Richard Rodriguez Navi Pillay
biopics of jazz trumpeters CHET BAKER, MILES DAVIS AND CLIFFORD
is a complex art form originating in America but badly served
by American film makers. Hollywood studios and distributors
have long had a policy of focusing on the sensationalism of
sex, violence and drugs to the exclusion of aesthetics in the
production of jazz biographies, and two recent productions have
unfortunately continued this practice: Born to be Blue
and Miles Ahead.
art of biography began long ago. Plutarch included some gossipy
details of his classical figures but chose subjects because
they achieved mightily as artists, politicians, or intellectuals.
He always gave primary consideration to their talent. Georgio
Vasari did the same with the great renaissance painters always
concentrating on their creativity and diminishing the importance
of their sexual preferences, social idiosyncracies, or dietary
excesses. James Boswell ‘s genius lay in the inclusion
of Samuel Johnson’s quotes and anecdotes which he realized
would best reveal the innards of his subject’s genius
– gossip and scandal be damned.
American film biographies succeed in isolating those kernels
of genius which distinguish their subjects. Amadeus, The
Aviator, Steve Jobs, Schindler’s List and others
leave audiences learning much about the subject’s unique
achievement. But as far back as The Benny Goodman Story,
and The Gene Krupa Story, and later with Bird
and Lady Sings the Blues, jazz biography on film has
traipsed in the muck and mire of the sensational, mostly buried
in the drug scene. An exploration of the figure’s aesthetic
virtuosity is rarely to be found. The only film to get seriously
into the mechanics of jazz essences was ‘Round Midnight
which was made by a Frenchman (Bertrand Tavernier). This irony
is not so strange because, most French jazz film fans are more
interested in the mystery of genius than the notoriety of drugs.
Born to be Blue, with an excellent performance from Ethan
Hawke as Chet Baker, hones in on the drug life of the protagonist
but doesn’t even get that story straight. As usual, the
film leaves the audience shaking their heads in sadness and
pity after digesting the erroneous clichés of drug addiction.
experts will agree that Baker sustained a high level of music
achievement during his lengthy heroin addiction and had more
trouble with his teeth (destroyed by irate drug dealers) than
with poppy seeds.
drug clichés abound. Baker’s seminal sideman pianist/
composer/ professor Phil Markowitz who performed with the trumpeter
from 1978-83 avers that he never saw Baker using the needle.
Furthermore, during a BlueNote recording session when Baker
became aware that drugs would appear in the studio, he politely
suggested that non-users should leave. Like Charlie Parker he
wanted to protect others from the perils of addiction. (The
cliché of heroin itself being a destroyer of artistic
achievement is a distortion which has long endured. Writers
from Samuel Coleridge to William Burroughs, singers from Billie
Holiday to Amy Winehouse, actors from Philip Seymour Hoffman
to Angelina Jolie, musicians from John Lennon to Eric Clapton
have all achieved high levels of creativity during addiction
as have many others).
is particularly disturbing about Born to be Blue is
that it misses important essences of Baker’s music. His
knowledge of theory was profound as he experimented with novel
chord changes on the piano, soared through what Markowitz describes
as an “amazing book” of technically challenging
charts, and created an artistic vocal signature which “cloned”
his trumpeting. His ear was so receptive that he learned to
speak Italian like a native. His level of musical sophistication
in the film the proliferation of scenes showing him living in
a battered car with his girl friend, bleeding in a bath tub,
and dialoging like a country rube on an Oklahoma farm misses
all of the Baker creative subtlety and delicacy.
has happened so many times before, audiences leave such a film
believing that the 'cool' thing about jazz is the drugs and
the booze and the chicks.
Miles Ahead we get even more sensational. In addition
to the coke snorting and fistfights we actually get car chases
and gunplay. Strangely, the film chooses to portray the controversial
musician in the years 1975-80 when he had stopped playing entirely.
But it is a period of considerable scandal and sensationalism.
Davis stated in his autobiography during this period “I
took a lot of cocaine (about $500 a day at one point) and fucked
all the women I could get into my house.” Actually, in
ironic contrast to the thesis of this essay, Miles Davis might
prefer this kind of film about his life since he steadfastly
prized his celebrity more than his jazz work.
a musician, Davis was paradoxical in ways that Miles Ahead
misses entirely. To begin with, as famed jazz writer Whitney
Balliett once said, although Miles Davis was revered by musicians,
audiences and even many critics he was “ a trumpeter of
the second rank” (New Yorker magazine Dec. 14,
1989). “He has never been much of a technician”
and his solos were sometimes “a string of embarrassing
clams.” Miles Davis fans and critics may cringe at these
quotes but their substance from a germinal critic like Balliett
coveted his jazz celebrity and the publicity he received as
a leader on recordings. As a result major contributions made
by arrangers Gil Evans on Porgy and Bess and Gerry
Mulligan on The Birth of the Cool were never properly
acknowledged. Although the sweetness of his muted trumpet colors
abounds on these recordings, the scope of their musicality is
certainly abetted by the orchestral talent of the arrangers.
figures often fail to receive credit for contributions outside
of their instrumental identity. Here is where Davis should receive
closer scrutiny. He organized and recorded with two of the most
important groups in jazz history (the John Coltrane band and
the Wayne Shorter band). His eye for unknown jazz talent was
second to none ( he 'discovered' Hermeto Pascoal, Shirley Horn,
Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and many others) and his jazz leadership
in recordings, touring, and marketing was first-rate.
of these aforementioned paradoxical elements in his jazz career
was of concern to the producers of Miles Ahead. But
at least there was some authenticity in the set design for his
duplex on West 77th St. which I visited several times.
third jazz film about a trumpeter I should mention hasn’t
been made yet and probably won’t be. It is the story of
Brown. Brown is not known widely principally
because his life was free from sensationalism of any kind. There
was no luridness, no scandal, no drugs. He was from a modest
family of eight children in Wilmington Delaware, won a math
scholarship to college, possessed generous character traits
of magnanimity, friendship and selflessness to a fault, was
a devoted husband and father, and always awed Charlie Parker
while playing along side him on Philadelphia bandstands.
most importantly, It is not an exaggeration to say that Brown’s
jazz trumpeting has rarely been approached and never surpassed
in the annals of the music.
is a screenplay of his life which sits on a desk somewhere in
Hollywood. It hasn’t moved into production consideration
because as one executive put it there is an overabundance of
'music' in the script and certainly nothing that would entertain
an audience needing the sensationalism of Born to be Blue
or Miles Ahead in order to purchase a ticket. Too bad
we don’t have a Plutarch to produce jazz biopics.
Funny and right up your alley-another opportunity to besmirch
firstname.lastname@example.org Unfortunately, Nick,
the general public does not have much interest in the aesthetics
of the music. Jazz is something special and is reserved for
those fortunate enough to open their hearts and souls to embrace
it and the brilliant musicians who have shaped its history.
Always so interesting and beautifully and soulfully written!
Well done, Nick.
I wish Nick Catalano could have read my book of memoirs about
Chet Baker. It can be checked out by going to amazon.com under
the title, Chet Baker: The Missing Years.
He would have learned the truth about what had transpired
in Chet's life during the months & years soon after the
severe beating of Chet, which left him with the loss of four
upper front teeth and permanent trigeminal nerve damage to
both sides of his mouth, and so much more. Artt