Interview: AFS Film Programmer Lars Nilsen on Jazz Documentaries

This Sunday, we’ll launch our new Jazz on Film series, programmed by documentarian and University of Texas Professor Dr. Paul Stekler. The series dives into jazz and the people who make this music and live by its rhythms. Here’s AFS Lead Film Programmer Lars Nilsen on the series.

How did how did this Jazz series come together?

University of Texas Professor and filmmaker Paul Stekler walked up to me at a screening and said “let’s do a series about New Orleans music.” I suggested instead of doing that, because I feel like we’ve kind of covered a lot of that in our past Les Blank shows, how about we sort of expand the whole thing and then look at jazz films. So I researched the availability of any possible titles we might play in a jazz on film series. He made his suggestions, I made my suggestions, and we sort of brought it together as sort of a final package. We ended up refining the series down just to three titles, or three show times I should say, over four titles. The common denominator is jazz music in some way or another, although it’s a fairly diverse bunch of styles of jazz that we cover in the series.


So the first film, LET’S GET LOST, goes far beyond just the style of jazz. LET’S GET LOST is about Chet Baker, a jazz trumpeter from the Cool California jazz scene that evolved after bop had come and gone. A sort of post bop evolved on the West Coast, which became “Cool jazz,” mainly white musicians operating out of Los Angeles around Shelly Manne’s nightclub. These musicians had found their own sort of style. We might have looked at “Birth Of The Cool,” Miles Davis’s album, as sort of a blueprint for this style of jazz, it’s sometimes fairly harmonically complex but not volcanic in its inventiveness. Chet Baker emerged from the scene as sort of a star for a lot of reasons, partly because he was an excellent jazz musician, trumpeter, singer, and interpreter of songs. But, then there was also a photographer named William Claxton who had taken these photos of him that are just among the most beautiful photographs ever taken. Baker was as handsome as a movie star, maybe handsomer, and so he became a star both because of the quality of his music and because of his sort of movie star image. That’s really what that movie, LET’S GET LOST, is about. It’s not just about Chet Baker as musician, it’s about Chet Baker as this ruined photographic subject. The film was made by different photographer, Bruce Weber, and what he is documenting is Chet Baker, not this young handsome man, but an old man who looks like a ruin, who looks almost like when we see Piranesi’s etchings of the ruins of Rome that are still beautiful, but they’re ruins. Chet Baker in this film is still beautiful but he’s a ruin, and he’s not only visually a ruin, he’s a ruin when we hear his music. His embouchure for blowing on the trumpet isn’t quite there anymore, his singing voice is no longer this clear beautiful sound it has guitar, it’s an old man’s voice. That’s what that movie is about, it’s about the sort of ruined beauty that is still beauty.


PIANO PLAYERS RARELY EVER PLAY TOGETHER is about three generations of New Orleans piano players: Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair, and Allen Toussaint. With those three playing together, we observe how musical traditions have wended through these generations, how musical traditions change as they’re adopted by a particular person’s personality, and how that person’s personality becomes absorbed in the musical tradition. So when we hear Allen Toussaint playing the piano, he is playing piano as Allen Toussaint, but also as Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair, and also as a whole line of people whose names we don’t know because they were before recorded history. So that’s what the film’s about: it’s both piano playing and then the tradition. We also see a good deal of New Orleans tradition in the film. We also get to see what comes with a jazz life, which is to say a life of improvisation, a life of fun, a life of celebration, and a life of dealing with one’s considerable troubles by having fun and plenty of music.

On that same bill is JACKIE MCLEAN ON MARS, which is a film about Jackie McLean who is a an excellent post-bop musician from the East Coast who, in order to sort of hustle a living together, has taken a job teaching at State University of New York. He’s teaching a jazz class and we observe one of his classes and how he talks to the students. In an interesting sort of way, it’s a parallel to the New Orleans documentary because we hear something of the jazz acculturation as he attempts to pass it on to another generation of students. We hear the imperfection of an academic setting for putting this over, and it becomes a comic tension in the thing that he’s dropping all of this amazing science on these students in this very sort of hip lingo and hip language and there’s a difficulty in communicating it. So it’s called JACKIE MCLEAN ON MARS because it’s almost like his head space is from a completely different planet. I don’t even know if he plays music in that movie. It’s just about the jazz culture and trying to communicate jazz culture across generations.


I CALLED HIM MORGAN is the most recent film made in this whole series. It was made a couple years ago by Swedish filmmaker Kasper Colin. It is about jazz, a jazz lifestyle, and a manslaughter that happens. The great jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, who recorded for Blue Note, was also part of a post-bop/hard-bop generation. He was killed by his wife in an altercation in a bar on a cold winter night, and the film—I would say in a way sort of influenced by podcasts like Serial—goes through and talks about the many facets of the killing and the death and, at the same time, we go through and we understand a lot about Lee Morgan’s life as it leads up to it. It’s a life that is building towards tragedy. Like almost everybody else that we examine in this series, he had drug problems. That’s an overriding theme in this series is drugs and people dealing with drugs, people beating drugs, etc.


Jazz is probably the greatest indigenous American art form, an art form created by African Americans, many of whom were brought here during slave times. As an art form, there’s so much contradiction bound up in it, in that people who have been oppressed, who were enslaved, who came to this country in chains in many cases, gave America its highest flowering of culture. There’s not even a close second place. It’s so important that we understand this art form. If I asked a lot of young people what you think of jazz, they would probably think of smooth jazz and Kenny G, so I do think it’s important to sort of have a grounding and an understanding that this is an art form that America should be really proud of.

Film, and in particular documentary, is an art form that Americans can feel very strongly about having had a hand in creating. Americans have elevated the documentary to an art form in the last century. So these two art forms coming together should justly give us pride in our American heritage, as complicated it may be, and inspire us to sort of move forward as Americans and value our artists and support the arts.

If you had to recommend one album per artist profiled in this series, which album would you recommend?

Chet Baker: “Playboys” with Art Pepper is a session that shows off Baker’s tone and power alongside his friend and fellow junkie, altoist Art Pepper, who went down the same road of drug addiction as his friend Baker but lived to tell about it – also the LET’S GET LOST soundtrack album, which provides quite a contrast to the energy of Baker’s youth.

Professor Longhair: “Rock n’ Roll Gumbo” – with Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown on guitar. This is a session made late in life after not recording for many years, and it is just on fire with energy and invention. I think it is the best Professor Longhair record and one of the best New Orleans piano records of all.
Allen Toussaint: Many to choose from, including some of the finest soul records of the ’70s, but for his piano playing, “The Wild Sound Of New Orleans”
Jackie McLean: “One Step Beyond” – Jackie McLean came up as a bop saxophonist and, as hard bop cooled off, and began incorporating new harmonic textures , McLean was right there in the midst of it, listening and leading. “One Step Beyond” features McLean’s fierce, bop-inflected tone in an extremely modern setting, alongside vibist Bobby Hutcherson, trombonist Grachan Moncur, and driven by the beat of 17-year old master drummer Tony Williams.
Lee Morgan: “Sidewinder” – Among the most popular artists on Blue Note Records in the ’60s, trumpeter Lee Morgan helped to bring the blues back into post bop. His music, which features some of the dynamics of his mentor Art Blakey’s hard bop sound, also appealed to R&B audiences, and Morgan’s proud and sometimes truculent personality comes through in his playing.

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