AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
The language of jazz can be so lofty — so full of chord changes, musical virtuosity, “feel” and “pocket” and other ineffables — that it can seem, to the uninitiated, like homework. There’s a sense of responsibility that attends many attempts to become a jazz listener: Am I getting it? Am I hearing everything?
Here is a piece of advice for newcomers: Forget about getting. Forget, even, about hearing. Watch.
Jazz entrepreneurs have always understood the genre’s visual appeal. Celebrated labels like Blue Note, Verve and Prestige all developed signature graphical styles, and certain album covers — from Norman Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” series to Charles Mingus’s “Mingus Ah Um” — have achieved the status of modern art. But with a few notable exceptions (the 1944 short “Jammin’ the Blues,” the 1958 documentary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day”), American film and television studios spent surprisingly little energy capturing the atmosphere and physicality of live midcentury jazz. The genre may be “America’s classical music,” but it’s been Europeans — all the way back to Gjon Mili, the Albanian-American who directed “Jammin’ the Blues” — who created the best record of these musicians at work.
In the late ’50s and 1960s, television was spreading rapidly throughout Europe. Producers needed content, and it happened that American jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong had been touring the Continent for decades, often playing to audiences better prepared to celebrate black artistry than those in the United States. The new stations — most of them state-owned — would present performances by jazz’s defining greats as major cultural events. Collectively they created a documentary record like no other: dozens of expertly staged and photographed concerts by heroic figures, captured at close range.
Many of these documents can be found in the DVD series “Jazz Icons,” though there are plenty of other riches on YouTube. On film, the players’ balance of intellectual and physical gifts can be even more stunning than on record. A jazz stage is always so visibly alive with communication and reaction: Watch Art Blakey perform in Paris in 1959, and you will see the sly enjoyment in his face as his latest protégé, Lee Morgan, vaults through a blazing chorus. And you will see Morgan, barely in his 20s, finish his brilliant run and step away from the mic, strolling over to his mentor for approval.
Likewise, individual jazz musicians always have a way of showing their audiences how to appreciate the music they’re making, acting it out through their manners and tics onstage. John Coltrane exhibits the fuguelike concentration that his music demands, just as Erroll Garner’s permanent smile and bouncing fingers underscore his music’s elegant playfulness. I struggled for years to love Thelonious Monk, but watching him lead his classic quartet through Scandinavia in 1966 did the trick: Monk’s wild physicality is on full display, from his scruffy hat to his jumpy dancing on the piano bench, his stabbing the keys as if trying to surprise himself with the noise.
Even the staging can be revealing. Monk’s performance in Norway takes place at the University of Oslo, with the musicians arranged in front of an immense Edvard Munch canvas. American concert films of the time were full of psychedelic effects and focused on audiences, but the continental approach was reverential, positioning these players as highbrow artworks unto themselves, their improvisations ready to be studied like a painter’s brush strokes. It’s particularly stirring when you consider that the stars of these films are almost entirely black men, being greeted with the utmost high-culture respect during the apex of the civil rights movement. These austere, reverent dispatches from Europe are like scenes from an alternate timeline, one in which a generation of irrefutable musical geniuses was granted the respect it deserved, instead of fighting for life and livelihood.
In the late ’90s, when I was a teenage aspiring drummer, I would comb the jazz racks of my local CD store, searching through the latest remastered albums. Each came plastered with black-and-white archival photos of sharply dressed musicians, deliberating and composing. I couldn’t yet articulate why the music was so alluring to me, but part of it was those images, the atmosphere and intimacy they conjured. And no musician conjured more than Miles Davis: He surrounded himself with young visionaries, summoned an entire ecosystem of sound into being and then sat in its center, an inscrutable Buddha.
I watch him onstage now — perhaps at the Teatro dell’Arte in Milan, on Oct. 11, 1964, with his second quintet. Head down, he is almost in prayer. His subtly ballooning cheeks reveal the huge respiratory power behind that simmering, sneaky tone. His clothes are shadow-tight, his legendary band in thrall to his every movement. As a teenager, I was entranced by his intellectual power, the way he seemed to bend the air around him to fit his ever-growing vision. Now the man is more interesting to me than the god: I watch him and see someone who styled his hair and wore fine suits and took great care, like all his peers, to present himself exactly as he intended, exactly as he saw himself. His physicality completes the music, grounds it and makes it even more urgent. Thanks to a few European producers, he is alive again.