Clint Eastwood- Wall Street Journal "Jazz was His First Muse"

Clint Eastwood- Wall Street Journal "Jazz was His First Muse"

Jamaica
Jamaica

February 22nd, 2011, 4:24 pm #1

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142 ... 23308.html

By MICHAEL JUDGE

Carmel, Calif.

I'm here to talk to one of America's premier filmmakers about his career in the industry, but his eyes light up when I ask him about his first lovejazz. "It's always fun to talk about jazz," says Clint Eastwood, seated at a small table not far from the baby grand piano that fills his Mission Ranch Restaurant with jazz each night. We're looking out at a picturesque meadow and a flock of grazing sheep he jokingly calls his "girlfriends."

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Zina Saunders
Clint Eastwood

At 80, Mr. Eastwood is busier than most men half his age. A self-taught pianist and composer, the actor and Oscar- winning director has (with longtime collaborator Lennie Niehaus and, more recently, his son, Kyle Eastwood) scored and written songs for many of his films, including "Unforgiven," "Mystic River," Million Dollar Baby," "Gran Torino" and "Hereafter."

He once said jazz and westerns are perhaps the only truly American art forms. I ask him where he acquired his love for the former. "When I was a kid, I'd listen to jazz records and copy them on the piano," he says, fingering imaginary keys. The Fats Waller albums his mother brought to their house near Oakland, Calif., were an early influence.

Before long, while still in his teens, he was hitting local jazz clubs. "In the Bay Area," he explains, "there was a resurgence of Dixieland jazz in the '40sthere was the Frisco Jazz Band, and Lu Watters and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band. I used to go out to a place called Hambone Kelly's in El Cerrito. And because I was fairly big for my age, I could go in there and get a beer and sit in the back and listen to these players."

As the '40s progressed, Mr. Eastwood, along with jazz enthusiasts everywhere, embraced the new harmonic and rhythmic intricacies of bebop. "I started listening to modern jazz players like Charlie Ventura, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker." As a young man, he saw Parker perform several times, which later influenced his decision to make "Bird," the critically acclaimed 1988 film about the brilliant but troubled alto saxophonist.

"I became kind of a jazz freak," he says. "I read every book there was on jazz, about the original playersKing Oliver, Buddy Bolden and all those groups. At one time I was fairly well schooled in that . . . I could tell you who played where and when, historically, way before my time."

Sneaking into jazz venues at a young age sounds a lot like Bix Beiderbecke, the innovative white musician of the '20s who would skip school to play with black musicians after hours in Chicago clubs. Was he ever attracted to Bix's story?

"Yeah, I was," he says. "I liked him very much. . . . He was an interesting piano player. He wrote 'In a Mist,' for example, which was a hit in its time. . . . Then the fact that he moved to the cornet, the idiosyncrasies he had, wanting to have the music closer to his head, and that sort of thing. He was definitely a great player. But [like Bird] he was one of those guys who lived hard and burned out fast. . . . I don't want to make a habit of doing stories on people who have brilliance but shine bright for a very short period of time."

Mr. Eastwood's known for featuring classic jazz recordings in his films, most famously in his 1971 film "Play Misty for Me," which is named after and centered on the Erroll Garner song of the same name. Last year, he executive-produced a documentary on one of jazz's most respected and enduring artists: "Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way." Directed by Bruce Ricker, the film premiered in December just in time for Mr. Brubeck's 90th birthday. Similar Eastwood projects include the superb biopic "Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser" (1988), which he produced; and "Piano Blues" (2003), which he co-produced and directed for Martin Scorsese's seven-film documentary series for PBS, "The Blues."

But what is it, I ask, that makes jazz so quintessentially American? "It's something that could only come out of such a diverse country as America," Mr. Eastwood says. "And jazz players . . . were pioneers of integration, because you were judged by your ability in an era when people were judging people by a lot of other thingssocial factors, color, etc. So it seemed like respecting somebody just for their talent was important."

Born on May 31, 1930, in San Francisco, Mr. Eastwood remembers the lean years of the Depression and the blues and jazz that came out of that time. His father, Clinton Eastwood Sr., traveled from town to town looking for work before settling the family in the Bay Area.

"Growing up I was always rooting for the jazz musician," he says. "I remember I was disturbed when there was a big objection to Nat King Cole moving into Hancock Park in Los Angeles. I didn't know Hancock Park at that time, because I was just a kid in Oakland. But I always thought: 'God, who wouldn't want to have Nat Cole living next to him?' Not only because he was a popular guy, but he was one of those few popular guys who was a great jazz player as well, a great piano player."

Some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, for instance, were not allowed to play certain venues or alongside white musicians. Jazz may have been born out of America's unique diversity, I suggest, but it also collided head on with the racism and bigotry of the time.

"It was a disgraceful time," Mr. Eastwood says. "I remember living through it. You had to have all-white bands or all-black bands or they'd send you away. Woody Herman and Ernie Royal had an occasional mixture. But by and large you couldn't play certain places . . . especially in the South, but across the whole country, really."

Armstrong, he continues, helped spearhead integration in jazz and elsewhere because "he traveled with a band that was mostly black, but he also had [the white trombonist] Jack Teagarden with him. So certain places wouldn't book him. But he didn't give a [expletive]. Dave Brubeck and a lot of people would eventually have integrated bands. But it's a sad state of history when here you've got this great art form and certain people can't play it together." Still, he says, it's the racial and cultural melting pot of America that "gives jazz its great power."

After the interview, I join Mr. Eastwood for a few drinks that evening back at the Mission Ranch piano bar. He rattles off the name of every tune the gentleman at the baby grand playswho performed it, when it was recorded, etc. Then, as the opening notes of one song are played, his expression changes he's listening intently. It's the theme to "Hereafter," his 2010 film. "This one's mine," he says, before losing himself once again in the music.

Mr. Judge writes about culture and the arts for the Journal.
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Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

February 22nd, 2011, 6:46 pm #2


Here is a posting about Bix and Clint.

http://www.network54.com/Forum/27140/me ... 210636945/

Albert
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David Logue
David Logue

February 23rd, 2011, 1:52 pm #3

Great article. Thanks for sharing, Jamaica.

Also, it was interesting to read the old posts regarding getting Clint Eastwood (or Scorsese or Allen) to do a Bix film.

Was anybody able to talk to Dick Hyman about it?

So I guess Clint's not interested in redoing "Bird" as a "Bix" bio. I suppose I can understand that.

I sure wish Scorsese would step up to the plate though.
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Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

February 23rd, 2011, 2:42 pm #4


I have good relations with Dick Hyman. We were at the Beiderbecke Inn for a couple of the festivals and had breakfast together every morning. We have corresponded frequently. Dick sent me a copy of his CD with Tom Pletcher "If Bix Played Gershwin" and I reviewed it very favorably for the Mississippi Rag.

http://ms.cc.sunysb.edu/~alhaim/recordi ... edGerswhin

I am going to see Dick next August. Vince Giordano and Randy Sandke will also be there as well as members of the Bix Society. Also Andy Schumm, the best young cornetist who plays in the Bix tradition and preserves his memory by recreating his music. Maybe I will suggest a meeting of all the big guns to kick around the idea of a Bix film. Dick and Vince have a lot of experience with films, in particular with soundtracks that use 1920s music. They can tell if the idea of a Bix film is feasible or just a dream.

Albert
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Jamaica
Jamaica

February 27th, 2011, 3:49 am #5

Great article. Thanks for sharing, Jamaica.

Also, it was interesting to read the old posts regarding getting Clint Eastwood (or Scorsese or Allen) to do a Bix film.

Was anybody able to talk to Dick Hyman about it?

So I guess Clint's not interested in redoing "Bird" as a "Bix" bio. I suppose I can understand that.

I sure wish Scorsese would step up to the plate though.
Yes, a film on Bix would be far too similar to "Bird," but I suppose I'd been holding out hope that Clint would make an exception for Bix. Can't argue with his reasoning, though. And not to sound like a broken record, (I will, anyway, however), but darn, after a lot of brain-storming, (and searching on my own, of course), I realized James McAvoy would make such a magnificent Bix, I can't think of anyone who I'd rather see play him. He's got the best acting chops in his age range.
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Brad Kay
Brad Kay

February 28th, 2011, 7:21 am #6

It's the tale of a historic, lovable, wayward, storied jazz genius whose excesses are unmanageable either by himself or his friends. He makes great music, drives people to distraction, and dies way too young with too many mourners in his wake. Eastwood is right: in making "Bird," he also made "Bix."

Brad K
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Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

February 28th, 2011, 8:37 pm #7


.... for the music!!

Albert
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Ken Bristow
Ken Bristow

March 1st, 2011, 5:34 pm #8

Yes, Albert! And the music is all important to us. As a general rule, most of us who like our jazz vintage style, from the age that gave us hot jazz, can only listen to Bop in small doses before the mind starts wandering. Yes, we want to like it, but it doesn't have those qualities that jazz must have as defined by Mr. Jelly Roll: plenty melody, plenty rhythm. When I listen to Bop, I'm sorry but I can't hear either. It just doesn't hold my attention.
I expect those folk who are into the Modern style don't care much for stuff dating from the Twenties. Fair enough.
That's the thing about jazz. Whether you like it Hot, Swing, Big Band, Trad, Bop or Cool, there's something there for everyone.
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Brad Kay
Brad Kay

March 1st, 2011, 9:28 pm #9

....in musical biopix the actual music usually sits in the bleachers while the tawdry plot does the pitching. Seldom is there a movie about a musical genius where we come to understand his creative process or how his creation made a difference in the world.

Clint Eastwood's Bird, for instance: in an early scene, young Charles Parker is soloing in a jam session with the older guys, when he forgets his changes and gets lost. The drummer (Jo Jones in the real-life incident) throws a cymbal at Charlie, which lands at his feet with a resounding "CRASH!" Deeply humiliated, the kid disappears for a year. When he returns, he's the fully-fledged BIRD! That scene, and especially the slo-mo of the cymbal sailing through the air, is flashbacked throughout the film, to (ahem) "cymbalize" the tragic course of Bird's life.

All very good dramatically. But here's the catch: The music they're playing at this jam session - circa 1936 - is ALREADY BE-BOP! Not straight-ahead Kansas City swing, but the latter-day style with the flatted fifths and hairy rhythms. It remains the musical style of the whole picture. We never see how Charlie Parker was the pivotal force in the creation of modern jazz. Instead, we're shown what a character he was; this wayward, lovable guy who just happened to be the best saxophonist ever, who would even play at Jewish weddings; who exasperated everyone, especially the other saxophonists who threw their horns in the river.

Of course, I'm being a curmudgeon. There ARE a (very) few movies where the music is fairly depicted and the transformative "AHA!" moments are there. The Glenn Miller Story has a wonderful sequence showing how, in an emergency, Miller came up with his famous "sound," the sax section with clarinet lead. We hear the music as he writes it, part by part, building up to the scene where "Moonlight Serenade" is played for the first time. We experience the birth of something wonderful, and share the awe of the crowd, who stop dancing to listen. Like Bird, It's also distorted history, but we get to see what was unique and different about Glenn Miller.

In my mind, a "Bix" movie would be like Rashomon, told from the POVs of several people, each with their own take on the mysterious guy. It would include a number of scenes where his genius is made palpable to us in the audience. One would be the seven-year-old kid playing piano wonderfully, looking dreamily into space, oblivious to the adults in the room who are marveling at him; fast-forward to the ravaged 28-year old Bix at the piano, playing even more arrestingly, staring deadly into space with absent eyes, with Eddie Condon and others looking solemnly into their gin glasses, knowing the end is near and they can't do a thing about it.

I don't know how the unique beauty of Bix's horn playing could be put over forcefully onscreen. It would have to be the real thing!

-Brad K

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Glenda Childress
Glenda Childress

March 2nd, 2011, 1:50 pm #10

I like your scenario, Brad.

I saw "The Glenn Miller Story" when I was a kid and still remember much of it vividly, including that section where Miller struggles with getting a "sound" that (one is given to believe) like Bix he hears in his head but hasn't actually <em>heard</em> anywhere and hasn't been able to reproduce--yet. As I remember it, the turning point comes when the lead trumpeter cuts his lip on a music stand and Glenn substitutes his clarinetist to play the high part over the saxes. That sounds contrived and was probably a bit of Hollywood drama, but it apparently worked on my young brain as intended.

Never underestimate the power of storytelling!

But the idea of trying to get an imagined "sound" out of what you have to work with applies to Bix as well and would make a good premise. "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" is a kind of universal theme.(I know; it's been done before, but after all, there are only a few "stories" in literature, just endless variations.) And there are plenty of good Bix anecdotes that are (mostly) true to provide the exposition. I like the story Russ Morgan related (the Forum linked to it a while back) in his unpublished memoir--the one where Bix inexplicably gets off the train when the Goldkette band is travelling; Russ gets off at the next stop and takes a taxi back to that station for him. After being scolded by Morgan, Bix takes out his horn and plays Stravinsky's "Berceuse" from the "Firebird Suite" beautifully, note for note, and is confused when he finds Morgan staring at him with wonder.

"But I don't know Stravinsky's "Berceuse," he said stubbornly. "I wonder where I ever heard it?"

"Maybe it was in your dream world. While you were getting off back there at the station."
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