JAZZ ON FILM DON’T TALKWithcinematographyby the renowned Vilmos Zsigmond and music composed by Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Wynton Marsalis, the silent film Louis along with live music by Wycliffe Gordon and his orchestra is screened at the London Jazz Festival this month. Selwyn Harris catches up with the film’s director, Dan Pritzker
Live music was an essential cog in the evolution of sound-less cinema. But the opportunity to improvise in front of a screen has since become something of a rarity. Miles Davis’ entirely improvised score for Louis Malle’s influential 1958 feature Lift To The Scaffold, as magical and perfect as it was, failed to set a precedent for improvised live music performed as part of a film score. Instead in fairly recent times especially, ever-resourceful jazz musicians have taken one step back and more than a few forward and risen to a new challenge of soundtracking old silent films. Earlier this year London’s Loop Collective pianist and film music graduate Alcyona Mick made delicate trio music and played it live in front of German director FW Murnau’s classic Sunrise, and others from Cinematic Orchestra’s music to The Man With The Movie Camera through to Courtney Pine’s take on an interesting curiosity Borderline have been inspired to perform new music on top of silent pictures.
R&B with more contemporary forms, we hear his vibrant takes on Louis’ ‘West End Blues’ as well as references to Ellington and Mingus. It is partly shot in the streets of New Orleans but any sense of realism is glossed over by a lushly photographed Hollywood musical style and conventional “silent picture” slapstick energy. There is an exception: the six-year-old Louis played by Anthony Coleman (above) who, besides the music, is the main attraction, his expressive gestures perhaps more an appropriate reflection of the original silent era’s naivety and experimentalism than those of the grown-up actors.
The film looks at the conflicting realities and fantasies of Louis’ childhood. Some of the realities are based on fact. He is shown at work, on the back of a coal cart and wielding a toy trumpet in the streets of Storyville, and living with his mother in poverty. Louis’ quest for a cornet teacher is one of the more engaging threads in the film. He asks Black Benny (an early type of father figure to the real Louis) for lessons but Benny declines with the reasonable excuse that he’s a drummer; Benny then finds him a tutor, only for them to see him murdered in an alleyway moments after agreeing to teach Louis. At the film’s epilogue, Louis’ quest is finally over. He meets Professor Davis – played by Wynton’s brother, the trombonist and bandleader
The London Jazz Festival has in recent years too provided a similar platform for live music and silent cinema. There was guitarist Bill Frisell in front of a Buster Keaton film and Belgium’s Flat Earth Society soundtracking Ernst Lubitsch’s 1919 The Oyster Princess, while last year’s festival saw Gary Lucas’ gothic guitar minimalism adding new perspectives to a brilliant old Spanish version of Dracula.
Delfeayo Marsalis – who goes on to give Louis his first professional job playing cornet in the home band at the New Orleans Colored Waif’s Home to which he was sent for firing a pistol in the air – details all based in fact.
The same thread continues to flourish this year at the LJF with the European première of a silent film Louis accompanied by live performance. But this one’s quite different from the rest. Directed by LAbased jazz fan and fusion songwriter-guitarist and Forbes rich-lister Dan Pritzker who’s a newcomer to filmmaking, Louis is an attempt at an updated version of the silent picture. It’s very loosely based on Louis Armstrong’s childhood in New Orleans and the city’s new favourite son Wynton Marsalis – also an executive producer – has written and arranged a new soundtrack, one that will be played live at the festival in November by an eight-piece cream of Lincoln Center band hand-picked by Marsalis, and led by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon.
More on the side of fiction though is his boyhood crush on Grace, a prostitute played by Shanti Lowry. He wants to be her man and she joins in the romantic make-believe – her experience with men is also a harsh one mirroring Armstrong’s actual relationship with his estranged father. Enter a corrupt politician Judge Perry, played by Jackie Earle Haley, a character based on Chaplin in The Great Dictator. The judge has fathered a child by the prostitute and will go to extreme lengths to avoid a scandal in his ruthless ambition for power. In a surreal scene of election engineering, Perry’s spin doctor Hieronymous Chad devises a vote-counting system that will elect Perry, an allusion to the Florida
‘If you don’t mention Gottschalk you’re missing a piece’ – DAN PRITZKER
But Louis Armstrong is not the only legendary subject paid homage to in Louis. The 70-minute feature, shot in lush monochrome by the Oscarwinning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind), also pays tribute to silent comedy’s Charlie Chaplin. Pritzker spoke, following a screen preview in London in September, about how he’d never seen music played live with a film before he saw Chaplin’s City Lights. It made him think, “what about a silent film with jazz”? Alongside Marsalis’ score, the solo piano of virtuoso concert pianist Cecile Licad will perform the music of the nineteenth century composer-pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who combined a prototype of Scott Joplin-style rags with Chopin-influenced European virtuosity. Pritzker calls Gottschalk, “the beginning of American music, where jazz came from”, and goes as far to say that, “if you don’t mention Gottschalk you’re missing a piece.” Gottschalk was a Creole, who was in Congo Square and heard African drumming. The rhythms came back to him in his writing and the combination of his and Marsalis’ music in the film said Pritzker, “really presents the basis of the American musical landscape”. And it’s the quality of this musical combination that is the biggest draw in Louis.
Aside from Marsalis’ originals that mix New Orleans’ period jazz and election “hanging chads” controversy of 2000. The name of Perry also mirrors a more topical reference; it is the name of George Bush’s successor as governor in Texas on his eventual election as president that year and a current presidential hopeful himself. All these inside references are there to be spotted. This of course has nothing to do with Louis in biographical terms but as the London Jazz Festival director John Cumming says, “nobody’s just trying to recreate what Louis Armstrong did when he was six because nobody knows”. Of the film’s part-fictionalisation of Louis’ life, Wynton Marsalis comments in The New York Times that, “we have a whole history of movies that do that. It isn’t a documentary.”
Pritzker mixes up fact and fiction again in a scene in which Louis meets his childhood cornet hero Buddy Bolden, while on the back of a cart heading for the state asylum. Before they part Buddy symbolically hands over his crown to Louis. Buddy Bolden is also the subject and title of Pritzker’s companion feature to Louis, a colour feature film that is pencilled in for release next year. His Louis though can be both seen and heard at the Barbican on 13 November at three in the afternoon and 8pm.
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