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Jazz on Film

Jazz on Film returns this June with three weekends of classic and rare narrative movies, documentaries, and animated shorts that feature the great American music form as soundtrack, subject, or both. Organized by curator Peter Lucas for the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, this year’s selection includes great jazz-scored films Elevator to the Gallows and A Man Called Adam, documentaries capturing the music and lives of a range of artists from Chet Baker to Sonny Rollins, a program of playful, jazz-infused animated films, and a special screening celebrating the centennial of mythic bandleader Sun Ra. Join us in celebrating jazz and its various relationships with cinema.

Independent curator Peter Lucas has created exhibitions, film series, and public programs in association with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, The Menil Collection, Aurora Picture Show, Northwest Film Forum, Seattle International Film Festival, and Experience Music Project. Houston Press named him Best Curator in 2012 and 2013. Lucas is also an active artist, with an upcoming gallery show at Art League Houston and a film and installation project being created as part of Rice University's Space Arts Initiative. 

Past Films in This Series


Jazz on a Summer's Day

Directed by Aram Avakian and Bert Stern
Celebrated fashion photographer Bert Stern captures the performances, people, and setting during one Saturday of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. For his one and only film, Stern teamed up with jazz aficionado Aram Avakian to create a breezy and colorful document of not only some of the greatest mid-century jazz performers but also of a certain slice of American life in the ‘50s. Jazz on a Summer’s Day features fantastic performances from an unbelievably talented and diverse lineup, including Louis ... more info

Paris Blues

Directed by Martin Ritt
Introduced by guest curator Peter Lucas Director Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues stars Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as American jazz musicians living in Paris. The arrival of Diahann Carroll and Joanne Woodward not only sparks romance but also brings to the surface issues of race, freedom, relationships, and dedication to one’s art. Seeing these actors in early roles and the city of Paris beautifully lensed by legendary French cinematographer Christian Matras are a treat. However, the real star here is ... more info

Mickey One

Directed by Arthur Penn
Introduced by guest curator Peter Lucas An often-overlooked gem from director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), Mickey One is an unusual, stylish, existential thriller starring Warren Beatty as a young Detroit nightclub comic who believes he’s being hunted by the mob and flees to Chicago with a new identity. The film’s experimental narrative and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography—filmed by the great cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (Night and Fog, Mouchette)—are supported by an innovative musical score by composer Eddie Sauter and jazz saxophonist ... more info

Jazz Abstractions

Directed by Various directors
Introduced by guest curator Peter Lucas As early as the 1930s, inventive artists began using the medium of film to fuse the visual art forms of Abstract painting and collage with the rhythms, melodies, and improvisations of jazz music. For this special program, Peter Lucas speaks about the history of visual music and jazz, and he presents rarely seen films made between the 1930s and 1960s by pioneering film artists Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, Harry Smith, and Hy Hirsh—all with jazz ... more info


Directed by Thomas Reichman
This classic, black-and-white vérité documentary by filmmaker Thomas Reichman finds legendary bassist and composer Charles Mingus in a time of great transition in his life. As he and his five-year-old daughter await eviction by the City of New York, we’re given a particular glimpse into Mingus's philosophies, passions, anguish, and of course, his music. By turns, frank, tender, and shocking, he speaks candidly on topics ranging from music to sex to racism. The tall tales and odd musings filmed in ... more info

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser

Directed by Charlotte Zwerin
Introduced by Garth Jowett, University of Houston Regarded as one of the best jazz documentaries, Straight, No Chaser presents a fascinating cinematic portrait of one of the most extraordinary and idiosyncratic individuals in the history of jazz—pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. The film centers on Michael and Christian Blackwood's extensive and previously unseen 1968 footage, which includes great performances and the only footage of the very private Monk offstage. Director Charlotte Zwerin (Gimme Shelter) intersperses the archival sequences with interviews ... more info

The Connection

Directed by Shirley Clarke
Friday's screening is preceded by a conversation with Amy Heller, cofounder of Milestone Films; and Garth Jowett, jazz buff and professor at University of Houston Both the Friday and Sunday screenings are preceded by Shirley Clarke’s experimental short film "Bridges Go Round" (1958), which features a jazz score by Teo Macero.  Originally banned in New York for its subject matter and language, this unconventional debut feature from filmmaker Shirley Clarke is now regarded as a staple of the New American Cinema. Based ... more info

Ornette: Made in America

Directed by Shirley Clarke
Shirley Clarke’s documentary finds free-jazz innovator Ornette Coleman returning to his hometown of Fort Worth in 1983 for the premiere of a new work. True to the nature of both its subject and its director, the film takes a highly original approach in chronicling the legendary musician’s story, from childhood in segregated Texas to his emergence as an American cultural pioneer. Performances and documentary footage from the 1960s and 1980s are woven together with dramatic scenes and a few wild ... more info

Elevator to the Gallows

1958, in French with English subtitles
Directed by Louis Malle
The directorial debut of French filmmaker Louis Malle, Elevator to the Gallows is an atmospheric thriller that brings together the beauty of actress Jeanne Moreau (in the role that catapulted her to international stardom), rich black and white cinematography by Henri Decaë (who also lensed films by François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol); and an improvised musical score by jazz great, Miles Davis. This classic Noir-meets-New Wave film signaled a turning point in French cinema, just as the now-legendary score signaled ... more info

Let's Get Lost

Directed by Bruce Weber
In the 1950s, Chet Baker's jazz trumpeting, intimate crooning, and pretty boy good looks epitomized West Coast cool. When famed photographer Bruce Weber caught up with him three decades later, time and drug addiction had ravaged his life and angelic beauty. Filmed during what would turn out to be Baker's final year, this bittersweet portrait intercuts gorgeous black and white footage of the gaunt, latter-day Baker with images of the young jazz trumpeter in 1950s footage and photographs by William ... more info

Jazz Animation from the Hubley Studio

Directed by John and Faith Hubley
Between the 1950s and 1970s, husband-and-wife animators John and Faith Hubley made their own independent films with intelligence, passion, humor, and of course, great music. The Hubley’s poetic sensibility and whimsical, impressionistic visual style–more reminiscent of painters Klee and Miro than Disney–lend perfectly to jazz music. "There's something about jazz's bending of time within a rigid format that also applies to animation," Faith Hubley once observed. "That's why they work so well together. It's a marriage made in heaven." This ... more info

Space Is the Place

Directed by John Coney
On the centennial of bandleader Sun Ra’s birth—or Earth arrival!—and the 40th anniversary of this cult classic featuring the mythic jazz figure, the Museum presents a special 35mm screening of the sci-fi musical. In Space Is the Place, Sun Ra (1914–1993) and his Intergalactic Myth-Science Arkestra land their yellow spaceship in Oakland; offer an alter-destiny; and battle the FBI, NASA, and a supernatural pimp named the Overseer. The film includes lively performances of such Arkestra favorites as “Watusi,” "The Satellites Are Spinning," ... more info

Sixties Jazz Films by Dick Fontaine

Directed by Dick Fontaine
These three short films made by legendary documentarian Dick Fontaine in the 1960s capture the music, thoughts, and personalities of some of the most musically adventurous jazz artists of the era. David, Moffett, and Ornette (1966) documents free jazz innovator Ornette Coleman with his mid-1960s trio as they score a film in Paris. Sound?? (1967) intercuts footage of two very different musical luminaries–experimental composer John Cage and jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The intimate portrait, Who Is Sonny Rollins? (1968)–made ... more info

A Man Called Adam

Directed by Leo Penn
RESCHEDULED SCREENING: SATURDAY, JUNE 28, 4 P.M. (original date: June 14) Directed by Leo Penn (Sean Penn’s father), this 1966 independent film stars Sammy Davis Jr. as a troubled jazz musician (ghosted on trumpet by Nat Adderley) and Cicely Tyson in one of her first screen roles as a young civil-rights activist. A Man Called Adam features a musical score composed and arranged by Benny Carter, and appearances by jazz greats Louis Armstrong and Mel Tormé. Notable for its prominence ... more info