Archive | Music Matters

Kind of Blue: Jazz Cinema’s Mixed Bag

Great films about jazz are unhappily rare, perhaps because exactly what makes the musical genre wonderful–its complexity, its lack of pandering, its gorgeous esoterica–are qualities that are anathema to Hollywood. In the absence of a great Duke Ellington or John Coltrane biopic, here are some selections that, in one way or another, do offer a love supreme.

A Great Day in Harlem (1994)
Jean Bach’s documentary about the story behind the legendary photograph of the same name is a study in “the little engine that could” artistry. A pastiche of home movies and interviews with everyone from Art Blakely to Sonny Rollins to Dizzy Gillespie, it recalls the Esquire magazine shoot in which many of jazz music’s greats rather improbably gathered in front of a Harlem brownstone on a 1958 Sunday morning. With a running time of 60 minutes, it delivers just enough nostalgia, though some might prefer a greater emphasis on the featured artists rather than the merits of the image itself.

Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Diana Ross stars as Billie Holiday in this conventional yet affecting biopic about jazz’s most tragic female star. Focusing on Lady Day’s heroin habit as well as the backstory of her controversial “Strange Fruit,” this film spares no genre cliché. But as a vehicle for Ross, who channels Holiday’s sorrow with an uncharacteristic gravitas, it offers unparalleled pleasure. Plus: Richard Pryor in his first onscreen performance.

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Metaphysician, Heal Thyself

Backs are about supporting yourself while you stand on your own two feet. It’s the simplest thing in the world, really, but–like the dream whose meaning you don’t recognize until later–it’s taken me forever to absorb the meaning of my recent injury. For three days I couldn’t straighten my spine, let alone hobble to the other room; even now I can’t bend to feed my cat. I’m improving for sure but am aware my back went out the day a massive tax bill was due and I’d finally accepted that things were totally totally over with my last big love. (What can I say? My heart mends glacially.) After three days of misery, my godfamily came down from Boston in a whirlwind of mermaid-colored nail polish and Jewfood take-out and rainbow Converse low-tops. While I moaned and groaned, they cleaned my house and generally did what I normally do for myself. Lo and behold! My back began to heal, as if it were relieved it didn’t have to bear all my burdens itself. After decades of abject codependency followed by years of dogged solitude, it seems I’d forgotten anyone could help me in an uncomplicated way.

I know I’m at a serious crossroads because all I can listen to is Aretha Franklin. Specifically, her cover of “Eleanor Rigby,” in which she sings as Eleanor Rigby. Who but the Queen of Soul would treat that lonely British woman as a subject to empower rather than an object of pity? Amazing, if painfully relevant. I rediscovered the track when Melina, my bestie since I was six (her two kids are my goddaughters), said it was impossible to cover the Beatles because nothing can make us forget their originals. Aretha can make anything her own, I said, and played this song to prove my point. The two of us listened with the huge grins we’ve shared while listening to music since we were kids.

Only Aretha could coax me into registering the full weight of the loneliness I’d been ignoring even after it crushed my back. I’m sure kicking sugar paved the way for such stark self-revelation–it was my last crutch, I’d whined to my shrink the day before my back gave out–but no one ever said detoxing was pretty. This week, as I slowly stand back up, I’ve got Melina and Aretha to thank. Loneliness may be real but we’re never really alone. Too bad the universe must devise such wickedly literal alarm clocks to wake us from our illusions.

No Ordinary Love

“Stevie Wonder, just like I pictured him.” Seeing Stevie perform every number from Songs in the Key of Life last night at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center was to participate in four hours of joyous hilarious heartbreaking musical prayer with some of the best musicians alive—including a six-piece horn section, two drummers, six backup singers, members of the Brooklyn Symphony, India.Arie, Nathan East on bass (amazing), and, oh yes, the man who’s sung me through every significant love of my life (and I’m not just referring to love affairs). Generous and genius, he played at least four instruments and led long passages of jaw-dropping improvisation. When he sang “If It’s Magic” I broke down in happy tears, and I’m guessing that, along with everyone in attendance last night, I’ll be weeping them all week long. “Don’t block your blessing,” he told us as a reminder to treat everyone with the love and compassion we each deserve. We couldn’t have blocked his bright brilliant beauty if we’d tried.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy