14 April 2005

An Eastwood film with no villain

Piano Blues is about as unpretentious as a documentary could be -- Clint Eastwood built it around a couple of sound-studio pianos, unscripted conversations, and a lot of truly precious archive film.

The film is one of the Public Broadcasting series on The Blues, produced by Martin Scorcese with Volkswagen money to commemorate the Year of the Blues (2003). Eastwood's own long-time affection for jazz and blues piano, obvious in many of his films, made him a natural director and host for this particular documentary.
(See end of post for the film itself.)

Piano Blues opens with a brief segment on the history of the piano and its place in popular music, during which we see Ray Charles arrive for his visit with Eastwood. They sit down at the piano, and Eastwood asks, "What got you interested in music? How'd you start?" -- the most basic questions possible. Throughout the film, that's the sort of question this documentary is built around, along with mutual appreciation of musicians long gone. The conversationalists spend some time playing, too. Ray Charles was not able to cut loose as in the old days, but he gives it a try, and there are nice contributions by other interviewees as well -- notably Dave Brubeck, Dr. John, Marcia Ball, Pinetop Perkins, Jay McShann (who also plays together with Dave Brubeck), and Pete Jolly.

The archival clips are amazing. They include wonderful scenes of Count Basie and André Previn playing together, Joe Turner and Jay McShann, virtuoso cuts by Dorothy Donegan, Professor Longhair, Art Tatum, and Oscar Peterson, and many other priceless musical moments. But for me the absolute best, the high point of the film, was the footage of Otis Spann. (He's the face on the Piano Blues album cover.)

Otis Spann was one of the first blues artists I'd ever heard, during DJ Ron Britain's Sunday night "Subterranean Circus" segment on WCFL radio in Chicago, a time when he played music outside the station's otherwise rigid Top 40 programming. I'll be forever grateful to Britain for including blues on those segments. I vividly remember three songs in particular (but can't remember what order I heard them in): Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign" and "Killing Floor," and Otis Spann's "Pretty Girls Everywhere." Later I got hold of the Vanguard album Chicago/The Blues/Today (mentioned elsewhere in these weekly notes, I think) and I became a blues fan for life. The single tiny picture of Otis Spann on the cover of that album was really my only image of the man for decades, until his beautiful face and bluesy fingers came to life in the clips in Clint Eastwood's documentary.

Chicago/The Blues/Today, v. 1. Musicians' photos by Ann Charters on back of album cover. Source.

April 4 comes and goes again.

One of Otis Spann's most movings songs was his tribute to Martin Luther King, who died April 4, 1968. It was released as a single with "Hotel Lorraine" on the other side, and was included in several albums, including Rare Chicago Blues. I got my mp3 copy at musicmatch.com. It starts, "Oh, did you hear the news, happened down in Memphis, Tennessee, yesterday."

Yes, I heard the news, I heard my mother ranting about how Martin Luther King deserved what he got, having usurped the name of the great German national hero (yes, such was the effect on logic of Nazi racist poison), I was kept home from school for fear of riots. "Yeah, fellows, I know you had to have heard the news, that happened in Memphis, Tennessee, yesterday. There came a sniper, wiped Dr. Luther King's life away."

When my sister Ellen was killed by a black drug dealer almost exactly two years later, my musical tastes and my civil rights memorabilia were banned from family life. A year later, I left home, and wasn't living there anymore when my mother put a swastika up on our front lawn during the Skokie parade-permit debate.

"Oh, when his wife and kids came, all they could do was moan... because Dr. Luther King is gone."

Friday PS: Praying for Trade Justice

In a few minutes, British Summer Time, an all-night lobbying event will begin at Westminster Abbey, proceeding from there to encircle Parliament Square, moving from there to Whitehall, the center of the UK's executive branch. 24-7prayer.com's site gives details, including the participation of Tom and Christine Sine of Seattle, well-known among Northwest Yearly Meeting Friends.

This event is part of the Make Poverty History campaign. (U.S. affiliate: www.one.org.)

While you're at the 24-7prayer.com site, look around. I always find something inspiring.

UPDATE: Here's Eastwood's film on YouTube. (It shows up on YouTube in several other places, but this is the highest quality instance I've found. I hope it's not removed; enjoy it while you can. Otis Spann shows up at this point.)


Anonymous said...

The original recording of Otis Spann's "Tribute to Martin Luther King," with lyrics by Muddy Waters, was done within a week of Dr. King's assassination and was issued on 45 RPM on the Cry label in Chicago, with a blues tribute by Big Joe Williams on the other side. It was recorded in a studio in downtown Boston. I know this because I A&R-ed the session.

David Gedalecia
History Department
College of Wooster
Wooster, OH 44691

Johan Maurer said...

Here's a link to this 45, if I'm not mistaken:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkLcBINE4_U. Belated thanks!

Johan Maurer said...

And here's the other side of the 45: