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Clint Eastwood: Jazz Aficionado

Jul. 18, 2017
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Actor-director Clint Eastwood has carved an indelible niche in American cinema. From his star-making turn in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) to his signature role as San Francisco cop Dirty Harry (1975) and on to Unforgiven (1992)—for which he won an Oscar as Best Director—Eastwood’s name has become synonymous with gritty cinema realism.

And as a lifelong jazz aficionado, Eastwood has artfully injected his love for this distinctly American art form into several of his successful films, notably Play Misty for Me (1971), Bird (1988) and In the Line of Fire (1993).

His most notable achievement as a film-making jazz buff, was directing Bird—the complex, bittersweet story of ill-starred jazz legend Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. Future Oscar winner Forest Whitaker played Parker in, arguably, his finest performance. More on this one later.

In Play Misty For Me (the first of 39 films he directed), Eastwood played a late-night jazz DJ in California. A homicidal caller (Jessica Walter) repeatedly requests Erroll Garner’s “Misty.” The film is enhanced by Monterey Jazz Festival footage featuring Cannonball Adderley and Johnny Otis.

In the Line of Fire casts Eastwood as an aging, loner Secret Service agent haunted by failure to properly protect President Kennedy in Dallas. Now hot on the trail of a plotting presidential assassin (John Malkovich), he relaxes by playing jazz piano. A female agent (Rene Russo), whom Eastwood is romancing, asks what demographic he represents. Eastwood’s answer: “White piano playing heterosexual males over the age of 50. And there ain’t a lot of us, but we do have a powerful lobby. I’ve played for presidents and I’ve played with presidents.”

In Bird, Eastwood presented a heartfelt biography of Parker, the virtuoso who revolutionized jazz in the 1940s, and delved heavily into the drug use that led to his death at age 34. Parker’s astounding alto sax on the soundtrack helped earn the film an Oscar for Best Sound Recording.

Believable work by Whitaker as Parker and Diane Venora as Chan, his jazz groupie common-law white wife, lift this riveting film. Samuel E. Wright scores as Dizzy Gillespie, Parker’s bebop trumpet colleague and fellow jazz legend. Sensitive support is provided by Michael Zelniker as trumpet virtuoso Red Rodney, with a snarling Keith David as envious, hard-driving tenor sax phenom, Buster Franklin.

The film begins as Parker, who first tried heroin at 15 in Kansas City, yearns to become big time. Arriving in New York at 20, young Parker (played by Whitaker’s real-life son, Damon), is ridiculed after playing at an open jam by Franklin, who had introduced him as “Charlie from just around.”

Undaunted, Parker’s prodigious talent evolves, and his explosive riffs establish him as a force to be reckoned with. Eastwood’s film follows his self-destructive life of drug and alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, courtship of the wealthy Chan and open affairs with two other white women. Some of the best of many memorable musical interludes takes place as Parker and his quintet tour the segregated South by car.

Eastwood’s love for jazz comes through by reminding viewers how Parker enhanced his solo career in 1950 with his success on Charlie Parker with Strings, recording the likes of “Autumn in New York,” “April in Paris,” “Laura” and “Stella By Starlight.”

Late in the film, Parker shows up backstage at the New York Paramount Theater and winces as Franklin plays rock ’n’ roll. As he takes his bows, Parker steals the gold-plated sax bearing the initials BF. Apprehended outside the stage door by Franklin and his band mates, he explains: “I just wanted to see if it can play more than one note.”

After a dissipated Parker succumbs to a heart attack while watching a TV variety show in the home of Baroness Nika (Diane Salinger) on March 12, 1955, a medical examiner described him by telephone to his office as “a stocky male Negro approximately 65 years of age.” Nika, who had been trying to reach Chan, then said: “He was 34.”

Among on-screen lead-ins to lengthy closing credits filled with many musical acknowledgements, director Eastwood lovingly cited Chan Parker’s contribution to the movie as “invaluable” and added: “This picture is dedicated to musicians everywhere.”

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