It’s not an easy task to capture the life of jazz titans like John Coltrane or Miles Davis into a ninety minutes cut. There is a lot of ground to cover before you’re able to give the audience a peek into their minds. Some directors and screenwriters managed to provide us with the best possible overview. They captured the essentials that contribute to their legacy.
Here are five biographical documentaries of true jazz titans where they successfully documented the story of the artists.
Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary
2016 / John Scheinfeld (director & writer)
Chasing Trane is an epic portrait of the legendary forward-thinking saxophonist who innovated and influenced jazz music in many ways. This story explores the impact of Coltrane’s life on the music he made.
It’s a classic, well-made biographical movie built on personal interviews with his children and grandchildren, friends, and fellow musicians. It creates honest insights into the life of the jazz titan.
John Scheinfeld’s documentary includes footage of Coltrane’s performances and uses the musician’s own words, read by Denzel Washington. At times, it analysis Coltrane’s compositions and his unique way of playing.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool
2019 / Stanley Nelson (director & writer)
This documentary is a reflection on the musical career of Miles Davis and the birth of cool jazz. It captures the story of the talented trumpet player who introduced the world to a new style of jazz by blending it with modern classical ideas. An approach that would shape bebop into something everybody can listen to, a sub-genre not limited to jazz fans alone.
It is not an easy task to capture the story of Miles Davis on film. Davis was actively shaping jazz music for six full decades. The documentary attempts this via interviews with family members, friends, and musicians such as Quincy Jones.
2016 / Kasper Collin (director & writer)
“I called him Morgan” are the words of Helen Morgan in an interview she gave two decades after she shot and killed her common-law husband, Lee Morgan.
The documentary is not a study into the life of hard bob trumpeter Lee Morgan. Instead, It’s a drama narrating the relationship between him and Helen. Via interviews with former band members and friends, we get a picture of what caused the fatal shooting of this celebrated musician who featured in bands with Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey.
Lee Morgan’s story is spellbinding. A young talented musician who struggled with a drug addiction and got murdered. This is the story of a musician who obtained his place in history next to Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, as one of the greatest trumpet players in history.
Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog
1998 / Don McGlynn (director & writer)
This project took nine years to complete and is the first comprehensive documentary about the life of jazz musician Charles Mingus.
Charles Mingus is known for being a great bass player, bandleader, and composer. The documentary highlights Mingus as a composer. A musical genius with many ideas and innovative ways to use music. Mingus created unusual complexity in writing by using different layers and combining multiple rhythms. His high-sounding music feels chaotic, and yet, its structure has many similarities with classical music.
The story is told from the perspective of people who were close to him and features many video recordings of Charles Mingus where he is talking about his music.
2018 / Alan Hicks & Rashida Jones (directors & writers)
The documentary plays in two different worlds. One is the present-day world of Quincy Jones as a composer and producer who accomplished everything and is loved by everyone. It shows an intimate setting where he is surrounded by family and friends. The second revisits Mr. Jones’ career as a jazz arranger and multi-instrumentalist. We peek into the different stages of his life via flashbacks and discover details about his friendship with Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra.
The documentary features people impacted by Mr. Jones. He was a mentor for Micheal Jackson, launched the career of Will Smith, and discovered Oprah Winfrey.