Monday, April 09, 2018

Flock of Four: Last Call for Central Avenue

In twenty years of patronizing New York jazz clubs, I have heard live a lot of great musicians who are no longer with us. Yet, there are a handful of nights that haunt me, because I passed up what turned out to be one of the final opportunities to hear someone of stature before they passed on. Joey Grover does not want to make that mistake with Pope Dixon. He is determined to hear the jazz pioneer’s set at one of the few surviving Central Avenue clubs. However, he has even more personal reasons for wanting to hear his idol in Gregory Caruso’s Flock of Four (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Considering it is the early 1960s, Grover is a pretty hip kid with a real touch on the piano. It all goes back to his late father Joe Sr., who was his first piano teacher and passed along his love of Dixon’s music. He now leads a decent high school combo, but alas, the girls are more interested in rock & roll—a fact their obnoxious drummer Louie Walsh is keenly aware of. On this fateful night, Joe Jr. is determined to venture from Pasadena to LA’s storied Central Avenue, so he can finally hear Dixon in the flesh. Walsh would prefer to stay a be-clown himself in front of college coed way out of his league, but he reluctantly falls in with the rest of the group.

Of course, the lily-white kids are nervous about making the Central Avenue scene, but a talented young vocalist named Ava Moore takes them under her wing. Her drummer brother Clifford is not as gracious, especially when she allows Bud Garby, Grover’s bass player, to get a little flirty. However, he starts to respect their earnestness, especially when Grover and Garby keep up on a jam of Mingus’s “Better Git it in Your Soul.” Unfortunately, Grover’s control freak brother is determined to drag him home, while Walsh’s bad attitude constantly blows their cool.

Flock is an effectively nostalgic jazz drama, because it never tries to do too much. That might sound like faint praise, but the truth is an elegant three-minute trio recording beats the heck out of a twenty-minute, ten-piece train wreck. In this case, Caruso and co-screenwriter Michael Nader clearly have solid understanding of where jazz was in the early 1960s and how Central Avenue fit into the history of the music.

You can just hear the “Own Voices” Culture Cops gearing up their outrage machine to condemn Flock for the sin of following white protagonists into the world of Central Avenue jazz, but the hard truth of it is, during the 1960s, a Louis Armstrong-figure like Dixon would primarily attract white fans—and that would be especially true for teens. Of course, jazz has always been intertwined with issues of race and authenticity (if you really want to understand that dynamic, read Nat Hentoff’s sadly out-of-print YA novel, Jazz Country).

In fact, the character of Clifford Moore plays an important role in Flock, keeping things real and in perspective. Yet, at some point, you have to ask yourself, do you really love the music, or what you think it represents? Regardless, Nadji Jeter is terrific as Moore, subtly bringing out his humanity and empathy, as well as his understandable intensity and prickliness.

Vocalist-thesp Coco Jones has the chops for his sister Ava, as well as a warm screen presence. She develops some necessarily understated but still potent chemistry with Isaac Jay’s Garby. Frankly, Braeden Lemasters is almost too nebbish as Joe Jr. and Shane Harper is almost too scoldy as his big brother, but they come together quite poignantly down the stretch. Obviously, it will take a long time before Dixon appears, but the late Reg E. Cathey makes it worth the wait.

In many ways, Flock is a love letter to Central Avenue and the musicians who played there. The music also sounds great, mostly ranging somewhere between swing and bop, but always with a smoky after-hours vibe. Bittersweet and elegiac (in keeping with the outlook for jazz at the time), Flock of Four is recommended for getting so much right in the narrative, setting, and general mise-en-scene. Recommended as a very good jazz coming of age drama, in the tradition of Warren Leight’s Broadway drama Side Man, Flock of Four opens this Friday (4/13) in New York, at the AMC Empire.