The Last of the Blue Devils: The Movie about Kansas City Jazz

By Kernfeld, Barry | Notes, September 1995 | Go to article overview

The Last of the Blue Devils: The Movie about Kansas City Jazz


Kernfeld, Barry, Notes


Fantasy has been the overriding theme in jazz film biographies. The Fabulous Dorseys (1947), Young Man with a Horn (1949), The Glenn Miller Story (1953), The Benny Goodman Story (1955), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), and New York, New York (1977) are representative. Our age of the docudrama has recently brought forth a few efforts to lend a sense of authenticity to this tiny subgenre of film: witness 'Round Midnight (1986), Bird (1989), and now, the best yet, Bix: An Interpretation of a Legend (1994). Although Bix does not quite match Amadeus in conveying the wonderment of music -- that God, truth, and profound beauty could come forth from such a crass and childish man (a point utterly missed in Bird, which focuses on saxophonist Charlie Parker's depravity without offering any understanding of his genius) -- Bix convincingly portrays cornetist Bix Beiderbecke's demonic and irreconcilable struggle between upper middle-class proprieties (his upbringing) and the pleasures and pitfalls of the jazz life in the 1920s (his calling). Bix rivals Amadeus in the quality of the acting and the consequent emotional involvement of the viewer. It rivals Amadeus in the wonderful musicality of the recorded performances. (This is a failing of 'Round Midnight, which marries a wonderfully authentic setting to performances of merely workmanlike quality, and also of Bird, which uses the bizarre music-minus-one technique of digitally splicing Parker's solos onto a newly recorded accompaniment.) Indeed in Bob Wilber's gorgeous and meticulous high-fidelity recreations of originally very low- to moderately low-fidelity recordings, Beiderbecke is in a sense gone two steps better, insofar as we are afforded an opportunity to hear the instrumental counterpoint more dearly than ever before and also insofar as Wilber's sidemen are in several instances considerably more talented than Beiderbecke's own. Finally, in the area of historical authenticity, Bix surpasses Amadeus. Yes, of course, this is fiction, all the conversations are made up, the representations of personality may be way out of line (narrator Joe Venuti was probably never as sincere and serious as this film makes him out to be), and so on, but nevertheless this self-titled "legend" accurately follows the outline of Beiderbecke's life and does so in a manner that rings true. Regardless of its subject, Bix: An Interpretation of a Legend is an excellent, riveting film. By comparison with its companions in jazz, it is an absolute joy.

The Last of the Blue Devils is a nostalgic documentary tribute to southwestern (and particularly Kansas City) jazz and blues. Its scope ranges from the founding of Walter Page's Blue Devils in Oklahoma City in 1925, to the heyday of the Bennie Moten and Count Basie big bands and singer "Big" Joe Turner in Kansas City, to Turner's 1955 television version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll," the song that started rock and roll via Bill Haley's cover version more than a decade after the demise of the Kansas City scene. Made in the years 1974 through 1979, The Last of the Blue Devils centers around a reunion of surviving musicians for conversation and jam sessions at the Mutual Musicians Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri, and a concert by Count Basie's orchestra at that same venue. In Count Basie: A Bio-Discography. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), Chris Sheridan places the concert in 1972, but the outer limits seem to be February 1975, when the flamboyant drummer Butch Miles joined Basie, and October 1977, when tenor saxophonist Jimmy Forrest left. The Last of the Blue Devils is an extremely uneven film, on the whole disappointing and difficult to watch. Any sense of history or chronology is lacking. Musicological insight is limited to useless comments: "he was great; he had his own sound. …

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