Friday, November 19, 2010

Restored: The Cry of Jazz

1959, the year that saw the release of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, seems a bit early to be declaring the “death of jazz.” Of course, jazz has had more premature obituaries than Mark Twain, yet it keeps soldiering on. Though traditionalists had proclaimed jazz’s demise as early as the 1930’s with the dawn of the swing era, probably the most provocative eulogy came in Edward Bland’s The Cry of Jazz, freshly restored by the Anthology Film Archives, where it screens this weekend for the first time ever in 35mm.

Though strictly speaking a cinematic essay, Cry has more narrative form than many festival films. As it opens, a college jazz appreciation society is wrapping up its meeting, when one of the white chicks thanks her date for explaining how jazz and rock & roll are really the same. These are fighting words for Alex, an arranger for a local jazz group.

In a nutshell, he argues jazz is the fundamental expression of joy and suffering in the African American (they use the term “Negro,” the polite expression of the time) experience. The solo represents the shout of elation, whereas the chord changes and melodic form represent their chains of bondage. Only African Americans had the requisite musical heritage and resilience in the face of oppression to create such music. Yet, because of its internal contradictions, jazz is dead, at least in body, but its spirit endures to show savage white America the possibility of redemption.

Theirs is a heavy rap session to be sure, but calling Cry “the most controversial film since The Birth of a Nation” is a bit hyperbolic. It also seems to inadvertently imply a certain equivalency in the vastly different films’ racialist attitudes. However, leaving aside the early expression of Black Power ideology, Cry’s musical analysis is nearly as controversial. Featuring a more-or-less bop-based soundtrack by an early Sun Ra combo (billed as Le Sun Ra), Cry still gives viewers a handy overview of jazz’s stylistic development. Ironically though, it echoes Wynton Marsalis’ notion that jazz is defined by the essence of “swing”, arguing without that, jazz is no longer jazz. Of course, in a few years the free jazz movement would directly challenge traditional approaches to swing, rhythm, harmony, and melody, with Sun Ra himself in the vanguard.

Though Sun Ra would indeed move onto to bigger, more cosmic things with his avant-garde yet still swinging Arkestra big band, his group here sounds great. As is often the case with the musician’s voluminous discography, the exact line-up for the Cry sessions remains a bit hazy, but it is thought to include Arkestra stalwarts like John Gilmore on tenor, Marshall Allen on alto, Pat Patrick on baritone, and Julian Priester on trombone. While the soundtrack might be more conventional (and accessible) than Sun Ra’s score for Phill Niblock’s experimental short The Magic Sun, it is passionate with a rough-around-the-edges quality appropriate to Bland’s film.

The thirty-four minute Cry plays with Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s Pull My Daisy of approximately the same length. Featuring the madcap antics of Beat poets Allen Ginsburg and Gregory Corso, Daisy is based on an episode from Neal Cassady’s life that became grist for his friend Jack Kerouac, who supplied the improvised narration. Frankly, it largely confirms every Beat Generation caricature. However, David Amram’s music is still reason enough to watch it. One of the first to play improvised jazz on the French horn, Amram is a New York institution, who just celebrated his 80th year with a gala concert at Symphony Space and is a regular fixture downtown at the Cornelia Street Café. His Daisy compositions still sound cool, particularly the title song performed by Anita Ellis.

Despite its strident militancy, Cry remains the far more vital of the two long shorts, precisely because it takes the music—jazz—so seriously. While its cast consisted entirely of volunteer amateurs, who often come across as such, George Waller’s Alex effectively anchors the film with his charismatic presence and authoritative narration. An enduring underground classic, the newly restored Cry is definitely worth checking out for the early Sun Ra this weekend (11/19-11/21) at AFA.