WBGO Blog
  • Jazz On Film And The Problem Of The Mad Creative Genius

    February 24, 2017

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    Trumpeter Lee Morgan and wife Helen in 1970. The couple's tragic story is the subject of the documentary I Called Him Morgan, directed by Kasper Collin. (Image Credit: Kasper Collin Produktion AB/Courtesy of the Afro-American Newspaper Archives and Research Center)

    It's been a good year so far for jazz at the movies. La La Land, a modern-day love story in the style of Jazz Age musicals, has a heap of Oscar nominations. Elsewhere, in a much quieter affair, the documentary film I Called Him Morgan — based on the story of jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan — will open theatrically next month.

    Both of these films caught the eye of Christian McBride, Philly-bred bassist and host of NPR's Jazz Night in America. He joined Audie Cornish on All Things Considered to talk about how the two stories offer contrasting visions of the working jazz musician; hear their conversation at the audio link and read an edited version below.

    Audie Cornish: I Called Him Morgan is a film by Kasper Collin. It played at a few festivals in 2016, and it's about Lee Morgan, who was shot by his wife in 1972. Had you heard of the story of Lee Morgan before this?

    Christian McBride: Absolutely. Lee Morgan not only was one of the greatest trumpet players in the history of jazz, but he was also a Philadelphian — so if you were a jazz musician from Philadelphia, Lee Morgan is one of the first names that you hear. And I think when something like a crime of passion is involved, that story is always going to be told. I heard about it probably as early as 8 or 9 years old before I even really knew much about jazz. But the documentary is very thorough: You get to hear stories about Lee Morgan directly from the men and women who were there, who knew him, who saw him, who were there the night he was killed.

    [When he died,] Morgan artistically had progressed from being simply a post- Dizzy Gillespie, post-Clifford Brown trumpeter, to really being on the cusp of some very progressive music. He was really about to get to something big.

    The film depicts drug addiction, violence — it really presents Morgan as someone who's very flawed, not innocent himself. Do you think this kind of traffics in the stereotypes of the tragic jazz figure?

    More than anything else, I think it depicts our interest in always wanting to find the jazz musician who was on drugs or has been in violent relationships. We have some sort of fixation with that. Somehow, the story of the jazz musician who ends up victorious, who kinda strays away from the drugs or the violence or the alcohol or that sort of lifestyle — that's not fun to watch, somehow.

    But the most important thing, which I hope happens, is that someone will get curious to actually go back to find out about Lee Morgan's music. It's about the music that he made that touched people, that inspired people and inspired a whole generation of trumpet players.

    This brings me to La La Land, because that movie been talked about so much in the context of its music. This is a story of a couple that falls in love: He's a jazz pianist, she's an aspiring actress. I want put to you the criticisms that I've heard of this movie — number one, that it's got too simple an idea of what jazz is, almost like a trapped-in-amber ideal of the music.

    You know, after I saw this movie, my first thought was, "Who would focus on how jazz is portrayed in this film?" To me, the story of "jazz," quote-unquote, is not as important as the story of these two young people trying to pursue their dream.

    So you're fine with it being a backdrop.

    It is a backdrop, you know? I don't think anybody is going to see this movie and their first, second or third thought is "jazz." To me, this is a love story.

    But I think at a certain part of the film, there is this discussion. Because the Ryan Gosling character, he kind of considers himself this evangelist for the music — teaching her to love it, complaining about people not listening to it anymore. And at one point he joins a band led by John Legend, who's doing something a little more, let's say, complicated.

    Well, a little more commercial, shall we say.

    I'm not an expert, but I remember sitting there and thinking, this is nothing like what young, up-and-coming jazz artists are doing at all — who are getting commercial success.

    I don't think that scene was really made to depict what's happening now. I think what it's trying to give an example of is: Here's this young, as you say, evangelist for traditional jazz. He's trying to be the most dedicated jazz pianist that he can be — but he's not getting any work. So then, John Legend offers him a gig: "Look, it's not straight-ahead jazz, but hey — you need a gig." And at some point he decides, "Yeah, you're right, I do need to work. I do need to pay my bills." And musicians are confronted with that all the time. It happens more often than not. And it's happened throughout generations, too. Musicians who want to play their own music, or they want to play music that moves them — a lot of times, it's not that easy to do that. So they might have to take a gig in a band that they may not necessarily want to play in, stylistically. They may play in pit orchestras, or in a TV band. That's not necessarily what they may want to do, but they have to work. We are musicians, but we are also professional people.

    Finally, the unspoken thing, I think, has been about where you have movies about jazz and there are not people of color at the forefront of it.

    Well, I was thinking of some of the movies of the past that have sort of been jazz-based: I think of Cabin in the Sky, or Stormy Weather, or Carmen Jones, or A Man Called Adam, or 'Round Midnight, or Mo' Better Blues, or Love Jones, or Miles Ahead. I'm not sure I focus too much on the race thing as I concentrate on, the jazz musician is always despondent, the jazz musician is always the underdog, the jazz musician is always the one who has these drug problems or alcohol problems or problems with violent relationships. We want to see a movie where a jazz musician actually wins in the end.

    You take another movie like The Man With The Golden Arm, where Frank Sinatra plays a heroin-addicted drummer, and I'm thinking, "Wow, OK — it doesn't matter if you're black or white." You just have to be a jazz musician, and they're gonna put you on something: heroin, cocaine, something.

    There is that issue in the history, but I wonder if it has to do with the broader stereotype of the mad creative genius.

    I suppose, but the thing is: There's so many mad creative geniuses who've never gone through that. Maybe one day someone will make a movie about Wayne Shorter. He's one of the greatest mad creative geniuses ever and he never went though that. So that would be a nice, victorious, wonderful, interesting story to see.

    Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • A Jazz Fact Check Of 'La La Land'

    February 23, 2017

    Whatever else you might say about the themes of La La Land — that it's a film about the ins and outs of young romance, or the pros and cons of creative ambition, or the movie musical as a renewable art form, or the culture of Hollywood, or the state of jazz (more on that in a sec) — you'd have to acknowledge the line it draws between illusion and disillusion.

    Without giving anything away, that tension lends obvious subtext to the title of Damien Chazelle's film — and essential motivation for its opening and closing set pieces, which pivot from drab reality to Technicolor fantasy. This is a proven strategy in the movie musical playbook: You'll find it in touchstones ranging from the MGM classic Singin' In The Rain to Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to Lars von Trier's Dancer In The Dark. Chazelle knows this history and works it to his advantage, as the accolades for his film have already demonstrated, however many of its record-tying 14 Oscar nominations pan out Sunday night.

    The current La La Land backlash has a lot to do with awards-season overhype, and the unremittingly personal dimensions of its story, at a moment when everything feels political. In jazz circles, there are more pointed gripes about the film, which stars Ryan Gosling as a journeyman piano player enthralled by the mystique of the music, and eager to evangelize his passion — particularly to his aspiring-actress girlfriend, played by Emma Stone.

    There are many hot takes about what the film gets wrong, or what it gets right, about jazz. But what hasn't been explored enough is the way in which its central contrast, between the glossy ideal and the grainy particulars, plays out among jazz musicians in Los Angeles. That's the subject of this episode of Jazz Night In America, which explores a pocket of the scene that La La Land purports to speak for.

    In the radio episode, we'll hear from prominent Los Angeles jazz musicians like drummer Peter Erskine, who played on the film's soundtrack, and keyboardist John Beasley, whose résumé includes all manner of commercial work as well as the MONK'estra, his own big band. And in both the audio and the documentary short, we check in with Josh Nelson, a pianist and composer whose Los Angeles-centric Discovery Project is about the real stories beneath the surface, or behind the façade. (Nelson, the son of a Disney theme-park Imagineer, auditioned to be Gosling's hand double in the film. But we'll let him tell you that story himself.)

    There's a lot more to the story of jazz in Los Angeles than anyone could tell in one sitting. What you'll find here are a few vivid impressions, and some illuminating insights. As in La La Land, this is a moment to consider facts on the ground even as the focus shifts in a dreamy flyaway.

    Copyright 2017 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

  • In 'Real Enemies,' Darcy James Argue Confronts A Post-Truth World

    February 10, 2017

    "It can be maddening to deal with a political environment where it seems like the truth has no purchase anymore," says Darcy James Argue, the hyper-literate composer who leads the Secret Society, a postmodern big band. Argue has spent a lot of time recently thinking about that maddening environment — not just as a matter of civic engagement during a chaotic election season, but also because it forms the crux of Real Enemies, his most recent work.

    Commissioned and premiered by the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Real Enemies began its life as a multimedia oratorio of dizzying sensory overload. Argue created the music in partnership with the writer-director Isaac Butler and the theatrical film designer Peter Nigrini. Their concept was both wildly ambitious and unexpectedly timely, revolving around the history and perpetuity of conspiratorial thought in American life.

    That field of study encompasses an extraordinary swath of 20th and 21st-century politics and culture, including McCarthyism and the Red Scare of the 1950s; the moon landing and its doubters, a tenacious constituency; Reaganism and the Iran-Contra affair of the '80s; even the birther movement that serves as a rickety bridge from the Obama era into the current presidential administration. Among the source material for the work are Richard Hofstadter's landmark 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," and (especially) the Kathryn Olmsted book that provided the title for the piece.

    Musically, Argue drew inspiration from the conspiracy-rich filmography of the post-Watergate 1970s: movies like John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate and Alan Pakula's The Parallax View. The music in Real Enemies makes extensive use of the 12-tone compositional techniques that informed those film scores — a serial musical language that, in classical circles, has been a source of its own conspiratorial murmurings.

    "You have all of Europe falling into this existential crisis," Argue explains, "and really starting the world over again with a system of composing that was based only on the relationship of those tones to one another, and not based on this hierarchy of chords." He adds, a bit slyly: "There is a conspiracy theory about 12-tone composers, that they formed a secret cabal to control American serious composition for years and years and years."

    At the time that Real Enemies premiered, late in 2015, there was just under a year to go before the American presidential election, but the political discourse was already heated. Reviewing the staged production for the New York Times, I pronounced it "something close to a perfect collaboration" between music, text and image — as well as "a work of furious ambition that feels deeply in tune with our present moment," though no one knew just how in tune, at the time.

    Argue released Real Enemies in album form last September, to further acclaim, from outlets like Pitchfork and Stereophile. The critic David Hajdu began his review in The Nation by declaring: "I cannot imagine a work in any art form that could evoke the particular madness of our time with more potency."

    Real Enemies is up for a Grammy for Best Large Ensemble Jazz Album, and also nominated for a Juno Award — the most prestigious honor for Canadian musicians, a shadowy constituency to which Argue belongs. Hear excerpts of the album, along with some exposition by Argue, in this especially timely and thought-provoking episode of Jazz Night In America. No tinfoil hat required (but we don't judge).

    PERFORMERS

    Darcy James Argue (composer and conductor), Dave Pietro (piccolo, flute, alto flute, bass flute, soprano sax, alto sax), Rob Wilkerson (flute, clarinet, soprano sax, alto sax), Peter Hess (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Lucas Pino (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Carl Maraghi (baritone saxophone), Seneca Black (trumpet, flugelhorn), Jonathan Powell (trumpet, flugelhorn), Jason Palmer (trumpet, flugelhorn), Nadje Noordhuis (trumpet, flugelhorn), Ingrid Jensen (trumpet, flugelhorn), Darius Christian Jones (trombone), Jennifer Wharton (bass trombone), Sebastian Noelle (acoustic and electric guitar), Adam Birnbaum (acoustic and electric guitar), Matt Clohesy (upright bass and electric bass), Jon Wikan (drum set, cajón, percussion).


    CREDITS

    Producers: Alex Ariff, Josie Holtzman, Colin Marshall; Editors: Nikki Boliaux, Colin Marshall; Audio Editor: Suraya Mohamed; Concert Audio Engineer: David Tallacksen; Concert Videographers: Nicole Conflenti, Nickolai Hammar, Chris Parks, AJ Wilhelm; Documentary Videographers: Nicole Conflenti, Colin Marshall; Documentary Audio: Josie Holtzman; Senior Producer, Radio: Katie Simon; Executive Producers: Gabrielle Armand, Anya Grundmann, Amy Niles; Special Thanks: National Sawdust; Funded in Part By: The Argus Fund, Doris Duke Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Wyncote Foundation; Music: Real Enemies, Composed by Darcy James Argue.

    Copyright 2017 Newark Public Radio. To see more, visit Newark Public Radio.

  • Hard Living In The Big Easy: Housing Costs Push Musicians Out Of New Orleans

    February 2, 2017

    Jazz vocalist John Boutté feels he can no longer afford to live in his hometown of New Orleans. He's not alone. Rising housing costs are pushing many musicians and service workers — the backbone of New Orleans' tourism economy — further and further outside the city limits. This suburbanization of the working class poses more than an inconvenience: It's fraying the culture of New Orleans and splintering the very neighborhoods that have nurtured the city's music for decades.

    CREDITS

    Producers: Nick Michael, Alex Ariff, Josie Holtzman, Colin Marshall; Editors: Nick Michael, Morgan Noelle Smith; Supervising Sound Editor: Suraya Mohamed; Sound Effects: Bronson Arcuri; Motion Graphics: CJ Riculan; Videographers: Colin Marshall, Nick Michael, Kathleen Flynn; Doc Audio: Alex Ariff, Josie Holtzman, Nick Michael; Production Assistants: Nikki Boliaux, Claire Hannah Collins; Host: Christian McBride; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Senior Producer, Radio: Katie Simon; Executive Producers: Gabrielle Armand, Anya Grundmann, Amy Niles; Funded in party by: The Argus Fund, Doris Duke Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Wyncote Foundation.

    Copyright 2017 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

  • From The Critic's Desk: A Preview Of 2017 In Jazz

    January 30, 2017

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    Miguel Zenón's Típico is on Nate Chinen's list of albums to look forward to in 2017. (Image Credit: Jimmy Katz/Courtesy of the artist)

    It's become a January tradition for NPR to look ahead to some of the most anticipated jazz albums of the year. Bassist Christian McBride, who hosts NPR's Jazz Night In America, and jazz critic Nate Chinen of NPR Member station WBGO join NPR's Audie Cornish to preview three albums coming out in 2017.

    Read some of McBride's and Chinen's thoughts below, and hear more of their discussion — including a reflection on the relationship between musicians and critics — at the audio link.

    Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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