Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way

Finally I managed to catch up with the long-awaited Dave Brubeck documentary, In His Own Sweet Way, now available on BBC iPlayer (online streaming in the UK). My curiosity wasn't just about Brubeck, whose music has had a part in my life, but also I was eager to see director Bruce Ricker's last film, who made the landmark jazz film The Last of the Blue Devils (1979) about the legendary travelling band of the 1930s, featuring Count Basie, Big Joe Turner and Jo Jones.

Bruce Ricker died in May 2011, two months after Brubeck’s great drummer and collaborator Joe Morello left us. Brubeck passed away recently, after a prosperous and amazingly productive and inspiring life. The only living member of the classic quartet is Eugene Wright whose powerful and subtle rhythmic support is the most overlooked, whenever the subject is Brubeck’s music.

[© all the images courtesy of BBC]

However, it is rather concerning to see that the aesthetic intensity of jazz films, from the Blue Devils period to TV commissioned films of today has drastically shrunk. Could you imagine watching a documentary, let's say about the most important and artistically progressive territory band of all time (that of Basie, Walter Page, et al. known as Blue Devils) and suddenly Elvis Costello appears on screen to sing Good Morning Blues? Something of the same nature recently happened to me, while during watching another late catch up, Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life (Robert Levi, 2007), I saw Mr. Costello singing Strayhorn, i.e. providing star-status and celebrity content for the producers of the film. Even if Costello is so “cool” to ask people to not buy his new pricey boxed-set and instead buy any Louis Armstrong recording, it doesn't mean that you he can sing jazz and especially Strayhorn, does it? (a singer as adroit as Sinatra gave up recording Lush Life in one of his sessions because he couldn't work it out.)

A similar surprise occurred in In His Own Sweet Way, first by seeing George Lucas being interviewed (first interviewee of the film), later by bringing Keith Emerson (of the prog-rock band Emerson, Lake and Palmer) to the film, and finally by having Jamie Cullum explaining Brubeck to Clint Eastwood, the producer of the film. I don’t think any of us need Lucas’ endorsement in order to appreciate Brubeck, or in a more optimistic angle, thinking that today's kids who are trying to grow an interest in Brubeck’s music would love him more if the creator of Star Wars suggest that. And even Mr. Eastwood, sitting there and chatting to Brubeck and other prominent guests of the film had barely anything to tell us about Brubeck, except offering his good, heartwarming presence which is far from being sufficient. The lesson one learn from better films about jazz (incidentally, some of them produced by Eastwood) is that unlike the crowded joints at which this music has been played live, the scene of the film must be kept as empty as possible, and any unnecessary person who might distract the viewer should be removed from the stage. That’s how Norman Granz produced his historic minimalist films of the jazz in the golden age, and that’s the way in which Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser was produced by the same people who made In His Own Sweet Way.

Did this film tell anything new about Brubeck’s life and music?

The answer is hardly a yes. Frankly, the film prefers to celebrate (which a party can do better) rather than get deeper into its subject matter. It simplifies the art of Brubeck which is anything but simple.
Also, I cannot ignore the unjust omission of Paul Desmond and his primary role in the evolution of Brubeck’s quartet throughout the film. The very brief glimpse of the man in the film – an interview with BBC from the 1970s – reveals a musician of high intellect and gentle humor, exactly the character he was playing in his music. If Brubeck, according to his interview with Bishop Richard Holloway, wishes to meet Duke, Satchmo, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton (Really?!) and Paul Desmond when he goes up there to heaven (which he did), why the films doesn't explain the reason for this deep admiration and even a sense of debt for Desmond? So one of my problems with In His Own Sweet Way is that it refuses to fully attribute to Desmond the originality (as a composer) and the personality (as the producer of the “bottomless” sound, if I borrow the term from Bill Cosby) of the band. Maybe the quiet, gentle alto player had been to one of his Britannica reading sessions again, therefore not invited to the party. (If you don’t know the joke, here it is: “Sometimes I [Desmond] get the feeling that there are orgies going on all over New York City, and somebody says, ‘Let's call Desmond,’ and somebody else says, 'Why bother? He's probably home reading the Encyclopedia Britannica.’”)

Personally, I have always thought that incorporating interviews with non-musicians and non-jazz people into a jazz film, if the choice of the interviewee is right, can be very illuminating indeed (painters, architects, filmmakers, and even simple fans), but most of the so-called insights given in In His Own Sweet Way, except those of Brubeck himself and his wife, are shallow, stating the obvious, or even inaccurate. Cases in point:

Shallow: Jamie Cullum alludes to the cover arts of Brubeck albums, mostly borrowed or chosen from modern paintings of the 20th century. He continues to claim that Brubeck’s music was picturing those abstractions seen on the covers. First, we all know that the design aspects of music, as a product, come long after the recording is done. Second, we all know that it became a fad to put famous painting on the cover of jazz albums in that period. A year before Time Out LP was released, a Giorgio de Chirico painting went to the cover of Monk’s Misterioso - a truly abstract album. Besides, RCA and Columbia Records had tried some cubist covers for their classic reissues since the 1940s.

Inaccurate: In His Own Sweet Way assumes that the massive success of Take Five was because it was based on a new, bizarre time signature while most of the record buyers and music fans don’t know about technical specifications of what they hear, neither I did when I was attracted to it for the first time. (And to me, not only it didn't sound odd, but it seemed quite familiar. These scales and time signatures are very common in the Middle East.)

Brubecks and Ellington

The obvious: the story of Brubeck being featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1954 which opened the door for the future association between mainstream media and jazz is slightly distorted here. Of course, Brubeck was worthy of such wide acclaim, but understating the racial issues involved in that matter, or referring to them as only possibilities is what one of the interviewees, Ashley Kahn, does in the film. He calls the Time chapter a sign of “happy timing” and “good fortune” in Brubeck's life. According to many stories told and some histories written about jazz, the major publications always wanted to do something serious about the music but were afraid of the consequences of featuring a black musician (Ellington, obviously, was the first choice).

“They could have chosen Charlie Parker, or Thelonious Monk, or Dizzy Gillespie,” says Kahn, while he admits “it can be said that went for a white face.” Needless to say, there has been more than 30 years of jazz before that 1954 Time cover, thus three decades with giants as big as Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and of course Duke Ellington to fill the cover of any prestigious journal, while they all were denied such right.

Brubeck and Ellington

Was there any new footage used in the film that hadn't been seen before?

Again, I'm afraid not. Even some truly great films were missing (in my humble opinion, the best of Brubeck: the 1970 concert in Berlin with Gerry Mulligan and that drum wizard Allan Dawson. It's on YouTube, courtesy of German TV.)

Here lies another (general) issue about the use of old archival material and footage in the film(s):

The first point of making a documentary about a musician is giving information of all sorts about the subject to those who know her/him or those whom the filmmaker is trying to reach for the first time. In both cases, the main attraction and the raison d'être is music itself, so why almost all jazz documentaries cut the performance footage to the talking heads is beyond me. Why a filmmaker should ruin the music to cut to someone saying “…and his music was great,” when keeping the shot rolling can be the most powerful way for proving that statement.

Aside from remarks I made and some concern for the future of jazz films, In His Own Sweet Way for its brilliant subject, the friendly treatment of Brubeck’s life and art, and for covering as much as 70 years of a career is a must see.


Talking of Papa Jo Jones, a friend called from Berlin to recommend a new book on this drummer's drummer, Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones. I haven’t read it yet, but his recommendations are always justifiably good.

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