Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 15, 2007

‘Tis Autumn: the search for Jackie Paris

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 4:09 pm

Charlie Parker and Jackie Paris

Jackie Paris, an Italian-American born in 1924 who grew up in Nutley, New Jersey, was one of the most highly regarded jazz vocalists in the bebop revolution following WWII. He went on the road with Charlie Parker’s band for six months and was the lead vocalist on a session led by Charles Mingus for his Debut label. Named by Downbeat’s Critics Poll as best new singer of the year in 1953, he seemed destined for stardom and commercial success. But he made his last record in 1960 and seemed to disappear from the face of the earth not much later. By the late 1970s, many jazz aficionados assumed he was dead.

Raymond De Felitta, the director of “Tis Autumn: the search for Jackie Paris” was one of them. While driving in his car one day about five years ago, he heard Jackie Paris on a jazz station and was transfixed just as many jazz fans were in the 1950s and just as you will be when you hear him performing “Time After Time.” Not long after he began tracking down information about and recordings made by the legendary artist, he discovered that he was still alive in March 2004. The New Yorker magazine jazz club listings mentioned that the 79 year old Paris was performing at the Jazz Standard, a major venue. After seeing him perform, De Felitta decided to make a documentary on the singer before it was too late. Although there was something of a Jackie Paris renaissance taking place, the singer was suffering from bone cancer and would die that year, three years before the theatrical release of De Felitta’s film.

On one level, “Tis Autumn” is a detective story with De Felitta as sleuth trying to uncover a major crime, namely why such a great artist never enjoyed the commercial success that he so richly deserved. On another level, it is a deeply touching story of friendship as the young film-maker and jazz pianist himself becomes devoted to an admittedly problematic personality, as the film will reveal. Their relationship reminded me of the one between the fictional saxophone player Dale Turner, played by Dexter Gordon, and his young fan in the 1986 “‘Round Midnight.” Just by coincidence, Jackie Paris was the first artist to do a vocal rendition of the Theolonious Monk anthem in 1949.

Finally, on one more level “Tis Autumn” is the definitive statement on the clash between art and commerce in the jazz world. Ultimately, the film reveals that the crime that accounts for Jackie Paris’s commercial demise is none other than the marketplace itself, which turns everything into a commodity. When things are measured on the basis of their price, it is more often than not detached from its underlying value as the success of “Light Jazz” would indicate.

Although there is clear evidence that Jackie Paris was not the easiest person to get along with, as interviews with his former wives would indicate, he was not much more temperamental than other jazz musicians. Nor is there any evidence that drugs or alcohol destroyed a promising career. Paris did not even smoke cigarettes.

Eventually we learn from a number of the jazz historians and artists interviewed by De Felitta that Paris was just not big enough a star to survive the massive shift in the marketplace in the 1960s. Unlike a Mel Torme or a Tony Bennett, who he was certainly equal to and probably would surpass in the estimation of critics, he was just on the cusp of commercial success when jazz was rapidly being undermined as a “popular music”. A Tony Bennett made the transition to mainstream acceptance in the 1960s on the basis of earlier successes such as “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, but lacking such hits Jackie Paris could not make the transition.

I found myself in a somewhat similar situation to De Felitta in 1967 when as a welfare worker in Harlem I was assigned the case of Jonathan Jones Jr., son of Count Basie’s drummer Jo Jones and a drummer himself. Jo Jones Jr. had just come out of drug rehab and I did everything I could to help him get his feet on the ground, even getting his drums out of hock. When my higher-ups told me that they could not pay for this, I “cheated” the taxpayers by filing a false claim on his behalf for new bedsprings and pots and pans so he could pay for his drums.

Jo Jones Jr. was always on the cusp of making it big. Just after Clifford Brown told him that he wanted him to join his band, he died in an auto accident. After he got his drums back, he began gigging again and I made every effort to watch him perform and give him encouragement. On date was particularly memorable. He told me that his trio got a job at mafia bar in Newark and it would be worth a trip out, especially since he had lined up Duke Jordan to play piano (Les Spann played guitar). It was very likely that Jackie Paris played with Jordan himself, since he was Charlie Parker’s pianist on many gigs. He also wrote the jazz standard “Jordu” that Clifford Brown and countless others have recorded. In 1967, Duke Jordan was not making a living as a jazz pianist. He was driving a school bus in Brooklyn, victim of the same blind market forces as Jackie Paris.

Raymond De Felitta is to be commended for making such a heartfelt and intelligent documentary. Like the artist he is commemorating, his film is a tribute to the kind of integrity that has almost disappeared from popular culture. In many ways, the golden age of jazz that produced artists like Jackie Paris has come to an end. De Felitta’s film is an attempt to preserve one jewel from this era and succeeds by any measure. This film is a must for anybody who appreciates jazz, as well as anybody else who wants to understand the power of art in general to make life worth living against all odds.

‘Tis Autumn will open this Friday, December 7th, at Cinema Village in NY.

 Official Film Website




  1. Tony Bennett is atypical, considering his MTV success in the 1990s, even with his son managing him.

    The 1960s presented not only political rebellion, but rebellion against form.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — November 16, 2007 @ 5:24 am

  2. […] and Paul Lovelace were drawn to the Rounders for the same reason that the director of “Tis Autumn” was drawn to Jackie Paris. In analyzing promising but ultimately futile careers, you get […]

    Pingback by Holy Modal Rounders…Born to Lose « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 8, 2007 @ 4:24 pm

  3. […] by Charles Mingus for his Debut label. Named by Downbeats Critics Poll as best new sin source: Tis Autumn: the search for Jackie Paris, Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant […]

    Pingback by ‘Tis Autumn: the search for Jackie Paris — Biography. writers and their biography — April 16, 2008 @ 2:33 pm

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