Musicians’ Movie Talk

Over the last however-many years of interviewing and socialising with jazz musicians of all ages and backgrounds, I’ve come to notice a certain leit-motif when it comes to their interests: many of them, like me, are avid old-movie buffs.

The thought had occurred before but it was rammed home last week when I met the young jazz singer-songwriter Melody Gardot. The way this girl speaks is as eloquent as her lyric-writing, and she has a way with an analogy that Raymond Chandler would have envied. Sitting, like teenagers, on her bed in her west London hotel, we talked about fashion, nail polish – the important stuff – before going on to the problems she has overcome since she was knocked off her bike by a hit-and-run Jeep a few years ago.

I had to ask if the long, wavy, peekaboo blonde hair was inspired by one of my favourite stars, Veronica  Lake (it wasn’t), and there ensued a chat about old movies. Gardot, it turns out, is a big Groucho Marx devotee, and she certainly knows her stuff – she even launched into an impersonation of him singing in A Night at the Opera. “I love you very mucho…”  Although she has trouble remembering things, certain movie moments haven’t slipped through the sieve that is her memory- and these are mostly from Fellini and Hitchcock films.

Being an aficionado of old movies is a trait that Gardot has in common with at least two of her label-mates: the first time I interviewed the singer-pianist Diana Krall, she told me that she loved the old MGM musicals (she had just been watching Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon in her hotel), and had been brought up watching classic films on TV.

There were certainly clues to her love of film in the songs that she recorded on her early albums: Dancing in the Dark (from the afore-mentioned The Band Wagon), I’ll String Along With You (My Dream Is Yours)  and  Let’s Face the Music And Dance (Follow the Fleet). Of course, old movies offer rich pickings for anyone on the look-out for great songs.

Singer Madeleine Peyroux was similarly raised on a diet of great Hollywood movies. In her case, Frank Capra had made a big impression with Mr Smith Goes to Washington – and James Stewart and Gary Cooper were her two favourite stars.

Of the Scottish jazz musicians with whom I’ve had great movie conversations, piano ace Brian Kellock and velvet-voiced singer Todd Gordon stand out; while the great American double-act of Marty Grosz (guitar) and Ken Peplowski (clarinet/tenor sax) is just as entertaining in a dinner table discussion of 1940s comedy character actors as it is onstage playing tunes from that era.

Clearly, for some of us, a love of jazz goes hand-in-hand with a love of old films. In many cases, it’s the result – initially anyway – of a parent’s influence. And let’s face it, with jazz especially, if you don’t start off being introduced to something that has perhaps been carefully chosen for you, it could well put you off for life..

Maybe the joint interest in jazz and old movies arises out of a predisposition to past pop culture – and possibly a teenage tendency towards individualism.  Who knows? All I can say is that the best conversations about old movies that I’ve had have been with jazzers. And I’m sure it’s no coincidence that my favourite jazz musicians are the ones who love the same comedy masters as me: Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, the Marx Brothers. After all, in both jazz and comedy, timing is everything…

* Read my full interview with Melody Gardot in The Herald Magazine next Saturday, June 13.

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