8 Great Jazz Movies

These are 8 of my favorite jazz-related movies. As I write below, maybe they’re not all “Great®“, but they’re all worth seeing.

What am I missing here? Tell me your favorites in the comments.

1. Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)

Arguably the greatest concert film ever made. Inarguably (!) the greatest jazz concert film ever made. With a minimalist directorial style by Bert Stern and Aram Avakian, this time capsule of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival captures something of the essence of jazz in the late ’50s (although more hard bop and less Chuck Berry would have been welcome).

Among the many great performers are Gerry Mulligan’s pianoless quartet, Chico Hamilton with Eric Dolphy, Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden, and the legendary Mahalia Jackson at the peak of her considerable powers.

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Anita O’Day would later call this best day of her life.

Highlight: Anita O’Day’s scintillating “Sweet Georgia Brown” is a highlight in the entire history of music, not just this film.

2. The Connection (1961)

Four of the addicts happen to be a jazz quartet that includes Jackie McLean and Freddie Redd, which is pure awesomeness.

The Connection is the film version of an off-broadway play that sees most of its cast reprise their roles in the film. The premise is simple. A bunch of junkies hang around their acquaintance’s pad (none of them really seem to be friends), waiting for Cowboy the heroin dealer (the titular
“connection”) to show up. That’s basically it. Four of the addicts happen to be a jazz quartet and they break into song pretty often. Oh yeah, and the band includes Jackie McLean and Freddie Redd, which is pure awesomeness. Unfortunately for Jackie at the time, his role probably didn’t do much to help him get clean, as he struggled with his own real life addiction. As one of the early American independent films, The Connection is remarkably modern in its subject matter.

In the film’s prologue, we learn that its director,  Jim Dunn, wanted to make a cinéma verité piece about some real life junkies. But before the production wrapped, he disappeared, leaving behind many reels of film. The cinematographer (Roscoe Lee Browne) was left to do the editing himself. Sort of an early take on the found footage conceit.

Sharp eyes will recognize William Redfield in the role of Jim Dunn. Redfield, a journeyman character actor, was probably best known for his great performance as Jack Nicholson’s frequent target, Dale Harding, in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And in the major role of Solly is Jerome Raphael, who ’70s kids will recognize as the bald guy from Sesame Street who was always being harassed by Paul Benedict’s Mad Painter.

Bonus: In 1960, Blue Note released The Music from The Connection (BLP 4027) by the Freddie Redd Quartet with Jackie McLean, which featured cast members from the original play performing Redd’s music. All the tunes are heard in the film, at least partially. My favorites are “Who Killed Cock Robin?” and “Jim Dunn’s Dilemma.” Highly recommended!

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Jackie McLean in “The Connection”.

Highlight: Any time the quartet plays.

3. ‘Round Midnight (1986)

I recently watched this again. Twice. And it was even better than I remembered. Dexter Gordon is Dale Turner, an aging tenor player from the bop era who has struggled with drugs and alcohol. In 1959, he decides to give the Paris scene a chance, knowing that many of his friends are also ex-pats living and playing in France. He is soon befriended by a local Parisian fan named Francis who idolizes him, sees that he is in rough shape, and offers to help him return too his former glory, even inviting him to board with him and his school age daughter.

Along the way, we see practically a who’s who of the ’60s Blue Note Records stable, all playing in various groups with Gordon. In addition to those pictured below, we see Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, and Ron Carter. And though he’s not a Blue Note alum, John McLaughlin shows up playing guitar at the Blue Note. What an incredible way to document these guys. And they are playing it all live in the movie, making it sparkle with energy. (And Billy Higgins, as the home cooking obsessed “Ace”, has a wonderfully likable screen presence, despite no real film background.)

Add to the great music a lovely, touching interplay between first time actor Gordon and his new Parisian friends, and ‘Round Midnight is high on any list of great jazz films.

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L to R: Herbie Hancock, Pierre Michelot, Dexter Gordon, Billy Higgins, & Bobby Hutcherson.

Highlight: In the third act, Dale describes the origins of his approach to music in a beautifully written mini-monologue: 

Listen to that, Francis. The swing bands used to be all straight tonics, seventh chords. And then, with the Basie band I heard Lester Young and he sounded like he came out of the blue. Because he was playing all the color tones, the sixths and the ninths and major sevenths. You know, like Debussy and Ravel. Then Charlie Parker came on and he began to expand and he went into elevenths and thirteenths and flat fives. Luckily, I was going in the same direction already. You just don’t go out and pick a style off a tree one day. The tree is inside you growing naturally.

4. Bird (1988)

1988 was a very jazzy year for Clint Eastwood. He directed this biopic about Charlie Parker, maybe the greatest soloist jazz has ever known, and he was an executive producer on Straight, No Chaser (below). Too bad he pretty much left it at that with jazz. It would have been interesting to see what else he would have been involved in.

OK, maybe Bird is a not exactly a “great” film, but it’s very good and quite enjoyable. My main gripe is that I think Forest Whitaker was miscast as Charlie Parker. Here’s why:

  • At around 6’2″, he’s just too hulking of a man to play the relatively diminutive Bird, who was maybe 5’7″. Whitaker made that alto look like a toy in his hands.
  • His hairline had to be shaved back several inches, and you could almost always see it growing back in, to the point of distraction.
  • Contrary to what many may think, there are actual recordings of Bird’s voice, so we know what he sounded like. And it ain’t like Forest Whitaker. Bird’s voice was pretty deep and he had a subtle drawl, not at all like Whitaker’s more modern cadence.
  • But most importantly, when miming Bird on the bandstand, Whitaker is utterly unconvincing as a musician. I wish they would have taken a chance on an actual jazz musician. Hey, it worked with Dexter Gordon! At the very least, Whitaker should have had a lot more training by a technical consultant. By comparison, Wesley Snipes’ Shadow Henderson in Mo’ Better Blues almost looks like he’s playing  Branford Marsalis’s parts.

But…regardless of these quibbles, and leaving out the fact that Whitaker’s Bird has zero chemistry with Diane Venora’s Chan Parker, I still think it’s a fun film and worth seeing. The film garnered a fair amount of publicity at the time for it’s audio wizardry, and it’s easy too see why. Knowing that the original Dial/Savoy/Verve sessions wouldn’t have the fidelity needed for the modern multiplex, Eastwood knew he wouldn’t be able to use them “as is.” But rather than hiring a contemporary combo (maybe Jackie McLean would have been available?) and re-recording Bird’s classic tracks, they used the original recordings, isolated Bird’s parts as best they could, and recorded a modern rhythm section to support him. In a way, I think it’s the best of both worlds, and I’m not sure how they could improve upon it today.

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Forrest Whitaker and Samuel E. Wright as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, respectively.

Highlight: Buster Franklin (Keith David) enters a club while Bird is in the middle of a dazzling solo. He asks a patron who it is, and he can’t believe that the once inept “Charlie from Just Around” has developed into a terrifyingly brilliant virtuoso.

5. Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988)

Assembled with outtakes from a 1967 West German public television program about Monk, SNC features outstanding concert footage of the great innovator at the end of his last productive decade, as well as some of the only known footage of him not on stage.

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Hat and beard.

Highlight: I know it’s the opening scene and all, but I love the part where Monk walks away from the piano, dances, and then returns to the piano and starts playing even before he sits back down. That always struck me as hilarious. 

6. Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

Not one of Woody Allen’s most well-known films, but a good one. Sean Penn is hilarious as the too-full-of-himself-by-half guitar player, Emmet Ray, who is compelled to tell everyone he meets that he’s the second best guitarist in the world…after Django, of course.

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Emmet Ray, the world’s greatest second greatest guitarist.

7. Whiplash (2014)

Much has been written about the musical inaccuracies in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, such as this, this, and this. I get it. Buddy Rich isn’t the type of jazz drummer real jazz kids idolize anymore (did they?). Music schools can’t operate like military schools. (Aside: I spent part of my college career at Berklee, and although I had an ensemble teacher who was kind of…difficult, he was nothing like Terence Fletcher, J.K. Simmons’ most seething, feral creation since Vern Schillinger. But I digress.)

I love Whiplash because it’s just an insanely entertaining movie that celebrates musical achievement, even if some people don’t see it that way.

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A caring nurturer offers warmth and support to his charge.

Highlight: I practically stood and cheered during the dinner scene where Miles Teller’s Andrew obnoxiously puts his cousin, a Division III football player, in his place. The fact that he is an elite drummer playing in an incredibly exclusive ensemble is dismissed by his relatives, who’d rather engage in some jock sniffing. It’s nice to see the art kid finally win one!

8. I Called Him Morgan (2016)

Today’s general public has never heard of Lee Morgan (if they even did during his short life), but this is one of those documentaries that should make his life interesting even for non-aficionados. Of course, jazz fans know him as one of the greatest trumpet stylists of all time, a hard bop legend who was a key member in the most important iterations of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

Not really a biography of Morgan in the true sense, this is the cinematic equivalent of a memoir, as it focuses on taped interviews with his common-law wife (and his murderer), Helen, in the 1990s. (How that interview came to be is one of the greatest coincidences I’ve heard of, and it just as easily may never have happened.) I only wish this could have been done 10-15 years earlier, as so few of the musicians who played with Morgan are left to share their memories. Regardless, the film is outstanding and a real gift to jazz fans.

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A still of the Jazz Messengers used in I Called Him Morgan. L-R Lee Morgan, Jymie Merritt, and Art Blakey.

Highlight: Live footage of Lee Morgan is relatively rare, so the concert highlights are a treat.

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