INTERVIEW: Raymond De Felitta: Part 1
By Marc Myers [From JazzWax.com]
Writer and director Raymond De Felitta’s documentary,‘TisAutumn: The Search for Jackie Paris, is already a cult classic. The film had its premier in New York earlier in December and, just like that, it was gone.
Why this film isn’t being aired regularly on PBS or Ovation is beyond me. As I said some weeks ago after seeing the film for the first time, it’s a staggering emotional opus with revelations at every turn.
With any luck, ‘Tis Autumn will roll into select theaters nationwide in early 2008, and the DVD will be available online and at Netflix later in the year. Such is the state of movie distribution these days. Great stuff always gets crowded out by mainstream fare.
‘Tis Autumn is everything you want a jazz documentary to be—and more. I saw the film twice in New York, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the theater at the end of both showings.
In a nutshell, the film is a haunting portrait of an immensely talented should-have-been with a voice so breezy and modern that he was both of his time and ahead of it during the late 1940s and 1950s. Ultimately, ‘Tis Autumn is the search for what went wrong with Jackie Paris’ promising career and why a singer who should have been Tony Bennett wound up ground down by fate and frustration, dying a virtual unknown in 2004.
In Part 1 of my two-part interview with Raymond De Felitta, the writer and director talks about Paris’ extraordinary talent, the factors that held Paris back, and what Paris told a stunned Duke Ellington in the late 1940s:
JazzWax: For those who don’t know, what made vocalist Jackie Paris so special?
Raymond De Felitta: Jackie’s voice had an unusual combination of qualities that weren’t found in any other one singer. Jackie was a hardcore be-bopper who could sing a ballad with a lovely, warm, open gentility. There was an empathy and smile in his voice. But he also could be a mean blues shouter. I can hear how his voice influenced Mel Torme, Billy Eckstine, Johnny Mathis, Bobby Darin and, later, popular singers who didn’t necessarily have that much in common.
JW: Paris fell into a commercial black hole starting in the mid-1950s. What happened?
RDF: Jackie’s problems were inflicted on him by the music industry and by own making. If he’d been more successful, his perfectionism and frequent temper flare-ups over perceived sloppy accompaniment would have been acceptable.
JW: Wasn’t that par for all ego-driven singers?
RDF: Certainly Sinatra was no darling to work with. But his temper never got in the way of his professional path. You might say that the industry’s problems— the declining popularity of jazz and male vocalists in the late 1950s coupled with changing tastes in the 1960s—helped magnify Jackie’s personal problems. He grew touchier and angrier as less talented vocalists became stars and fewer people knew of his work. His personal and industry problems fed off each other, rendering him obsolete at the very moment when he reached his creative peak—in 1961 and 1962.
JW: Your film clearly was an obsession. Was it hard tracking down the truth?
RDF: There were certainly moments when it seemed like the whole process would never end. Leads that we thought were dead would suddenly re-emerge, and we’d find ourselves once again showing up, cameras in hand, piecing together another part of the Jackie Paris puzzle. But I must say that the detective work—which is what the making of ‘Tis Autumn really was—suited me. I like being dogged, and I don’t mind dead-ends, provided I’m not bored. Given the subject matter here, I never was.
JW: Everyone who cared about Paris wound up shattered. Why?
RDF: I don’t want to sound too ethereal, but the older I get, the more I believe that our spirits are in place before we arrive on this earth. I also believe that we’re all following a certain path, playing a certain role, that isn’t truly of our choosing. We can modify our behavior, but we can’t really change ourselves. Jackie arrived brimming with talent, ambition as well as resentment and anger. Seventy-nine years later he was still brimming with all of those things.
JW: So some of that self- destructiveness was hard-wired?
RDF: Even as a young man Jackie seemed to know he was destined for artistic disappointment. In the film, there’s a letter that Jackie wrote to Down Beat, pissed off that he was being treated unfairly in the magazine’s pages. The year is 1947. That means Jackie is only 23 years old and already defensive about his place in the music world. Does this mean he influenced his outcome because of this attitude? There are those that believe that to be the case. Certainly we push ourselves over cliffs of our choosing. Still, I think it’s hard to change the script we’re born with.
JW: What things about Paris’ career didn’t make the film due to time/space constraints?
RDF: Jackie was fired from a TV show in 1959 called Music For Fun. He was one of six singers on the show, and after a few episodes he went to the producers and complained that there were too many singers. The producers agreed—and fired him.
JW: It sounds like Jackie’s ego, instead of driving him, was always one step ahead undermining what he could have accomplished. True?
RDF: In some regards, yes. Duke Ellington asked Jackie to tour with him in the late 1940’s or early 1950s, and Jackie turned him down! Jackie had just gotten off the road with the Lionel Hampton band and didn’t want to go out again for an extended period. Duke was clearly chagrined at being turned down—he even told his son, Mercer Ellington, about it. Whenever Jackie ran into Mercer in subsequent years, Mercer would say: ‘You turned my old man down. He couldn’t believe it!’ I think when Jackie heard this from Mercer he was both bummed and a little in awe of his own chutzpah.”
Tomorrow, in Part 2 of my interview with Raymond De Felitta, he talks about Anne Marie Moss—Paris’ second wife and singing parter in later years—and what facts about her never made the film.
‘Tis Autumn updates: For updates on theaters showing ‘Tis Autumn as well as progress on the release of the DVD and possible soundtrack, visit Raymond’s blog here.
JazzWax videoclip: To see the ‘Tis Autumn movie trailer, go here.
JazzWax tracks: In addition to the album and song downloads recommended in my last post on Jackie Paris here, you can listen to two mp3 clips here. At the site, just click on the sheet music forRide, Sally, Ride and Indiana. Listen how Paris opens Indiana. That savvy, optimistic approach is what made Paris so special.
If you like the way Indiana sounds, it can be found on a fabulous CD called Songs by Jackie Paris, which for the longest time was available only on a Japanese CD release. Now, the album is available at iTunes for only $9.99. The arrangements on there are so cool I decided to do a little searching for Jackie Paris on my own.
Turns out all the tracks were arranged by the great Manny Albam. Recorded in November 1955, the musicians on the date were Sam Marowitz and Hal McKusick on alto saxes, Frank Socolow and Eddie Wasserman on tenor saxes, Al Epstein on baritone sax, Bill Triglia on piano, Barry Galbraith on guitar, Milt Hinton on bass and Osie Johnson on drums. Albam likely contracted the Paris date, since a bunch of the guys, including Albam, had just recorded Terry Gibbs’Vibes on Velvet for EmArcy a month earlier.
You’ll also find an interesting Jackie Paris vocal buried on Charles Mingus’ 1974 album, Changes Two. The track isDuke Ellington’s Sound of Love, and the CD can be found here. Mingus loved Jackie’s voice and first featured him in 1952 on three tracks—Paris in Blue, Make Believe and Portrait—for his Debut label. These very hip tracks are available at iTunes on Charles Mingus’ Debut Rarities, Vol 4.
JazzWax connections: Jackie Paris may have been woefully under-recorded in the late 1950s but he was still a rave of jazz musicians. To capitalize on Paris’ hip, young sound, record labels took a shot at promoting singers with a similar approach. Two examples were Johnny Pace (who appeared on a Chet Baker recording for Riverside in 1958) and Frank D’Rone (who recorded for Mercury with Billy May big band arrangements in 1959 and 1960). If you are familiar with Jackie Paris’ voice, you’ll be taken aback by the similarities.