All that jazz
Director Robert Altman has returned to his childhood haunts to re-create the swinging 303 jazz scene in new ﬁlm Kansas City. Alan Morrison listens to a veteran in performance.
Don't think of them as words. think of them as notes. That's the advice of director Robert Altman for those approaching his latest movie, Kansas City. in which he encouraged his cast to treat their dialogue as pieces of music and fall into the free-form improvisational style of the jazz greats of the l930s. The man behind such screen classics as Nashville. The Player and Short Cuts believes he has created a movie that isn’t just about jazz — it is jazz.
‘I approached the actors and their performances in the same way as I would a musician,‘ he says. ‘This was a jam session and we had a line, we had the ‘song', but in their “solos” or in their “duets”, I let them go off on their own riff. Everybody, to me, was an instrument and the whole ﬁlm was constructed like a jazz piece. i wasn't particularly interested in the logic of it or in telling you exactly who did what to whom. i was interested in making a spherical piece of music rather than a linear story.‘
The story, for what it’s worth, plays out amid the corrupt politics and seedy gang-run bars in Kansas City during the Depression. But as Altman suggests, the strength of the work is not how the thriller elements develop as much as the painstakingly re- created mood. This doesn’t just come down to the costumes, cars and sets, but the backdrop of jazz music itself.
‘The musicians that we represented - Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster — they all played in Kansas City.‘ explains the 71-year-old, who’s
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It’s 1934 In Kansas City - mid- liepressiou America - and upstairs in the lley liey nightclub, a dusk-to- dusk (an session is underway. But the real business is downstairs, where a craps gane has attracted gublers from across the country. Orchestrating all this is the gravel- throated black gangster, Seldom Seen (llarry Belatonte). Outside, the Senatorial elections commence in a violent poll which is, tor all “genes, being orchestrated by the
Iilructor Robert Altman reaches Into the psyche of his childhood home tor
Jazzlng it up: director llobert Altman surrounded by the musicians who teature In Kansas City
continually féted by critics and the acting community. ‘This was the stopping-off place where they all came together and, before be-bop. this is where swing started.’
In addition to the movie itself, Altman captured on film the twelve-day jam session that brought together some of the leading names from today‘s jazz scene for a one-off session to record the soundtrack for his feature. calling it Kansas City Jazz '34. James Carter. Don Byron, Geri Allen and Ron Carter are among those playing original songs by Count Basic and other greats, but the highlight of this visual soundtrack — and the movie Kansas City — is the edge-of-your-seat ‘eutting contest‘ between sax legends Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, re- created here by, respectively. Joshua Redman and Craig Hendry.
The film‘s detailed reconstruction of the period suggests that the entire project has been a labour of love for Altman, one that takes him back to his early childhood. 'The woman who really raised me was our black maid, Glendora Majors,‘ the director
remembers. ‘I must have been eight years old when she sat me down by the radio and said, “Bobby. you listen to this — this is Duke Ellington. this is ‘Solitude’, and this is the best piece of music there is.“ I’ve never forgotten that, and “Solitude” is in the film twice.‘
He‘s also quick to admit that his approach to this movie is uncharacteristically nostalgic. ‘It was a very cold nostalgia. but that’s not to say an unpleasant nostalgia.‘ he explains. ‘I left Kansas City when l was eighteen years old and went into the Air Force in World War ll. So when I went back, I knew all the streets, I knew where i'd lived, but i didn‘t know any people. We'd be standing on the street corner getting ready to make a set-up, and some old man would come up to me and say “Mr Altman?" and I‘d say “Yes. sir?". And he'd pull out a picture and say. “This is us in kindergarten together -- remember?". And I’d say “My God — but you‘re so alrll". At that point, i realised why vampires avoid mirrors.‘ Kansas City Jazz '34 is available an the Weinerworld video label. priced £12. 99.
Kansas city: ‘the music always superb"
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trom Seldom after he botches a heist mlns. From Mon 2. Edinburgh:
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20 The List 29 Nov-12 Dec I996