in this sequence are utterly haunting; usually Ella was photographed either from miles away or through diffusers to smooth out her somewhat craggy face, but Mili’s lights burn all of her features, flattering or otherwise, into our consciousness and rub against the common view of Ella as a great singer but one far less emotionally committed to her art than, say, Billie Holiday. What a pity the soundtrack recording did not survive! (Ella’s commercial recording is available from archive.org at https://archive.org/details/LouisArmstrongVellaFitzgerald-IOnlyHaveEyesForYou, but for some reason it’s identified as an Armstrong-Fitzgerald collaboration even though he had nothing to do with it.)

The bonus disc also features a transfer of Jammin’ the Blues (welcome but the video quality is oddly inferior to the version currently shown occasionally on Turner Classic Movies) and some interviews with Hank Jones, Harry “Sweets” Edison and Clark Terry about the 1950 Mili film and with Jay McShann (with whom he made his first commercial recordings), Phil Woods, record producer and critic Ira Gitler, James Moody, Slide Hampton, Roy Haynes and Jimmy Heath about Charlie Parker. It’s amusing to note that at first Hank Jones wasn’t even sure he was in the Mili film; he remembered participating in the pre-recordings but not actually shooting the film — midway through the interview someone must have shown him either a clip or a still from the film and Jones realized he had been in it, but still had no recollection of it — while the Parker interviews are fascinating and a welcome antidote to what’s become the standard view of him, reinforced by the biographies (especially Ross Russell’s Bird Lives) and Clint Eastwood’s magnificent film Bird, which for all its skill at reproducing the nighttime atmosphere of the jazz world and Forest Whitaker’s incredible portrayal of Parker (he and Diane Venora, who played Parker’s partner Chan Richardson, didn’t get the Academy Award nominations they deserved and Whitaker eventually won the Oscar for playing Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland which he’d deserved for playing Charlie Parker 18 years earlier) did sometimes make it seem like the great tragedy of Parker’s life was that the Betty Ford Clinic didn’t yet exist.

The Parker of legend is a barely functional basket case who had to be filled up with drugs and propped up on a bandstand to be able to perform at all; the Parker these people (all of whom knew him personally and at least two of whom, McShann and Haynes, worked with him for years) remembered was a literate, intelligent man with an amazing command of music that allowed him to learn a song and be able to play deathless improvisations on it after hearing it just once. There are innumerable stories of Parker sitting in during big-band concerts and playing an unfamiliar band book as if he’d been rehearsing with them for months — and at least one such appearance, with Woody Herman’s Third Herd in 1951, was released on LP — and Woods’ stories of him are perhaps the most fascinating of all. Woods recalled that when he first met Parker he was playing an alto sax and was disappointed with the mouthpiece, the reed, the ligatures that hold the two together — and he recalled Parker playing a gig on baritone sax and asking to borrow his alto. Woods lent him the instrument, and Parker played such a breathtaking set with Woods’ horn Woods finally realized, “The problem isn’t the instrument. It’s me. I need to practice more.” Overall, Improvisation is a fascinating movie for jazz fans — the Parker sequences alone make it self-recommending — though it’s far from the first jazz video I would recommend to anyone just coming to jazz “fresh” without a thorough background in the music and its history.