Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Music Documentary DVD Review: 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris (2005)

The Search Arrives on DVD


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Long before the advent of Google searches, Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube-- when someone wanted to learn more about a subject, they had to venture to enormous buildings like libraries and stores which housed big, heavy, dust collecting, paper filled items called books.

And, of course, the mother of all texts--reliability-wise-- was a reference book or an encyclopedia as surely, the authors would have to fact check and one would assume that unlike Wikipedia (which can be updated by anyone), everything would need to be verified... or so you would think.

In 1991 Oscar nominated and Sundance award-winning filmmaker and jazz musician Raymond De Felitta found himself in awe of an unfamiliar voice crooning on a local radio station playing Charles Mingus' Paris in Blue. Simply put, De Felitta was hooked.

Mesmerized by what he’d heard, De Felitta set about tracking down every recording he could of the jazz singer Jackie Paris that resulted in obscure discoveries such as Japanese imports of classic albums including one misfiled under the name of Oscar Peterson. In addition to the the musical side, he also yearned to uncover more about the musician with pitch-perfect phrasing.

The biographical trail of Jackie Paris moved from hot to cool in the 1960s as the British Invasion made jazz a figurative musical dinosaur. And following that all information regarding Paris's life journeyed from cool to frozen in the 1970s when decades later, De Felitta read in a well-respected jazz-centric biographical encyclopedia that stated that Jackie Paris had died in 1977, while only in his early 50s.

Upon this newly acquired information, the filmmaker was content with what De Felitta referred to as his collection of “the handful of CDs and vinyl that comprised the meager but glorious output of Paris's career,” which included his signature rendition of “Skylark”-- his most famous and swoony work. And moreover, essentially to De Felitta the story of Jackie Paris seemed to end there in the all-too familiar jazz ending of death with more of the man's soul being captured on vinyl than in the history books.

However, his fascination with the Italian-American, New Jersey native who grew up entertaining, tap dancing and singing with a veritable who’s who of jazz legends (including Charlie Parker with whom sadly he never recorded any material despite a six month tour) never waned. Likewise, De Felitta became the latest in a long line of fans.

And even later he ascertained that Paris’s allegiance of admirers also had included the loftiest of greats from the era: Peggy Lee, who had arranged an elaborate audition for Jackie Paris with a major label; Lenny Bruce who helped him perfect his stage presence and humor as his opening act in one of the documentary’s most fascinating discoveries as a letter penned by Bruce is read aloud; musician Billy Vera who dubbed Paris “Chet Baker times ten”; later referred to as “the kissy singer” by Sarah Vaughan; as well as being called the personal favorite singer of Ms. Ella Fitzgerald.

Yet while his envious musical resume and near jazz-version of the six degrees of Kevin Bacon which linked him in roughly three degrees or less with every major recording artist in his jazz heyday was epic, De Felitta received the greatest shock when thirteen years following the first time he’d heard Paris’s voice over the speakers of his car, he learned that the “dead” singer was anything but.

When De Felitta happened upon a brief New Yorker magazine notice featuring club dates for the local Jazz Standard in 2004 with the name of Jackie Paris as the main attraction, he was stunned. “Jackie Paris? The one who died in 1977? How is he singing? Via a Ouija board?” De Felitta wondered but taking the chance, he decided to go.

Once he landed inside The Standard, he realized that “Paris was alive -- not exactly well, but still handsome and charismatic. And he was in fine form, singing a set that included three of my favorites...”although, while Jackie Paris politely but crisply dismissed him --which led De Felitta to the realization that "not all was peaceful in Parisland,” when he ventured back again the following evening, Paris started to warm up. Much to his amazement, Jackie Paris spoke to him in earnest between sets wherein he confessed that “he was terminally ill” and that therefore, this was probably his final gig.

In response, De Felitta went into overdrive blending together both the roles of fan and filmmaker and wanting to record it as a legacy “to bring the world's attention [to] the singer whose work I'd found so compellingly beautiful.” To this end, “working with borrowed video equipment,” he spent seven weeks with Paris before the man passed away on June 14 of the same year.

However, what started as a “tribute film,” filled with reminisces, interviews, and other accounts from both Paris himself along with others with whom he’s played, lived and loved whose phone numbers and addresses the musician graciously offered the filmmaker soon became a bit more of a mystery as De Felitta changed the approach from an introduction to one that took a more analytical stance.

Dedicating more energy to his new thesis of why Jackie Paris had become as the film's tag-line described “the greatest singer you've never heard,” De Felitta went to unprecedented lengths to address just why the man was always on the brink of stardom but repeatedly fell into obscurity.

Although he never really arrives at a set conclusion, several possible reasons are given in this fascinating piece of musical documentary portraiture which serves up the usual suspects as well as a decidedly different side to the man we’re consistently faced with throughout. Admirably he takes Jackie at his word and never probed him directly even though he had evidence to the contrary about some issues with which the man was less than forthcoming.

Yet, meanwhile De Felitta introduces us to two very different women who were both at one point Mrs. Jackie Paris, along with relatives, a denied son, etc. as we’re faced with tales of ego, temper, deep-rooted family dysfunction (in the form of a devastating account of his brother and abusive father), along with questions of whether refusing mafia support of his career or slugging the wrong club owner who was most likely "connected" always kept him from the top.

Overall, this routinely makes for a mesmerizing film that evolves much like an improvised jazz riff throughout its changes in tempo where some are successful with only a few rough patches in editing as we remain a bit foggy about some of the facts like we’d had a sax blaring too close to our eardrum for a bit.

However, the one issue that remains a subtext that's only vaguely questioned by De Felitta in his voice over narration at the end when quoting Orson Welles is just how much we need to know about artists to dig their work. And, likewise, whether or not the “search” for Jackie Paris was really a mystery in the end if he was happily living under the radar, definitely bitter about wasted potential, missed opportunities, and lack of money but essentially okay in his New York life.

This is especially the case since—while I’m incredibly grateful for De Felitta’s passion, compassion, and integrity in introducing a wonderful overlooked talent to a new generation—ultimately, I feel nearly as confused as I was near the beginning and still have just as many questions about Paris as I had from the middle of the picture to when the final credits began to roll.

This being said, the intent and style shown by De Felitta is warm and inviting. And it's what carries us through the work, despite the mysterious head-scratching footage we’re sometimes shown with contradictory interviews and a few loose ends that seem like they were left abandoned on the floor of the cutting room such as the discussion of a “wife?” who died of cancer and then talk of a divorce enters in the same sentence and a few interviewees aren’t identified at all. Yet this is all easy to overlook as soon as Jackie Paris’s astounding voice fills the soundtrack and when you couple this with the exquisite care he took towards his subject, De Felitta’s ‘Tis Autumn is a great find for jazz fans and documentary lovers alike.

Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, De Felitta’s Search marks his strongest work since I first discovered his overlooked, Sundance Audience Award winning sleeper Two Family House which is not only a personal indie favorite—but much like this film—a highly personal work for the director and one in which his passion is so infectious that I selected it without hesitation for inclusion in a local film series I ran in our community.

And similarly--just like House had people nodding along to the music in their seats—‘Tis Autumn will definitely make you want to rush out and track down the music you can find by the musician… if, that is, there’s still any left in print here in the United States. So in other words, our “musical” Search for Jackie Paris continues.
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