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Round Midnight

By Michael Cuscuna



"Round Midnight" is the film that no one thought would ever be made. The scattered instances when the film industry chose to deal with the jazz life resulted in melodramatic, hipster trash or blackface racism. The chances of an accurate and sensitive movie about jazz were nil. But it has happened nonetheless.

Director Bertrand Tavernier is a consummate artist who was motivated to bring his love of jazz into his own arena of expression after meeting Francis Paudras and learning of Paudras' relationship with Bud Powell in the late fifties and early sixties in Paris. The relationship between Paudras, who is a designer, and Powell was a deep, complex, touching and mutually beneficial one. The framework of that relationship and many od Francis' reminiscences provide the basis for "Round Midnight".

Pianist Henri Renaud put Tavernier and producer Irwin Winkler in touch with Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock, the film's star and musical director respectively. As negotiations and production plans moved forward, a first script was given to Dexter Gordon, which was hardly accurate or sensitive. At this point, Tavernier turned his attention to the script, increased his own input and got it back on track. It still needed a lot of work if this were to be an accurate film. A great sign of intelligence is knowing what you don't know and seeking the correct knowledge. Fortunately, Bertrand is that kind of man and artist.

It became a daily ritual for Bertrand and Dexter to discuss each scene and its dialogue every morning before shooting. Dexter would make many drastic revisions and contribute new ideas. In most cases, Bertrand would respond enthusiastically,. adding that it was most important that the film be realistic and respectful of jazz and the people who have given their lives to make it. Bertrand's sincerity created an atmosphere of caring around the set, and others of us took an interest in seeing ti done properly. Bertrand received all suggestions graciously and gratefully.

The cast of actors and musicians and the crew developed into a large ad hoc family, which of course means a lot of tempermental bickering as well as love. But more than one musician was seen embracing everyone tearfully when his work on the film had been completed.

Because Tavernier is as secure as he is sincere in his art, he was able to make the first true portrait of the jazz life. He insisted Dexter Gordon be star when great pressure was brought to bear on him that a professional actor must carry the lead. He insited on giving roles to other participating musicians and to have all of the music performed live as it was shot on film. Most importantly, he listened to when others, who knew the subject matter more intimately than he, spoke.

Throughout the whole process, producer Irwin Winkler was a soulful one-man support system for the film. A successful nad tasteful producer whose work ranges from the "Rocky" films to the masterpiece "Raging Bull", Winkler has never let those Polo Lounge breakfast meetings dull his New York street smarts. Best of all, he is a man of his word.

Like the primary soundtrack, the music for this album was recorded, for the most part, at Studio Davout in Paris, which was on the screen location of the recording session scenes, and at Studio Clair in the PAris suburb of Epinay-sur-Seine where amzingly accurate reproductions of Paris' Blue Note club and New York's Birland were constructed.

While the music certainly speaks for itself, two performances merit some explanation. This version of "Tivoli" was one that we recorded late one night to dub into the film becaus ethe on screen version done at the Blue Note club set did not come off. This is the only instance where the people on screen are not actually playing live. In fact, except for Dexter and Billy Higgins, the personnel is also different from the faces on screen. As it was very late at night, we only recorded the piece as far as the piano solo because that was all Bertrand needed for the film. Had we thought further ahead to the recording, we would have pushed for a complete performance. Nonetheless, what exists is lovely.

When we were doing the Studio Davout scene where the version of "Round Midnight" with the two basses is being recorded, there were many long idle chunks of time while the crew was setting up shots. Out of boredom, Wayne Shorter suddenly broke into a soulful, sexy blues with Ron Carter and Billy Higgins joining in. When Herbie heard what was happening, he rushed over to the piano. Engineer William Flageollet was quick enough to roll the tapes immediately. The result is what I have titled "Call Sheet Blues", in honor of the daily call sheets that tell you the day's shooting and the times you are due on the set. It's the industry's version of 'hurry up and wait'. The music that Wayne spun quieted the crew instantly. And the applause you heard at the end is a totally spontaneous response from cast and crew.

The summer of 1985 was something of a Parisian Blue Note reunion party for Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, Wayne Shorter and Cedar Walton. In 1962, Dexter, Freddie and Billy were the veterans on Herbie's first album "Takin' Off". Herbie was later a frequent sideman on many of Wayne Shorter's and Bobby Hutcherson's Blue Note albums. Herbie, Ron and Tony became an impeccable rhythm section for Blue Note as well as for the Miles Davis Quintet. Cedar and Billy were the backbone of most of Blue Note's great mid sixties recordings. Higgins was Dexter's choice for the drum chair on most of his Blue Note albums, of which "Gettin' Around" featured Bobby Hutcherson and "Doin' Allright" and "Club House" featured Freddie Hubbard. With the resurrection of Blue Note, Dexter Gordon, Tony Williams and Freddie Hubbard have returned to the label as artists. And among the label's new artists is Bobby McFerrin.

For Dexter, this experience was also a reunion with his European life in the sixties and early seventies. Since this film is essentially based on Bud Powell's life after arriving in Paris, Dexter brings to his role a first hand knowledge. It was the Bud Powell trio with Pierre Michelot and Kenny Clarke that supported him on his classic Blue Note album "Our Man In Paris" in 1963. His residency for almost a decade in Denmark lad to the brilliant contributions of Palle Mikkelborg and Mads Vinding at Studio Davout.

During the shooting of "Round Midnight", history ran deep on and off screen. It couldn't have happened any other way.

--Michael Cuscuna

More info on the film : Round Midnight.


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Comments : Jesper Svarre