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Vol. 15, No. 3, 2016
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biopics of jazz trumpeters

reviewed by



Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. His latest book, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor, is now available. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:

Jazz 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.

The 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.

Many 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.

Most 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.

Other 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).

What 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 is remarkable.

But 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.

As 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.

In 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. As 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.

As 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 is pivotal.

Davis 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.

Jazz 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.

None 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.

The third jazz film about a trumpeter I should mention hasn’t been made yet and probably won’t be. It is the story of Clifford 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.

But 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.

There 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.



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Funny and right up your alley-another opportunity to besmirch Miles. R.
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! Michele
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 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 Frank

By Nick Catalano:
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