These are trying times for fans of live music, but if you’re jonesing for a jolt of jazz, you might find sweet relief from a couple of documentaries — one just out, about vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, and another released last year on trumpeter/composer Miles Davis.
The film foregrounds racial and gender issues more pointedly than the 1999 American Masters documentary, “Something To Live For,” and also stresses views from women and African Americans, such as fizzy swing dancer Norma Miller and cultural critic Margo Jefferson. Indeed, when the subject of Fitzgerald’s failure to fit the glam singer stereotype comes up, the sexist reaction of her diminutive first employer, Chick Webb, is not only quoted — “I don’t want that ugly thing” — but also tartly rebuked by Jefferson: “You would think that a man with a tubercular spine might not be so careless with his put-downs of Ella’s looks.” On the racial front, the film highlights how Marilyn Monroe used her celebrity to get Fitzgerald booked into West Hollywood’s Black-allergic Mocambo.
Fitzgerald had a troubled youth. She never knew her father, lost her mother when she was 15, may have been abused by her stepfather and, by 1933, was incarcerated in a reformatory. Fleeing, Fitzgerald lived by her wits on the streets of Harlem before winning an amateur contest at the Apollo Theatre in 1934, which propelled her to fame with Webb.
Fitzgerald’s scat singing rivaled the improvisations of instrumentalists. One of the film’s highlights is jazz vocal specialist Will Friedwald cataloging with apparent astonishment and glee the dozens of tunes Fitzgerald quoted in just one song, during a heralded Berlin performance. Another is a nightclub clip with bassist Ray Brown, whose brief marriage to Fitzgerald is duly documented, though there is no mention of Fitzgerald’s other two, even briefer, marriage misfires.
Fitzgerald was notoriously tight-lipped about her personal life, but the aptly titled “Just One of Those Things” (about a doomed relationship), makes it clear she was often lonely and unhappy, despite the relentless sunniness of her music, which reinforces the cliché, apparently true, that she was happiest on stage. The film features fewer live performances (and more pans over still photos) than one might wish for, but “Just One of Those Things” is nevertheless a worthwhile addition to the literature about an inexhaustible subject.
Though some aficionados dissed the American Masters feature “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” (streaming on Netflix) for using narration from Quincy Troupe’s error-ridden, as-told-to tome, “Miles Davis: The Autobiography” (voiced by actor Carl Lumbly in a convincing approximation of Davis’ famous rasp), Troupe’s work is sparingly sampled and Davis’ observations are a welcome component in this excellent introduction to a musician whose remarkable succession of creative “periods” have been justifiably compared to Picasso’s.
Davis launched “cool jazz” in the late 1940s; redefined modern jazz in the ’50s with saxophonist John Coltrane, creating among other classics, “Kind of Blue”; collaborated with the great arranger Gil Evans on a run that included the timeless “Sketches of Spain”; expanded the jazz vocabulary with his mid-’60s quintet with pianist Herbie Hancock; and, finally, crystallized jazz-rock fusion in the late ’60s and early ’70s with his widely popular album “Bitches Brew.”
Returning again and again to a motif of Davis shadowboxing in a gym, the film captures Davis’ moody obsession with his muse, determined to get the music right with every punch. Along the way, it illuminates his work with commentary by knowledgeable observers such as jazz historian Ashley Kahn, music critic Greg Tate and writer Farah Jasmine Griffin, as well as fellow musicians, such as Hancock and Carlos Santana, whose ideas are skillfully illustrated by Davis’ music.
The film does not whitewash the dark side of Davis, who abused drugs, neglected his children and beat his wife, Frances Taylor. Yet Davis also demanded boldly, for the time, that Columbia Records put Taylor on the cover of “Someday My Prince Will Come.”
Perhaps the most timely and resonant incident recounts the night Davis was clubbed by a policeman outside the Manhattan club where his name was on the marquee. Were he alive today, Davis’ penetrating music and raspy voice would no doubt be on the front lines, as they always were.