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Jazz Corner: The Greats on the Silver Screen

From ‘Miles Ahead’ to ‘Brownie Speaks’, movies that document the jazz greats

Sunil Sampat May 16, 2016
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Don Cheadle in 'Miles Ahead'. Photo courtesy of IndieWire/Sony Pictures Classics.

Don Cheadle in ‘Miles Ahead’. Photo courtesy of IndieWire/Sony Pictures Classics.

Three jazz movies, biopics of famous jazz personalities have been released recently. One is based on Miles Davis, Miles Ahead where Don Cheadle plays Miles. Born To Be Blue is based on the life of another trumpet player, Chet Baker where Ethan Hawke plays the troubled but extremely talented musician and a third based on the life of vocalist Nina Simone. Both Cheadle and Hawke learnt and played trumpet themselves, not using playback or sound doubles, a highly commendable feat.

One more biopic of yet another trumpet player, the fabulous Clifford Brown, who died at the tender age of 26 in a car crash also released recently and was shown at the Newport Jazz Festival 2015. Brownie Speaks is a documentary on his life taken from several video clips and conversations with people who played with this rare jazz gem. In his very short playing career, Clifford Brown had already created some musical masterpieces, thankfully preserved on record. Had Brownie lived, he would undoubtedly have been one of the greatest of all jazz trumpet players.

Movies about other jazz musicians have been very successful. One reason is that lives of most musicians, particularly jazz musicians are multi-dimensional and so make for very watchable tales. Some of the movies I would recommend are Round Midnight (for which Dexter Gordon was nominated for Best Supporting actor at the Oscars), Straight, No Chaser, the story of Thelonius Monk, The Five Pennies about trumpeter Red Nichols, a movie in which Danny Kaye, playing Nichols and the evergreen Louis Armstrong perform a rollicking version of “The Saints Go Marching In”, The Glen Miller Story, The Benny Goodman Story and the delightful High Society which feature Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and once again Louis Armstrong, this time telling you how jazz music is made!

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Clint Eastwood made Bird, a movie on the great saxophonist Charlie Parker which is a disappointment. Charlie Parker was arguably jazz’s finest saxophone player but Eastwood, rather than focus on the man’s brilliant jazz achievements, tells a story of Parker’s weaknesses, his drug and drinking habits! Maybe someone else will make another film on Charlie Parker and tell the world about this incredible genius.

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