“A Man Called Adam,” one of the rare films showing at the MFAH, stars Sammy Davis Jr. as a trumpeter in decline. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of jazz in film history. After all, the first major talkie, The Jazz Singer, infamously starring Al Jolson as an aspiring blackface minstrel, featured music by several of the great Tin Pan Alley composers. Like Jolson, many twentieth-century Hollywood icons—Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra—built their careers performing jazz or jazz-inflected music on the big screen. And it’s hard to imagine film noir, French New Wave cinema, or the groundbreaking American auteur films of the 1970s without their jazz soundtracks. That films as disparate as Top Hat and Taxi Driver would be inconceivable without jazz is a testament to its richness. 

Jazz on Film

June 7–22
$9; students & seniors $7.

“There’s an interesting, diverse, complex relationship there that’s not easy to categorize,” said Peter Lucas, the organizer of the second annual Jazz on Film series, which includes 16 films and runs for three weekends this month at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Lucas, an independent film curator, grew up in Montrose going to jazz clubs with his father, a bassist. “My dad had a lot of jazz records, and I went to HSPVA, so I had the unusual experience of being around teenagers talking about John Coltrane records as much as pop music,” he said.

The idea for the film series grew out of Lucas’s conversations with Marian Luntz, the MFAH’s curator of film and video. The turnout for the inaugural series last summer was so good, the museum decided to reprise it this year with a new slate of films. “There were great audiences,” Lucas remembered. “There were musicians and people that were into jazz, but also a lot of different people with a lot of interests. The series isn’t necessarily just for jazz aficionados.”

Miles Davis in Elevator to the Gallows (1958). Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Take Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), which kicks off the series. The film is as notable for its classic noir plot and beautiful, lonely shots of Paris as its haunting soundtrack by Miles Davis—the musician’s first experiment with the modal sound that underpins Kind of Blue. And Let’s Get Lost (1988), a documentary about the final years of Chet Baker, not only captures some of the trumpeter’s most evocative late performances, but features breathtaking black-and-white cinematography by fashion photographer Bruce Weber.

Still, what good is a film series on jazz—the genre that gave us the hipster, remember—without a few curios? “I’m particularly excited about A Man Called Adam,” Lucas said. The 1966 drama stars Sammy Davis Jr. as a volatile trumpeter in decline. “Very few people know this film, and we were luckily able to track down a film print”—perhaps the only one in existence, Lucas speculated.

The remainder of the movies—the 1974 Sun Ra science fiction epic Space Is the Place, three short documentaries about avant-garde saxophonists, and nine animated shorts—aren’t exactly common repertory fare either. Lucas said he likes to balance better-known films like Elevator to the Gallows with more obscure work. “People think that everything is on the Internet, and whatever’s not on the Internet doesn’t exist, like all of cinema is contained within Netflix or something,” he said. “It’s really interesting to me to present these things while we can, and to present them on film. It starts to widen the conversation and widen the scope of people’s experience, and they’re like, ‘Oh, there’s all this stuff!’” 

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