(Un)happy Partners: On Jazz and Independent Film
By Daniel Felsenthal
AUGUST 17, 2019
IN BASIL DEARDEN’S 1962 FILM All Night Long, a husband and wife celebrate their first wedding anniversary. The husband is black. The wife is white. Both are American jazz musicians living in London. The couple arrives at a surprise party hosted by a friend at his spacious loft on the south bank of the Thames. Iconic bandleader and composer Charles Mingus is at the party, drinking scotch and playing his double bass. Pianist Dave Brubeck arrives a bit later, led by British saxophonist Johnny Dankworth. Guests of the married couple step out onto the fire escape to smoke joints and chat about their complicated romantic lives. On the bandstand, the musicians incorporate Brazilian rhythms into their bebop. All Night Long depicts the urban scene of avant-garde jazz, its characters several steps ahead of the era’s conservative status quo.
Dearden’s film wasn’t the first to use jazz as a means of staking out a counterculture frontier. Since the advent of sound, movies treated jazz as a marker of modernity and youth, a soundtrack to a fledgling America further distancing itself from Europe and charting a path through its second century. Examples include the first feature with synchronized dialogue, The Jazz Singer (1927), about a young man during the “Roaring Twenties” reconciling his dreams of musical success with his European-Jewish, immigrant family background; Blues in the Night (1941), about a band of boxcar-riding jazz musicians raised on Depression-era poverty; and New Orleans (1947), a historical fantasy about how a society of symphony-attending, top-hat-wearing Southern aristocrats come to enjoy the jazz they hear played by their black household help.
These films all share a glaringly obvious issue: race. Even the most deliberate and self-aware, Blues in the Night, is less than thoughtful about the problems of portraying a predominantly African-American art form in a movie that casts white people as both the lead actors and the most visible musicians. In large part, the reason for these deficiencies was censorship — until a series of landmark First Amendment cases during the 1950s, the Hays Code prevented filmmakers from showing, among other activities, the weirdly clinical-sounding “miscegenation” — as well as studio intervention. Take New Orleans: the project was originally planned as a vehicle for Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, two of the most celebrated musicians in the world at the time, yet the studio worried about the commercial viability of a film led by black superstars, employing several screenwriters to minimize Armstrong and Holiday’s roles. In the final cut, Holiday is relegated to playing a singing maid and Armstrong a musician beholden and subservient to the white man who owns his club.
By the time All Night Long was produced, government censorship was far less common and far-reaching. (The British Board of Film Censors became increasingly lenient contemporaneously with the United States’s MPAA.) The reticence of studio executives to make progressive films persisted, however, which is why the social utopia of All Night Long turns bizarrely dystopian by its end. The anniversary party fizzles out when the husband takes his wife to an upstairs bedroom and chokes her, racked with jealousy about a perceived affair, before he hits the saxophone player in his band repeatedly, sending him flying over the banister of the spiral staircase in the center of the apartment. How could the loft be anything besides an opportunity for an action-packed climax? It’s the movies, after all. Just like Chekhov said: the gun hanging on the wall in the first act must go off in the third.
That is, of course, unless you’re making a movie with jazz form. Just as jazz and other avant-garde movements in the 20th century — atonal music, for example — freed musicians from long-ingrained compositional assumptions, jazz cinema freed filmmakers from such constructs as the three-act screenplay. These structural innovations undermined the rigid Hollywood production model, leading to more dynamic and intuitive collaborations and scripts rewritten according to the on-set improvisations of the cast and crew. The independent film movement of the 1950s and the introduction of a jazz sensibility to movies were part and parcel of the same phenomenon. In New York City, a dense hotbed of artistic collaboration where independent film experienced a renaissance in the postwar years, artists learned from other art forms. The thriving jazz scene taught two luminaries of independent cinema, Shirley Clarke and John Cassavetes, new methods of approaching their films.
Trained as a dancer, Shirley Clarke, who referred to her cinematic practice as “a choreography of editing,” began her career making movies infused with the sensibilities of other disciplines. Her first short, Dance in the Sun (1953), was a highly influential attempt to capture the feeling of modern dance on film. Her 1958 short Bridges-Go-Round consists of two versions, the first scored by jazz saxophonist Teo Macero, the second by electronic musicians Bebe and Louis Barron. Using music and architecture as a theme, rather than dance, Clarke’s metaphor of choreography holds true.
Released in 1961, her debut feature, The Connection, is essential and instructive in its forging of a jazz form. Based on Jack Gelber’s 1959 play of the same name and acted by members of the experimental theatrical troupe The Living Theater, The Connection follows a group of multiracial musicians as they jam, hang out, and wait for their heroin dealer to arrive at a friend’s Manhattan apartment. The narrative structure is multifaceted: much of it leads up to the arrival of the dealer (Carl Lee), but after he appears, the film follows each character as, one by one, they get a fix in the bathroom. Neither hired guns instructed to read a script, nor stars insisting on being shot from only one side, Clarke’s actors are players in an ensemble — a band — familiar with each other’s idiosyncrasies and styles. Because many were in the original play, the cast is also intimate with the source material: they know how to riff and expand on Gelber’s story, complementing its essential qualities. Like the “free jazz” that composers such as Ornette Coleman were developing during the period, which advertised itself (falsely) as improvisational, the tension between the appearance of improvisation and the reality of composition is essential to Clarke’s movie. Clarke is a bandleader holding tight reins over her players, feigning looseness so that their personalities can come through naturally.
The apparent autonomy Clarke gives to her cast is in part a product of her self-consciousness about being a white filmmaker whose films are largely about black people. Later movies of hers include The Cool World (1963), a Dizzy Gillespie–scored drama about youth gangs in Harlem, and Portrait of Jason (1967), a documentary about a black gay prostitute that consists entirely of him monologuing about his life and experiences. She also directed a brilliant amalgam of fiction and documentary, Ornette: Made in America (1985), about Ornette Coleman.
In Clarke’s career alone, we can see a logical future for jazz form in film. While it originated in films with jazz content, the vocabulary of jazz form became as amorphous and progressive as jazz itself, a tool kit that enabled filmmakers’ adventurous instincts, rather than a set of standards tying them to the methods and aesthetics of their 1950s forebears. Still, The Connection is interesting in part because it teaches viewers exactly how to make a film in Shirley Clarke’s way. Woven into the story is a metanarrative about a director, played by William Redfield, who wants to film a documentary depicting the real experience of smack-shooting musicians; unfortunately for Redfield’s character, he makes his subjects feel unnatural every time he turns his camera on them. The director’s mistakes are countered by the approach of his cameraman, J. J. (Roscoe Lee Browne), who is considerably more relaxed, letting the musicians act and move freely, and reacting, improvisationally, to their movements in turn.
The influence of this vérité-adjacent style is obvious and pervasive in film, particularly in the work of documentarians such as Frederick Wiseman — who helped fund The Connection and produced The Cool World — and Errol Morris, whose The Fog of War (2003) is heavily indebted to Portrait of Jason. Yet The Connection was not widely seen in the United States, in large part because of censorship. The police shut the film down after a couple of showings in New York, arresting the projectionist. Clarke’s later movies were also suppressed. If jazz is a good barometer for freedom, to cite Duke Ellington, then clearly America’s midcentury needle was quivering somewhere in the low numbers.
In the late 1950s, Clarke lent her filmmaking equipment to a young Greek American from Long Island who had recently graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and started his own acting workshop, having been denied entrance to Lee Strasberg’s prestigious Actors Studio. Admirers today like to call John Cassavetes “The Father of Independent Cinema.” He earned the title based on a series of pointedly character-driven domestic dramas, most notably A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and Opening Night (1977), all of which exhibit an original jazz form, as well as a movie that was actually about the jazz scene in New York, Shadows (1959). Unlike Clarke’s, Cassavetes’s oeuvre has been posthumously, thoroughly revived.
Cassavetes got the money to make Shadows because he went on Jean Shepherd’s Manhattan-broadcasted, hipster-beloved radio show and pleaded with listeners to help him usher in a less studio-dominated American cinema. Oddballs from all over began to show up at his workshop, bringing donations, a desire to help out, and little idea what this undertaking might entail.
Akin to Shirley Clarke, Cassavetes innovated the form and process of filmmaking largely in order to create a movie about an interracial society in an era when studio films had provided virtually no precedents. Shadows centers on three siblings, played by actors of different races, all of whom were enrolled in Cassavetes’s workshop. The narrative is based on an exercise from class: a light-skinned black woman, Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), has sex with a white man, Tony (Anthony Ray), who assumes she’s Caucasian; the next day, she brings him home to the apartment she shares with her siblings, where Tony meets her jazz-singer brother Hugh (Hugh Hurd) and his manager (Rupert Crosse), both of whom are clearly African American. Cassavetes asked his cast to imagine what happens after Lelia introduces Hugh as her brother.
The film ends with a title card informing its audience that the entire narrative was improvised. As Ray Carney writes in his essential resource Cassavetes on Cassavetes (2001), this boast was a lie, a canny piece of advertising Cassavetes used because he knew that improvisation — from the “first thought, best thought” claims of the Beat poets to bebop soloing — was en vogue. The truth is much more complicated: Cassavetes rewrote his screenplay constantly, building scenes based on the spontaneity of his ensemble. The moments of improvisation in Shadows were largely ones of motion. Freestyle acting, rather than blocking or storyboarding, determined the film’s cinematography, with the cameramen intuiting and reacting to the movements of the ensemble around the set.
Like Clarke, Cassavetes, who referred to himself as a “tyrant” of a filmmaker, encouraged his cast to express themselves within the context of his direction, the way even the biggest control-freak of a bandleader sometimes takes cues from the musicians on his bandstand. Perhaps this is why Shadows is an effective movie about race: the movie’s black characters are given the freedom to bring their own experience to bear on the narrative, rather than following scripted choices set down by a screenwriter and director.
Cassavetes developed a style out of his own limitations, which were many. He was an unconfident and unhoned writer, composing later movies by performing the various parts in front of an assistant, who transcribed. He was unable to afford filming permits, so he filmed street sequences at night when he could avoid the police, capturing his actors from the distance of bright restaurant interiors and the cover of theater marquees. He forgot to hire a script supervisor and ended up with a disorganized jumble of takes and a narrative that lurches, as though plot points were unintentionally elided. The score rarely syncs up with the action, and in certain sequences the music and images are entirely dissonant. The incidental noise in the soundtrack, a huge influence on later generations of independent filmmakers, was an accident Cassavetes and his crew spent many hours trying to correct.
The filmmaker and archivist Ross Lipman has cataloged how Cassavetes’s various attempts to score the film failed. At one point, the director asked Charles Mingus, already a famous jazz musician who was about to release his classic Mingus Ah Um (1959), to record an accompaniment in several hours, believing that jazz artists played on feeling alone, never writing their compositions down. Clearly, Cassavetes was thinking of his own practices, not Mingus’s.
Cassavetes felt galvanized by the looseness and freedom he (mis)read into jazz, which enabled him to make a film with little knowledge or money. At the very least, he shared one quality with Mingus — an ability to bully the people he worked with into doing what he wanted them to do. In a functional sense, both the radical filmmaker and the radical jazz composer were as domineering and rigid as the mainstream structures they railed against.
When Shadows premiered at New York’s Paris Theater in 1958, Cassavetes and most of the attendees considered it a complete failure. Mingus was so mad about the music that he stormed out of the theater and told a fawning photographer to go fuck himself. An early and important champion, Jonas Mekas raved about the film in The Village Voice, writing that it had the power to “influence and change the tone, subject matter, and style of the entire independent American cinema.” Cassavetes spent an exhausting year reworking the movie, before it premiered again at the very end of 1959. The second cut garnered a lot of attention, including the interest of Hollywood studios, with whom the director made two films before he gave up. It only took him a few weeks on Paramount Pictures’s lot, where he was filming Too Late Blues (1961), before he tried to buck the studio’s culture:
Art cannot be accomplished under pressure. It’s a free feeling. So I bought some beer and kept putting it on set. Everybody kept on saying, “You can’t do that.” And the first day, everybody got drunk. And the second day, half the people got drunk. And the third day, there was an occasional glass of beer taken. And the fourth day, everybody just knew it was there and was proud of it because they felt that they were entitled to some kind of reward for their effort and they weren’t being treated like children, like employees — that they were part of the effort.
Paramount had told Cassavetes he would receive a five-movie deal if Too Late Blues was successful, but they issued a number of injunctions that prevented him from completing a movie he believed in. One of the most constraining of these had to do with deadlines. Shadows had taken the director two years to finish, but he had only six weeks to film Too Late Blues. Cassavetes wanted to cast his wife, the actress Gena Rowlands, and the older star Montgomery Clift in the lead roles, but the studio insisted on featuring an up-and-coming Stella Stevens alongside teen idol Bobby Darin. The director also wanted to shoot in the familiar bars and clubs of New York, but the studio demanded he shoot on backlots; as a result, he changed the location of the film to Los Angeles. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing — after all, the band of musicians at the center of Too Late Blues was played by Caucasian actors, and the West Coast jazz scene had a reputation for being much whiter than the New York scene at the time. Still, Cassavetes was largely compelled to work without a cast who knew his method, and Paramount made things worse by demanding that the filmmaker, as unsure about his own writing as ever, stick rigidly to the screenplay.
A bona fide example of how jazz form fails in the context of a studio system, Too Late Blues is nonetheless a much better film than its director believed. The movie follows a jazz pianist, Ghost (Darin), who plays parks and orphanages with his quartet, subsequently sabotaging a record deal that might have given him his big break when he quits his band in the studio. He ends up meeting a middle-aged rich woman named “Countess” (Marilyn Clark), apparently basedon the proudly unconventional jazz patron “Baroness” Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who supports his music in exchange for sexual favors. The film’s caustic portrait of the music business also includes a culturally ignorant record executive, Milt Frielobe (Val Avery).
Cassavetes’s take on the music business is prophetic. After all, the industry would open up during the 1960s, largely removing “in-house” creators like Frielobe from the studio so that producers, recording engineers, and artists could work more independently. In a similar vein, the film industry would eventually create faux-independent “sister” studios to capitalize on independent filmmakers making personal movies on low budgets. Yet even if the flat people that populate Too Late Blues are of historical interest, they’re unfortunate missteps for Cassavetes, a director whose movies rely on actors developing surprising, realistic characters. He reflected later on his experience at Paramount:
There is no such thing as a low-budget picture at a major studio. At least not from a director’s point of view. Once you say it’s a low-budget picture it’s like being a man with no credit in a rich neighborhood. In a huge studio like Paramount, a small-budget film means absolutely nothing. The film is always seen in terms of its immediate profit. As soon as you tell them you have any high ambitions for a low-budget picture, they look at you as if you were a complete fool. […] You cannot make a personal film under those conditions.
Cassavetes directed one more project for a Hollywood studio, the powerful A Child Is Waiting (1963), whose interesting qualities its director would never admit. He hated the film because the producer, Stanley Kramer, re-edited his footage after seeing a rough cut. Furious, Cassavetes purportedly physically assaulted Kramer, cementing his reputation as persona non grata in Hollywood. So he sat in the Laurel Canyon home he paid for with his studio contract and the money Rowlands was making from her own successful career, drinking and brooding about how he was going nowhere:
Look, I admit it. I was difficult. I love to be liked, but I’ll fight anybody who tries to stop me from doing what I want to do. I’m a bigmouth. A troublemaker. Temperamental. I only care about people who care about their work. Sure, Kramer and I are now enemies. But it was good for my self-respect to fight him every inch of the way. I lost, but he’ll think twice before hiring a young director again. It’s a question of manhood.
Cassavetes returned with the independent movie Faces in 1968, beginning the most productive and creative decade of his career. The film stars Rowlands, alongside John Marley, Seymour Cassel, and Lynn Carlin, who once said the director hit her on set in order to provoke the response he wanted in a scene. John Cassavetes fought everyone, every inch of the way — and then he died in his 50s from cirrhosis of the liver.
Filmmakers like Clarke and Cassavetes were revolutionaries with strong personalities, which is perhaps why their films are so astonishingly artistically successful. How can art be collaborative and still express a singular vision? This question, which haunts both film and music, is one to which Cassavetes alludes in Too Late Blues. Not every director is a tyrant, but every director who isn’t a tyrant isn’t necessarily a fair-minded, democratic leader. The spectrum of artistic failure is as wide as the spectrum of personal failure, and neither comes into starker focus than in the system of studio filmmaking.
Remember All Night Long? How that cool loft party with all those famous people went south when the guy choked his wife and almost killed that other dude? Well, the scene was a rewrite of Othello, at the time one of the few stories about an interracial romance in the Western canon. The filmmakers’ decision to anchor a narrative about the contemporary jazz scene by citing a Shakespearean classic, instead of finding their own modern way of telling the story (à la Clarke and Cassavetes), was problematic enough — yet manageable, in the right hands. Othello ends when the titular character murders his wife, and the debate among the filmmakers about how to navigate the movie’s final act demonstrates how the forced collaboration of the studio system can prevent a film from adopting a jazz form.
The movie’s director, Basil Dearden, and his frequent collaborator, the set designer/producer Michael Relph, were the polar opposites of an auteur like Cassavetes. Tireless, consistent, and easy to work with, Dearden and Relph were known for being reliable company men who cooperated with the studio brass. In his obituary in the Guardian, Relph was cited as having “[p]owers of patience, tact and persuasion” — certainly, good practical skills for a studio filmmaker to have.
Dearden and Relph were notable among British filmmakers for making movies about taboo social issues, which did not mean that their perspectives on race were forward-thinking. When they signed onto All Night Long, the duo was fresh off of Sapphire (1959), a movie about the murder of a black London art student that was progressive in intent yet overly didactic and offensive in execution. One wonders what Dearden and Relph’s actual politics might have been — whether, for example, they were as broad-minded about queer rights as their best film, Victim (1961), about a closeted gay lawyer (and the first British feature to use the word “homosexual”), suggested. Dearden and Relph hid behind their movies, as well as behind their midcentury stiff upper lips.
One of the two screenwriters of All Night Long, Paul Jarrico, was decidedly more progressive. A former chairman of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Communist Party, Jarrico was blacklisted after he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Far more of a pariah in Los Angeles than Cassavetes ever was, the screenwriter fled to the New Mexico desert, where he and his exiled friends managed to make the socialist masterpiece Salt of the Earth (1954), in spite of the lead actress being deported to Mexico, the crew being assaulted on set, and laboratories refusing to process the film. Jarrico was largely unable to work during much of his prime, scrounging up the occasional job by using a fake name. Still, speaking to Patrick McGilligan in the 1990s, he claimed to have “personally found many positive aspects to being blacklisted. I don’t recommend being blacklisted to others. But it really allowed me to have experiences that I would not otherwise have had.”
Complementing Jarrico’s political convictions was the jazz knowledge of his co-screenwriter Nel King, one of many women who found a place in midcentury Hollywood as a film editor before she moved to Manhattan and began writing for television and editing books. King hung out at jazz clubs, palling around with Charles Mingus, whose classic memoir Beneath the Underdog (1971) she edited — a disastrous experience, since the notoriously single-minded Mingus was impossible to deal with. King got Mingus involved with All Night Long, his role being some mixture of actor, performer, and musical advisor. Of course, he clashed constantly with the film’s composer, Philip Green.
King and Jarrico had previously tried to produce the movie in the United States, but United Artists would only commit if the African-American star Lena Horne played the lead female role. According to Larry Ceplair’s The Marxist and the Movies: A Biography of Paul Jarrico (2007), UA did not want to be involved with a project that had an interracial relationship at its center. After refusing the studio’s demand, the screenwriting duo hooked up with Bob Roberts, another blacklisted American trying to begin a new career in England, who produced the film for The Rank Organisation.
Jarrico and King’s screenplay was altered, particularly at the end, and Jarrico apparently lost some faith in the project before production finished. Still, the film is propulsive, irreverent, and satirically intelligent, as well as being frank about race — until the problematic climax. Krin Gabbard’s 2016 book Better Git It in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus describes the filmmakers’ debates over possible endings, all of which seem contrived and in desperate need of the intuitive jazz processes of Cassavetes and Clarke. Does the married couple stay alive? Do they stay together? Does Johnny Cousin call the husband a “nigger,” causing him to flee the loft in anger? Reading Gabbard’s account, one is struck by the absurdity of a bunch of white filmmakers arguing over the reality of a black person and a white person in love. The opinions of Paul Harris, who plays the husband, and Marti Stevens, who plays the wife, were either never recorded or never proffered by the actors.
The sort of racial timidity that ultimately sank All Night Long would be unlikely on a film set today, but this does not mean that Hollywood has gotten braver. The economic concerns of the culture industries have always entailed a kind of social gradualism — at best — that ensures maximization of profit and preservation of the company image. Undoubtedly, studio executives weigh the risks of diminishing audiences every time they decide to include a black character, or a gay character, or a trans character in a film. The only constant is greed and economic shrewdness, and while it’s worthy of celebration that a more diverse range of experiences are being depicted on screen today, the greed of the powerful will always harm the less powerful.
For good reason, much attention has been paid in recent years to debunking the lionization of men like Cassavetes and Mingus, who had reputations for being brutal and belligerent. Yet consider the undisturbed (if decidedly smaller) legacy of Basil Dearden, who lived his public life protected by studios and their bureaucratic workings, before he died in a car accident near Heathrow Airport at the age of 60. Run a Google search for images of Dearden and one will find mostly stills from his movies, along with one prominent photograph of him on the set of All Night Long demonstrating to Paul Harris how to strangle Marti Stevens. Dearden is staring at someone off-screen while the actor watches and the actress lies expressionless and passive beneath her director’s hands.
The vast majority of filmmakers end up like session musicians, moving from gig to gig without ever establishing control over their own expression, assembling a band, or releasing an album. The condition of being an artist in a complex society is to learn, over and over again, what it means to compromise with the circumstances at hand.
In a speech he gave in 2016, President Obama quoted Duke Ellington’s quip on jazz being a barometer for freedom, adding: “Has there ever been any greater improvisation than America itself?” I won’t begrudge Barack this line; after all, my entire essay is predicated on the notion that jazz makes a great metaphor. But America’s improvisation was always too improvised to be just, and the contributions of a number of artists have been sacrificed in the self-erasing venture that is the collaboration of a society. The screenwriter Nel King, for example, died without receiving the credit she believed she deserved for her work on Mingus’s autobiography. Paul Jarrico spent his life either compromising with film studios or reeling from the ways they compromised his livelihood and well-being. He devoted the end of his career to restoring the credits of writers whose contributions had been excised from movies because of the blacklist. He died in 1997, driving back from an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the beginnings of the HUAC hearings. The event was organized as an apologia by the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the Screen Directors Guild, and the Writers Guild of America, all of whom had sold out their members half a century earlier. Jarrico fell asleep at the wheel and hit a tree, dying instantly.
That same year, Shirley Clarke died in a Boston hospital, following a stroke. The New York Times ran an obituary. Hopefully she knew that, unlike most jazz artists, she had managed to solo during the improvised narrative of her time.
Daniel Felsenthal writes fiction and nonfiction. He lives in New York City. Read more at danielfelsenthal.com.