Five Biographical Documentaries Of Jazz Titans

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.

I Called Him Morgan

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.


Quincy

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.

How Pixar Portrays Jazz in Their New Movie ‘Soul’

Pixar’s new animated movie Soul, directed by Pete Docter (Up) and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami), is a unique collaboration between filmmakers and musicians. Pixar Animation Studios has delivered a long list of outstanding movies. They stand out when it comes to building authentic characters, something they have been doing since the release of their first full-length movie, Toy Story, in 1995.

Twenty-five years later, they set the bar to a new standard of quality. For the first time, they will feature a protagonist with African American heritage. Jazz music is a central element in the plot and this creates additional expectations as many jazz musicians will surely examine the work.

In this article, I will explore how and why jazz music, or black improvisational music, was used in the plot as a metaphor for real life.

The Plot (Spoiler Alert)

The movie tells the story of Joe Gardner, a middle-aged music teacher whose life hasn’t quite gone the way he’d expected. Joe’s true passion is playing jazz music and he believes he is born to perform. When his time finally arrived, and he was offered to perform with the A-listed saxophonist Dorothea Williams, Joe has an accident and he ends up queueing the line into what is described as The Great Beyond. Joe panics as he feels to have unfinished business in his life (playing jazz) and manages to escape. Instead of going back to earth, he ends up in The Great Before, a place where souls are giving personalities before being born.

To avoid being sent back to the afterlife, he pretends to be a mentor and he is being assigned to a precocious soul, named 22 (Twenty-two). 22 has spent hundreds of years at The You Seminar, an institution where new souls must meet several requirements before going to earth. 22 refuses to be born as she (?) does not see the joy of life.

When 22 finds out that Joe is not a real mentor, they agree that if Joe manages to fulfill the requirements, he will be granted the earth-pass instead of 22 and so, he can fulfill his purpose in life. Joe fails but, he and 22 find an alternative. However, when on earth, 22 finds herself in the body of Joe, and Joe finds himself in the body of a cat.

While looking for a solution to their body-swop, 22 starts enjoying life, and she finds her will to be born. After a series of events, they find themselves back in The Great Before and 22 was granted her ticket to be born. As agreed with Joe, she offered the pass to him and so, Joe returned to earth while 22 stays behind.

Joe fulfilled his long-life dream by playing the concert with Dorothea Williams but soon realizes that his choices, his pursuit of one single goal, has cost him other great joys in life.

The Authenticity of the Characters

Pixar always exceeded in making their characters feel authentic. In animation, filmmakers often have to use caricatures to accomplish this. Think about the squared face and big glasses of Carl Fredricksen in the movie Up.

For the physical creation of African American characters in the movie Soul, Pixar was challenged to bring out the true African American heritage without using racist stereotypes from old cartoons. Joe Gardner, as a human, is an African-American. He has a black mustache, a hat, and big black glasses that remind us of other great jazz legends (Dave Brubeck & Toots Thielemans). The physical appearance of Joe was kept classic and avoids stereotypes. The biggest contribution to his character is, according to me, the way he relates to music.

Pixar consulted with many jazz musicians, including Herbie Hancock, during the process. They also did extensive research in jazz clubs where they interviewed musicians about their life. This research was used for Joe’s character. For the compositions and recordings, they worked with pianist and bandleader, Jon Batiste (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert).

Usually, Pixar would add music as one of the final steps in the creative process but for this movie, they followed another approach as they felt the music is a central and important piece. Joe’s authenticity was brought to life in two ways. The first one being the voicing by Jamie Foxx, who is a trained pianist himself. The second element is Jon Batiste’s compositions, recording, and physical movement. The recording was digitally filmed and reverse-programmed into animation. This means that when you see Joe play, you can see him play the notes that you are hearing. The way Jon Batiste sits behind the piano, and the way he moves his fingers across the keys, are adding to the genuineness of Joe.

“My hands are central to my life, I was in tears when I saw my essence come to life in Joe. To have this as a part of my creative legacy is an honor.”

Jon Batiste (interview with The New York Times)

Black improvisational Music as a Metaphor for Real Life

Journalist and music critic Giovanni Russonello wrote the following for The New York Times:

In the past few years, jazz has shown up onscreen most prominently in the work of Damien Chazelle. His “Whiplash” (2014) and “La La Land” (2016) tell the stories of young white men who are torturously committed to playing jazz and the feeling of excellence it gives them. In these movies, jazz is a challenge and an albatross. But in “Soul”, the music is more a salve: a river of possibility running through a hostile country, and — as Rainey says in Wilson’s script — simply the language of life.

Take for example Andrew in Whiplash (Miles Teller) whose purpose is to become a master drummer by studying at Juilliard and by practicing night and day but, he has little focus on the spirituality of jazz. Or take Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in La La Land, who sees himself as the conservator of jazz and has the sole purpose to open a jazz club. They relate to jazz in a very different way compared to how Joe Gardner relates to the music. Jazz is part of African-American history and this is an important element in the movie.

Yes, Joe starts with a purpose as well. His life goal is to become a professional jazz musician. He is fixated on the idea that if he does not accomplish this, his life won’t have meaning. He says that he only exists to play and that nothing else matters. But the character is built around the idea that above purpose, there are more aspects in life. During the movie, Joe becomes aware of this when he sees the joys he missed after accomplishing his goal. Joe’s character is built around this epiphany and not around accomplishing one single goal. He understands that people, including himself, can become disconnected from life because they are fixating on one thing instead of all aspects of life.

In this movie, jazz music, or black improvisational music, is a metaphor for real life and its unexpected situations that force us to adapt. Director, Pete Docter, said in an interview that he was inspired by a story Herbie Hancock told. While touring Europe in the 1960s with Miles Davis there was one concert where Hancock played a piano chord so bad that he thought the whole concert was ruined. But, Miles Davis reacted to the chord by playing a series of improvised notes, and by doing this, he made Hancock’s chord look right. Miles Davis did this by not judging the mistake but by interpreting it as something new that happened. It was an unexpected situation where the musician was inspired to improvise. Miles turned something that others considered as bad, into something of value. Pete Docter said that this story contributed to the theme of the movie and that the idea of improvisation is a great metaphor for what we are doing in our daily life.

In the podcast Soul Stories the movie’s co-director, Kemp Powers, invites cast, creators, and consultants to share their experiences working on the project. Soul Stories exists out of six episodes and all of them are available on Spotify. Below you can find the episode featuring the composer, Jon Batiste.

Jazz Album Cover Designs That Inspire – Part 1

My record collection is growing every day and what attracts me to purchasing an album apart from the music is the sleeve design. For this article, I dove into my collection and hand-picked my favorite jazz covers.

Giant Steps – John Coltrane

1960 / Atlantic 1311 / Marvin Israel (design) / Lee Friedlander (photo)

The red text and frame on the album are so distinctive that you immediately recognize it as Coltrane’s Giant Steps. The photo itself, taken by Lee Friedlander, is an upwards close-up of John Coltrane doing what he does best.

Marvin Israel, the artist behind it, knew how to frame it. These are the words of famous photographer Robert Frank in the documentary Who is Marvin Israel (Doon Arbus). The documentary brings to light the life and work of the artist. Marvin Israel worked as a freelance art director for Atlantic Records from 1957 to 1963 so, Giant Steps is far from the only sleeve design he did. He painted several abstracts of famous jazz musicians such as Charlie Mingus (Atlantic 1416) and Milt Jackson (Atlantic 1417), and he designed the cover for the albums: Joe Turner Sings Kansas City Jazz (Atlantic 1234), Charles Mingus’ The Clown (Atlantic 1260), and Ornette Coleman’ The Shape of Jazz To Come (Atlantic 1317).

Afro Blue – Dee Dee Bridgewater

1974 / Trio Records PA 7095 / Katsuji Abe (design & photo)

If you’re a fan of 70’s soul-jazz, there is a big chance you have this record sitting on your shelf at home. Afro Blue, the debut album from Dee Dee Bridgewater, is not only one of my favorite albums for listening to, but also the artwork inspires curiosity. This is how I got familiar with the album, I spotted the cover, got curious, and bought it.

The cover design and photography on the backside are credited to the Japanese photographer Katsuji Abe. Abe was a designer for Trio Records and Whynot Records during the 1970s. He also published several books including 50 Jazz Greats From Heaven (1995).

The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady – Charles Mingus

1963 / Impulse! AS-35 / Joe Lebow (design) / Bob Ghiraldini (photo)

This powerful release from Charles Mingus, where he takes on the role of composer and band-leader, consists of a single continuous composition that is written as a ballet. The record is among the most acclaimed jazz records of the 20th century thanks to Mingus’ perfectionism and ability to improvise.

The sleeve design is from the American designer Joe Lebow who worked for different record companies during his career. He used the photography of Bob Ghiraldini who was specialized in photographs of jazz musicians. The cover features Charles Mingus in front of a white wall and above him, you read his name, the title, and the words: “From the poem: Touch my beloved’s thought while her world’s affluence crumbles at my feet

Love Matters! – Jowee Omicil

2018 / Jazz Village ‎33570118.19 / Yannick Le Vaillant (artwork) / Renaud Monfourny & Sylvain Cherkaoui

For this album, Haitian-Canadian Jazz musician, Jowee Omicil, impressed us with this gatefold cover design. It gives you a direct impression of the music you can expect. The photographs include a lot of light and color, which is in contrast with his previous album, Let’s Bash! (Jazz Village 33570120.21)

The artwork is by the graphic designer Yannick Le Vaillant, who is a true master when it comes to sleeve designs. The photography used for the artwork is credited to two artists. The first is the French photographer Renaud Monfourny, who captures the cultural scene with his portraits of musicians, actors, and writers. The second is the French photojournalist Sylvain Cherkaoui.

Miles Ahead – Miles Davis

1957 / Columbia 1041 / uncredited

Miles Davis released his second collaboration with Gil Evans in 1957. The original release of this record features a photograph of a white woman and child aboard a sailboat. Miles Davis was dissatisfied with this choice and complained to Columbia Records‘ executive producer George Avakian. No clear reasoning was given to him but in the early 1960s, a picture of Miles Davis was used on the cover (although reissues with the original cover are still being released).

Displaying a white woman on African American album covers was done quite frequently during the 1950s and 1960s. This was done with the sole purpose to easily reach and sell to the white audience as they thought it was a more attractive display. Other examples of this are the soul records Otis Blue from Otis Redding and Arthur Conley’s album Sweet Soul Music. I prefer the cover featuring Miles Davis. It gives a stronger indication of what he does and who he is. The original cover is playing with the title, Miles Ahead, but does not reveal what to expect.

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