PRINT February 1990


the Jazz Hero

Clint Eastwood, that steely-jawed, laconic American icon, revealed another side of himself to the public recently through his involvement in two jazz bio-pics: Bird, 1988, a fictionalized account of the life of saxophonist Charlie Parker, which he directed; and Straight, No Chaser, 1988, a documentary on pianist Thelonious Monk, which he produced. It seems Eastwood is a lifelong jazz lover, and that he idolizes the great jazz heroes of his youth. He’s even gone on record making an oft-heard observation: that the Western and jazz are the only two wholly original art forms to have come from America. Given Eastwood’s avowed reverence for the likes of Parker and Monk, one might have expected his films to offer a kind of Western gloss on the jazz hero: comes to town, rides tall in the saddle, shoots straight, takes no prisoners. Yet despite the films’ insistence on the mastery of these artists, the heroes are seldom shown in triumph. They are unmistakably viewed as tragic figures, haunted by demons, unable to shake the blues that run so proudly through their music.

Of the two films, Bird seems to do far more damage to its hero and, consequently, to its own success. Besides being weighed down with a rambling script and various overwrought directorial flourishes (a drum cymbal is repeatedly flung into the frame to separate scenes), the movie is saddled with a relentless view of Parker as a rapidly sinking star. Everything is seen in light of his addiction to heroin and, Forest Whitaker’s impassioned performance notwithstanding, Parker comes across as a shambling wreck who just happened to play the saxophone like nobody else has ever played it before or since. That’s a legitimate viewpoint—numerous accounts suggest that Parker was a mess—but it seems an odd way to venerate, or even fairly appreciate, one of this century’s true musical geniuses.

Yet a look at several other recent movies about jazz musicians reveals an all-too-similar outlook. Round Midnight, 1986, directed by Bertrand Tavernier, tells the lightly fictionalized account of the creative rebirth and sudden death of an expatriate, alcoholic saxophonist, played with supernatural grace by former expatriate, alcoholic saxophonist Dexter Gordon. The film is decidedly misty in tone, faded blue where Bird is fading to black, and Tavernier’s lyrical bent turns Gordon’s halting, barely connected speech into slow-motion poetry. Whereas Parker is portrayed as locked in unhealthy matrimony with his wife, Chan, Gordon (playing a character based on pianist Bud Powell, saxophonist Lester Young, and himself) is seen sharing a perfectly symbiotic relationship with an adoring French fan. But the end is just as tragic, if not more so; the artist’s redemption is swiftly rescinded, and he dies in the lonely hotel in which we’d first encountered him. Neither hero gets what might be called the Western send-off: somebody to whisper a dying request to, some town to save, some measure of pride.

It’s tempting to put such seemingly subliminal degradation down to racism alone, until one adds Bruce Weber’s death-obsessed Let’s Get Lost, 1989, to the list. In this lush chiaroscuro documentary, Weber portrays trumpeter Chet Baker as a grotesque parody of his handsome, youthful self. He juxtaposes William Claxton’s elegant photographs of Baker in the ’50s with observations of his subject as a sunken-cheeked, toothless spirit. The soundtrack features Baker singing an array of ballads in the faint, vibratoless style that was his vocal trademark; they cast a deeply melancholic spell. Weber also surrounds Baker with tanned, trim, unreflective beauties, who are shown running on the beach and riding in convertibles, their vigor a high contrast to the subject’s wasted voice and visage. The result is a kind of Death in Venice, California, a downbeat meditation on lost youth with another jazz junkie as its centerpiece. Baker died just after filming was completed, but the movie seems to assure us it was a fait accompli.

Straight, No Chaser almost pulls off a minor miracle by making the musician—not the myth—the star of the film. The format is standard: documentary footage, much of it shot on Monk’s 1967–68 tour of Europe with a nine-piece band, interviews with associates and family members, some biographical background information. But from the outset the film makes it clear that Thelonious Monk was a complex character, and director Charlotte Zwerin doesn’t deny him his contradictions. Monk didn’t speak much and seemed alternately baffled and bemused by the exigencies of daily living. Yet his imperious sense of style —his bamboo-frame sunglasses and wild collection of hats—was legendary. His inimitable compositions overflowed with new harmonic and rhythmic conceptions, yet Monk loved to rehabilitate throwaway numbers with banal melodies, such as “Lulu’s Back in Town.” He suffered not only from drug addiction but from severe depression, spending the last ten years of his life in near seclusion. Yet Monk demonstrated a giddy sense of musical play and occasionally a wry sense of humor. (The movie opens with his mumbled comment, “I’m famous. Ain’t that a bitch?”)

But the most extraordinary thing about the film is the spectacle of Monk playing. Tackling the keyboard cross-handed, drawing forth unimagined clusters of notes, sliding his right foot along the floor in asymmetrical syncopation, suddenly rising up and turning circles in place with some sort of autistic/religious fervor—these images combine to form a portrait of an artist who was frighteningly alive with influences and impulses, with ideas and information. Zwerin captures all this and gives it to the viewer relatively straight. The only skewed aspect of the film is the emphasis on Monk’s later years, when he was already firmly in the grip of mental illness. Still, Eastwood the producer succeeds where Eastwood the director failed, in presenting a jazz hero whose grandeur is neither ennobled nor diminished by his travails, but whose music is given the chance to speak articulately and persuasively for itself.

All of these films demonstrate how the representation of the artist-hero as a self-destructive force plays into a popular and powerful myth: that suffering, of a kind greater than that engendered in the struggle for form, is the natural wellspring of art. In American culture, the jazz-hero routinely suffered, among other things, ostracism as a result of his devalued social and musical status—how long was Louis Armstrong thought of as a simple grinning entertainer?—and the overwhelming temptation now is to view the artist through the filter of his suffering. But such treatment denies him the full measure of his achievement: the development of a music of supple sophistication, animated by improvisation’s incomparable gift of individual expression and flight.

Scott Gutterman is assistant editor of Artforum and writes frequently on music.