10 key jazz films

Ten great film forays into the belly of jazz music.

2 April 2021

By Jonathan Romney

The Connection (1961)
Sight and Sound

Momma Don’t Allow

Karel Reisz & Tony Richardson, 1955

One of the foundation stones of British Free Cinema, this 22-minute short shows trad antics at Wood Green Jazz Club, with the Chris Barber Band featuring Lonnie Donegan. Years later, Absolute Beginners (Julien Temple, 1985) would be derided for its high-gloss reimagining of the London jazz scene in its heyday, but with input from Gil Evans and a dazzling fantasia on Charles Mingus’s Boogie Stop Shuffle, it’s not to be dismissed.

The Connection

Shirley Clarke, 1961

Jazz was as vital to the new American independent cinema of the 1950s and 60s as it was to the era’s poetry and painting. One of the most famous jazz-influenced films of this period was John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959), but just as vital was Clarke’s film, based on Jack Gelber’s play about a group of jazz-scene heroin addicts waiting for their man: among the cast, pianist Freddie Redd, who wrote the score, and altoist Jackie McLean.

Sven Klang’s Combo

Stellan Olsson, 1976

Many cinephile jazz lovers swear by this as the real thing. Set in Sweden in 1958, it’s about a dance band in which power relations shift when a new sax player tries to modernise the music. A key moment comes when his solo tears the roof off a cover of Somewhere over the Rainbow – a song also the subject of the best, and saddest, jazz joke ever, told in Jim Jarmusch’s 1980 debut Permanent Vacation.

Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise

Robert Mugge, 1980

John Coney’s 1974 Space Is the Place celebrated the myth, depicting the legendarily eccentric Sun Ra as a traveller in space and time, pursued by hostile Nasa agents. But Mugge’s documentary showed the incendiary, wildly theatrical Arkestra in concert and in rehearsal, as well as living together in a commune and doing shifts at the mystical maestro’s Pharaoh’s Den convenience store – and, of course, the great man holding forth in cosmically gnomic style.

’Round Midnight

Bertrand Tavernier, 1986

Dexter Gordon in ’Round Midnight (1986)

A tribute to the jazz greats who made Paris their home, sometimes while looking ruin in the face. Inspired by Lester Young and Bud Powell, protagonist Dale Turner was played by a real-life titan, tenor great Dexter Gordon, who received an Academy Award nomination for his performance. Herbie Hancock scored, while a stellar cast of musicians includes Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard. French cinema’s definitive testimony to the national romance with the music.

Mo’ Better Blues

Spike Lee, 1990

A rare movie about a player who has made a successful career, breaking away from romantic clichés of squalor and defeat. Denzel Washington leads as trumpeter Bleek, and the music is by the Branford Marsalis Quartet, with Terence Blanchard on trumpet. Like many jazz films, this dramatises musicians’ eternal conflict with the Man, but Lee got into trouble over the characterisation of two nightclub owners, which many felt was anti-Semitic.

A Great Day in Harlem

Jean Bach, 1994

A Great Day in Harlem (1994)

On 12 August 1958, on East 126th Street, New York, photographer Art Kane took a group portrait of 57 jazz musicians for Esquire magazine, including Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. Bach’s Oscar-nominated documentary tells how the picture came to be taken, partly through 8mm footage by bassist Milt Hinton. Quincy Jones narrates, with Gillespie and Sonny Rollins reminiscing.

Kansas City

Robert Altman, 1995

Dominated by Harry Belafonte’s balefully rasping gangster ‘Seldom Seen’, Altman’s drama was a richly atmospheric evocation of a key music hub of the 1930s. Assorted contemporary musicians play the roles of period greats, such as Mary Lou Williams and Ben Webster. Altman’s TV film Jazz ’34 was a performance sidebar to the fiction, featuring such modern experimenters as Olu Dara, Don Byron and the late Geri Allen playing their versions of the period music.

Cold War

Pawel Pawlikowski, 2018

Not strictly a jazz film, although it features a virtuoso performance by The Eddy star Joanna Kulig, who previously played a club singer in his Ida (2013). About a musical couple who defect from Poland’s institutionalised folk world, the film is partly Pawlikowski’s tribute to the Polish musicians who found a new form of expression through jazz, among them composer-pianist Krzysztof Komeda, whose scores for Roman Polanski’s early films introduced the Eastern European jazz sensibility to cinema.

I Called Him Morgan

Kasper Collin, 2016

The history of jazz lives is inseparable from high drama, even tragedy, and this is one of jazz’s most arresting stories: the life and tragic death of prodigious trumpeter Lee Morgan.

Other documentary portraits to discover: Let’s Get Lost, photographer Bruce Weber’s unashamedly icon-making 1988 tribute to trumpeter, crooner and all-time pin-up Chet Baker; and Charlotte Zwerin’s revealing study of the most idiosyncratic of piano greats, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988).

Further reading

Ronnie’s: Ronnie Scott & his World Famous Jazz Club rhapsodises Soho in blue

By Nick James

Ronnie’s: Ronnie Scott & his World Famous Jazz Club rhapsodises Soho in blue

Django review: a cauldron of hot jazz and cataclysmic history

By Christina Newland

Django review: a cauldron of hot jazz and cataclysmic history

How the movies woke up to jazz

By Tom Milne

How the movies woke up to jazz

Radu Jude interview: “Scarred Hearts is like a jazz piece”

By Jonathan Romney

Radu Jude interview: “Scarred Hearts is like a jazz piece”

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