Jazz on Film
Launch your summer film season at the Museum! The ever-popular Jazz on Film series returns for its fifth edition with a range of feature films, documentaries, and more—all with jazz as either subject or score. Organized by guest curator Peter Lucas, this year’s lineup features favorites from past editions (Elevator to the Gallows and Paris Blues); jazz-scored classics (I Want to Live! and Who’s Crazy?); a tribute to the centennials of Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie; and the Houston premieres of new films illuminating the lives and music of John Coltrane and Frank Morgan. Explore the intersections of jazz and cinema throughout June with MFAH Films.
About the Guest Curator
Writer, filmmaker, and visual artist Peter Lucas has organized exhibitions, film series, and public programs in association with the MFAH, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Menil Collection, Seattle International Film Festival, Northwest Film Forum, and Experience Music Project.
Generous funding for this series is provided by Mrs. Lynn S. Wyatt; Susie and Sanford Criner; Mr. Richard Finger; Franci Neely; Nina and Michael Zilkha; Gulf Coast Entertainment; Gerry Aitken; and Sara Kellner.
Past Events in This Series
This inspiring new documentary celebrates the life, work, and lasting cultural impact of jazz artist John Coltrane. Chasing Trane follows the saxophonist’s story from his childhood in the Jim Crow South to early music gigs; young marriage and fatherhood; struggles with drugs and alcohol; and, finally, to his great personal and artistic growth in the 1960s.
Thomas White and Allan Zion
A long-lost, 1966 anarchic film, Who’s Crazy? was recently rediscovered and restored. The loose, mercurial improvisations of the performances and camerawork are energized by Ornette Coleman’s innovative score.
Paris Blues stars Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as American jazz musicians living in Paris. The arrival of Diahann Carroll and Joanne Woodward sparks romance and brings to the surface issues such as race, freedom, and art. But the real star here is the music, including an unforgettable performance by Louis Armstrong and an Oscar-nominated score by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
The directorial debut of French filmmaker Louis Malle, Elevator to the Gallows is a classic “Noir-meets-New Wave” thriller starring Jeanne Moreau and featuring a largely improvised musical score by jazz great Miles Davis.
N. C. Heikin
This documentary looks at the life of saxophonist Frank Morgan, who played with the likes of Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker; spent nearly 30 years in and out of penitentiaries; and performed in the famously talent-filled big band at San Quentin State Prison.
Preceded by “Dizzy Gillespie” (Directed by Les Blank, USA, 1965, 22 min.) To celebrate the centennials of Thelonious Monk (1917–1982) and Dizzy Gillespie (1917–1993), MFAH Films presents a pair of cinematic portraits that capture the jazz giants in performance and candid footage from the 1960s.
Starring Susan Hayward in an Oscar-winner performance, I Want to Live! features a West Coast jazz score and scenes of live music by saxophonist Gerry Mulligan's jazz combo.
Much beloved and often misunderstood, Nina Simone (1933–2003) is one of America’s most overlooked musical geniuses. The Amazing Nina Simone finally illustrates her story, through interviews with musicians, friends, and family members. The documentary follows Simone from the segregated South of the 1960s and the fight for racial equality to the worlds of classical music, jazz joints, and international concert halls—all while delving into her artistry and intentions, and answering long-held questions about Simone's songs and controversial statements, and the reason[…]
This psychodrama from British director Basil Dearden is an update of Shakespeare's Othello. The tale of betrayal takes place one evening in the smoky, mod-jazz scene of early 1960s London. Paul Harris and Marti Stevens star as a married bandleader and singer celebrating their anniversary; Richard Attenborough plays the wealthy jazz aficionado hosting the celebration; and Patrick McGoohan stars as a drummer who attempts to tear the interracial couple apart. All Night Long features music and great on-screen performances by a number of American[…]
Dorthaan Kirk in attendance Rory Kirk in attendance Jazz visionary Rahsaan Roland Kirk was not only an otherworldly performer, he was also a tireless warrior against racial injustice and a campaigner for a wider appreciation of jazz, which he termed Black Classical Music. Blinded at a young age, he saw the world through sound, and he reimagined it through dreams. Electrifying archival performance footage, inspired animated sequences, and intimate interviews celebrate Kirk’s persistence in the face of adversity, and his legacy[…]
Kay D. Ray
Lady Be Good highlights the contributions of female jazz instrumentalists in America from the 1920s through the 1960s. Musician Patrice Rushen guides us through the triumphs and struggles of musicians including Lil Hardin Armstrong, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and the Synconettes. Their stories are told through rare recordings, photos, and film footage, as well as interviews with Marian McPartland, Quincy Jones, and others.
In 1957, photo essayist W. Eugene Smith moved into an old building in Manhattan’s Flower District. Populated by painters, photographers, and composers, the building became a gathering spot for New York’s best jazz musicians. Smith took thousands of photographs of musicians at the “Jazz Loft” and wired the building with microphones, recording jam sessions. This new documentary unearths a treasure trove of his photos and tapes to create a portrait of Smith and the unbelievable nexus of musical activity around[…]
Following the critical success of his independently produced Shadows, John Cassavetes’s rarely seen second film was made within the studio system. Too Late Blues stars Bobby Darin as jazz pianist John “Ghost” Wakefield, Everett Chambers as the musician’s predatory agent Benny, and Stella Stevens as aspiring singer Jess. Ghost leads a jazz ensemble and struggles to stay true to himself while pursuing fame and romance. Among the best of Hollywood’s jazz films, its music was composed by David Raksin and[…]
Maverick filmmaker John Cassavetes’s directorial debut presented a raw slice of Beat-era bohemia. Shot on 16mm in Manhattan with a nonprofessional cast and crew, Shadows centers on struggling singer Hugh, his brooding brother Benny, and their sister Lelia. The film’s improvisational tone and stark visual style are complimented by musical interludes featuring bassist Charles Mingus, tenor saxophonist Shafi Hadi, and drummer Dannie Richmond. Critic Amos Vogel called it “a compassionate, violent portrayal of pickups and brawls, loneliness, casual affairs, and[…]
Galveston boxer Jack Johnson (1878–1946) became the first black world heavyweight champion in 1908. This rarely seen documentary traces Johnson's unbelievable story, including his fights; the racial outrage surrounding his career; and his flamboyant lifestyle. The film interweaves archival footage and still photographs with first-person narration by actor Brock Peters (To Kill a Mockingbird) and a jazz score by Miles Davis, recorded shortly after the landmark Bitches Brew album.
Filmed in Harlem with nonprofessional actors, director Shirley Clarke’s second feature is a powerful slice of urban life in the early 1960s. The Cool World follows 15-year-old Duke and his street gang, the Royal Pythons. Although the film is scripted, the improvisations of the cast members, together with the black-and-white cinematography, give the fiction an unflinching realism. The music, composed by pianist Mal Waldron, is performed by a quintet featuring Dizzy Gillespie.
60th anniversary screening In one of the first films to introduce jazz stylings into mainstream cinema scores, Frank Sinatra stars as a recovering addict and aspiring drummer. Composer Elmer Bernstein incorporated jazz elements to create the feel of contemporary urban America, and to express the character’s ambitions and growing despair. Print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive Preceded by the Oscar-nominated jazz short Jammin' the Blues (Directed by Gjon Mili, USA, 1944, 10 min.), featuring Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Harry[…]
Presented by jazz historian and film collector Mark Cantor Comprising the best jazz vocalists on film from Mark Cantor’s archives, Jazz Voices: Great Singers on Screen was assembled especially for the MFAH. This lively program focuses on performances of classics by an amazing lineup of singers, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Johnny Mercer, Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, and Joe Williams. About the Presenter Mark Cantor grew up listening to the great jazz, blues, and pop sounds of Los Angeles.[…]
Presented by jazz historian and film collector Mark Cantor From his vast archives, Mark Cantor showcases a treasure trove of jazz performances in films that were made in the 1940s for use on coin-operated viewing machines. Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and many others are featured in footage that simply can't be seen elsewhere. At this screening, Cantor discusses the music, the films, and the phenomenon of these popular audiovisual jukeboxes of the Swing era. About the Presenter Mark[…]
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[…]
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[…]
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,"[…]
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[…]
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[…]
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[…]
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[…]
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[…]
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[…]
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[…]
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[…]