Films and jazz remained apart for a long time and only recently is there a greater rapport between them. A film season dedicated to that musical genre – born in the U.S. but today universal – opened in Havana with great success among the public.
Combining the senses complements, amplifies and deepens sensations. If it weren’t so, try tasting your favorite dish when your nose is not in good condition and you will notice that food doesn’t taste the same as when the impaired sense is operating normally and is combined with taste.
That is why, when sight and hearing join in a magic formula called cinema, with its large screen and excellent sound, the pleasure produced separately by each one is amplified by an incredible creative complicity.
And if the core of that joint effect is a kind of music born and designed as an artistic phenomenon in continual development, of deep and diverse roots and endowed with a fine sensibility, the result is magnificent, excellent.
Those terms describe the idea of critic Antonio Mazón Robau, who prepared a first season called Jazz and Films at the Cinemateca de Cuba (Cuban Film Archive), amply covering themes and forms of a universe that is barely known to film buffs in this Caribbean country.
Films and jazz play the leading roles of a difficult love story, as stated in the website Apollo and Bacchus. Although it is true that jazz played the leading role in the documentary The Jazz Singer (1927), the first sound film in history, it was not in the least predictive of what was to follow.
The fact that Paul Whiteman and Duke Ellington were called by the Mecca of the film world in the early days of sound films is merely an anecdote, as their presence was irrelevant in terms of music. In the 1930s and 1940s the film industry appealed to jazz for musical comedies, while that kind of music took refuge in clubs and radio stations.
In the era of swing, the common practice was to invite stars sporadically to take part as environmental and coloristic ornament in comedies and gangster films.
After the Second World War, when Hollywood began to decline, jazz was experiencing its most profound renewal as autonomous art, distanced from the entertainment circles. Swing was giving way to bebop, and some U.S. filmmakers introduced the airs of this new jazz in their films. That musical genre thus appeared in Rear Window and A Streetcar Named Desire.
The French film industry was the first to use jazz in a significant way as dramatic background. The paradigm of that historical change of role was the extraordinary film and even better soundtrack Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Frantic, 1957), by Louis Malle.
In general, the presence of jazz in films, and particularly in the U.S., is not in keeping with the influence and prestige of this musical genre. Only in the 1960s did the U.S. film industry finally adopt it as a substantial element.
Jazz composers like Henry Mancini, Johnny Mandel, Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones and Dave Grusin became professional music composers for the movie industry.
Jazz and films again became reconciled in the decade of the 1980s, with the invaluable collaboration of great film directors and producers who were – and are – great jazz fans. Among them must be mentioned Bertrand Tavernier with Round Midnight (1986); Clint Eastwood and his Bird (1988); Francis Ford Coppola with Cotton Club (1984), and more recently Robert Altman, with Kansas City (1996), and Woody Allen, with Sweet and Lowdown (1999). They all returned prestige and rigor to that difficult but beautiful relationship.
The season prepared by Mazón Robau will show materials about Chano Pozo, Emiliano Salvador, Bebo Valdés and Latins in jazz, presenting a rich although still little explored aspect in this field.
The searches and approaches being carried out today in this Caribbean country have a vast field where Cuban flavor can also be added to that romance between films and jazz.
A notable graphic preamble
The film season was visually introduced by an excellent photo exhibition by a professional with a long career and important results: Francisco “Paco” Bou.
The exhibition, entitled Desde la pasión, el jazz (With Passion, Jazz) contains images of key moments from Cuban presentations by great figures of this genre such as Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Ayers, Irene Reed and Chico Freeman.
Other photos show Cuban jazz players from the period when those stars visited the country, an initiative aborted by the absurd policies of the blockade that also reached this field and which today, with few exceptions, still hamper cultural contacts between the United States and Cuba.
Paco Bou, a master at capturing the precise moment with far-reaching quality, is an artist of the lens with a wide range of interests. Luckily for jazz fans, one of them is this genre, as unique as the author’s performance.
These images are only the tip of a gigantic iceberg to be discovered during future months and years, in the same measure that Bou digitalizes his numerous works. The next step will be the upcoming Jazz Plaza Festival.
During this film season, Cinemateca de Cuba and the Cuban Film Institute will be showing, in more than fifty examples, how image and sound can come together beautifully in jazz.
Translated by Olimpia Esperanza Sigarroa Santamarina
Revised by Susana Hurlich