You’ll have to forgive Peter Lucas if he, like many of us, has lost track of time a bit over the last two and a half years living under a pandemic. He is trying to remember the last time the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston held its jazz on film Serie.
“That was like five or six years ago, right?” she says with a touch of exaggeration. “Who has a realistic sense of time with COVID? But it seems like it’s been a long time since we did this!
Lucas created the annual series for the MFAH in 2013 and has curated all the editions. That includes the latest in 2019. He adds that there’s a lot more to the process than just creating a list of movies he wants to show and sorting them.
“Sometimes a company will have the rights to movies, but some other archive has a copy. And we’re always looking for the [actual] 35mm film prints or digital restorations,” he says. “Sometimes it has taken years to locate them and secure them for a screening.”
From its conception, jazz on film has presented documentaries on individual artists or the history of jazz, concert films, and fictional films with a heavily jazz-based theme or soundtrack. Most of them are rarely shown. Lucas walked us in 4/4 time through the five selections for this year’s series, which runs from June 4-18.
Sun Ra: a joyful noise1980
One of jazz’s most eclectic figures (which is saying a lot), the man born Herman Poole Blount in Alabama (1914-1994) is known almost as much for his quirky philosophy and extravagant wardrobe as he is for his freewheeling, avant-garde style. jazz sounds performed with his revolving musical ensemble, The Arkestra.
And don’t forget that the eclectic piano/synth alchemist was a guy who claimed to be an alien from Saturn sent to earth to preach pieces and his brand of Afrofuturism.
“I’m aware of some perceptions from people who haven’t been deeply committed to his music that they see him as a guy in some kind of wacky costume, and I guess you can see him that way,” says Lucas. “But this documentary presents both sides, and there are some great performances.”
Lucas says what’s “most enlightening” is seeing Ra and his musicians just rapping and practicing in their shared house and rehearsal space in Philadelphia.
“The [band] he has a lot of reverence for Sun Ra and the music they’re making and the community around them,” Lucas offers. And furthermore, the film is being presented by Houstonian Damon Choice, who was a member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra in the ’60s and ’70s.
The Jazz Baroness2009
When saxophone legend Charlie Parker died in 1955 from a variety of health problems, it was in the hotel apartment of Baroness Pannonica of Koenigswarter in New York City.
And while eyebrows were raised about why a drug-using black jazz musician was in the private chambers of a white woman from a well-known Jewish banking family, those on the New York City jazz scene knew the baroness as a genuine fan of music and someone who many, many times helped musicians (most notably Parker and Thelonious Monk) with money, accommodation, or support when they were down.
“She’s always been a weird little mysterious supporting character in jazz history,” says Lucas, adding that the fact that the documentary was directed by Koenigswarter’s great-niece, Hannah Rothschild, gives it a more intimate feel. “It took us a while to track down this film from a European distributor.”
what goes through1977
Lucas is perhaps most excited about the prospect of securing a screening of this very rare piece of African-American independent cinema, directed by Larry Clark and co-written by Clark and Ted Lange (yes, Isaac the bartender from TV’s the love boat).
The plot tells the story of a jazz musician recently released from prison played by Nathaniel Taylor (later better known as Rollo from the television series sandford and son) who tries to navigate an exploitative music industry while searching for his grandfather and musical/spiritual mentor.
The soundtrack features many well-known jazz musicians, but the original score is written by Houston-born pianist and composer Horace Tapscott and performed by Pan African People’s Arkestra.
“It has never been released on any streaming or home video platform and probably will. never to be,” Lucas says. “It’s a really unique opportunity to see this film. And musicians know Horace Tapscott and hold him in high regard not only as a musician, but also as an educator and community activist. He grew up here in the Third Ward.”
odds against tomorrow1959
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a large number of dramatic thriller or crime films set in an urban or big city landscape featured jazz-laden soundtracks. The music that emanates from composers like Lalo Schifrin and Elmer Bernstein, or from musicians like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Quincy Jones.
John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet does the honors for this film, a noir novel in which an ex-cop enlists a nightclub entertainer with a gambling problem (Harry Belafonte) and a racist ex-convict to pull off a robbery. Themes of racism, greed and self-destruction abound. The MJQ and some guest stars provide the music.
“Movies were changing during that time, and there were Hollywood filmmakers looking to set the stage for a modern America in music, something that would set it in an urban metropolis of that day, or have a sense of existential dread,” he says. Luke. . “And that was jazz, sometimes with Latin rhythms. Many European films of the time also used jazz. It was a hot period for this, even when jazz was splitting into different modes.”
This film tells the story of a jazz saxophonist towards the end of his life and career as he reflects on the choices he made trying to steer a young acolyte away from the same substance abuse problems he had. The character is an amalgamation of real-life jazz musicians Lester Young and Bud Powell, but also Dexter Gordon, who also stars in the title role.
It was part of a trio of jazz-focused movies, including Clint Eastwood’s take on the life of Charlie Parker, Bird (1987) and Spike Lee best blues (1990) which briefly featured jazz in mainstream movies.
“That story is not too far from Dexter’s own story at the time. And he always wanted to include this movie in the series from the beginning. The director, Bertrand Tavernier, passed away last year and I wanted to honor this great work,” says Lucas.
“Many people around the world had, if not their first exposure to jazz with this film, then a better understanding of it. And there are so many great [real-life] musicians like Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard and Bobby Hutcherson”, he continues. “And every time you see a performance on it, it was played live. There was no mime. It’s kind of hard to even talk about it because it’s so moving in so many different ways.”
As Lucas speaks, it’s on the heels of the (very un-jazzy) action movie’s successful first weekend. Top Gun: Maverick. And there’s been a lot of talk about the big difference between seeing a movie like this in a real theater versus streaming it at home.
Lucas has a similar opinion about seeing the entries in this year’s edition. jazz on film in the same way.
“That’s a huge reason for creating this series in the first place, to see movies the way they were designed to be seen. On the big screen and in community and with great sound. I’ve seen [audiences] even clapping after seeing a musical performance,” he says.
“And then there’s this thing where we’re never No looking distracted [at home]. You’re still eating Cheetos and checking your phone and you’re the one pressing play. It’s very different from just giving in to an experience.”
jazz on film It runs from June 4 to 18 at various times, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Brown Auditorium, 1001 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-639-7515 or visit MFAH.org/films. Each movie $10, $8 for seniors, students with ID, and MFAH members.