44 recommended jazz docs: Pt 10/10
1. Brother Yusef (Nicholas Humpert, 2005)
Multi-instrumentalist, best known for his tenure with Cannonball Adderley’s band, followed by a run of minor classic 60’s releases on the Impulse and Atlantic labels. Lateef was one among a number of American jazz musicians to convert to Islam (in the 50s, a few years after the likes of Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Ahmad Jamal, Sahib Shihab and Shafi Hadi) and certainly one of the very first to integrate Eastern, Arabic and African sounds into his music.
He quietly went about building a body of work bettered by few, yet this is neither accepted nor common knowledge in jazz critical circles. The extent to which that relates to his change in faith, is probably best left for another article, but let’s just say the list in the previous paragraph reads like a 'Jazz’s Least Appreciated' Roll of Honour. Almost every other conceivable reason why Lateef didn’t make it big can be evidenced in this film.
What is immediately obvious is that Lateef is humble - far too humble to jostle his way to the top of any poll – as are his dwellings; a simple wooden house in the Massachusetts forest. You don’t get world beating, unhinged Mingus fare with Yusef Lateef. None of Miles’ capricious put-downs, Wynton’s outspokenness or Dizzy’s pranks. Yet there are far less rewarding ways to spend an hour than in his company, and "Brother Yusef" captures a number of profound moments.
2. The Cry of Jazz (Edward Bland, 1959)
Supposedly required viewing for Black Panther members, “The Cry of Jazz”, is The Holy Mountain of music documentary. Made for ‘tuppence, the writing is stiff as a Stan Tracey solo and the ‘actors’ should be chopped up and used for firewood. Nat Hentoff hated it, Ralph Ellison hated it, James Baldwin hated it. It’s in the 40.
It’s too crazy not to be and I’d have to join it in the asylum if I left it out. It also makes the cut for the dynamite Sun Ra soundtrack, a few years before he went truly ‘out there’. As Sun Ra owned these recordings and the publishing rights, the film was licenced from his registered company and session costs were swerved in the process of doing so.
Even though “The Cry of Jazz” politicizes the music in a way that has certainly dated (and even then seems disproportionate to the music’s intentions), it was an important analysis on the state of jazz in the 50s. It is also, unwittingly, an interesting counterpoint to the documentary “1959: The Year that Changed Jazz” made 45 years later, in its suggestion that white appropriation of jazz was the first step to killing it.
More controversial still are the parallels it draws between racial oppression and jazz’s part in this; the music’s innate form as a representation of unceasing African-American suffering that can be only relieved by improvisation (= hope). It may be provocative and tenuous, but unless I missed something, this represents one of the first philosophical challenges issued out to whites by blacks on screen.
3. Miles Ahead: The Music of Miles Davis (Kenneth Levis, 1986)
There are a decent number of Miles docs in TV archives: the excellent “Miles: A Different Kind of Blue” takes the “When We Were Kings”/“Spellbound”/“Best in Show” route, where the first half gives us the back story and the second half the event (a 1970 Miles septet appearance at the Isle of Wight festival). “The Miles Davis Story”, is a thorough if exhausting overview of his entire life, and no less essential. Though, if you’ve never really appreciated Miles’ genius, most of what it takes is in this documentary, “Miles Ahead”, particularly as he authorized it and that it’s one of few Miles studies made during his lifetime.
“Miles Ahead” inter-cuts interview segments of Miles lounging in his Manhattan penthouse with archive performance footage and testimonials from the musicians (Shorter, Herbie, Williams, Benson etc) who passed through his various bands. This concept would be standard fare for any other lionized musician, but when it concerns Miles - the man who never looks back - it sounds like an awkward premise.
Only it isn’t….. Well not exactly. I have no time for his eighties music, but just one look at Miles’ Shalamar get-up and you know he’s long since left behind these different eras everyone else here is salivating over. Even when he looks back, Miles repeats the importance of originality like a mantra, name-checking Gil Evans and Duke Ellington for their ability to keep it fresh, keep it moving. Also the virtues of “playing what you don’t know” and being receptive to everything around you (on Tony Williams “Rhythm is all around us, you know? If you stumble, he might wanna play that”).
4. A Great Day In Harlem (Jean Bach, 1994)
"I saw musicians seeking their own habitat, water seeking its own level — all the piano players and the ladies were together, all the drummers in one corner. It was amazing." Milt Hinton
“A Great Day in Harlem” is an hour-long documentary that chronicles the moment in which a small army of American jazz legends gathered on a New York street for a photograph, and just like Herman Leonard’s image of Sonny Stitt in smoky club, this picture, taken on a summer day in 1958, has become almost as well-known as anybody in it.
That ‘anybody’ includes Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Count Basie, says as much about photographer Art Kane’s compositional brilliance as the historical importance of what he captured.
I particularly enjoyed the Monk in a white jacket theory, as well as the stories from the neighbourhood kids who managed to sneak into the picture for one “I was there, look, right there” moment. That said, filmmaker John Bach does such a convincing job of recreating the entire experience, I feel as if I was.