The music performance film Jazz ’34 (1997) is best introduced in the context of a feature that this title could easily be mistaken for: Kansas City (1996). Robert Altman’s feature Kansas City tells a story about shady politics and crime in the underbelly of 1930s Kansas City. Harry Belafonte plays Seldom Seen, owner of a nightclub called the Hey Hey with a predominantly African-American clientele and nightly jazz performances. Belafonte detains a small-time robber in his club, beginning the central plot of the film. The thief’s wife—Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Blondie—seeks his release through other treacherous means. Much of the film is set in the Hey Hey: with careful attention to period-appropriate costuming, set design, and musical performance. Jazz ’34, made for public broadcast the following year, answers the question: given all the expense and careful effort devoted to set-design, costuming, casting, and musical production, why not make a spin-off performance film that works to cross-promote both the feature and its soundtrack? In addition to working as a stand-alone performance film, Jazz ‘34 functions as an object lesson in the importance of scenographic design. Here, viewers can experience the ambience and entertainment of over an hour of one of Kansas City’s most important settings, absent a conventional film narrative.

Much of the feature Kansas City’s crew completed worked on Jazz ‘34 as well. Altman is writer and director twice, Oliver Stapleton shot both, Belafonte performs in both, and the same musicians and much of the same music appears in both. The two films, to an extent, overlap, as some of the footage shot in this extended performances was also used in the feature film: the performance of “I Left My Baby” is one example. So much music was recorded for this project that Verve Records released two soundtracks: an original twelve-track album in 1996 and a second soundtrack with ten additional tracks in 1997.

In terms of genre, the film is somewhere between the feature Kansas City and the legendary 1957 CBS special, Sound of Jazz which featured an hour of live-recorded performance by jazz greats of the time. In his review of the film, Jonathan Rosenbaum describes Jazz ‘34 as “neither a documentary nor a narrative but an eccentric hybrid.” 1 Altman’s 72 minute performance film was co-produced by KQED, a San Francisco public media outlet, and was originally recorded for broadcast on public television. It has, subsequently, played at other repertory venues like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the International House in Philadelphia, and the Billy Wilder Theater at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Count Basie’s music is the most frequently played: he composed three of the fifteen compositions performed (“Blues in the Dark,” “Harvard Blues,” and “Lafayette”). Of the contemporary performers appearing in Jazz ‘34, the tenor saxophone player Joshua Redman is best known. The African-American performers featured here were selected on the basis on musicianship more than resemblance to the 30s performers. Musicians are identified with particular figures: Craig Handy and Josh Redman, for example, play the parts of saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. These roles are more clearly identified in the Kansas City feature (both through dialogue and posters listing musicians’ names) than in Jazz ‘34. As Morris Holbrook notes, contemporary musicians appearing in the film were also encouraged to improvise many passages of musical performance rather than reproduce historical recordings note-for-note: “Kansas City gets the pork-pie hat part more or less right; but, in general, … (Redman, Handy, and others) come across as contemporary jazz players dressing up for a movie.”2 The performances feature a wide range of orchestrations, with combos of four to ensembles of ten or more. The mend-and-make-do improvisation of a jazz club is emphasized, with appropriated objects serving as musical accessories. In one particularly engaging series of solos, a cornet player borrows a patron’s beer pitcher as a mute; a trumpet player follows this by using his hat; another trumpeter uses the end of a toilet plunger; next, a different cornetist simply uses his hand.

The fact that Altman himself was born in Kansas City in 1925 goes a long way in explaining his fascination with the city. Jazz ‘34 can still be regarded as an educational film about jazz history, but in a very different manner than a documentary series such as Ken Burn’s Jazz (2001). The information provided by voice-over in Jazz ‘34 remains more atmospheric than informative. The narrator’s speech, written by Altman, takes on the text and tone of local discourse: saxophonists don’t alternate solos, they “battled it out will all guns blazin!” This speech is devised with the same principle in mind as work with the costuming and setting: to evoke the ambience and style of the era. Harry Belafonte provides the voice of narration that bridges every performance. Kansas City, by this account, is recalled with nostalgia: “maybe the rest of the country was in a depression but you’d never know it in Kansas City!” As in the feature, Kansas City is lauded as economically successful in part for skirting prohibition and gambling laws.

Sometimes, Jazz ‘34 does look like a made-for-public-television special. Once, a passage of voice-over narration is repeated verbatim. Another time, the narration is not paired with a following scene as precisely as it could be. For example, a voice-over that touts plentiful nightclub crowds is followed by a performance with sparse attendance. These small missed opportunities for improvement are thankfully rare among Kansas City’s predominantly strong work with both musical and cinematic means of expression.

Altman’s directorial style is often evident. The cinematography frequently works by reframing instead of quickly cutting between numerous angles. Sometimes the camera tracks or pans elegantly. Other times, the reframing is deliberately abrupt, working with a shallow depth of focus, zooms, and swish pans, recalling Altman’s use of the same style in many of his features. These raw, documentary-like stylistic choices work to authenticate what we know is a recreation by using a visual style that simulates the feeling of a live recording. They also produce a sense of duration and match the patient, observational style of Altman features. Additionally, shouts and cheers from the crowd fit the overlapping and indistinct speech that is also present in so much of his work.

Most viewers—especially those drawn to Altman as the reason for seeing this film—will likely be more interested in the Kansas City (1996) feature. For those devoted as much or more to jazz greats like Basie, Hawkins, or Young, Jazz ‘34 is a satisfying experience with or without the accompanying feature.

 

Robert Altman’s Jazz ‘34 (1997 USA 72 mins)

Prod Co: Sandcastle 5 Productions (US) / KQED (US) Prod: Robert Altman, Brent Carpenter Dir: Robert Altman Scr: Robert Altman Phot: Oliver Stapleton Ed: Brent Carpenter, Dylan Tichenor Music Prod: Hal Wilner

Narrator: Harry Belafonte

The Musicians: Olu Dara (cornet); Nicholas Payton, James Zollar (trumpet); Curtis Fowlkes, Clark Gayton (trombone); Don Byron (clarinet); Don Byron, James Carter, Jesse Davis, David ‘Fathead’ Newman, Craig Handy, David Murray, Joshua Redman (saxophone); Russell Malone, Mark Whitfield (guitar); Geri Allen, Cyrus Chestnut (piano); Ron Carter, Tyrone Clark, Christian McBride (bass); Victor Lewis (drums); Kevin Mahogany (vocal)

 

Endnotes

  1. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Let the Music Do the Talking {on Jazz ‘34}” jonathanrosenbaum.net (May 8, 1998) http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1998/05/let-the-music-do-the-talking/
  2. Morris Holbrook, Music, Movies, Meanings and Markets: Cinemajazzamatazz (Routledge: London, 2012), p. 165.

About The Author

Dr. Jesse Schlotterbeck is an Assistant Professor of Cinema at Denison University. His research focuses on American film genres, including the musical, the biopic, and film noir.