Herts Jazz FILM Festival 2016: Buster and the Jazzer

This is the fourth in a series of posts about films being screened in the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival (HJFF), which takes place on 16-18 September and 2 October in Welwyn Garden City. The festival showcases compelling films that all have a distinctly jazz flavour. Timed to complement the Herts Jazz Club’s well-established and prestigious annual Herts Jazz Festival, the HJFF will bring you silent film with live jazz accompaniment, rarely-seen documentaries, and a performance by a superstar jazz quartet celebrating one of the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, Stan Tracey.


The stunning new restorations of Buster Keaton’s short films, which have been released as part of the Masters of Cinema series, provide a great excuse to binge watch the master at work and also to observe the development of Keaton’s craft.

The first moment he ever appeared on film, in ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s THE BUTCHER BOY, he was already a natural, in complete control of his physical performance. He brought a freshness and fertile imagination to all the films he worked on with Arbuckle.

However, it is when he begins to make his own films that Buster’s real genius emerges. Jeffrey Vance, in the booklet which accompanies the Masters of Cinema box-set, says about ONE WEEK, the first of Keaton’s short films to be released, that it…

…takes a dramatic leap in story construction, cinema technique, and comic invention from the films he made with Arbuckle.

Keaton’s creativity flourished within seemingly opposing factors: structure and spontaneity. Keaton is quoted in the Masters of Cinema booklet as saying…

Even when making my two-reelers I worked on the theory that the story was always of first importance.

Unlike the Arbuckle slapstick fests, where story was almost incidental, Keaton saw the importance of using narrative and character in making films which were funnier and more substantial. However, the ideas flowed only when this structure allowed for a great deal of improvisation. Keaton again…

When a big studio today has got their schedules laid out, and those people are called and everything, you go in there and shoot, regardless. You can’t improvise, as we did then. Why, we’d change every other minute. We never knew what we were running into. When we ran into something good, we stuck with it. That’s the great handicap today – no flexibility.

The freedom of improvisation within the confines of form is, of course, at the heart of most jazz. The chord structure is equivalent to story and character and helps shape and inspire the player’s creativity in finding new ways of telling that story. It is why I am very excited to be able to bring the two art forms together in the Herts Jazz FILM Festival when the superb jazz pianist David Newton will accompany two Buster Keaton shorts – the already mentioned ONE WEEK as well as NEIGHBORS. Here is David caught on a fairly rough video at the 2004 Appleby Jazz Festival. Within the simple blues chord structure he finds endless inspiration!

There should be a very special kind of magic when David meets Buster!


David Newton will be playing live to two Buster Keaton shorts on Saturday 17th September. Details and tickets are available here.

Herts Jazz FILM Festival 2016: John Akomfrah on Stan Tracey

This is the third in a series of posts about films being screened in the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival (HJFF), which takes place on 16-18 September and 2 October in Welwyn Garden City. The festival showcases compelling films that all have a distinctly jazz flavour. Timed to complement the Herts Jazz Club’s well-established and prestigious annual Herts Jazz Festival, the HJFF will bring you silent film with live jazz accompaniment, rarely-seen documentaries, and a performance by a superstar jazz quartet celebrating one of the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, Stan Tracey.


John Akomfrah is an enormously respected filmmaker and artist whose documentary films include critically acclaimed titles such as THE NINE MUSES and THE STUART HALL PROJECT. Born in Ghana, he was educated in London and Portsmouth and went on to co-found the Black Audio Film Collective, which BFI Screenonline describes as having the…

objectives of addressing issues of Black British identity and developing media forms appropriate to this subject matter.

One film on his CV which is sometimes overlooked is a beautifully crafted portrait of one the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, made for BBC Four in 2003. STAN TRACEY: THE GODFATHER OF BRITISH JAZZ is an affectionate and insightful exploration of Tracey’s long and prestigious career and receives a rare showing on the big screening as part of a Stan Tracey gala closing night event at the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival. As well as the screening itself, the evening will also feature a live performance by the Stan Tracey Legacy Quartet, led by Stan’s son, the leading British drummer Clark Tracey, and featuring player who all have a close association with the late pianist.

In an interview conducted via correspondence I asked John Akomfrah how he felt about this special screening of his film.

I’m absolutely over the moon that the film’s been chosen for the gala event of the first Herts Jazz FILM Festival . And especially thrilled that it will be followed by a live quartet performance led by Stan’s son Clark.

Stan was a great man, a formidable player and a fantastic composer. And any chance to honour him has my absolute support. I’m only sorry he’s not here to bask in the truly deserved limelight one more time.

I wondered how John had come to make a film on Stan.

Stan’s Under Milk Wood album was the first record I bought from the old Ray’s Jazz Shop, in the RARE AS HEN’S TEETH section I believe. So it cost me quite a bit! I had heard it months before at a friend’s and it blew me away: the lyricism, the unusual sonorities of the performers on the album, like Bobby Wellins. The whole album had this quintessentially British feel and that was my first exposure to that tone, that ‘local ambience’. After years of listening to jazz from all over the planet, it really spoke to me, spoke eloquently about this place (Britain ) and how we inhabit it.

That was in the 80’s and I decided pretty much there and then that I wanted to do something on him.

All of John’s films have a distinct visual style. How did he come to choose the particular look and structure of the Stan Tracey documentary?

Well, I had time to think about it! In a way, all the films are pretty much defined by the qualities one senses or gets from the subject itself.

Any one who knew Stan will tell you he was one of life’s gentle souls, really quiet, charming and very relaxed.But underneath that too, one sensed this steely determination, this overwhelming desire to do things his own way. So, I knew we had to find a form and a structure that spoke to those qualities. And an approach that will be unique for that film. Happily, all my instincts paid off.

I asked John what he is currently working on and was delighted to hear that he is returning to jazz, in the form of an important early jazz player.

I am in the middle of another long gestating piece on another hero, Buddy Bolden.

Now that will be worth looking out for!


The special Stan Tracey gala evening will take place on Sunday 2 October. Tickets are available here.

Herts Jazz FILM Festival 2016: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS

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This is the second in a series of posts about films being screened in the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival (HJFF), which takes place on 16-18 September and 2 October in Welwyn Garden City. The festival showcases compelling films that all have a distinctly jazz flavour. Timed to complement the Herts Jazz Club’s well-established and prestigious annual Herts Jazz Festival, the HJFF will bring you silent film with live jazz accompaniment, rarely-seen documentaries, and a performance by a superstar jazz quartet celebrating one of the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, Stan Tracey.


This classic American film noir was directed by a Scotsman best known for his comedy masterpieces made at the Ealing Studios – THE LADYKILLERS (1955), THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951), and WHISKY GALORE (1949). The darker tones discernible in Alexander Mackendrick’s British films became the dominant motifs of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957). The sharply observed portrayal of a megalomaniac newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and the press agent with precious few principles, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), proved too dark for contemporary audiences but is now regarded as one of the great films of the genre and one that is still relevant today.

Gary Giddens, in his Criterion Collection essay, says:

Audiences in 1957 did not go to see Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis movies to find the characters they played steeped in a disdain that also defiled venerable commonplaces of American life, from brotherly love to dogged ambition, not to mention newspaper columnists, cigarette girls, senators, the police, and all that glittered along the Great White Way. So they stayed away; this was the year of the hits The Bridge on the River Kwai, Peyton Place, and Sayonara—big, colorful productions with heroes, or at least guiding lights, and Aesopian morals. Their loss is posterity’s gain. Sweet Smell of Success is a true classic. The passing of half a century has deepened its manifold pleasures.

The pairing of Curtis and Lancaster turned out to be a masterstroke. Cinephilia and Beyond piece says:

Tony Curtis had to fight really hard to get the role… The problem was that Universal Studios didn’t want to lose its star, an actor the audiences have known and loved from costume adventure epics. Sweet Smell of Success is a far more serious film—an urban drama, with unscrupulous, deeply ambitious characters scheming to make a living in the unforgiving world of showbusiness. What Universal feared ultimately came true: Curtis was sensational in Mackendrick’s film, forever shattering the image Universal so pedantically polished over the years. Paired on screen with the domineering presence of Burt Lancaster and an impressive role from Susan Harrison, Curtis brought Ernest Lehman’s novelette to life with dazzling fortitude.

Michael Brooke, in a piece printed in the superb new Arrow Academy blu-ray release, sums up the film well:

…A masterpiece, one of the most ferociously clear-eyed studies of the seamier side of American journalism and the cult of celebrity attempted either at the time or since, and the most cinematically flamboyant quasi-portrait of a major media figure since Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941)…

The atmosphere of the film is shaped by James Wong Howe’s remarkable black and white photography and enhanced by Elmer Bernstein’s jazz score and the inclusion of the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Gary Giddens again:

 The film’s music is another source of enchantment… The period from 1957 to 1965 was the golden age of jazz, or jazz-influenced, movie and TV scores. Suddenly, music directors with a background in jazz and even true jazz composers were taken on by the studios: John Mandel, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Lewis, Henry Mancini, Pete Rugolo, Van Alexander, Eddie Sauter, Benny Carter, Andre Previn, Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, and others, plus great jazz improvisers, who appeared in nightclub scenes or soloed invisibly on soundtracks. The composer and conductor on Sweet Smell of Success, Elmer Bernstein, though not a jazz composer, figured prominently in this movement. Raised in Manhattan’s upper class and taken on by Aaron Copland as his protégé, Bernstein began scoring films in 1951…

 

In this picture, instead of using a big central theme…, he employed a series of short, expressive cues that complement the on-screen music performed by the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Hamilton’s group was known for combining a laid-back West Coast jazz style (he had initially come to prominence as the drummer in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet) with advanced harmonies, assertive rhythms, and the highly unusual instrumentation of cello (Fred Katz), flute (Paul Horn), and guitar (John Pisano). Bernstein preferred massed brasses and shuffle rhythms, which contrasted agreeably with Hamilton’s lightly astringent approach.

Included in Sight and Sound’s ‘Greatest Films of all Time’ poll of 2012, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is as fresh and hard hitting today as when it was released.


SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS will open the Herts Jazz FILM Festival on 16 September 2016. Details of the screening can be found here.