'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris

'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris

****

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

His voice has been compared to Sinatra’s and he worked with anyone who was anyone in the golden years of American jazz. So how come you’ve never heard of Jackie Paris?

De Felitta’s absorbing documentary never quite answers this question, but in trying to he’s created a moving, intimate portrait of a great forgotten talent, as well as a vivid look back at a time when the USA – and more specifically the New York club scene – was the coolest, most exciting place on the musical map.

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The story begins in 1991, when De Felitta heard one of Jackie’s songs on a late-night station. He was “completely blown away” by a voice that had never appeared on his radar, despite being a self-confessed jazz nut, and tried to find out more. But he quickly found that Jackie Paris recordings were rare as the proverbial hens’ teeth, the archive footage of him performing was less than the average indie hopeful sticks onto YouTube every day and details of his personal life were tantalisingly vague – one jazz encyclopaedia listed him as having died in 1977.

But that report proved to be greatly exaggerated when, in 2004, De Felitta noticed in a listings magazine that Jackie was playing a set at a New York club. He went along, introduced himself, and as their friendship developed, became determined to tell Jackie’s story.

It’s a helluva story, all right, and it takes nothing away from this film to say that Scorsese or Coppola would have a field day with it. Born in New Jersey, the son of a womanising truck driver and a mother who doted on her precociously talented boy, Jackie was discovered as a teenager and during the 1940s worked with such greats as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Mingus. He was their vocalist of choice – and Peggie Lee, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holliday rated him as a duet partner, too. But attempts to launch his career as a solo artist in his own right were hampered by poor marketing campaigns, bad business decisions – and, to a certain extent, by Jackie himself.

Even his greatest champions (and De Felitta’s assembled a glittering array of talking heads from among his contemporaries and jazz experts) admit he had “a real big ego”. And away from the recording studio, his personal life was a maze of short-lived marriages, failed relationships, family problems and run-ins with the Mafia.

Unlike Johnny Fontane in The Godfather, he could - and did – refuse an offer of Mob backing. And, on one occasion he “bitch-slapped” a club owner who, the film suggests, was connected up to the wazoo. Not the greatest of career moves, it’s true, but many of his contemporaries had similar experiences – and went on to become household names.

Being a bit of a pain in the ass is hardly an automatic disqualifier for stardom, either, and in the end none of the interviewees can pinpoint precisely why he never made the jump. But as the Sixties swing in and jazz goes out of fashion, “singers’ singers” like Jackie find the work harder to come by. He forms a professional and personal relationship with the singer Ann Marie Moss that produces some great recordings but also a three-part miniseries’ worth of affairs, reconciliations and (finally) break-ups. After that he slips into the obscurity where De Felitta finds him.

But he reckons he’s still got it and is determined to get back on the scene. And any doubts that this film might just be a devotee’s wilful championing of a mediocre talent that found its natural niche are immediately banished when he sings. I’m no jazz expert, but you know the real deal when you hear it. Exquisite phrasing, an effortless command of the entire vocal range and that undefinable quality which (even on the recordings from his youth) can distil a thousand years’ experience of life and love into three minutes – all present and correct. He IS as good as Sinatra, and it IS a mystery why he isn’t as famous.

He’s not bitter or aggrieved about it, and perhaps part of the answer is that he seems happy enough to be the guy who plays three sets a night at a small, intimate club and shoots the breeze with the regulars in between. He’s more reflective and melancholy about the mistakes he’s made in his personal life, and some of the film’s most poignant moments come when he returns to his old neighbourhood, or is reunited with Moss and the happy memories come flooding back.

No doubt he could have been stratospheric given the right song at the right time – or a 24-carat sonofabitch manager determined to make his boy a star by fair means or foul. But it could still have gone pear-shaped, or become a parade of bad movies, sentimental TV specials, ‘farewell tours’ and phoned-in duets with Beyonce.

Instead what we have is a loving, sensitive portrait of a man looking back on his life and reflecting that, one way or another, it’s been an interesting ride. And a link to an era that was one of the most significant in the history of popular music but, because it wasn’t cheap or easy to capture its great moments as they occurred, feels increasingly spectral. It’s also a film that proves Britain doesn’t have a monopoly on talkative eccentrics.

Sometimes De Felitta’s determination to find “the truth” about all of Jackie’s life seems a bit intrusive and there’s a somewhat self-conscious attempt to give the film the feel of a jazz riff (dramatised readings of reviews, stills montages of bebop hepcats looking glamorous), but for the most part this is a great story, well told – and a reminder that great stories can belong to the guy walking down the street that you never give a second glance.

Reviewed on: 20 Nov 2008
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Documentary about "the greatest voice you never heard".
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Director: Raymond De Felitta

Writer: Raymond De Felitta

Starring: Jackie Paris, Anne Marie Moss, Peter Bogdanovich, Harlan Ellison, James Moody, Mark Murphy, Barry Newman, Nick Tosches, Billy Vera, Frank Whaley

Year: 2006

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

Sundance 2006

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