Welcome back to BCB After Dark: the hep hang for night owls, early-risers, new parents and Cubs fans abroad. I’m so glad that you could stop by tonight. I hope you can forget your worries for a little while. Come on in and relax. Take a table near the front. The show will be underway shortly. If there’s anything we can do for you, please let us know. Bring your own beverage.
BCB After Dark is the place for you to talk baseball, music, movies, or anything else you need to get off your chest, as long as it is within the rules of the site. The late-nighters are encouraged to get the party started, but everyone else is invited to join in as you wake up the next morning and into the afternoon. BCB After Dark is the place for you to talk baseball, music, movies, or anything else you need to get off your chest, as long as it is within the rules of the site. The late-nighters are encouraged to get the party started, but everyone else is invited to join in as you wake up the next morning and into the afternoon.
I envision BCB AD as kind of relaxing spot when Cubs fans can just come together and have a good time. Where they can enjoy some music, some cinema and some baseball either before going to sleep or first thing in the morning. It’s supposed to be fun and low-stakes.
Therefore, we’re not discussing the Cubs tonight.
Last time, I asked you to grade manager David Ross. I got a lot more interest than I normally do and there was a real bell curve on your votes. In the end, 46 percent of you gave Ross a “C” with 20 percent giving him a “D” and 19 percent giving him a “B.”
Here’s the part where I write about jazz and movies. Except tonight, we’re doing it in one section as I offer my take on the terrific 1986 film, ‘Round Midnight. You’re free to skip ahead to the baseball question at the end. You won’t hurt my feelings. It will, however, be your loss.
‘Round Midnight, director Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 film about the friendship between a Black American jazz legend who’s down and out and a French single father, is not just a great movie. It’s the kind of film that gets inside and you can’t get it out of your head, just like a great piece of music. It’s a tribute to the power of jazz and fellowship. It’s about meeting your idol and discovering that they’re nothing like you expected but everything you needed. And above all, it’s about a mesmerizing performance from real-life legendary saxophonist Dexter Gordon in his film debut. Gordon’s portrait of the fictional Dale Turner is one that you will never forget.
Tavernier wanted to make a film about the jazz scene in Paris in the late-1950s that he remembered from his youth. As you can might imagine, the studios, both in Paris and Los Angeles, thought such a film in the mid-eighties was a recipe for a box-office bomb and refused to finance it. But Tavernier had Irwin Winkler in his corner, and he was the man who produced the uber-successful Rocky films. Eventually Warner Brothers came up with $3 million for ‘Round Midnight, just to keep Winkler happy.
The film is “inspired” by the book Dance of the Infidels, written by amateur French jazz pianist Francis Paudras about his friendship with pianist Bud Powell during Powell’s time in Paris. Certainly the broad story arc of Powell in Paris is followed, but most of the plot (such as it is) is an original creation by Tavernier and co-screenwriter David Rayfiel.
Tavernier told the studio that the film wouldn’t work if the music wasn’t perfect. Because of that, Tavernier insisted that the music had to be recorded live on the set, rather than pre-recorded and then mimed by the stars. Because of that, the lead part of Dale Turner had to be played by a real jazz musician, much against the wishes of Warner Brothers. All the supporting parts of band members had to be played by jazz musicians as well. After some discussions with Tavernier’s musical director on the film, Herbie Hancock, and some other people he knew in the jazz world, they offered the part to saxophonist Dexter Gordon. That made sense for a lot of reasons, not the least in that Gordon had played with Bud Powell in Paris in the early-sixties.
I can’t say enough about the job that Gordon does in this film. A professional actor could have read the lines and done the gravelly voice, but Gordon speaks and moves with a rhythm that only a jazz great could understand. Dale Turner is a man who knows he’s near the end of his life. He’s battled racism and drug and alcohol addiction most of his life and that’s taken its toll. But the soul of an artist is still inside of him. He no longer has the skills he had earlier in life and he can’t hit the same notes he once could. But what comes out of him, both on- and off-the-stage, is still the poetry of a genius.
It’s tempting to say that Gordon’s performance here is just him playing himself. After all, Gordon was an old jazz legend nearing the end of his life in 1986. But that’s just not correct. Certainly Gordon drew on his own experiences like every actor does, but Gordon’s portrait of Dale Turner is really a composite of all the people he’d known and played with over the years. He especially drew upon the mannerisms of Gordon’s own idol, saxophonist Lester Young. Turner wears a porkpie hat like Young. He carries his saxophone like Young did. He calls everybody, male and female, “Lady,” just like Young did.
Gordon also re-wrote much of the dialog of ‘Round Midnight so that it would better reflect the way actual jazz musicians talked during that time. As I said, there’s this poetry to Dale Turner that’s hard to explain on the page. Even the pauses that Gordon puts into his lines demonstrate a jazz musician’s knowledge of when to put a rest in a piece of music. His performance is entrancing, just like a beautiful piece of jazz is. Gordon’s portrayal of Dale is a slow, mournful ballad interspaced by moments of pure joy. Gordon got an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for ‘Round Midnight and he deserved it.
Against this, François Cluzet’s role as Francis, a single dad of a preteen girl and struggling commercial artist, can’t really keep up. But that’s OK, because our focus should really be on Dale and the friendship that develops between the two men. Francis recognizes the real genius of Dale in a way that only a struggling artist (albeit in a different field) could. He also has to balance his real responsibility to his daughter Berangere (Gabrielle Haker) with the responsibility he takes on to protect Dale from himself.
And then there’s the actual music in the film, which is incredible. Herbie Hancock was the musical director of the film and he won a much-deserved Academy Award for the film’s score. He also put together (with a bit of help from Gordon), an all-star backing band for Dale Turner. Bobby Hutcherson, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard, Tony Williams, Pierre Michelot, Cedar Walton, Hancock and others were all roped into the project and played members of Dale’s bands. (In case you don’t know, those are all jazz greats.) Some, like Hutcherson, even had to play supporting characters with lines and such. (Hutcherson’s character “Ace” is obsessed with trying to cook good New Orleans food in a Paris hotel room.)
Hancock and Tavernier don’t force these great artists into trying to recreate the late bebop sound that acts in Paris in the late-fifties would have played. Instead, they pick period appropriate songs (and a few originals written by Hancock) and just let these artists be themselves.
All of this leads to some very terrific music. As noted above, all of the music was recorded live on the set and while that can lead to some problems with sound quality, it’s a tribute to Hancock and the sound engineers that helped him that they pulled it off.
I can’t say that this film will turn you into a jazz fan, because people’s tastes are their tastes. But I can say that if you watch ‘Round Midnight, you’ll understand why other people love jazz. It captures the romanticism of the genre but also it takes the time to explain what’s going on. It’s easily the best film about jazz that I’ve ever seen and it may be the best film about music that I’ve ever seen. Unlike many music films, the actual music is front and center, rather than just a way of putting an exclamation point on the rags-to-riches-to-rags (or whatever) biography that they’re trying to tell.
It’s also even amazing that Gordon’s struggles early in the film get incorporated into the plot. When we first hear Dale Turner play, he’s good, but anyone familiar with Dexter Gordon’s work knows it’s not his best. The truth of the matter was that Gordon was semi-retired in 1986 and was out of practice. His music producer was worried that Gordon’s rustiness would reflect badly on his work, but Gordon just told him “It’s a movie. Dale wouldn’t be great at the start.” Gordon promised him he’d be back in peak form by the end of shooting and sure enough, he was right.
(Wayne Shorter was also out of practice playing the tenor saxophone, since he’d only played the soprano sax for years at that point. So he practiced the tenor sax in their Paris hotel “for 20 hours a day” which was probably an exaggeration but not by much. When other guests in the hotel complained, Gordon just told the hotel staff “How can anyone complain about listening to Wayne Shorter play the saxophone?”)
The plot of the film is pretty simple and it’s not really the point. Dale Turner is living in New York and tells his friend Hershell, a fellow jazzman who is clearly dying, that he’s leaving to go get a fresh start in Paris. He starts playing at the Blue Note Club there where his money and access to alcohol is strictly controlled, for fear he’d disappear and never come back.
Francis Borler is a French commercial artist who idolizes Turner. His career is going poorly and he can’t afford to get into the club, so he sits on the sidewalk in the rain outside the club so he can put his ear up to the air vent and hear Dale play. He’s also a divorced dad with custody of his preteen daughter Berangere, whom he lives with in a tiny apartment. He also leaves her alone at night so he can put his ear up to the Blue Note’s vents.
Eventually, Dale spots Francis on the street and tells him he can hang out with his idol if he’s willing to buy Dale drinks. This starts a friendship between the two men. Francis quickly realizes that his idol’s addictions are a problem and much of the rest of the film is about Francis trying to get both his life and his idol’s life back together. But Dale is also the most charming and inspiring person that Francis has ever met and he’s desperate to keep their relationship going for as long as he can. Francis believes that Dale’s music changed his life and that Dale has so much more to offer. Dale, on the other hand, has the fatalism of man who has seen too much and plans to live just one day at a time for as much time as he has left.
I’m not going to give a full plot summary, since the plot isn’t the point. There are high points and low points along the way for Dale and Francis. If you’re familiar with the stories of Bud Powell and Lester Young, you can guess how this is going to finish. Martin Scorsese, a friend of Tavernier, plays a particularly sleazy club owner near the end of the film.
But this is not a film about sadness. It’s a film about the joy that music and friendship can bring. Like Francis at the end of the picture, we aren’t sad that it’s over. We’re glad that it happened at all.
I’m somewhat embarrassed that I’ve never seen ‘Round Midnight before this week. I’ve made it clear that I love jazz and movies (and French movies), so you’d think I would have checked it out before now. But don’t dismiss my praise as just me loving something up my alley. I’ve seen Bird (good but not great) and Miles Ahead (a terrific performance by Don Cheadle saves an otherwise mess of a movie) and those two jazz films aren’t in ‘Round Midnight’s class. This is a film that anyone who loves the poetry of film can enjoy whether they care for jazz or not.
Now here’s your jazz track for the night. It’s “Dale” and the band playing “Body and Soul” at the Blue Note.
And here’s Dale talking to a French psychiatrist. While the gist of the scene was in the original script, most of the words here were written by Dexter Gordon himself. This scene really captures the melody of Gordon’s performance.
Welcome back to everyone who skips the jazz movies.
We’re not talking about the Cubs tonight, so I thought I’d simply ask you who is going to win the National League West.
The American League East and West races seem all but over. Certainly they’re not, but it would take a wild turn of events for the Yankees or Astros not to end up on top. Both Centrals are more interesting and the NL East has gotten interesting only because the Braves have won 14 in a row, but the Mets still have a four-game lead.
But the NL West, just like last year, has three teams going at it. So which one is going to win the division? I’m not giving you the choice of the Rockies or the Diamondbacks. You can vote for the Dodgers, the Padres or the Giants.
Who will win the NL West?
This poll is closed
Thank you so much for joining us during these trying times. I hope you’ve been able to relax and unwind for a while. Be sure to tip your waitstaff. Check around your table so you don’t leave anything. Get home safely. And join us again next week for another week of BCB After Dark. Hopefully under better circumstances.