San Diego’s jazz fans, a group that is apparently about the same size as the Barstow Braille Canasta Club, may have woke up this week to the thought that they had died and gone to Birdland.
Charlie Parker, one of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived, and Ella Fitzgerald, unquestionably the greatest female jazz vocalist (and I don’t know why I mention the gender), in San Diego in the same week? Plus Joe Williams (whose silken baritone voice God may envy) and the Count Basie Orchestra?
Yeah, Charlie Parker and Count Basie are gone--Parker died in 1955, a 34-year-old man decimated by drug and alcohol abuse, and Basie took the count from old age just last year. But the essence of jazz was always mood, and the mood--Parker’s, Basie’s, Ella’s and Williams'--will all be here.
San Diego’s jazz-legends week begins tonight with a premiere screening of “Bird,” Clint Eastwood’s remarkable impressionist biography of Parker, at the La Jolla Museum of Modern Art. The $25 fund-raiser, preceded by a cocktail buffet and some live entertainment by gifted San Diego jazz pianist Mike Wofford, is one of the special events accompanying the museum’s six-week Henri Matisse: JAZZ exhibition.
On Sunday evening, Ella Fitzgerald teams up with Joe Williams and the carry-on of the Count Basie Orchestra at Sea World’s Nautilus Theater.
The venues are nothing like Birdland, the New York jazz joint named for Parker and which played host to some of the best jams ever held. The La Jolla Museum of Modern Art--never mind La Jolla--is a smidge tony for Parker and the crowds who got caught up in his particular aura. And when you think of Ella reaching for a high note at the outdoor Nautilus, there is the unsettling fear that it might evaporate--mix with the scents of whale breath and Estee Lauder and vanish--before you’ve had a chance to enjoy it.
But I’ll take my chances. Hearing Ella sing in person is like watching Fred Astaire dance in person. In this era of instant pop stardom, where specialized newspapers, magazines and TV shows churn out minutia about the loves and life styles of the rich and famous, there are but a few true working legends, and Ella Fitzgerald is one. So, for many jazz purists, is the velvety baritone Joe Williams, who was a fixture with Count Basie’s orchestra for more than 30 years.
Ihave seen “Bird” under the best and worst of conditions--at an acoustically perfect studio screening room by myself--and I was transfixed for the entire 183 minutes. Since then, I’ve bought two Charlie Parker CDs, as well as the film’s sound track, and I’ve put a laser burn on all three. Tonight, I will see it with whatever crowd shows up at the museum, and I may drop in again when it begins its regular San Diego run this weekend at the UA Horton Plaza.
It’s hard to assess the commercial prospects of “Bird.” Its length and its odd pace and construction fly in the face of conventional Hollywood formulas, and its subject is about as mainstream as Ravi Shankar. Eastwood
himself acknowledged that the film faces long odds if it is perceived as a jazz film, and, despite his and Warner Bros.’ attempts to position it as a biographical drama, a jazz film it definitely is.
Parker the man, and Parker the musician, are inextricable. Parker wasn’t the first musical giant felled by his own excesses, but in terms of his influence, he may be the most important. In “Bird,” Eastwood made no attempt to whitewash Parker’s excesses, or to exploit them, or even to explain them. It is a non-judgmental re-enactment of his life, and an unabashed tribute to his music.
Eastwood was 15 when he saw Parker play at a jazz concert in Oakland, and he said it made a Parker fan of him forever. Eastwood had taught himself to play piano by listening to Fats Waller records when he was about 12, and he played the sax for a while before military service and movie stardom put him in another orbit.
The tall, still muscular 58-year-old actor has included a lot of original jazz in the sound tracks of his films, and for the first film he ever directed--the 1971 “Play Misty For Me"--he cast himself as a Carmel jazz station deejay.
In making “Bird,” Eastwood stuck pretty close to the original script, written by the equally passionate Parker fan Joel Oliansky. Oliansky spent a lot of time with Parker’s widow, Chan, and based much of the script on her unpublished biography, “Life in E Flat.” (According to Oliansky, that title came from something jazzman Dexter Gordon said when it dawned on him that the men before and after Charlie in Chan’s life also played alto sax, an E flat instrument. Said Gordon: “Man, that chick has lived her whole life in E flat.”)
There has been some criticism of the film’s darkness (its color was intentionally muted, Eastwood said, to allow the story and the music to dominate the foreground), and cynics have wondered aloud if its inherent anti-drug message wasn’t an early sign of future political ambitions by the one-term mayor of Carmel.
But the vast majority of critics have lauded “Bird” for its honest portrayal of both Parker and his music. At Eastwood’s insistence, Parker’s own playing was electronically extracted from inferior original recordings, cleaned up and enhanced, then re-mastered with new bass, piano and other instruments played by top contemporary jazz musicians.
The process worked so well that some jazz reviewers are now hailing the “Bird” sound track as a “must” buy for Parker collectors.
It is a vintage week for jazz fans in San Diego, but how many of us are there? It doesn’t look good. Such major jazz names as Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Miles Davis have failed to draw even respectable crowds (Davis’ scheduled August show at Sea World was, in fact, canceled because of poor ticket sales), and last week, the Bella Via restaurant in Encinitas gave up on its upstairs jazz venue, citing lack of interest.
What may be the most interesting jazz program in upcoming weeks is one scheduled for Nov. 4 at the Sherwood Auditorium. There will be no music, just a round-table discussion by the leading lights of San Diego’s jazz community. The topic: The State of Jazz in San Diego.
(Tickets for tonight’s “Bird” premiere at the La Jolla Museum of Modern Art and for Sunday’s Ella Fitzgerald/Joe Williams/Count Basie concert at Sea World’s Nautilus Theater are available through Ticket Master.)