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Sun October 5, 2008
On Dexter Gordon's 'Round Midnight and the Jazz Revival of the 1980s.
By Brian Clardy
Murray, KY – In 1986, French director Bertrand Tavernier put together an ensemble of great musicians and actors to produce one of the most influential movies of the decade, "'Round Midnight." The title of this movie came from Thelonius Monk and Cootie Williams classic composition of the same name.
The opening theme is beautifully sung by the innovative vocalist Bobby McFarrin. It is a story of longing, loss, conflict with inner demons, and the last hurrah of a fictional musician, Dale Turner.
Turner, who is portrayed by the hard bop sax man Dexter Gordon, was a composition of two real jazz artists: Bud Powell and Lester Young. Both Powell and Young were brilliant musicians who over three decades were the top masters in both piano work and the saxophone. However, both men were plagued by years of drug addiction - a malady that destroyed both men in the end. Gordon, who knew both men rather well, played the fictional Turner to a fault.
A number of other characters are created from real life musicians to add to the movie's scope. Lonette McKee plays the fictional "Darcy Leigh": a composite of jazz great Billie Holiday who was a close friend of Young's. Leigh comes to Paris to perform at the Blue Note with Turner, and in a touching restaurant scene, bemoans the romantic love that eluded them both.
But Turner's closest friend, and the one fan who realizes that Turner has been economically manipulated by his handlers, is the struggling Bohemian Paris artist Francis, who was a composite of Bud Powell's friend Francis Paudras. Francis is a single father who is estranged from his wife, and he seeks to provide for his daughter Berangere and keep Turner from self destructing through alcohol abuse. Of all of the characters, Francis is the one who has to balance the admiration for a friend and musician, raising an adolescent daughter alone (which would be a struggle under any set of circumstances), and combating a love/hate relationship with his ex wife.
In th eend, each of those issues resolve themselves. Turner decides to return to the United States, much to Francis' dismay. But Turner ultimately succumbs to the drug addiction that destroyed many of his jazz artist contemporaries: Holiday, Charlie Parker, and so many others.
The highlight of the film, however, is the music. Stellar jazz artists, such as Herbie Hancock, Chet Baker, Bobbie Hutcherson, Wayne Shorter, and Billy Higgins, gave tour de force performances. Audiences who were not previously familiar with acoustic jazz, were drawn to this film. And it netted Dexter Gordon an Academy Award nomination for "Best Actor in a Leading Role."
Twenty-two years later, "'Round Midnight" is still a cult classic for fans of acoustic jazz and jazz history. The film provides a glimpse into America's most original art form, and the lives of the musicians who performed it, albeit a seemingly fictional account.