Beyond Burns

A look at screen gems from the Denver Jazz on Film Festival.

Coloradans couldn't have been pleased by a Benny Goodman anecdote that cropped up in Ken Burns's epic documentary Jazz, which debuted on PBS last month. The time was the mid-'30s, when Goodman was trying to popularize swing. Then Let's Dance, his NBC radio show, was canceled, and in an attempt to keep his band together, he booked a cross-country tour that culminated in Los Angeles. Along the way, the musicians stopped at Denver's Elitch Gardens, but the hoofers there were underwhelmed, and after half an hour, the venue's manager shooed Goodman and company from the stage because -- well, because they weren't playing waltzes. So they hit the road again, and after another Colorado disaster -- in Grand Junction, where they played behind chicken wire to protect themselves from bottle-heaving amateur reviewers -- they arrived in L.A. Their performance at that city's Palomar Ballroom helped usher in a musical craze that Denverites had attempted to smother in its cradle.

This tale reflects the opinion of Denver that lingers with many jazz lovers outside the area -- but Tom Goldsmith is doing his darnedest to change that. Five years ago, he founded the Denver Jazz on Film Festival, and the eclectic programming he assembled attracted about 1,200 people to four days of screenings. By last year, attendance was more than triple that total, prompting Goldsmith to add an extra day to this year's edition. Several free showings are also on the bill (a complete schedule can be found at jazzfilmfestival.org), along with more personal appearances and a performance by New York guitarist Mark Elf, whose Live at Smalls CD wound up on many scribes' Best-of-2000 lists. (Elf's turn happens at 9 p.m. Monday, February 19, at Dazzle, 930 Lincoln Street. Call 303-839-5100 for more details about the cover charge.)

Collectively, this year's films run longer than Burns's lollapalooza -- around thirty hours as compared to nineteen. Moreover, several offerings spotlight international jazz stories that Burns overlooked; examples include Jazzman From the Gulag, about a trumpeter who was initially embraced but later ostracized by the Soviet Union, Tokyo Blues, a look at the music in Japan, and Abrosetti's Jazz Family, about two generations of a Swiss jazz clan. "Ken Burns left himself open to criticism that his approach was too jingoistic," says Goldsmith, who otherwise enjoyed Jazz. "He made it seem as if the whole experience of jazz was wholly an American experience. But we have many films that show that isn't necessarily so."

Jazz great Louis Armstrong, along with lesser-known artists, will be spotlighted during Denver's Jazz  on Film Festival.
Jazz great Louis Armstrong, along with lesser-known artists, will be spotlighted during Denver's Jazz on Film Festival.

Goldsmith's selections don't ignore the stars of the genre; pictures focusing upon Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie are part of the mix. But he also makes time for lesser-known figures such as vocalist Jimmy Smith (Alone Together), composer Carla Bley (Escalator Over the Hill) and trombonist Jack Teagarden (It's Time for 'T'). And that's not to mention obscure performers like Lenny Breau, a Canadian guitarist whose troubled life and violent death (he was murdered under strange circumstances) are sketched in The Genius of Lenny Breau, a film co-produced by Breau's daughter, Emily Hughes, who's traveling to Denver for the festival. "I'm quite willing to admit that six months ago I didn't know who Lenny Breau was," Goldsmith notes. "But any event of this type has an obligation to broaden horizons, and that's what a film like this does."

At the same time, Goldsmith doesn't want movie lovers to think that they should attend out of a Burnsian sense of cultural obligation. "There won't be a test at the end," he promises. "It'll be a lot of fun. And best of all, it's happening right here."

 
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