Darn that dream

`Kansas City' is the latest in a long line of attempts to describe jazz on film.
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The Independent Culture
From the gurning figure of Louis Armstrong in High Society (1956) - the world's greatest trumpeter playing a cameo second-fiddle to stars Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby - to the exquisite existential angst of saxophonist Dexter Gordon in Round Midnight (1986), the jazz musician in the movies has been saddled with an almost unbearable significance. Expected to be a repository of simple, natural virtues on the one hand, and a potent symbol of social dissent and urban alienation on the other, he or she has had to accommodate all kinds of narrative tricks, not to mention being impersonated by the likes of Kirk Douglas (in Young Man with a Horn, from 1949, inspired by the life of Bix Beiderbecke) or Sinatra (again) in Otto Preminger's excellent The Man with the Golden Arm (1955).

The early history of jazz in the movies is full of undignified compromises, especially when the subjects are black. In New Orleans (1947), Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday (in her only feature role) are effectively the stars, but they are forced by the studio codes of the time to play chauffeur and maid to accommodate a love-plot by the white ingenues. Though the codes had changed by 1972, when Holiday's life was dramatised by a black producer (Motown's Berry Gordy) in Lady Sings the Blues, the material was bowdlerised drastically, with Holiday's six husbands reduced to one, and the lovelorn Lester Young (potentially one of the greatest tragic roles of the century) transformed into Richard Pryor's piano-man. Even so, Diana Ross made a fair attempt at the impersonation, though her Minnie Mouse persona (all fluttering eye-lashes and exaggerated expressions) was hardly Lady Day. Martin Scorsese's heroic failed musical from 1977, New York, New York, cast Robert De Niro as dance-band-saxophonist-with- bebop-aspirations, Jimmy Doyle, but for all the finger-perfect sax-miming, De Niro's jazz credibility is memorable mainly for his gorgeous overcoats and shirts.

Clint Eastwood's Bird (1988), is a corrective of sorts, though it errs on the side of caution, and ends up as far too dull given the liveliness of the subject-matter, the extraordinary life of Charlie Parker. As jazz films go, Round Midnight, director Bertrand Tavernier's romantic hommage to classic American jazz, is hard to beat, though the real saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who plays the fictional saxophonist Dale Barlow - an alcoholic wreck washed up in the Paris of the late 1950s - is viewed through relentlessly noir-tinted spectacles. An iconic reduction of numerous real-life figures, including Gordon himself, Barlow captivates the young Frenchman Francis - the film's point-of-view figure.

In one of the many nightclub scenes, Gordon is seen playing a melancholy version of "Body and Soul" while Francis watches from the audience, his face rapt with passionate intensity. This distance between observer and observed, between the authentic jazz life and its vicarious imagining, is a classic metaphor for the way jazz has been defined in the movies.

The noir-perspective may well have its beginnings in the amazing short Jamming the Blues, from 1944, directed by Gjon Mili. The director's Bauhaus formalism places the musicians (including Lester Young) in low-key lighting against abstract optical effects, and effectively creates the by-now-familiar romantic image of the late-night, smoky jazz-club performance, repeated in Herman Leonard's photographs, Francis Wolff's Blue Note record sleeves, and the night-club interludes of countless film noir thrillers. The visuals even spawned an aural equivalent, the jazz-noir ballad, a mainstay of thriller-soundtracks, especially in Europe. Miles Davis's improvised accompaniment to Louis Malle's first film, Lift to the Scaffold (1957), remains the genre's high point. The existentialist chic of the jazz musician became a familiar trope of the late Fifties and Sixties, evident in the Charles Mingus soundtrack to John Cassavetes's Shadows (1958), and the director's later TV series, Johnny Staccato, whose jazz detective adventures were perhaps the high watermark of jazz pop-culture.

But of all the fictional representations of jazz, it's the wonderful Swedish movie Sven Klang's Combo, from 1976, that probably gets nearest to the truth. The story of a workaday provincial group in the late Fifties, partly based on the experiences of the saxophonist Lars Gullin, the film's band play duff gigs, argue over money and get stitched up by their bass- playing leader, while their inspired saxophonist comes back from a sojourn in Stockholm with a monkey on his back.

It's in the realm of documentary film, however, that the real jazz presence asserts itself, and it isn't always a pretty sight. Three films in particular are worthy of mention. Straight No Chaser (1988), directed by Charlotte Zwerin, is a biography of Thelonious Monk, and it provides a quite chilling reminder that for jazz musicians alienation could be more than a fashionable pose. When you see Monk dancing in circles by his piano at a gig in Germany, it looks suitably cool. When his son tells you that he did this for days at a stretch, alone in his New York apartment, as the prelude to dementia, it's genuinely disturbing. Let's Get Lost (1990), Bruce Weber's brilliant film about the trumpeter Chet Baker, pits the romantic legend against the less-than-attractive reality. Chet - a junkie for 40 years who continued to look like a rather tarnished angel - fails to be remembered affectionately even by his mother. The saxophonist Art Pepper, who played on the soundtracks to Some Like it Hot, Kerouac's The Subterraneans and a clutch of Clint Eastwood movies, cuts a sorry figure in Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor, his stomach bulging horrifically with the after-effects of an operation for a junk-related disease.

Pepper's scabrous autobiography, Straight Time, might well make the ultimate jazz film, with a great role for the actor James Woods, who has the necessary mixture of arrogance and deathly pallor, but it's going to take an awful lot of scriptwriters to come up with an upbeat endingn