Jazz Tells Its Story on Film

By Bay, Jennifer | Humanities, May/June 1998 | Go to article overview

Jazz Tells Its Story on Film


Bay, Jennifer, Humanities


MUSIC IS A LANGUAGE, says Larry Appelbaum, a jazz broadcaster and senior studio engineer in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress. "Filmmaking is also a language. When you have a really good filmmaker working with really good music, a depth of expression is created that can touch the soul. It's almost overwhelming in its beauty."

The happy intersection of good jazz and good film is what the second annual Denver Jazz on Film Festival hopes to create on Memorial Day weekend. Although the idea is not unheard of-film screenings have been a minor part of jazz festivals for years-never before has a major festival been dedicated exclusively to jazz on film.

While nothing can compare to seeing a jazz performance in person, says Appelbaum, "jazz on film is a middle ground. It's not quite as visceral as seeing someone in person, but it's not quite as removed or disembodied as just listening." The emotional impact of music is stronger when there is a visual connection between the viewer and the performer. Seeing jazz musicians at work fosters a deeper appreciation of their technical brilliance and their performing artistry. "When you listen to Charlie Parker records, you can appreciate his art on one level. When you actually see Parker, see the way he holds the horn, see his posture, his facial expressions, his attitude," you gain more insight into the performer and his music, Appelbaum maintains.

"A lot of what music is about is telling a story. . . and film fills in more of the details of the story," says Appelbaum. He adds that, not until you see the mischievous grin on Dizzy Gillespie's face will you know if his remarks are in earnest or facetious, or understand what a "great impish sense of humor" he had.

Jazz films allow the viewer to detect the cues and other subtle interactions among jazz artists. "Often musicians will communicate with each other in nonverbal ways, either with the arch of an eyebrow, or a little hint of a smile," or other small gestures, says Appelbaum. They happen very quickly because the musicians are improvising, creating, and composing at the same time, and film captures these extra-musical interactions.

Jazz on film also provides a chance to see live footage of performances by past jazz greats like Charlie Parker in Celebrating Bird-just one of the short subjects, documentaries, and performance films that will be screened at this year's festival. Others include A Great Day in Harlem, a documentary about Esquire photographer Art Kane's photo shoot that brought together fifty-seven of the best musicians of 1958; Lady Day, a biography of Billie Holiday; and Jammin' the Blues, an experimental short subject that documents a 1940s jam session. …

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