Rumors of Jazz Movies

It seems like it has been a couple years since I heard whispers of two jazz related films that were in pre-production. I hadn’t heard anything about either of these projects in a while, and decided to do some digging.

The first film I originally heard about from Abe Beeson on Evening Jazz a couple years ago. He had mentioned that Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbor, Lucky Number Slevin) would play Chet Baker in a film called The Prince of Cool.

The concept of this film surfaced during the same time that the life of musicians Ray Charles and Johnny Cash were being put on the silver screen, becoming huge cinematic hits.

The problem, as it turns appears, is that the reasons that producers wanted to create a Chet Baker biopic and the reasons Josh Hartnett wanted to create a Chet Baker biopic were completely different. While producers wanted to rush a project in order to capitalize on the Ray and Walk the Line bandwagon, Josh Hartnett claims that he wanted to dedicate a significant amount of time and thought to the project, making it unique and original. Because Hartnett (apparently a huge jazz fan), and the producers could not come to agreement on their differences, Hartnett withdrew from the project and that is that.

The second film of note accumulated press in 2006 upon the announcement of it, but there has been little word of it since. The film is called The Jazz Ambassadors, and is set to star Morgan Freeman as Duke Ellington.

This is not so much of a biography of Duke, as it is a look at what role members of Duke’s entourage might have had in the 1963 coup let by the CIA in Iraq.

That’s right. It is suggested that the CIA planted spies within Duke’s band as they toured the Middle East. While your first reaction might be “yeah right”, U.S. State Department official Tom Simons, who toured with Duke’s band in the Middle East, is working on the project.

Maybe “working on the project” is a loose term to use, as I struggled to find much work being done on the project announced three years ago at all. Freeman (who I think would make an excellent Ellington) is involved on a variety of other projects currently, as is the designated director of the film, and the only suggested release date I came up with is 2011, posted on IMDB.com.


1959 – 50 Years Ago and Still the Best Year in Jazz

50 years ago certainly told some sad stories in jazz, including the death of Billie Holiday and Lester Young. But 1959 still appears to be the year that produced some of the most influential albums in jazz history. Here is a list of the best from 1959 (and thanks to Robin Lloyd for the list, and pointing out their similar anniversary).

1. Kind of Blue – Miles Davis

kind of blueThe most legendary album in jazz history easily takes the top spot on this list. The original album still sells 5,000 copies a week. A two-CD “Legacy Edition” version of this album was released celebrating the 50th anniversary, including alternate takes, false starts, and a 17-minute live version of So What.


2. Time Out – Dave Brubeck

time outThe album that left the 4/4 time signature behind, was the first jazz album to have a single (Take Five) that sold one million copies. Sony will release its own 50th Anniversary edition of Time Out this Tuesday, featuring three discs. Disc one will feature a newly remastered edition of the original. Disc two is a 30-minute DVD interview with Dave Brubeck talking about the making of Time Out, with never before seen footage, and Disc three is a compilation of recently discovered tapes at the Newport Jazz Festival from 1961, 1963, and 1964.

3. Giant Steps – John Coltrane

giant stepsAnother great album where every song became a jazz standard. The album features two different trios, with bassist Paul Chambers being the only member to participate in both. Constant chord changes and wonderful improvisation made this a classic.

4. Mingus Ah Um – Charles Mingus

mingusAs mentioned earlier, the great Lester Young died in 1959, and Mingus Ah Um is highlighted with a wonderful tribute to Young called Good Bye Pork Pie Hat. Columbia has also released a two disc “Legacy Edition” of this album this year, featuring unedited versions of tunes that were shortened for the original version, as well as some great outtakes.

5. The Shape of Jazz to Come – Ornette Coleman

shape of jazzReleased exactly 50 years ago last Friday, The Shape of Jazz to Come basically said “forget about the rules, just let me play”. That might sound sloppy (the description, not the music), but Coleman might have just looked at things differently than those before him. He always heard a melody, and managed to create great jazz with freedom that didn’t sound chaotic.

Where is the Fine Line in Jazz?

I was recently scolded by a listener.

It is not unusual for a radio jock to get an unhappy email from a listener. In my experience, it almost always has to do with a song that is played, overplayed, or not played enough, and even though it is the music that the listener has an issue with, it is the radio host who gets the blame.

It was this most recent complaint that came across as far more angry than your average letter. In fact, the note made it quite clear that after hearing a particular song, the individual was “through” listening to my program.

steely danThe song in question was the title track to the Steely Dan album Aja. The complaint, in short, was that Steely Dan didn’t play jazz, and that Aja wasn’t jazz and didn’t sound like jazz, even if Steely Dan was a jazz band by nature.

My initial reaction to letters like this is to respond with a common defense, which is to suggest that jazz is a free art form that knows no borders, and that just because it doesn’t sound like Coltrane or Charlie Parker doesn’t disqualify it as jazz. But in this case, and for the purpose of this blog, I decided to take a deeper look.

Allmusic.com suggests that Steely Dan plays in the styles of Soft Rock, Pop/Rock, Jazz-Rock, and Album Rock, and the album Aja is listed under the same headings. In fact, if I was to try and find Aja on ITunes, I would have to look under the rock genre, not the jazz genre. Ok, so maybe not a lot in my corner so far.

But then you look a little deeper. The song Aja features some great jazz musicians, including Wayne Shorter, one of the most legendary musicians in jazz history, and sax man Pete Christlieb. The problem with that, after doing my research, is that to consider Steely Dan/Aja as jazz, based on the fact that Shorter and Christlieb play on it would also qualify the following musicians/bands as jazz: Santana, Don Henley, The Rolling Stones, Lee Ann Womack, John Denver, Vanessa Williams, Kenny Rogers, Neil Diamond, Christina Aguilera, and yes, Tony Danza. These musicians all recorded with either Shorter or Christlieb, none of which would qualify as jazz musicians or jazz bands (although Tony Danza’s album was packed full of standards).

I also can’t argue the improvisational factor. Certainly there are improvised solos on this track, even good ones, but I’ve heard good improvised solos from Slash of Guns N’ Roses too, and that doesn’t make Paradise City a jazz tune.

Pete Christlieb, ironically enough, will actually be in town at a jazz club soon performing with a group called Nearly Dan, paying tribute to the music of Steely Dan. I might have that in my corner, if they weren’t doing a pre-concert interview on our local classic rock station. That, and the fact that you could probably do a jazz tribute to Megadeath if you got the right band and arrangements together doesn’t put a lot on my side either.

So did I lose this one? Did I cross the line with Aja? Should I have just responded with “Jazz is free, it has no boundaries”? Should I have said “I’m the DJ, I’ll play what I want”?

Maybe I did the best thing I could do, and just not write back.

The Most Famous Murder in Jazz

lee-morganJazz, like almost any other art form, is not without its off-stage drama. As a (below average) trumpet player, I am sensitive to the fact that there have been too many trumpeters before me who passed away far too early for a variety of far too unfortunate reasons. The list includes Clifford Brown, Bunny Berigan (see my remembrance of Berigan here) and of course, Lee Morgan.

I certainly don’t take murder or the loss of life lightly. And the murder of trumpeter Lee Morgan at the young age of 33 was a huge tragedy, as the jazz world had only been given a taste of what would no doubt be a legendary career. But there is always a story behind a story, and that is what we take a look at today.

There have been a number of different stories and accounts as to how Lee Morgan’s death took place, and for what reasons. I came across a very interesting interview with drummer Billy Hart, that I have linked for you to listen to here. Be advised – the interview contains explicit language that could be found offensive.