When I was doing my MA, reading Krin Gabbard blew my mind. Meeting him this year at the Rhythm Changes conference in Birmingham was such a thrill. We discovered a mutual love of the work of Richard Dyer, my MA supervisor, who was the person who first put me onto Jammin’ at the Margins, Representing Jazz and Jazz Among the Discourses. Krin is Adjunct Professor on the jazz studies course at Columbia University and this year published a new biography of Charles Mingus with the University of California Press.
NP: Krin, during our first conversation we spoke about the work of Richard Dyer. What significance does his work hold for you?
KG: Richard Dyer is surely the greatest scholar to publish two books with one-word titles: White and Stars. But seriously, he is a definitive commentator on musicals, horror films, race, stardom, and queer cinema. I can think of very few film scholars who range so widely and write so sensitively, and I have assigned several of his essays in just about every film course I have ever taught. I’m also delighted to be able to call him my friend.
NP: As you know, my work is greatly indebted to the writing of the New Jazz Studies, particularly scholars like yourself and Arthur Knight. Looking to the future, are there topics or methodologies you’d like to see explored further in jazz studies?
KG: There are still many films – long and short, fiction and documentary – that need to be explored in more depth. Arthur Knight’s essay on Jammin’ the Blues is a model for this kind of work. We also need more work on gender and jazz. Sherrie Tucker has given us a great starting point, and several scholars have followed her lead. We need more. I also would like to see more “microhistories” – studies of jazz moments in smaller communities and by relatively unknown artists. For this I recommend George Lipsitz’s essay, “Songs of the Unsung: The Darby Hicks History of Jazz” as an inspiration.
NP: We seem to be in a moment when Hollywood is paying attention to jazz again. Within the space of a few years, there’s been American Hustle, Whiplash, Birdman, Miles Ahead, Born to be Blue… Are these movies doing anything new or do you see them repeating tropes from the past?
KG: Sadly I see little that is new in these films, especially the way in which race plays out in most of them. Each has its felicities, however, and once I got off my high horse about their misrepresentations of jazz, I found something to like in all of them. I actually cried at the end of Miles Ahead when Don Cheadle appears on stage with Herbie and Wayne along with Esperanza Spaulding and Bobby Glasper. I also congratulate David O. Russell on the brilliant choice of the Ellington LP on which Christian Bale and Amy Adams listen to “Jeep’s Blues” in American Hustle. The characters’ vapidity is revealed when we see that the LP is “Electronically Rechanneled for Stereo.” And even though Whiplash is a bizarre misrepresentation of jazz, jazz drumming, and jazz education, I was on the edge of my chair thoughout.
NP: You’ve recently published a chapter on Charles Mingus and Jerry Maguire in the OUP Watching Jazz collection. Tell us about that.
KG: The chapter is an excerpt from the section of my book, Better Git It in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus, where I write about the relationship between Mingus and the brilliant trombonist, Jimmy Knepper. The two had a relationship that, for want of a better word, I would call tragic. The white Knepper played brilliantly with Mingus, especially on their very first record date, “The Clown.” But at a terrible moment in their history together, MIngus hit Knepper in the mouth with such force that it knocked out a tooth. Ultimately they reconciled, but their relationship reveals the extent to which race has always been a huge obstacle in jazz collaborations.
It’s appropriate that the music of Mingus and Knepper appears in the 1996 film Jerry Maguire. As with the Mingus/Knepper recordings, a white man is playing the clown for a black man when Cuba Gooding demands that Tom Cruise repeatedly shout “Show me the money.” When Cruise and Renee Zellweger subsequently make love for the first time, they are listening to the 1957 recording of “Haitian Fight Song.” When the lovers hear Knepper break into a brilliant double-time solo, Cruise looks at Zellweger and says, “What is this music?” Unlike the clueless lovers, Cameron Crowe may actually have understood how well Mingus’s music connects with the racial dynamics of his film. Just as Mingus and Knepper’s “Haitian Fight Song” celebrates slave rebellions, the demands that Gooding makes on Cruise represent a black man rebelling against a white power structure.
NP: I’m asking everyone: favourite example of jazz in film or TV and why?
KG: That’s easy. Miles Davis reading Jeanne Moreau’s mind as she walks through the streets of Paris in Elevator to the Gallows. All-time favorite jazz film: A Great Day in Harlem.