Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 8, No. 2, 1994
Critical Multiculturalism
Edited by Tom O'Regan

Making jazz: film, poetry and Listen Up: can a film be jazz?

Mitzi Goldman

Filmmakers often draw analogies between filmmaking and music practices, but not enough has been said about the possibilities for creating musical styles in a cinematic form. Before the music/video clip became a major marketing tool for popular music, the role of music in the movies had been a conservative one. In feature films, music is predominantly used to serve the narrative, to embellish and/or shock, to emotionally manipulate the audience. In traditional Hollywood musicals, the narrative also serves the music, but the music is still bound up in a classical narrative function. Music as a form of storytelling in its own right, has rarely been given the freedom to determine and alter the cinematic conventions of storytelling.

Music documentaries have generally been cinema verite style, "on the road" with the band, or they are solid concert footage. Although jazz performances have been recorded on film, there have been more concert films made of rock bands. Feature documentaries about jazz musicians have been made more recently with films like Straight No Chaser - A film about Thelonius Monk, Let's Get Lost, about Chet Baker, and Beyond El Rocco - a drama-doco about the 1950s jazz era in Australia.

Listen Up is a documentary that weaves interviews, filmed recording sessions and archival footage into a narrative that stretches the conventions of the music documentary, and as a result is a film that is driven and organised by a jazz aesthetic. It is much more than a film about jazz. Listen Up is jazz. Listen Up both resists generic classification and at the same time encompasses all of the generic classifications of the documentary. It is a music documentary, it is a political documentary, it's a portrait film, an historical compilation film, it is ethnographic and it is a jazz film.

About Jazz: Music, Style and Politics

"Jazz" not only refers to a musical style. It is a term used to describe a style of dance, literature, dress, attitude and a way of speaking - "jazz talk" or "jive". Jazz music is a language, and the rules of its grammar are not dissimilar from the language of cinema. The style that the term "jazz" encompasses is a style that can also be expressed in a filmic form, as it has been in literature. "Jazz" covers a broad range of musical styles including ragtime, blues, swing and be bop, but an essential element in all jazz is improvisation. This spontaneous creation inspired by the other elements working simultaneously in the same piece, also happens regularly in film and video editing rooms. Working within and departing from an existing or evolving structure, improvisation occurs on the shoot and in the editing room as a regular part of the creative process, particularly in documentary filmmaking practice.

Another element that is usually associated with jazz music is its syncopated rhythm. Although there is music that is appreciated as jazz that is not rhythmically syncopated (free jazz and some European jazz), the jazz I am referring to in relation to the film Listen Up is the body of African American music that enormously influenced modern forms of jazz in other parts of the world. This jazz typically swings. Syncopation is off-beat accenting, or emphasis where you least expect it. It is the rhythm of the editing particularly, but also the shooting and the oral delivery of the storytelling that marks Listen Up as jazz.

In the performance of jazz music there is a tension created by musicians playing with the accents of beat, or 'tugging at opposite sides of the beat' while at the same time a constant and steady rhythm is maintained (Gridley 6-7). In Listen Up, against the steady progression of the narrative, tension is created by the way the story is cut up and intercut with another story or a moment of exchange, some music, a line of dialogue, each of which is given equal priority in the way it is mixed, and which results in the two or three (or more) elements equally demanding your attention simultaneously, improvisationa in its free association, and allowing a reading that any one element on its own would not. For example:

A bell rings

(Interview Quincy) 'Scene 1 Take 1'

'I'm Quincy Jones, do I face here or here?'

'You always face here'


(Lyrics) 'You better watch that

man, watch that,

Watch that man'

(Interview grabs) 'Quincy Delight Jones'

'Yeh I remember that sucker'

'He was a guy that you automatically liked a kid'

'My mother always kept me abreast on

what he was...his name was like real familiar'

(Rap lyrics and performance) 'The dude and the man is

back with the way

pop soul classical rock the

young and the old'

(Interview as Voice Over) 'If Quincy got off the plane tomorrow in

Chicago he'd probably head to the south side'

(Music drives the picture)

(Hand-held camera swings to a man in a car)

(Quincy Jones to the man) 'Hey I was born here'

(They shake hands)

What a jazz film is, depends on our interpretation of jazz. Firstly, I want to make a distinction between films about jazz or particular jazz musicians or concerts, and a "jazz film", a film whose style is associated with what has elusively been called a "jazz aesthetic". Secondly, jazz music is originally and predominantly a black thing, but the music has evolved historically between the various cultures of the USA, with cross influences from black to white and back, as well as exchanges between musicians from other parts of the world.

Apart from the influence of individual musicians' lives and styles on the music itself, the "jazz aesthetic" is as much about politics as it is about form. Jazz has a social and political history as a voice of expression of the African-American experience. Musical storytelling, a form of oral history, has been integral to the survival and understanding of black American culture. People carry their culture in music which is easily passed between communities and learnt by younger generations. Jazz, in its various styles, has told of the suffering and injustice throughout African American history and has reflected the different times in its changing modes of address. Traditional African singing and work songs were influenced by European church music, at a time when the only condoned public meeting place for blacks was the church. This resulted in gospel music that not only had a spiritual purpose but also provided a possible collective expression of solidarity and resistance in the face of slavery and cultural erasure. Much social change has been accompanied by music. Folk, rhythm and blues and jazz were a big part of the American civil rights movement. Songs are a form of rhetoric that unite people and can provide an outlet and voice for revolutionary energy.

The blue note, originally an African improvisation on quality of tone and pitch, and immortalised by singers such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holliday, became such a recognisable jazz trademark that the sad feeling "the blues" expresses gave rise to a poetic form that is structurally related to the music in its positioning of words and meaning, against accent and rhyme. Rhythm and blues, swing, the big bands, hard bop, free jazz, fusion, funk, jazz-rock, pop and rap all have elements of the earlier styles and all reflect a measure of attitude and response to existing social relationships.

Jazz Literature

One of the leading black writers on jazz is the poet, playwright and social critic Leroi Jones, also known as Imamu Amiri Baraka. He has written in the jazz journals Down Beat, Jazz Review and Metronome and has also written several books on jazz, including Blues People - Negro Music in White America and Black Music. He has published collected works of poetry and novellas as well as political essays. He writes about black music being 'essentially the expression of an attitude, or a collection of attitudes about the world, and only secondarily an attitude about the way music is made' (Jones Black Music 13). His main issue with the white jazz critic is that they strip the music of its social and cultural intent. For him, the white critic neither understands nor is concerned with the attitudes that produced the music. 'They seek to define jazz as an art (or folk art) that has come out of no intelligent body of socio-cultural philosophy' (Black Music 14). For Leroi Jones, jazz was revolutionary and the jazz aesthetic was a black aesthetic.

After a stint in the US air force as a young man, Leroi Jones became a disillusioned beat poet in Greenwich Village with, amongst others, Allen Ginsburg (whom he refers to as his friend and teacher). He co-edited an influential avant garde literary journal called Yugen, which published some of the best new writers of the time, including Ginsberg, Charles Olson, O'Hara and Jack Kerouac. These poets called themselves jazz poets.

He later broke away from this group and, after the death of Malcolm X in 1965, left the village and moved uptown to Harlem. There he became a cultural nationalist, and political activist. He changed his name to Amiri Baraka and continued to write revolutionary poetry. Over the years his poetry has shifted focus, although consistently fusing musical with verbal forms in its articulation of an African-American politic.

In his work Baraka turns jazz forms into literary ones. If any single theme runs consistently throughout the body of jazz work in America it is the theme of pain. It is this that is answered in styles that range from sad ballads, blues and the love songs of the early singers, to the more escapist, swinging numbers of the big bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Cab Calloway, to the hard bop of Charlie Parker or the cool jazz of Miles Davis. Of the many moods of jazz, Baraka's work has been most influenced by the blues, hard bop and be bop. Epitomised by musicians such as Bessie Smith, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, Baraka's poetry expresses pain, anger and, at times, a hatred for white society. For Baraka, the essence of the Coltrane tradition can be characterised as saying to the white world:

Kiss my ass, kiss my black unruly ass (in Harris).

For Miles Davis

Coltrane became a symbol of pride, black, revolutionary pride...He was expressing in music what Stokeley Carmichael and the Black Panthers and Huey Newton were saying with their words, what the Last Poets and Amiri Baraka were saying in poetry. (Davis 286)

For Baraka, Coltrane epitomises the jazz aesthetic process. Commenting on Coltrane's work he said that

Trane is a mature swan whose wing span was a whole world. But he also showed us how to do away with weak Western forms. He is a beautiful philosopher. He'd play sometimes chorus after chorus, taking the music apart before our ears, splintering chords and sounding each note, resounding it, playing it backwards and upside down to get something else. And we heard our own search and travails, our own reaching for new definition. Trane was our flag. (in Harris)

Social critics have analysed the structure of jazz music in relation to pop music to consider its politic in relation to mainstream white culture. 'When you say pop, that's white right?' (Miles Davis in Listen Up). In his discussion of jazz aesthetic processes, Henry Gates explains that the mode suggests a given structure, precisely by failing to coincide with it - that is, suggests it by dissemblance. Repeating a form and then inverting it through a process of variation is common in jazz. A classic Coltrane example of this is his rendition of the Julie Andrews song My Favourite Things. Baraka's aim also is to take Western forms, deconstruct and subvert them to create something new. He transposes Coltrane's musical ideas to poetry, turning white poetic forms backwards and upside down. As with the cross-overs between African and European musical forms in the evolution of jazz music, it is both the influences of jazz music and the white avant garde that formed the style of his poetry - both protested the dominant culture by inverting dominant forms. The bohemian inverted bourgeois forms and the jazz musician inverted white ones.

The bohemians wanted to invert what they thought was a hypocritical and repressive world, and the blacks wanted to invert what they felt was a racist and oppressive one. (Harris)

About his book of poetry, Sabotage (1961-1963), Baraka states that he 'had come to see the superstructure of filth Americans call their way of life, and wanted to see it fall. To sabotage it, I thought maybe by talking bad and getting high, layin out on they whole chorus' (Baraka 1969 preface). The following example of his writing from this period articulates his disdain towards white cultural canons at the same time as inscribing the black man's anger and different positioning in relationship to them.

Tone Row

(...)He wanders peeing in imaginary books. His soul illiterate
the fingers of his nightmare climb the walls of jails and scream at trains.
He sits and wonders where the girl who dragged his feeling sideways saturdays
sun slanting on new hats under the marquees of adolescence,
the throb of possible lovers, young boys pray their futures in,
the bathroom door
stays locked....
....Singing on a guitar, made up roads
and loves. Old man. Older than shape, his fingers
pull the music out.

(...) (Leroi Jones Black Magic Poetry 1961-67 35)

Following this period of writing, he moved on to far more militant work, calling for revolution and espousing a fiercer hatred directed towards whites and Jews. In embracing Islam and Black Nationalism Baraka went even further in calling for a destruction of white ways and a rebuilding of a black spirituality. It is in this later writing that the link between this jazz poet and the contemporary rappers is most clear. Less like the bebop style of his earlier work and with more anger and polemic, Baraka's later writing and performance exemplifies a period of evolution in jazz literature and politics that has contributed powerfully to the aesthetic and traditions that Listen Up draws on. (Both in terms of its visual evocativeness and its use of language.)

Black People!

(...)Our brothers are moving all over, smashing at jellywhite faces. We must
make our own World, man, our own world, and we can not do this unless the
white man is dead. Let's get together and kill him my man, let's get to gather the
fruit of the sun, let's make a world we want black children to grow and learn in
(...) (Jones Black Magic Poetry 1961-67 225)

It is thirty years on and Baraka's call for armed defiance has been raging in the ghettos of America.

Jazz Film

'he said anybody in this room, it was me, Melle Mel, Kane, he said any of us in this room man, twenty seconds in the other direction, we'd been in the penitentiary'. (Ice T in Listen Up)

In this same tradition, although with a distinctly differing politics, Listen Up makes jazz from the intercutting of grabs of rappers, interviews, archival footage and recording sessions with many of the great jazz musicians whose lives and music have determined the style. It also calls for a heightening of black spirituality but without the same polemic. Listen Up represents the politics of Quincy Jones, and his is a politics that is more about unity than separatism. His aim is to re-instill pride in a younger generation through a broad based humanism.

(Quincy Jones) 'The light inside when you say just one

person believes in you and the

responsibility then isn't only to yourself it's

to another person'

(Jesse Jackson) 'The only justification for looking down on

anyone is that you're going to stop and

pick them up'

(Quincy Jones) 'If you can't look after your own body

how the hell you going to look after

somebody else's body' (Listen Up)

The poetry that the film writes is in the talk, the lyrics, the stories from various perspectives and the images. In quick cuts between gestures and looks, hands tapping out rhythm, the music, the narrative and the politics; Quincy's life story is pieced together in a syncopated rhythm. These stories are cut to complement and conflict. 'Tugging at opposite sides of the beat'.

'Quincy was a tremendous jazz trumpet player

He wasn't that good a trumpet player

He was a horrible trumpet player, he'll kill me but it's true

Quincy turned out to be a marvellous trumpet player

He played very well, I heard him play some solos

He didn't do much soloing

He played all right

He be a bad dude' (Listen Up)

Unlike Baraka, Quincy Jones' aim has not been to invert white forms with a black poetic, but to determine an inclusion of African-American culture in white, mainstream society. Not only has he succeeded in this, he has also been instrumental in fashioning American popular culture as a whole, which in turn has hugely influenced dominant Western cultures world wide.

'it was [about] developing Michael [Jackson] as a

major international musical and entertaining force.

This was the first time kids around the world ever had

a black hero. He transcended how far a black artist

could go.' (Quincy Jones Listen Up)

This inclusion in the mainstream has not been at the expense of a radical politics. Listen Up, like the poetry of Baraka, addresses itself to the racism and oppression of blacks in America. And like Baraka, Jones' politics is a politics of pride. But this is the flip side of strident black nationalism, a belief that personal liberation and love can transcend systemic oppression and be extended to a global level.

'It's about recycling energy

It's a bitch to try to convert hate to love

but if you do it it's the only salvation' (Quincy Jones Listen Up)

We Are the World and USA for Africa were ambitious production enterprises initiated and orchestrated by Quincy Jones, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for third world famine relief.

'you just consider the whole world as part of your dream and you just conveniently turn off what is uncomfortable to you and you ignore it...and you neglect it.' (Quincy Jones Listen Up)

Quincy Jones experienced the neglect and violence in his childhood that young blacks still experience on the streets today. He grew up on the south side in Chicago and started playing trumpet as a fourteen year old 'to get out of whatever was distasteful or unpleasant or uncomfortable or painful - music could always soothe that' (Quincy Jones Listen Up - the book, 20). By sixteen he was jamming with Ray Charles, Clark Terry and the Count Basie band. At eighteen he joined Lionel Hampton's band as a trumpeter and arranger and spent three years touring and recording for the first time. During this time he met Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and on leaving Lionel Hampton's band he began a busy freelance career in New York as an arranger, composer, conductor and trumpeter. Quincy Jones is probably better known in the music world by his peers than by the general public because of his extensive work as an arranger and producer of albums. He has composed, arranged and produced for Art Farmer, Clifford Brown, Dinah Washington, Betty Carter, Cannonball Adderly, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Peggy Lee, Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Lesley Gore, Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, and many others. He has worked as president and "A&R" man (in charge of artists and repertoire) at Mercury records.

He has scored many films, including The Pawnbroker, In Cold Blood, In The Heat of the Night and worked for television scoring Ironside, Roots, plus the entire Bill Cosby Show. He co-produced The Colour Purple, hired Steven Spielberg and presented Oprah Winfrey in her first acting role. He also wrote the score for the movie. Quincy Jones, with Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier, was among the first black men to attain serious creative freedom in Hollywood and began to break down the stereotypes of blacks in front of and behind the camera.

Driven by a conviction to succeed beyond the limitations effecting black artists, he has shared his achievements in the mainstream by way of a real commitment to younger musicians. Passing on an appreciation and respect of jazz traditions, he has provided a cultural context for rappers that doesn't result in a compromise of their own work and politics, nor does it ignore the pain that black people of all generations experience.

'I see a connection between Hip Hop and Be-Bop. They both had to invent their own language. You know: If you don't let us in your culture, then we'll start our own!' (Quincy Jones Listen Up - the book 31)

Where inspiration came for Baraka's writing from Coltrane, among Quincy's main influences were Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Listen Up as a text, also differs in its jazz style from the writing of Amiri Baraka. Its use of conventional narrative devices both cinematically and musically, shares an accessibility and emotional tone with a whole range of jazz and pop exemplified by the music of those such as Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Siedah Garrett, James Ingram and Barbra Streisand. This is music that aims to communicate to a broad market and is structured like a narrative. Quincy's music is not the (sometimes) esoteric style of Coltrane's jazz. Curiously, there is no mention of Coltrane in Listen Up. Quincy's music is melodic, harmonic, and eclectic. It fuses boundaries between jazz, pop, rock and rap. Listen Up also fuses filmic styles in its use of cinema verite, archival compilation, performance, stylised dramatic and subjective narrative techniques. The film consistently addresses personal narrative, musical history and politics simultaneously.

(Quincy Jones) 'There is nothing like that stare

when it first hits you, you just freak

and you get angry and you get confused

because you don't really understand

what it's about'

(Rapper) 'There's a lot of eyes you know, glued to me'

(Quincy Jones) 'And when the eyes hit you, I mean we

all know what that's about since we're two years old,

and we learn how to deal with that'

(Miles Davis) 'You have to tell a young black kid that, cos they

grow up scared.

I know, I was black,...once'

(Jesse Jackson) 'We did not meet in the context of music,

we met in the context of the riots'

(Quincy Jones) 'In the beginning I wanted to make an

album that incorporated the whole

family of American black music'

(Miles Davis) 'White people, American white people, successful white people, aren't familiar with the black man's culture'

(Quincy Jones) 'the melody stays constant and the

rhythm always changes, the times are

always contained in the rhythm'

In order to give a sense of the way Listen Up distinctly differs in style from the way earlier films have treated similar subject matter, I will briefly discuss a few examples of films made about black musicians, and films that use in some way ideological associations about "blackness", its inherent politics and cultural aesthetics. Although not necessarily jazz related, and mostly dramatic rather than documentary, some of these films tried to capture in their narratives and semi-narratives that surround musical performances, a sense of what it is to be black, and what it is to express this musically. The films I will discuss have all fused music, narrative and politics although largely working within established cinematic conventions, and in a far less explicit way than the films and poetry which post date the 1950s and were propelled by the civil rights movement. There are few documentaries to be found from this period, although there are recordings on film of jazz performances.

In 1920s America, movies that depicted racial themes (sometimes called "race movies") were made, some by black directors. They always had prominent music soundtracks, largely spirituals and folk music, and were meant to express something "true" to the black American experience, despite most of them being constructed by a white imagination. They were a mix between musicals and performance films with spiritual narratives. Probably the most widely seen of these were the early Paul Robeson films.

Josephine Baker, in Paris in the early 1920s, had been described as 'the comic little chorus girl whose very gaze was syncopation and whose merest movement was a blues' (Rose 61). In 1927, she played the lead part in a feature film called La Sierene des Tropiques, produced and directed by Mario Nalpas, its young assistant director was Luis Bunuel. Phyllis Rose's description of the narrative points out its attempt to capture the spontaneity and freshness so often associated with jazz/ "blackness", but instead casts Baker in a stereotypically racist and silly plot. '[I]t's fair to say it was never a good movie. Pierre Batcheff [the male lead] and Bunuel thought it was a joke. For Baker, it was worse than a joke. She was humiliated by it' (Rose 120).

Black and Tan Fantasy, made in 1928, is a 20 minute film of the Duke Ellington band performing in a night club. This film is the closest to a cinematic jazz style than any of the other films I've seen. There is a surreal dance scene that takes place on the central dance floor. Filmed from an array of angles with superimpositions and manipulations of film speed, there is a clear influence from the surrealist films of the 1920s by Man Ray, Picabia, Duchamp and Renee Clair, whose films were mostly silent but have a similar visual style.

In a short made in 1929 by Dudley Murphey, Bessie Smith is singing the blues in a St Louis bar, her head slumped over the bar, the action takes its cue from the narrative of the song. Later she's on the floor, looking as though she has been literally thrown there by her man, before he'd gone and left her. Paramount studios made Symphony in Black- A Rhapsody of Negro Life in 1935, which is also a mixture of musical narrative with blues affected imagery. Lena Horne set a precedent for black women in the early film industry. She and Robeson had worked together and he took a continuing interest in her career. In Boogie Woogie Dream, made in 1940, she plays a cleaner working in a restaurant/nightclub, who dreams she is the singer on the bandstage. All the black workers in the club collectively fantasise a scene of them playing together on the stage, only to be brought back to their reality by the manager who turns the lights out on them and forces them to resume their work as cleaners.

These films take as their narrative the stories of the songs and therefore work as illustrations rather than trying to be cinematic performances of jazz. However, as well as being musical performances, these films are dramatic representations of black American life, and as such do not lack critical commentary. The "real" performances of the musicians as well as the lyrical content and dramatisation of the songs, provide an implicit politics in their referencing of black American experience.

Like the modern music clip, nickel machines in penny arcades in the 1940s played music clips called "soundies" which were three or four minutes long, the length of a single track with images that were sometimes more abstract and surreal than the straighter recording of performances.

Closer to the "jazz film" of Listen Up is Pennebaker's 1952 Daybreak Express. Unlike Listen Up and the precursor films mentioned, this film does not reference black politics and experience so explicitly. It is however an attempt to perform jazz cinematically. Pennebaker took Ellington's track as the basis for his vision and composed images for the existing soundtrack. Interestingly for a filmmaker who later went on to make the classic rock performance films, Pennebaker does not show Ellington performing in the film.

In Listen Up, jazz as the focus of Quincy Jones' life, forms the content and style of the film, and also acts as a kind of meta-text. The story is told and critiqued by a chorus of jazz musicians. Scattered throughout the text in grabs from interviews and lyrics is a political commitment to the legacy of black music in America, the social conditions of those who created the music and a positivity in the vision Quincy Jones has of his work. Jones refers to black American culture and music as a family, and it is unity and love he is striving for, not anger and dissension. Listen Up takes this on stylistically, uniting the disparate elements of the stories the film tells, (Quincy's life, the story of jazz, a jazz history of black America) and freeing the music to speak outside of a locked in synchronisation with the picture. It seems that the picture is cut to the sound rather than the sound to the picture. The tradition of music as oral history is followed through in the music of the rappers, which combines bebop attitudes with earlier traditions of African storytelling, in a contemporary, urban style that rebels musically from the conventions of melody and harmony. This relates directly to the poetic style of Baraka and is used throughout the film as a narrative device.

Take the following sequence of the film:

(1951 New York)


(Morris Levy) 'I owned Birdland I opened it in '49'

(Lionel Hampton) 'Charlie Parker used to come

from next door and play with us'

(Rap) 'I took it to the Birdman

the father of Birdland'

(Morris Levy) 'Charlie was known as the Bird

so Birdland came from Charlie Parker'

(Dizzy Gillespie) 'Charlie Parker created a style'

(Rap) 'mentor, inventor of the sound that dates

back from be-bop to pop and pop to hip hop'

Listen Up differs from what has come before in film in the distinct articulation of its narrative. (When playing the saxophone, the way a tune or solo is articulated, is what determines the expression and emphasis given to the various musical ideas. This is called "tonguing".) The story of Listen Up is articulated in its dialogue, the music, the lyrics, camera movements, fragmented images and the beat in the cutting. For example, cutting to shots just after the beat rather than on the beat; intercutting between movements of and within the frame, like riffs in between phrases; the choreography of camera movement with the music; improvising with shot arrangements, like notes in a solo. Tension is created in the story by balancing unfinished sentences, changing rhythm with conflicting and complementary perspectives. Phrases of dialogue are repeated like phrases of music, within a structure that is both thematic and chronological. There is an interchange between professional details, personal details, opinions and memories, the past and the present. The story begins with music, a line, a few words about Quincy, a rhythm change, jazz, rap, a constantly driving beat, rhythm in the cutting of the words and in their delivery, the story is articulated in the interrelationship between the talk, singing, scat, beating of bodies, grabs of sound and image. Then all sound is stripped back to a foot tapping, pause, some words, silence, the foot tapping, a voice, the music, and the story starts to build again.

'My instrument is playing all of these things

...where to put this

what to double up with this

who plays the accompaniment

who plays melody

who plays counter line

what the drums play

I asked Ray, I said well what does the brass section play

licks you know and everything else but

B flat seventh and

on top of that he put C seventh and boo bah bah de dee

8 notes and it was like

...zoom, a hyper space kind of a revelation just came into my mind

and it opened up a whole door to like a whole wonder world.'

(Quincy Jones Listen Up)

If you consider the interviews as melody, the lyrics as harmony, the archival footage as counterpoint, the shooting and cutting of the cinema verite footage as improvisation and syncopation, you have on the screen a cinematic form of jazz. Although Listen Up is structured to follow the narrative of Quincy Jones' life, his life, work and politics have been motivated by music, and the film itself, is also motivated by his music. Paolo Taviani said cinema has more in common with music than with literature. The music is a character in this film. It is not as music is used in most feature films, relegated to the background or used to shock, forewarn or simply underline the picture. The music in Listen Up has its own voice.

'The sprockets don't lie. That's the hard part. If the movie would change every time you changed the music, you'd be in great shape. But it doesn't. You're there with a fixed amount of time that will not bend, break or splinter. It's a predetermined dramatic structure that you're stuck with.' (Quincy Jones Listen Up)

Listen Up has defied that convention without losing its narrative or drama. The movie does change with the music, the music determines the movie.

(Quincy Jones) 'My father, his thing was about

your inner pride'

(Lloyd Jones) 'He kind of wrote the chord changes

(Quincy's brother) and he left it up to us to write the


(Quincy Jones) 'I guess we should just improvise

and see what happens'

(Listen Up)

Listen Up was released in cinemas concurrently with the production of a CD and a book. Each element stands alone and each is integrally interconnected. There is a synergy between jazz music and filmmaking in Listen Up that has rarely been achieved in feature films or documentaries. Perhaps it is the freedom from the cinematic conventions of storytelling that makes this film so refreshing. It is this quest for freedom, that has underpinned so much of the work of black artists, that inspires consistently challenging and new modes of expression. As Thelonius Monk once remarked:

'Jazz and freedom go hand in hand...' (Morgenstern 25)


Listen Up was produced by Courtney Sale Ross and the Time Warner Company in close collaboration with Quincy Jones. It was directed by Ellen Weissbrod, the director of photography was Stephen Kazmierski and the five editors were Milton Moses Ginsburg, Pierre Kahn, Andrew Morreale, Laure Sullivan and Paul Zehrer. The music is by Quincy Jones.

Early films were seen at the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, New Jersey, courtesy of Dan Morgenstern.

1. D.A. Pennebaker's films Don't Look Back (1965), Monterey Pop (1967) and Woodstock (M. Wadleigh 1970), Stop Making Sense (J. Demme 1984), Wrong Side of the Road (Ned Lander 1981).

2. There are feature films about jazz musicians which are basically narratives of the musician's life for example, Lady Sings the Blues (S.J. Furie 1972), Round Midnight (B. Tavernier 1986), and Bird (Eastwood 1988).

3. Jones also points out the commitment that white musicians have had to jazz and that unlike the white jazz critic, these musicians have brought with them an understanding, and often an experience, of the sub-cultural sensitivity that has produced the intensity of expression often found in jazz music. (For example, many white jazz musicians were Jews.) There is also the enormous influence that Cuban, Brazilian and other Latin American musicians have had on African American jazz, clearly exemplified in the career of Dizzy Gillespie who acted as a uniting link between various jazz worlds.

4. Baraka is currently Associate Professor in in the African Studies Department at SUNY in Stony Brook, New York where he teaches creative writing.

5. See Leroi Jones' poems: "For Tom Postell, Dead Black Poet" and "The Black Man is making New Gods" in Black Magic Poetry 1961-1967 153, 205.

6. See Richard Dyer (67-141) for an analysis of Paul Robeson's image and a description of his films. None of them have jazz references in their style. Body and Soul, its name taken from the classic jazz standard, was written, directed and produced by the black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux in 1924. Apart from its title, in its description there is no other reference to jazz (Dyer 111-2). An interesting early example of the reworking of words, lyrics and meanings by black artists is Robeson's rewriting of "Old Man River" in the early 1930s. In doing this he inverts the original meaning of the song, from suffering and resignation to oppression and resistance. 'These changes in the words of "Old Man River" are interventions in one of the most popular show tunes of the time; they mark a political black presence in a mainstream (i.e. white) cultural product' (107).

7. Paolo Taviani at the "Italian Shadows Film Festival", Cinema Paradiso, Perth, 13/11/1993.

8. Dyer (102-9) writes about the insistence on the concept of freedom in, for example, the work of Paul Robeson.

Works Cited

Davis, Miles. Miles, The Autobiography. Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Dyer, Richard. Heavenly Bodies; Film Stars and Society. London: Macmillan, 1987.

George, Nelson. "Essay by George Nelson". Listen Up; The Lives of Quincy Jones. Ed. Courtney Ross. New York: Warner Books, 1990.

Gridley, Mark. Jazz Styles, History and Analysis. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Second Edition 1985.

Harris, William. The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka - The Jazz Aesthetic. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1985.

Jones, Leroi. Black Music. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1967.

_______. Black Magic Poetry 1961-1967. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1969.

Morgenstern, Dan. The Jazz Story. New Jersey: Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers U, 1989.

Rose, Phyllis. Jazz Cleopatra; Josephine Baker In Her Time. London: Vintage, 1989.

New: 4 March, 1996 | Now: 26 March, 2015