MFAH's Jazz on Film Series Swings Back After Pandemic Absence

That interplanetary jazz ambassador, Sun Ra, from "A Joyful Noise."
That interplanetary jazz ambassador, Sun Ra, from "A Joyful Noise." Screen shot/Photo provided by MFAH
You’ll have to forgive Peter Lucas if he—like so many of us—has sort of lost track of time a bit during the past 2 ½ years living under a pandemic. He’s trying to recall the last time the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston held its Jazz on Film series.

“That was like five or six years ago, wasn’t it?” he says with a hint of exaggeration. “Who’s got any realistic sense of time with COVID? But it does seem like a long time since we’ve done this!”

click to enlarge "Jazz on Film" curator Peter Lucas. - PERSONAL PHOTO
"Jazz on Film" curator Peter Lucas.
Personal photo
Lucas created the annual series for the MFAH in 2013 and has curated every single edition. That includes the last one in 2019. He adds that there’s a lot more to the process than simply coming up with a list of films he wants to show and ordering them up.

“Sometimes one company will have the rights to the films, but some other archive has a print. And we’re always looking for the [actual] 35mm film prints or digital restorations,” he says. “Sometimes they’ve taken years to track down and secure for a screening.”

Since its inception, Jazz on Film has featured documentaries on individual performers or jazz history, concert films, and fictional movies with either subject matter or a soundtrack heavily jazz-based. Most of them are rarely shown. Lucas walked us on 4/4 time through the five selections for this year’s series, which runs June 4-18.

Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, 1980
One of jazz’s most eclectic characters (which is saying a lot), the man born Herman Poole Blount in Alabama (1914-1994) is known almost as much for his out-there philosophy and outlandish stage costumes as his avant-garde, free-jazz sounds performed with his revolving musical ensemble, The Arkestra.

And don’t forget that the eclectic piano/synthesizer alchemist was a guy who claimed to be an alien from Saturn sent to earth to preach peace and his brand of Afro-futurism.

“I’m aware of some perceptions of people who haven’t engaged his music deeply that see him as a guy with some kind of kooky costume, and I guess he can be appreciated in that way,” Lucas says. “But this documentary presents both of those sides, and there are some great performances.”

Lucas says what’s “most enlightening” is seeing Ra and his musicians just rapping and practicing in their shared house and rehearsal place in Philadelphia.

“The [band] has a lot of reverence for Sun Ra and the music they’re making and the community around them,” Lucas offers. And bonus, the film is being introduced by Houstonian Damon Choice, who was a member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
click to enlarge The Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter with jazz legend Thelonious Monk. - SCREEN SHOT/PROVIDED BY THE MFAH
The Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter with jazz legend Thelonious Monk.
Screen shot/Provided by the MFAH
The Jazz Baroness, 2009
When saxophone legend Charlie Parker died in 1955 from a variety of health ailments, it was in the New York City hotel apartment of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.

And while eyebrows were raised as to why a drug-taking black jazz man was in the private quarters of a white woman from a well-known Jewish banking family, those on the jazz scene in New York City knew the Baroness as a genuine admirer of the music and someone who many, many times helped out players (most notably Parker and Thelonious Monk) with money or lodging or support when they were down and out.

“She’s always been this weird little mysterious side character in jazz history,” Lucas says, adding the fact that the documentary was directed by Koenigswarter’s great-niece Hannah Rothschild brings a more intimate touch. “It took us awhile to track this film down from a European distributor.”

click to enlarge Nathaniel Taylor in "Passing Through." - SCREEN SHOT/PROVIDED BY THE MFAH
Nathaniel Taylor in "Passing Through."
Screen shot/Provided by the MFAH
Passing Through, 1977
Lucas is perhaps most excited about securing a screening for this very rare piece of African-American independent cinema, directed by Larry Clark and co-written by Clark and Ted Lange (yes, Isaac the bartender from TV's The Love Boat).

The plot tells the story of a recently released-from-prison jazz musician played by Nathaniel Taylor (later better known as Rollo from the TV series Sanford and Son) who tries to navigate an exploitative music industry while searching for his grandfather and musical/spiritual mentor.

The soundtrack features a lot of well-known jazz players, but the original score is written by Houston-born pianist/composer Horace Tapscott and performed by his Pan African People’s Arkestra.

“It’s never been released on any home video or streaming platform and likely will never be,” Lucas says. “It’s a really unique chance to see this film. And musicians know Horace Tapscott and hold him in high regard not just as a musician, but educator and community activist. He grew up here in the Third Ward.”

click to enlarge MOVIE POSTER
Movie poster
Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959
In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, an awful lot of crime or dramatic thrillers set in an urban or big city landscape featured jazz-heavy soundtracks. The music emanating from composers like Lalo Schifrin and Elmer Bernstein, or musicians like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Quincy Jones.

John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet does the honors for this film, a noir in which former cop recruits a nightclub entertainer with a gambling problem (Harry Belafonte) and a racist ex-con to pull off a burglary heist. Themes of racism, greed and self-destruction abound. The MJQ and some guest stars provide the music.

“Cinema was changing during that time, and you had Hollywood filmmakers who were looking to set the scene of a modern America in music, something to put you in an urban metropolis of that day, or have a feel of existential dread,” Lucas says. “And that was jazz, sometimes with Latin rhythms. A lot of European films at the time also used jazz. It was a hot period for this, even as jazz was splitting into different modes.”

Round Midnight, 1986
This movie tells the story of a jazz saxophonist toward the end of his life and career as he reflects on the choices he’s made while trying to steer a young acolyte away from the same substance abuse issues he had. The character is an amalgamation of real-life jazz musicians Lester Young and Bud Powell, but also that of Dexter Gordon, who also acts in the lead role.

It was part of a trio of jazz-centered films including Clint Eastwood’s take on Charlie Parker’s life, Bird (1987) and Spike Lee’s ‘Mo Better Blues (1990) that briefly featured jazz in mainstream films.

“That story is not too far from Dexter’s himself at the time. And I’ve always wanted to work this film into the series from the beginning. The director, Bertrand Tavernier passed away last year, and I wanted to honor this really great work,” Lucas says.

“A lot of people around the world had, if not their first exposure to jazz with this film, got a better understanding of it. And there’s so many great [real-life] musicians in it like Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard and Bobby Hutcherson,” he continues. “And any time you see a performance in it, it was played live There was no miming. It’s kind of hard for to even talk about because it’s so moving in so many different ways.”
click to enlarge Dexter Gordon (seated) in "Round Midnight." - SCREEN SHOT/PROVIDED BY THE MFAH
Dexter Gordon (seated) in "Round Midnight."
Screen shot/Provided by the MFAH
As Lucas talks, it’s right after the hugely successful opening weekend of the (very non-jazzy) action movie Top Gun: Maverick. And there’s been a lot of chatter about the vast difference between seeing a film like this in an actual theater versus streaming at home.

Lucas has a similar opinion about seeing the entries in this year’s Jazz on Film in the same way.

“That’s a big reason for creating this series in the first place, to see films the way they were meant to be seen. On the big screen and communally and with great sound. I’ve seen [audiences] even applaud after seeing a musical performance,” he says.

“And there’s also this thing where we’re never not distracted watching [at home]. You’re still eating Cheetos and checking your phone and you’re the one pressing ‘play.’ It’s a lot different from just surrendering yourself to an experience.”

Jazz on Film runs June 4-18 at various times, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Brown Auditorium, 1001 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-639-7515 or visit Each film $9, $7 for seniors, students with ID, and MFAH members.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero