June for Jazz

Jazz On a Summers Day
(1959, Dir.. Bert Stern and Aram Avakian, 35mm, 85 min.)

Peter Lucas on his Summer Series at the MFAH

This June, the MFAH presents Jazz on Film, a month-long film series where cinema and jazz converge. The series is curated by Peter Lucas, a Montrose native who has done interesting work in the arts on both coasts. The films include Jazz on a Summer’s Day, Paris Blues, Mickey One,Mingus, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, The Connection, Ornette: Made in America, and a feature of short films titled Jazz Abstractions. Rarely have these films have been shown in theaters, let alone with nice prints. A + C’s Joe Wozny spoke with Lucas about this series.

Arts + Culture: Has this idea, Jazz on Film, been stewing in your brain for some time?

Peter Lucas: I’ve been exploring the connection of music and film for a long time, paying attention to film scores and soundtracks, documentaries involving music and musicians, and experimental music films. Many of the great, forward-thinking 20thcentury filmmakers loved jazz and were inspired by its sound, rhythms, spirit, and surrounding culture. In its various forms, it represented freedom, passion, creative intervention, and empowering new perspectives to them. So there is a diversity of films that intersect in various ways with Jazz. In the past, I’ve curated jazz-related film programs for the Experience Music Project museum and Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle. And I’m really excited to be presenting this eclectic, month-long film series here in Houston.

Mickey One
(1965, Dir. Arthur Penn, 35mm, 93 min.)

A + C: In narrative films about jazz the simulation of actors playing instruments feels strange. Why did you choose Paris Blues and Mickey One as your narrative choices?

PL: Paris Blues and Mickey One are two of my favorite films in the series. I’m really happy not only to be screening these rarely-seen films here, but also to be playing them on beautiful 35mm film prints! Paris Blues features Duke Ellington’s best film score, a great cast featuring Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Joanne Woodward, and Diahann Carroll. Mickey One is an unusual, stylish existential thriller by director Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty. That film features music by the great saxophonist Stan Getz. I don’t believe either of them has ever had a proper video release in the US. Projected large on film in a movie theater is really the best way to see them, and this series may be the only way to see them.

A + C: How do you go about curating? Do you sit in a dark room with your archive and pray to the deities of taste?

PL: Being a lifelong explorer of film, I’ve got a pretty good knowledge of cinema’s history and of gems that normally go unseen. I love finding interesting connections between films’ various histories, and finding new ways to presenting things. Putting together a series like this one is a lot like reductive sculpting for me: carving things away until there is a good, essential selection and balance that supports a thematic connecting thread. The common misconception about arts curators is that people think they just pick stuff that they like, and then show it. Of course I do love everything in this series, but a lot has gone into narrowing things down, framing it all conceptually, finding available film prints for exhibition, and then writing a bit about why these things are worth experiencing.

Paris Blues.
(1961, Dir. Martin Ritt, 35mm, 98 min.)

A + C: A lot of these older jazz films have found their way to YouTube, making what were once obscure documentaries available to the masses for the first time. I found Paris Blues, Mingus, and Straight No Chaser on YouTube. Do you think the internet has opened up a channel for these films to find new audiences?

PL: I’m very much in support of sharing and access — but I’m conflicted about films on the internet. It’s great that a variety of stuff is available, especially for those who aren’t located in big cities with good theaters and film programs. But I do have a couple of problems with it, and neither are about rights or money. My biggest problem is with the quality of experience. As someone who has worked for many years to present films in the best way possible, I cringe when I hear of someone watching a great film via YouTube bootleg or even legitimate online stream on a small screen. The size, lack of image and sound clarity, and the distractions of technical glitches and the home setting can really suck the magic out of a great film. Someone who’s very interested could easily be underwhelmed by a very good film.

Straight No Chaser
(1988, Dir. Charlotte Zwerin, 90 min.)

We’re really excited to be able to show most of the films in the Jazz On Film series on 35mm film prints. That’s a tremendous thing, and I really appreciate the MFAH’s dedication to showing rare and classic films in their intended format.

A + C: Last thoughts?

PL: Although it is great for fans, one doesn’t have to be a jazz aficionado to enjoy these films. Jazz is the connecting thread, but there are so many fascinating, intersecting elements at play in the series that it’s worth checking out even if you don’t live and breathe the music.

Jazz on Film
June 7-30