THE FILM THAT JAZZ DESERVES ~ The New Yorker

Bertrand Tavernier’s “ ’Round Midnight” shows what it means to devote your life to music.

By Howard Fishman

April 7, 2021

Still from Round Midnight showing musicians playing in a jazz club
Jazz musicians play a club, in a scene from “ ’Round Midnight.”Photograph from Warner Bros. / Photofest
  • The jazz world owes a debt of gratitude to the filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, who died on March 25th, at the age of seventy-nine. The French auteur’s career included such stylistically disparate films as “A Sunday in the Country” and “Death Watch,” but his signature work may be the moody, impressionistic “ ’Round Midnight,” from 1986, about an aging American jazz musician in nineteen-fifties Paris and the admiring fan who befriends and helps him. It’s ironic (and maybe fitting) that it took a foreign director to do justice to a quintessential American art form. “ ’Round Midnight” is the film that jazz deserves.

American jazz movies tend to resemble the “scare films” in driver’s-ed classes, cautionary tales that show what happens when we don’t follow the rules. From “The Jazz Singer,” in 1927, right up through this past year’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” the story that Hollywood has told about jazz is one involving over-the-top caricatures, the lives of its geniuses rife with criminality, runaway libidos, wanton self-destruction, and obsessive madness. If American cinema has a message to impart, it seems to be that jazz musicians are trouble—best observed from a safe (read: morally superior) distance. They’re exotic creatures, these movies say. They’re not like us.

“ ’Round Midnight” is the exception. Tavernier treats the jazz milieu with respect, subtlety, and restraint. (He also co-wrote the screenplay, with David Rayfiel.) There is no overheated drama to be found here. There is a love story, but, rather than a fraught tale of sexual misadventure, it’s a platonic one—and it’s between two men. That one of them is Black and the other is white doesn’t overtly factor into their relationship, a reminder that the opportunity for regular work was not the only reason that many great African-American jazz artists fled to Europe in that era. (The film was inspired, in part, by Francis Paudras’s “Dance of the Infidels,” an account of the pianist Bud Powell’s expatriate years in France.)

Tavernier’s elegiac film shows us scenes of musicians as real, three-dimensional people: plying their wares each night, talking about life, listening to records, sharing meals, taking walks. They’re funny and flawed, imperfect yet dignified. Some tropes do appear—the central character struggles with alcohol dependence, and there is a fast-talking New York manager (played by Martin Scorsese)—but these are treated with a soft touch.

Tavernier’s best decision was entrusting the lead role to the saxophone legend Dexter Gordon, who infuses every frame he appears in with a kind of insouciant gravitas. (His acolyte is played by François Cluzet.) Although only in his early sixties when the film was shot, Gordon was “very old for his age,” the film’s producer, Irwin Winkler, told me. He seems ancient, and not of this world. His character interacts with everyday reality as much as is required of him—to place an order, to introduce a tune, to offer some gentle wisdom to a small child. But whether speaking, playing, or simply in repose, what Gordon exudes most is philosophical detachment, the melancholy knowledge that the life he has chosen demands that he keep some part of himself separate, ready to heed the call of his muse when he takes the stage each night. “My life is music. My love is music. And it’s twenty-four hours a day,” Gordon’s character says. His heavyweight, world-weary performance is that of someone who knows that his days are numbered, like Robert Ryan, in John Frankenheimer’s adaptation of “The Iceman Cometh,” or Richard Farnsworth, in David Lynch’s “The Straight Story.”

Although Gordon portrays the fictional Dale Turner, we always know who he really is, and we’re lucky to have his magnetic performance captured for posterity. (Gordon died less than four years after the film was released.) When he’s heard invoking the names of some of his favorite tenor-sax players (“Lester Young . . . Coleman Hawkins . . . Ben Webster”) or when he rhapsodizes about Count Basie and Charlie Parker, these are stirring meta-moments that add to the film’s verisimilitude. Tavernier called the film “incredibly emotional to shoot, because the frontier between life and fiction was always completely thin.”

Gordon had never before played a dramatic role on film, and his only acting experience had been in a Los Angeles production of Jack Gelber’s play “The Connection,” a quarter-century earlier, in which he portrayed a jazz musician with a drug habit. But his widow, Maxine Gordon, told me that “Dexter always considered getting onstage as a performance and as acting. He was ready when he was selected for the film, and knew that he had to do what other great artists had never had the opportunity to do.” Gordon received an Oscar nomination for his work, and Marlon Brando wrote to him to say that it was the first time in fifteen years that he’d learned something new about acting.

The entire film is like a lazy, languid ballad performed by an ensemble of masters. In interviews that Tavernier gave after the film’s release, he spoke of the challenges of capturing “the bizarre, enigmatic way jazz musicians relate to each other. They make Pinter’s characters sound like . . . over-explainers.” He solved this by allowing Gordon and his fellow-musicians (a cast of jazz heavies that included Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Freddie Hubbard, and Billy Higgins) to set the tempo of the scenes. He let them relax. He gave them space, and then let them fill it up. Sometimes, there are long, empty pauses, “the same way that in the jazz the notes that the people don’t play are as important as the notes that they play,” Tavernier said.

All but one of the musical performances were shot live, and are gorgeously captured, with long swaths of camera stillness that linger over the introspective concentration of players who are creating in real time and the audiences that are admiring them. Tavernier was careful to populate these scenes with genuine jazz fans and people from that world rather than with movie extras, to allow for authentic reaction shots. “I wanted that kind of thing where nothing happens,” he noted. “Just people listening.”

It’s the sort of cinematic pace that has all but been done away with in the Netflix era; no swirling cameras or frenetic jump shots here—just long, pensive, slow takes of musicians at work. We see Gordon’s wordless gestures again and again, his reactions to what his bandmates play, the delight he takes in the colors they choose in their comping and in their solos. We see the joy of musicians simply making music together—the smiles, the eye contact, the body language. It feels authentic because it is.

“I was impressed with the approach,” Ron Carter told me. “So often, you see musicians played by actors who don’t even know how to hold their instruments correctly” (although he was quick to single out Chadwick Boseman for fingering his trumpet properly in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”). To the untrained ear, jazz can sound as random as a Jackson Pollock drip painting looks, but the visual intimacy that Tavernier captures makes the mystery of a jazz ensemble universally accessible.

I was a teen-ager when “ ’Round Midnight” was released, just beginning to explore jazz as a listener, and I remember the revelations it held for me about the life surrounding this music, one so at odds with the values presented by my homogenous, upwardly mobile upbringing. These musicians didn’t make a lot of money, drive fancy cars, or have much in the way of creature comforts. They lived in small, sparsely furnished rooms, ate home-cooked meals, and lived modestly. But they were seemingly in possession of an inner calm that I found alluring. Their spirits seemed vital, their souls intact. I remember thinking to myself, “I want to do that.”

Having now spent most of my adult life as a musician and bandleader, I can say that just about every other jazz film I’ve seen depicts a reality I don’t recognize. Although it’s true that the history of this music is littered with struggle, misbehavior, and hardship, what profession isn’t? Humans are human. For every Buddy Bolden, Lester Young, or Anita O’Day, there are any number of lesser-known, less-celebrated jazz musicians as dedicated to their art, minus the self-torture. The ones I know—those with staying power, the first-call players who always have work—are mostly a quiet bunch, humble people dedicated to their craft. They’re good friends, devoted parents, loving siblings, and loyal partners who do their jobs with the positive attitude, solid work ethic, and healthy sense of humor that are the hallmarks of any career professional. The ones who unhappily subscribe to the Hollywood notion that great art requires suffering, those who engineer chaos when their lives get too placid, generally don’t last. As the violinist Charlie Burnham, a man who’s been doing this for more than half a century, said to me, “The jazz life is not that much different from any other kind of life.”

Revisiting “ ’Round Midnight” after all these years, I was stunned by how nuanced and true it still feels. Maybe it’s just the effect of this long year (and counting) of being unable to perform in small rooms, but the film viscerally evoked the best associations I have of my life as a bandleader: the cozy, unspoken camaraderie that can be established with a group of strangers each night. The daylight hours spent exploring the streets of a new city, breathing unfamiliar air, noticing a different quality of the light, internally reviewing the previous night’s show: what had worked, what had not, what could be added or changed—a different tempo or new song—to the set that evening.

But, more than anything, I was reminded of a feeling I’ve been fortunate enough to have known at the end of many of those long evenings on the stand. Having made myself completely available to the flow of improvised music, emboldened by the trust afforded me by my bandmates and our audience. Having followed unexplored paths, and discovered worthwhile things. Those nights walking home along the deserted streets of a dreaming city, with perhaps only a fistful of dollars in my pocket, my clothes reeking from perspiration and the stench of the club, but rich with a feeling I might call ecstatic peace—an awareness that I’d not only served my purpose that day as well as I possibly could but had even managed to somehow transcend the particulars of my individual life. A sense of being complete, of deep satisfaction, a kind of success not included in the American dream of cash and prizes.

I count these experiences as among the highlights of my life, a fulfillment of the promise I saw offered by “ ’Round Midnight” when I first watched it, thirty-five years ago. As Dexter Gordon himself asks rhetorically in “Sophisticated Giant,” Maxine Gordon’s account of her husband’s life, “Why do most jazz stories dwell on the negative side of this life? We are people who get to play music for a living. What could be better?”

Howard Fishman is a writer, performer, and composer based in Brooklyn.

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