Let's Get Lost with these illuminating jazz docs, from profiles of the greats to surveys of the genre. Mood? Indigo.
As we look forward to our screening of new doc Billie, the DocHouse Team have spent the last week listening to the jazz greats. Mood? Indigo.
We’ve also been talking about our favourite jazz documentaries in the DocHouse ‘Social Chat’ WhatsApp group. From profiles that tell us more about the lives behind the legends, to performance films that capture their greatness, and surveys charting the evolution of a constantly developing form, there’s no shortage of brilliant docs to get lost in.
Special thanks to Callum, Chloe, Tristan, Karen, Owen, S, Ellen, Jane and Sylvia for sharing their jazz doc recommendations! If you want to join the WhatsApp group, just head here.
And now… Let’s Get Lost…
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool / Stanley Nelson / 2019 / 115mins
In a 2015 poll, BBC Radio and Jazz FM listeners voted Miles Davis the greatest jazz artist of all time, so this life-long innovator seems like a great place to start our list.
This time last year, Stanley Nelson’s stunning biography of Davis was one of the most popular films playing at the Bertha DocHouse cinema, piecing together never-before-seen archival footage, studio outtakes and rare photos to tell the story of the horn player with a sound so beautiful it could break your heart.
Davis’ bol d disregard for tradition, his clarity of vision, his relentless drive, and constant thirst for new experiences made him an inspiring collaborator to fellow musicians and a cultural icon to generations of listeners.
Birth of the Cool is currently available on BBC iPlayer, or find more watch options here.
What Happened, Miss Simone? / Liz Garbus / 2014 / 102mins
Singer, songwriter, pianist, civil rights activist. Nina Simone’s expressive vocals and magnetic performances made her an icon with a career spanning thirty years.
In What Happened, Miss Simone? director Liz Garbus explores the life, music and struggles of the ‘high priestess of soul’, from her childhood in the Jim Crow South, to her increasing dedication to civil rights activism, and the complex cultural legacy that she leaves behind.
Watch on Netflix.
Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes / Sopie Huber / 2018 / 85mins
The story of pioneering record label Blue Note is also the story of US jazz in the 20th Century and into the 21st.
Tracing Blue Notes’ collaboration with jazz greats like Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Sophid Huber’s tribute to the label highlights how the focus on freedom of expression over the bottom line allowed artists to flourish.
Throughout, the freewheeling music championed by the label changed with the age, evolving from the politically turbulent sixties to the current embracing of a hip hop aesthetic that reflects our troubled times.
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things / Leslie Woodhead / 2019 / 90mins
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things observes the singer’s journey into the limelight and the ambition and courage that drove her. She was just 15 years-old when she won a talent contest in 1934 at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Her big break came when the musician Chick Webb gave her a chance to sing with his orchestra and eventually agreed to take her on tour.
Veteran doc-maker Leslie Woodhead brings Fitzgerald to life and tells the story of her music; a black woman who builds her career in the face of relentless racism, and a thoughtful, funny and dazzling musical innovator.
I Called Him Morgan / Kasper Collin / 2016 / 91 Mins
Part jazz history, part true-crime tale, I Called Him Morgan tells the tragic story of Lee Morgan and his common-law wife Helen, who murdered him in a New York bar in 1972.
Hailed by some as the most talented trumpeter of his generation, Lee Morgan was playing with Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie while still in his teens. His career as bandleader spanned dozens of recording sessions and when Morgan’s life was sadly cut short at 33 years old it sent shockwaves through the Jazz community.
Combining Helen’s own testimony with a wealth of archive material to weave a tribute to two unique personalities and the music that brought them together, I Called Him Morgan is an evocative look at the power of art, addiction and desire.
The Girls in the Band / Judy Chaikin / 2018 / 86mins
In the thirties and forties, hundreds of women musicians toured the US in glamorous All-Girl Bands, while others played side by side with their male counterparts. Yet by the mid-fifties female jazz musicians had literally disappeared from the workplace; their names, their contributions to music, completely forgotten.
The Girls in the Band tells the poignant, untold stories of female jazz and big band instrumentalists and their fascinating, groundbreaking journeys from the late 30s to the present day.
Chet Baker: Let’s Get Lost / Bruce Weber / 1988 / 120mins
Renowned photographer and filmmaker Bruce Weber’s film about the late, great jazz trumpeter Chet Baker was nominated for Best Documentary at the 1989 Oscars.
Weber combines interviews with friends, family and lovers with archive film of baker set against modern footage to paint a disturbing picture of a gifted artist ravaged by heroin addiction.
Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise / Robert Mugge / 1980 / 60mins
Filmmaker Robert Mugge followed Afrofuturist keyboardist and bandleader Sun Ra and his ‘Arkestra’ in rehearsal and performance in Philadelphia, Washington DC and Baltimore in the late seventies.
A mystic, a philosopher, an extra-terrestrial from Saturn, Sun Ra was always at the musical avant-garde, and Robert Mugge tunes into his genius in this glorious and revealing film.
Milford Graves Full Mantis / Jake Meginsky / 2018 / 91mins
The style, or form, of Jake Meginsky’s ode to renowned jazz percussionist Milford Graves is brilliantly synchronous with its subject, echoing Graves’ avant-garde music with experimental, rhythmic editing of archive footage and modern-day interviews.
As Graves tells his own story – ruminating on the essence of ‘swing’ and activating electronic stethoscopes in his basement lab to process the sound of his heart – Megisnky paints a portrait of Graves’ world through poly-rhythmic cinema that never fails to miss a beat.
We Out Here: A LDN Story / Fabrice Bourgelle / 2018 / 39mins
We’re happy to bring this survey of jazz stories up to date and over to the UK with We Out Here: A LDN Story. Special thanks to Callum who recommended this doc on London’s burgeoning jazz scene.
According to the filmmakers – “It’s about the renaissance which jazz has experienced over the past few years. It’s also about friendship, community and the influences of the city that these musicians call home. The film tells the journey of these young, gifted players, many of whom have trained and come up together, and whose sounds are now becoming an integral part of London’s musical landscape – as well as representing the city around the UK and the rest of the world.”
Before You Go…
A quick mention for a handful more excellent jazz docs that we can’t find online in the UK right now, but seek out a DVD if you can, or look online if you’re outside the UK.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day / Bert Stern, Aram Avakian / 1959 / 85mins
The inspiration for our blog title, this classic concert doc was filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island.
Ornette, Made in America / Shirley Clarke / 1985 / 77min
An experimental study of the life and career of free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, directed by Shirley Clarke (Portrait of Jason).
Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser / Charlotte Zwerin / 1988 / 90mins
Charlotte Zwerin’s (co-director Salesman and Gimme Shelter) superb profile of Bebop pianist Thelonius Monk