Selwyn Harris has done a lot for jazz and cinema. For over a decade, his column in Jazzwise magazine reviewed new films about the music as well as rediscovered classics and forgotten gems. He continues to interview for the magazine, in between his other activities as record producer and event promoter. On this occasion, however, he’s answering the questions as I asked him about his Jazz on Film soundtrack albums and live events.
1. Selwyn, what originally prompted your interest in jazz and film? What led you to write about it?
I’ve had a huge passion for both film and jazz since my early teens so I guess at some point the two coincided. It might have been Miles’ Lift to the Scaffold as I was heavily into his music at that time. Later on I was an intern at Jazzwise while studying for a Music degree at Brunel University, and after a while filing photos and proofreading I especially had my eye on the ‘Jazz on Film’ feature they ran. At that time I had just seen the Art Pepper documentary Notes from a Jazz Survivor and loved it and roared with so much enthusiasm about it in front of the commissioning editor that he had to ask me to write a piece on it for the column. It was the first feature I had ever written for a magazine and I wrote just about every Jazz on Film piece for about the next 12 years. It isn’t a regular thing anymore but a new one will be out in the February 2017 issue I’ve written on the excellent new documentary I Called Him Morgan about trumpeter Lee Morgan.
2. You’ve produced four acclaimed CD boxed sets, have written extensive liner notes for them all and have a new LP out now. I know these often involve a lot of research and archival work on your part. Could you give us an insight into how you go about putting these releases together?
My aim was to focus on the origins of jazz as non-diegetic film soundtrack around the mid-50s to the mid 1960s point which I find such a fascinating period in Hollywood but even more so for independent film in Europe. Firstly it’s about assembling titles under a relevant heading. How can I tell a story? For the American stuff you have film noir and the Beat generation periods. It’s been about sticking to public domain material with the American soundtracks so the most interesting part for me as a journalist is making it into something more substantial than just the recordings, the music, as this is a well trodden PD path, and giving people a story, with good images, a hybrid of book and audio.
Things got more interesting with the Jazz in Polish Cinema CD box where, with an associate journalist from Poland, we investigated old tapes and licenses, managing to get rights and digitize the original analogue tapes of the majority of soundtracks on that box set. My biggest triumph was getting the exclusive soundtrack material on there for two great Polish films Pociag (Night Train) and Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers and researching and writing the absolutely fascinating story about Polish jazz in film in that post-Stalin period. The new vinyl release Jazz in Italian Cinema is intended in part as a sampler for a bigger box set and we’re doing the archival research and looking at license negotiation at the moment. I did want to have a stab at producing vinyl as well, testing out a format that’s made a comeback and see if there’s any future in it for me.
3. People often give jazz films a hard time. I remember reading Charles Fox’s review of All Night Long in Jazz Journal that effectively said, ‘buy the soundtrack but don’t bother with the film!’ How well do you think jazz soundtracks work in isolation from the films they accompany? Or do we need the pictures?
I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this one. When you go away and listen to the music in isolation from the films, they have left some kind of imprint even if it’s not the images you saw them accompany. You get a vague impression or a feeling that there’s something else transcending the music you’re experiencing when listening that you wouldn’t hear if it was just ‘pure’ music. I think we depend on that larger universe for the music and might not in a lot of cases take notice of the music if it wasn’t associated with a film. So getting back to the question, I don’t think we need the pictures as well, because as long as you’ve seen the film, the pictures are already in our head, that’s my feeling. However as you say Charles Fox pointed out (and I agree with him on that particular one), there are also soundtracks where it’s better to listen in isolation where the film is a turkey. One example for me is Andre Previn’s score for the film adaptation of the Kerouac novel The Subterraneans. I love the score, the film though is a joke, full of cardboard characters and beatnik stereotypes. I try to shut out any impressions I got from the film and it becomes no problem with this one as it is a beautiful score.
4. You’ve also organised lots of screenings across London. Could you tell us about those?
These screenings are for an events-based company I started at the beginning of 2016 called OFFBEAT connecting up ‘live’ jazz in its broadest sense and the moving image. The idea stems from the launch of my Jazz in Polish Cinema CD box at the end of 2014 at the London Jazz Festival. The original plan was just for a film screening of Knife in the Water and a Q&A but then I suggested having a Polish musician already playing the festival to also play a short set at the screening, doing his own version of a selection from the box set. I thought it worked so well, Marcin Masecki was the guest Polish pianist and his interpretations were very idiosyncratic and contemporary, and provided a great contrast to the actual scores. So, with my business partner Nicco Cioni, I set up a series of similar events in 2016 starting with Miles Ahead and Q&A at the Rio cinema in Dalston, Born to Be Blue in which we had the director Robert Budreau as guest panellist and live music by trumpeter Rory Simmons with a bass and laptop, in which he sampled dialogue by Chet Baker. Finally in December we did a 30th anniversary screening of probably the greatest film about jazz, ‘Round Midnight at the Cine Lumiere in Kensington with a duo of saxophonist Tony Kofi and drums providing a medley of selections from the soundtrack followed by a Q&A. Every event so far has had very good audiences numbers so we’re inspired to do more in 2017, especially pushing films that aren’t seen that often. Although it wasn’t OFFBEAT, for the launch of my Jazz in Italian Cinema in November at the LJF , I suggested the Barbican show the cult film L’assassino and they’ve had the imagination to put it on. It sold great too, so it can be done with some extra musical and intellectual content on the menu.
5. And finally… favourite example of jazz in film or TV and why?
There are so many, just to name a few. I love the more humorous ones. The Ipcress File opening title theme as Michael Caine makes coffee-making in his new fangled cafetiere look like a scientific experiment; the L’assassino opening is a recent favourite with Marcello Mastroianni putting on a swaggering Piero Piccioni track on his record player that reflects his narcissistic preening; and then Joseph Losey’s Eva where a feline-like Jeanne Moreau slinks about her apartment gradually undressing before taking a bath with the sound of the Billie Holiday record ‘Willow Weeps for Me’ playing in the background. Great choreography. I could have equally picked Miles improvising to Moreau’s face in Lift to the Scaffold but everyone knows that scene already!
You can buy the Jazz in Italian Cinema LP here and keep track of upcoming OFFBEAT events through their official website