In 1963 a short experimental film was made about Bud Powell. Half a century later, some musings about that Danish film and Bud.
Bud means the wind, if you are a Farsi speaker. Thus, for me, the name defines the music. Although one of my favorite pianists in jazz, whom I discovered with Bud Plays Bird LP, is never as fiery as one expect from the wind. He is a bipolar giant. When playing I Remember Clifford at the Golden Circle club in Sweden, it seems that music would stop any second. The melody blurs. The harmonies become foggy. The beat tends to get lost, and a moment later, found again. The seemingly dying music continues for nearly nine minutes. Through Clifford Brown's memory, Bud is lamenting himself, his very existence.
That bipolarity could came to surface in another forms, too. In a struggle between a classical completionist mode - when your piece have a clear beginning, middle and the end - and a sense of incompleteness and constant transfiguration which makes it hard to detect the real core of the music. From the first category, the jewel of all Blue Note recordings, The Scene Changes, from 1958, is documented to the degree of perfection. All the songs are originals and executed neatly around 4 to 5 minutes. The second category is mostly consisted of tunes in slower tempos, as if Bud never manages to finish what he has started. Music of the second category is the closest thing to films of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu: static, organic and free from overstatement and jagged emotions - painfully true and precise. Even in the later years, after gaining weight, with a motionless figure and impassive face staring at nowhere, Bud began to look like Buddha.
While playing fast in jazz is always mistaken for passion, energy and fierce poetry, Bud's coldness - a very urbane and somewhat post-electroshock one - distances the uptempo from the listener and more than inviting him to swing along with the tune, turns into an object to astonishment and petrification. The music, no matter how fast or slow, in spite of flawless group work, especially in trio format, throws the listener to a still moment of solitude. It plays as if Bud's mind is moving so fast, but he is playing too slow (My Devotion, 1962) or the mind is not working at all, and he play as fast as the wind to hide that fearful stillness (Bean And The Boys, 1963).
Many of these images and ideas are delivered in Stop For Bud, a short film made by Danish poet, filmmaker and art critic Jørgen Leth. This poetic portrait of Bud Powell without spending more than few minutes on showing Bud's piano playing - while even those few minutes are soundless - succeeds in achieving something that is hugely missing in jazz films of today: finding the right images (to the extent that filmmaker's visual vocabulary allows) to accompany the music, a constant translation from music to cinema and vice versa.
The film not surprisingly reflects the aesthetics of the independent cinema of the 1960s, some of them coming from cinéma vérité and some borrowed from avant-garde. It also benefits from the tasteful visual traditions of Scandinavian countries in filming jazz.
Danish cinema's portrait of jazz artists in the 1960s, especially in TV productions, has always been superior to other countries who were regularly featuring jazz on TV. Some black and white, James Wong Howe-ish photography of Duke Ellington and his men, or Bill Evans Trio in the 1960s shows the sensitivity, musical knowledge and mastery in lighting of the Danish crew which is totally absent, for instance, in American TV.
The sound accompanying the opening credit is the sound of night - crickets chirping. Then standing in a completely empty white set, a tilt shot examines Bud Powell from his leader shoes to his sad eyes. Dexter Gordon narrates the film, though it is closer to eulogy than narration. He remember "the amazing Bud Powell" as the pianist, composer and innovator. Sometimes his commentary, no matter how intimate, weakens the visual power of the film.
In contrast to the opening abstract shot of Bud, a beautiful shot of inside a dark staircase from which Bud walks into a bright street tends to portray Bud's wandering around the city as a mental journey. There are people on the street who stare at Bud, but it he sees no one and keep marching gently in his dark outfit and beret. He is portrayed as a ghost.
Bud's uptempo pieces are images of urban life and his ballad playing convert us to a pastoral scenery. Stop For Bud, variably combine both landscapes (parks, piers, streets, shipyards, meadows, junkyard, muddy roads) and even though the technique is not new, it is always effective.
There is a scene in which Bud walks wanders around a pier and crosses some horizontally laid barrels whose circular form, in juxtaposition to each other, turns into a kind of visual metaphor for Bud Powell's music, heard on the scene. Bud even touch one of the barrels, as if he is gently touching the clavier. Tania Ørum summarizes the visual style of Jørgen Leth as "turning film into a series of tableaux, thus emphasizing the visual over the narrative, and demonstrating the constructivist rather than the illusionistic nature of film."
In 5' 23" there is a shot of Bud strolling along a country road whose gloomy perspective and passing trucks is a reminiscent of Antonioni's Il Grido. The music is still the romantic and slow-paced tune which has been started earlier. The music and the image clashes. Ørum argues that experimentation with the relation between sight and sound is a part Jørgen Leth's style which creates tension between what is shown on the screen and what is said or heard.
There is a scene in the film, when Bud walks into an area furnished with litter, and as he set foot in there, seabirds fly off the ground. Heaven/Hell seems to be another popular visual metaphor for jazz life, here, effectively executed.
It's hard to not read the scene in which Bud is ascending on escalator - his profile in silhouette - as the most powerful and unforgettable cinematic metaphor incorporated into film. This is the essence of the music of a tortured soul.
The complete film is available on YouTube:
Ørum, Tania, Danish Avant-Garde Filmmakers of the 1960s: Technology, Cross-aesthetics and Politics, 2007, pp. 271-272, from Avant-Garde Film, edited by Alexander Graf and Dietrich Scheunemann