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Jazz Tells its Story on Film

By Jennifer Bay | HUMANITIES, May/June 1998 | Volume 19, Number 3

“Music is a language,” says Larry Appelbaum, a jazz broadcaster and senior studio engineer in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress. “Filmmaking is also a language. When you have a really good filmmaker working with really good music, a depth of expression is created that can touch the soul. It’s almost overwhelming in its beauty.”

The happy intersection of good jazz and good film is what the second annual Denver Jazz on Film Festival hopes to create on Memorial Day weekend. Although the idea is not unheard of -- film screenings have been a minor part of jazz festivals for years -- never before has a major festival been dedicated exclusively to jazz on film.

While nothing can compare to seeing a jazz performance in person, says Appelbaum, “jazz on film is a middle ground. It’s not quite as visceral as seeing someone in person, but it’s not quite as removed or disembodied as just listening.” The emotional impact of music is stronger when there is a visual connection between the viewer and the performer. Seeing jazz musicians at work fosters a deeper appreciation of their technical brilliance and their performing artistry. “When you listen to Charlie Parker records, you can appreciate his art on one level. When you actually see Parker, see the way he holds the horn, see his posture, his facial expressions, his attitude” you gain more insight into the performer and his music.

“A lot of what music is about is telling a story . . . and film fills in more of the details of the story,” says Appelbaum. For example, not until you see the mischievous grin on Dizzy Gillespie’s face will you know if his remarks are in earnest or facetious, or understand what a “great impish sense of humor” he had.

Jazz films allow the viewer to detect the cues and other subtle interactions among jazz artists. “Often musicians will communicate with each other in nonverbal ways, either with the arch of an eyebrow, or a little hint of a smile,” or other small gestures, says Appelbaum. They happen very quickly because the musicians are improvising, creating, and composing at the same time, and film captures these extra-musical interactions.

Jazz on film also provides a chance to see live footage of performances by past jazz greats like Charlie Parker in Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker -- just one of the short subjects, documentaries, and performance films that will be screened at this year’s festival. Others include A Great Day in Harlem, a documentary about Esquire photographer Art Kane’s photo shoot that brought together fifty-seven of the best musicians of 1958; Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday, a biography of Billie Holiday; and Jammin’ the Blues, an experimental short subject that documents a 1940s jam session. Appelbaum considers this Oscar-nominated feature one of the greatest examples of jazz on film.

Another highlight of the festival is Robert Altman's Jazz ’34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing. In 1996, Robert Altman directed a feature film called Kansas City that is set in the thirties. To re-create the music of this era -- the music of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Buster Moten, and more -- Altman brought together some of the best contemporary young jazz musicians around for a three-week jam session. Later Altman assembled all the footage of these music scenes and created a separate film, Robert Altman's Jazz '34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing.

Besides the film screenings, lectures by jazz scholars and film critics, and live performances by local jazz musicians, the festival will feature participants such as business guru John Kao in an effort to explore the relevance of jazz to different parts of people’s lives. Kao wrote a book and subsequently directed and produced a film called Jamming that examines improvisation as a central metaphor for business in the "new economy." In his view, the skills of the jazz musician -- creativity, flexibility, and improvisation -- are very much the skills of the new manager. “We’re trying to show that jazz is not just about enjoying music, it also has lessons for the greater society,” says Thomas Goldsmith, the festival’s founder and director.

The festival will help promote and preserve classic jazz. Howard Movshovitz, director of the Film Institute at the University of Colorado, Denver and a film critic for National Public Radio, thinks that watching these legends is “maintaining our memory of our own history in jazz.” Goldsmith agrees. “Our effort in presenting the festival is . . . to give people opportunities to recognize how much a part of our culture all this music is, and how it affects the development of contemporary music. There are musicians who are popular today who play a mixture of bebop and jump, music basically created by people like Louis Jordan and Louis Prima.” The festival will help create a greater awareness of the lasting influences of jazz and its historical foundations in contemporary music.

About the Author

Jennifer Bay is a student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She recently completed an internship at the Endowment.

Funding Information

“Come Make Whoopee With Us!” The second annual Denver Jazz on Film Festival will be held at the Acoma City Center in Denver from May 22-25. It is supported by the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities. Visit the festival website at