Miles Ahead: Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis Experience

April 18, 2016
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“Don’t play what’s there.  Play what’s not there.” -Miles Davis

Taking the iconic trumpeter’s advice to heart, writer/producer/director/lead actor Don Cheadle begins the film “Miles Ahead” with what (or who) wasn’t there:  Miles Davis from late 1975 through 1980, his “lost” or “silent” years.

Miles was not performing, recording or composing during this period, and aside from dealing with health issues like sickle-cell anemia, a deteriorating hip and lingering pain from a car accident, and substance abuse, it’s probably a safe bet to say that he was depressed and his legendary creativity temporarily exhausted.

“Miles Ahead” blends biographical fact, fiction and myth in an entertaining fashion.  Cheadle believes that Miles would heartily approve of the mostly-fictional “gangster movie” segments from the lost years, while the more biographically correct flashbacks to the Miles of the 1950s and 1960s give us jazz geeks something to cling to.

Well cast, beautifully edited and scored, “Miles Ahead” is truly a showcase for Don Cheadle, who seems to have been born to play Miles Davis (of course, I’ve said that about all of his major roles, he’s just that great an actor).

Cheadle had a very clear vision for the film to be anything but a typical cradle-to-grave biopic.  He wanted to create more of a “Miles Davis experience.”  After he realized that no one else was going to write such a script, he took on that task along with co-writer Steven Baigelman.  Then, naturally, he needed to direct and produce it.  And he always was going to star in it, with the blessing and encouragement of the Davis family.

This movie has taken ten years from conception to opening.  In Cheadle’s most recent interview with Tavis Smiley, he explains just how intense this project was for him, from learning to play the trumpet to directing while also being the lead actor.

“Miles Ahead” opens nationwide on April 22.  Dick Stein and I will be there to greet you at the first evening showing at the Grand Cinema in Tacoma that night. We’ll talk about the movie, give away some Miles Ahead soundtrack CDs, and bring you up-to-date on the Save KPLU campaign.  Join us!

Posted in Movies

The Making of “The Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story”

October 22, 2014
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Frank Morgan in Paris              Photo credit: Pierre Briançon

“The Sound of Redemption:  The Frank Morgan Story” will be showing on Saturday, October 25 at NW Film Forum in Seattle as part of the Earshot Jazz Film Festival.  Frank Morgan was a prodigy, a young West Coast saxophonist who was hailed as “the next Charlie Parker.” Morgan’s life and career were stalled for 30 years because of heroin use, felonies and prison sentences.

Author Michael Connelly is executive producer of the film.  While not a long-time jazz enthusiast, Connelly read about Morgan’s story of music, drugs, crime and redemption in a Time Magazine profile.  He heard some of Morgan’s music, and became a fan.

At the time, Connelly was preparing to début  his LA crime novel series featuring a police detective named Harry (Hieronymus) Bosch, a man with a sad past and a strong sense of justice.  The character would be an avid and devoted jazz fan, the kind of fan who knows all the details of songs, gigs, recordings, personnel, etc., and one who can relate to the life struggles of the musicians.

Connelly was making a promo video for the books, and it needed a soundtrack.  He contacted Frank Morgan and pianist George Cables and asked to use some of their music.  One piece in particular, “Lullaby,” struck Connelly as the perfect sound for Harry Bosch:  lonely and plaintive, yet hopeful.  “I used to play that song every day before writing, to sort of drop into the character and the mood,” he says.

His friendship with Frank grew after they’d both been invited to visit Berklee College of Music in Boston, to talk to the students about the synergies between music and writing.

Frank was excited about these opportunities to reach young musicians and pass along some hard-earned wisdom.  “That was his redemption.  This is what he felt he owed the world,” says Connelly.  “Frank wanted us to create a tour, but he passed away before it could happen.  That’s why I wanted to make the film–to tell his story.”

Connelly knew that he could write about Frank, but a book wouldn’t let people hear the music.  This story needed to be a movie.  He brought the idea to documentary film-maker N.C. Heikin.  She found the story compelling because “…it’s the journey of somebody who fought against his own imprisonment, his literal imprisonment, but also, he imprisoned himself through a lack of confidence, and the idea that he couldn’t live up to being Charlie Parker.”

“The first thing you do with this story is listen to the music,” she says.  “And you’ll know he’s special, he’s touched by the gods, he’s lyrical and melodic, and there’s soul, in the sense of something ancient and very tragic at times, that comes through in that music.”

Then there’s the drug addiction.  “Frank was like a lost soul, in a way,” says Heikin.  “Half of him was a con man that you couldn’t trust and then the other half was a sort of shaman.  That combination of an incredible musical gift and an incredible personal struggle added up to a drama, to me.”

Heikin also became fascinated with Morgan’s prison time.  “He spent so long in prison.  What could that have felt like, for a man of such talent, to be in that atmosphere nearly his whole life?  So I wanted to get inside.”  She frames the film around a concert honoring Frank Morgan, staged in San Quentin prison.  It was a rare event, and not easy to accomplish; imagine trying to get a group of jazz musicians and invited guests into a maximum-security facility, and then filming it.  Red tape and request forms piled up for a couple of years.  But it finally did happen, and the concert footage holds the bio-pic narrative together beautifully.  The band’s performance is outstanding:  George Cables on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums, Mark Gross on saxophone, Delfeayo Marsalis on trombone, and a special, emotionally gripping appearance by saxophonist Grace Kelly, who was mentored by Frank Morgan.

Both Michael Connelly and N.C. Heikin cite one of the last scenes in the film as one of their favorites:  Frank has finally made it to New York to play at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and a friend describes how his music held the room transfixed as he “stepped into the audience’s souls.”

“The Sound of Redemption:  The Frank Morgan Story” shows at 3 pm on Saturday, October 25 at NW Film Forum in Seattle.  I’ll be there and so will singer Ed Reed, a friend of Frank’s who appears in the film, and we’ll have Q&A session after the screening.

Listen for Kevin Kniestedt’s story about Grace Kelly on Friday’s Morning Editon on KPLU.  Grace will be appearing at the Triple Door in Seattle with the Seattle Women’s Jazz Orchestra on November 4 for the Earshot Jazz Festival.







Singer Ed Reed Talks About Music, Drugs and “The Sound of Redemption”

October 20, 2014
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“The Sound of Redemption:  The Frank Morgan Story” will be showing on Saturday, October 25 at NW Film Forum in Seattle as part of the Earshot Jazz Film Festival.  Frank Morgan was a talented West Coast saxophonist whose life and career were stalled for 30 years because of heroin use and prison sentences.

Singer Ed Reed is one of many subjects interviewed in the film.  He was a friend of Morgan’s, and he has a similar story.

Los Angeles had a vibrant live music scene in the 1940s and 1950s, with nightclubs and concert venues in the Central Avenue area, and it included the “vices” that accompany the night life. Charlie Parker’s well-documented visits to the West Coast inspired many young jazz musicians; unfortunately, many of them also picked up the worst of Bird’s habits:  heroin.

The long-standing culture of racism in southern California (black residents called it “Mississippi with palm trees”) also contributed to drug use.  For example, Ed Reed was an A+ student in high school, but was not allowed to join the debating team, nor was he encouraged to pursue any career other than manual labor.  For some households, selling drugs became the family business.

Ed met Frank Morgan through mutual drug-dealing friends.  To support their habits, they lied, stole, robbed and forged.  Inevitably, they were in and out of San Quentin and Folsom prisons for decades.  Both had to put their musical careers on hold, except for being in the San Quentin All Stars Warden’s Band, which at times included such jazz stars as Art Pepper, Dexter Gordon and Hadley Caliman.

“Art Pepper was crazy, but a great musician.  He played on everything I did with the Warden’s Band.  Hadley Caliman and I did a lot of time together,” remembers Reed.  “I never saw him again after he left for Seattle.”

He was pleased to hear that Hadley Caliman became a beloved performer and educator in Seattle for over 20 years before his death in 2010.  Redemption!

For his own redemption, Ed Reed has spent the last 20 years counseling addicts, alcoholics and their families.  In 2007, at age 78, he released his first CD “Ed Reed Sings.”  Three more albums and recognition from the Downbeat Critics Poll as a “Rising Star Male Vocalist” followed.  His latest CD is “I’m A Shy Guy.”

He says, “If you can free yourself to give most of your attention to the music, it can do miraculous things for you.”  For himself, his work in the Chemical Dependency Recovery Program at Kaiser is “…the meat, the main meal.  Music is the dessert.  It’s taken me places I never dreamed I’d go.  I’ve been on some of the same stages as the greatest musicians in the world.  I’m amazed by that. “

Ed’s favorite part of “The Sound of Redemption” is  “…when Frank  finally gets it.  He realizes that ‘I need to just do my music and it will take care of me.'”  Ed also was delighted to meet and hear young saxophonist Grace Kelly, who was mentored by Frank Morgan.  The film is built around footage of  a concert at San Quentin in honor of Frank, and Grace’s performance is exceptional and very moving.

The past is never far behind, though.  Ed said that while watching a screening of the film at the Los Angeles Film Festival, he suddenly remembered that he and Frank once “…almost had a fight about drugs–I think he accused me of not giving him all he paid for–right in front of this same theater.”  Thankfully, since then he’s had a chance to make better memories.

Here’s Frank Morgan on a television show from 1990, with a stellar performance of “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing.”

“The Sound of Redemption:  The Frank Morgan Story”  shows at Northwest Film Forum in Seattle on Saturday October 25 at 3 pm.  Ed Reed and I will be in attendance, and we’ll have a Q&A session afterwards.

I’ll be featuring some music by Ed Reed and by Frank Morgan this afternoon on KPLU’s Mid Day Jazz.

My post on Wednesday will include interviews with the film’s director N.C. Heikin, and executive producer, novelist Michael Connelly.  And on Friday’s Morning Edition, listen for Kevin Kniestedt’s story about saxophonist Grace Kelly, who will appear with the Seattle Women’s Jazz Orchestra on November 4 for the Earshot Jazz Festival.


Film Shows Clark Terry Keepin’ On

May 30, 2014
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Clark Terry

Clark Terry

The long-awaited film about legendary jazz trumpeter Clark Terry “Keep On Keepin’ On”  won an audience choice award at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, and will be shown next week in the Seattle International Film Festival.  The documentary follows the relationship of Terry with one of his many students, pianist Justin Kauflin.

In his book Clark:  The Autobiography of Clark Terry, he tells of his time on the road and in the studio with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and the Tonight Show band.  He also wrote extensively about discovering his calling to teach and mentor young musicians, which he says is the joy of his life. Thousands of students and others he has encouraged adore Clark (known as Cee Tee to his loving fans), and they love to talk about him.

I’m no exception.  Here’s my Cee Tee story:

In March of 1980, I was a fledgling jazz host and producer at a little gem of a public radio station, WFBE-FM in Flint, MI. When I heard that Clark Terry was coming to town to do clinics, workshops and concerts with high school and college bands, I begged the Mott Community College band director to bring Clark to the station to tape an interview.  This was my first radio interview with a major jazz artist.

Cee Tee is what I refer to as the radio host’s ideal guest:  the self-winding interviewee.

You ask a basic question, you get a well-thought out answer, a couple of interesting stories to go along with it, and if you’re lucky, a good joke, too.  Clark had it all!

I will never forget his brilliant smile, his twinkling eyes and his laugh as we chatted across the table.

It was over all too soon. On our way out of the studio, he mentioned that his wife, Pauline, had died just four months previously.

He was still in mourning, but he’d made a commitment to work with these students in Flint, and he was not about to let them down.

My copy of the taped interview was lost years ago in a flooded basement.

I have one Polaroid snapshot of me and Cee Tee backstage on concert night. I treasure that picture, and I keep it handy for those times when I need to be reminded to “keep on keepin’ on!”

Keep On Keepin’ On shows at SIFF Uptown on June 4, as part of An Evening With Quincy Jones, and on June 6.

Justin Kauflin’s trio performs at the Triple Door on June 5.

Posted in Movies

Lady Be Good: Instrumental Women in Jazz

October 18, 2013
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International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Girls in ...

International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Girls in Jazz album, Victor HJ-11 (Photo credit: bunky’s pickle)

Female instrumentalists of all types have been part of jazz since its inception, but for the most part, they have been erased from the history of the music.  The film Lady Be Good:  Instrumental Women in Jazz intends to put the spotlight on the many talented women who have nearly been forgotten.

Inspired by footage of legendary guitarist Mary Osborne, Seattle filmmaker Kay D. Ray started filming interviews for this documentary in 1997.  Ray pursued grants for funding, and just this year had a successful Kickstarter campaign to help complete the project.

As with most of us, life issues and daily work interfered with Ray’s labor of love. But she says this film is finally near completion.  She’s just received a grant from the Seattle Arts Commission for the final touches.  In fact, tonight’s showing of Lady Be Good:  Instrumental Women in Jazz should be considered a “director’s cut” that won’t be available again. 

Director Kay D. Ray will be attending and I’ll be introducing the Lady Be Good:  Instrumental Women in Jazz sneak preview at 8pm tonight at Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave, Seattle.

Co-presented with the Earshot Jazz Festival
Sponsored by KPLU

Movie Review: The Girls in The Band

May 21, 2013
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Sax section, International Sweethearts of Rhythm credit:

Sax section, International Sweethearts of Rhythm

Based on actual conversations:


Me:  I’m going to watch this movie, “The Girls In The Band.”  And hopefully write a review.

Hip Old Jazz Radio Dude:  Oh, yeah?  What’s it about, chick singers?

Me:  Um, no.  It’s about the great female instrumentalists who couldn’t get hired by the big bands, or almost any band led by a man.

HOJRD:  Didn’t they have those all-girl bands to play in?

Me:  Well, that’s what they had to resort to in order to make a living.  And even then, they were treated as novelty acts, not as “real” musicians.  Many of them were better players than their male counterparts, but they had to put on frilly dresses and smile all the time.  You know, I think —

HOJRD:  (eyes glazing over, attention span limit reached) Oh, yeah, yeah, right.  Excuse me, I have to go dust off this turntable…


Me:  I really enjoyed your playing tonight!

Very Young Female Saxophonist:  Thanks so much.

Me:  Are you glad you continued with your music after college?  It couldn’t have been an easy career choice.

VYFS:  Um, what?

Me:  Well, historically, female jazz instrumentalists were largely ignored, or treated with disdain by male musicians.  They’d never get called for gigs, or if they actually got into a band, they could be replaced with a male musician at any time, without any notice.  You know, I think–

VYFS:  (looking at me like I’m deranged)  I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Excuse me, I have to go adjust my reed…

Alternately touching and humorous, The Girls In The Band is a delightful movie that can serve as a primer for the nearly forgotten story of  the talented, hard-working, dedicated musicians who just happened to be female during a time when “girls just don’t do that!”  It’s nicely paced, moving between interviews and archival film footage and photos, and filled with great music.  The older musicians tell their tales, the hurts and disappointments still fresh; the good times, the excitement and the love lingering and making it all worthwhile.  The younger musicians listen, learn and pay tribute.

The Girls in the Band has won Audience Awards at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the Omaha Film Festival and the Victoria Film Festival.  Director/Producer Judy Chaikin has a couple of Emmy nominations under her belt for her documentaries, as well as numerous film festival awards and a Blue Ribbon from the American Educational Film and TV Festival.  A theme running through most of Chaikin’s work is “righting a wrong,” and she spent eight years making this film so that the stories and the art of these musicians would not disappear.

One can forgive the hip old jazz guy for being from another era.  One can rejoice that the very young jazz girls don’t have to deal with the same issues that plagued their predecessors.  Both could still benefit from watching this entertaining slice of history.

Music Craft: Jazz Films at Northwest Film Forum

December 12, 2012
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The Incredible Jimmy Smith
credit: vervemusicgroup

Music Craft is a series of jazz documentaries and concert films presented by Northwest Film Forum in Seattle, and sponsored by 88.5 KPLU.

Saturday December 15, 7pm:  Jimmy Smith

This documentary from 1965 made for German TV follows B-3 organ master Jimmy Smith and his trio on tour:  Berlin, Helsinki, London, and points between.  A snapshot of life on the road and on the stage, the film’s highlights are the concert footage, and the scenes of  interaction backstage with Dizzy Gillespie and his band.  It’s also a time-capsule view of the world in 1965, with Jimmy and Dizzy’s bassist Chris White commenting on civil rights and racism, the Beatles, and the “new attitudes” of young people.

Saturday January 19, 8pm:  Sarah Vaughan

From a performance on German TV in 1969, Sarah Vaughan mesmerizes with her incredible vocal range and expression.  She lives up to both of her enduring nicknames–Sassy, for the way she teases and plays with melodies and lyrics; and The Divine One, for the pure angelic tones she produces.

Saturday February 16, 8pm:  Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek

Keith Jarrett’s European quartet set the standard for exploratory acoustic jazz in the 1970s.  In this 1974 Jazz Workshop session for Germany’s NDR public broadcasting service, the interplay between Jarrett and Garbarek is nothing less than magical.

More information on the series at Northwest Film Forum.

This post published on 12/12/12

Posted in Movies

3 Notable Latin Music Documentaries

October 18, 2012
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Francisco Aguabella 2011
credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times

In my never-ending quest to learn as much as possible about the music I love, I often run across interesting books and movies that I’ll occasionally share with you here on the Jazz Caliente blog.

While not specifically Latin Jazz, these movies caught my eye recently, and each provides some insight into various Afro-Cuban music styles.

Sworn to the Drum:  A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella (1995)

A revered figure in Afro-Cuban and Latin Jazz drumming, Francisco Aguabella has been called “…a virtual Rosetta stone of African culture, who has been highly influential in the growth of Latin jazz, pop and fusion in the U.S.”

Los 100 Sones Cubanos (2010)

Recently shown in the  Seattle Latino Film Festival, “100 Sones Cubanos” follows the popularity and dissemination of the “son” musical tradition throughout Cuba. Using academic experts and man-on-the-street interviews, the film traces the familial and regional roots of this song style around the country and beyond.

Roots of Rhythm (1984)

Shown on PBS in 1997, this three-hour long music documentary is hosted by Harry Belafonte, and based mainly in Cuba.  It traces the African and Spanish musical traditions that combined to make Cuban music, which in turn influenced and merged with Jazz and pop music throughout the world.

Learn more about Latin Jazz on Jazz Caliente, Thursday afternoons at 2pm on KPLU’s Mid Day Jazz.

Cuban Jazz, animated: Chico y Rita

September 20, 2012
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The animated film Chico y Rita released to DVD this week.  It’s been playing in the UK and in film festivals world-wide for two years, to glowing reviews.  It was nominated Best Animated Feature Film for the 2012 Oscars.

The story is set in 1948, a time of musical experimentation.  Director Francisco Trueba wanted to capture the era:

“… a definitive moment in the evolution of jazz music.  It was the moment when new musicians came along like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with a new kind of music, that is not for dancing, full of notes, played really fast, a music that now we call jazz.  Then the Cuban musicians arrived…”

Trueba sees the film as a multi-layered love story:

  • the love story of Chico, a young pianist, and Rita, a young singer
  • the love story of two towns: Havana and New York
  • the love story of Cuban music and American jazz
  • the love story of movies and music

The distinctive design of Chico y Rita is credited to Trueba’s friend, artist Javier Mariscal, who also designed the poster, album covers and artwork for Trueba’s other must-see musical film, Calle 54.

Trueba called on another friend, a “granddad” of Cuban jazz, Bebo Valdes, to provide the music for the movie:

“Chico & Rita‘s music is my friend Bebo Valdes’ final work. Having completed the film, the greatest Cuban musician alive retired at the age of 92. The film is dedicated to him. He was our inspiration. The movie is homage to Bebo but also to Cuba and its music.”

Here’s the trailer.  See it for the music, if nothing else.

Jazz Birthdays: Full House, Annie and Jeep

July 25, 2012
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Full House (Wes Montgomery album)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recorded July 25, 1962.
Original release on Riverside Records.
Wynton Kelly on piano, Johnny Griffin on tenor saxophone, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums.
Here’s a different live version of the title track:

And now, the birthdays:

Annie Ross  1930

From child star (the “Scottish Shirley Temple”) to featured singer with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, to film and television actress, she was named a 2010 NEA Jazz Master and she’s still working a steady gig Tuesday nights at the Metropolitan Room in NYC.  A film about her life debuted at the Glasgow Film Festival in February.

…”the star was Annie Ross, whose icy-smooth soprano was matched by her feisty natural presence…” –Buddy Seigal, LA Times review of  Rhino Records’ “Twisted: The Best of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross” (Original recordings 1957-61)

Johnny Hodges 1906 or 1907

Johnny Hodges is best remembered as the lead saxophone player of the legendary Duke Ellington band.  Mentored by the great Sidney Bechet, Hodges joined Duke’s band in 1928, and stayed (with a short break in the 1950s to run his own band) until his death in 1970.  Nicknamed “Jeep,” after a comic strip character, and “Rabbit,”  for reasons having to do with his dining and/or sexual habits, Hodges was never a showman, but had “a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes”—Duke Ellington.

The nickname “Rabbit,” according to Johnny Griffin:   because “…he looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he’s playing all this beautiful music.”

From JazzVideoGuy Bret Primack, the world’s greatest video blogger:

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