Tag Archives: Swing Kids

The Freedom of Musical Expression

I picked up a copy of local New Orleans entertainment publication Where Y’at magazine recently. There’s a “Where Y’at Chat” feature page where locals from a cross-section of professions are asked 5 random questions and their responses are shared.page_1

In this edition, respondents were asked the question, “Happy Independence Day! When do you feel most free and independent?” I was struck by how many of the responses turned to musical expression and freedom:

“When I play the horn (Euphonium – baritone horn). It’s moving and freeing.”

~ Norman Robinson, Award-winning Radio/TV Broadcaster

“On the stage.”

~ Johnny Sansone, Award-Winning Blues Guitarist

“Singing a song with my guitar in front of an audience.”

~ Greg DiLeo, Trial Attorney

“Blaring the radio with the windows down.”

~ Mavis Larrimer, Respiratory Therapist

For Love or CountrySometimes it’s hard to imagine and therefore important to remember that there are places and there have been times where such freedoms of expression are not a way of life. Music/artistic expression and free speech are as precious as any rights we afford our citizens, and must be protected even when, or perhaps especially when, those perspectives, expressions, and points of view are counter to those of the majority.

The movie For Love or Country documented the plight of jazz trumpet player Arturo Sandoval whose homeland of Cuba prohibited jazz. Swing Kids is the story of teen aged jazz/swing aficionados of the early days of Nazi Germany who used music and dance as a vehicle of defiance. In both cases the narrow allowances of only state-sponsored music served as a way to repress dissonant thought among the citizenry.

Swing Kids 002Tennis player and 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic who grew up in war-torn Serbia articulated those sentiments in his book Serve to Win… 

“Growing up in wartime taught me another crucial lesson:  the importance of keeping an open mind and never ceasing to search for new ways of doing things. As a people, we were controlled by a government that kept information from us. The consequences of that continue to this day. Even though we have recovered from the war, we haven’t recovered from the mindset that communism instilled:  that there is only one way to think, one way to live, one way to eat. Tennis, and my studies with Jelena (Jelena Gencic, Novak’s youth tennis/life coach and mentor) opened my mind, and I was determined to keep it open.”

DjokerDjokovic has ascended to the top of the men’s tennis game in large part because of his insatiable appetite for methods that will give him the mental, physical, and nutritional edge to compete at the highest level in the most competitive era his sport has ever seen.

So if you’re a musician, professional or recreational, or a music enthusiast, take a moment this week to appreciate the freedoms of expression of all kinds that we often take for granted.

Movies About Music & Musicians

Hollywood is at its best when it produces movies that inspire. With respect to movies about music and musicians, here are a dozen that inspire me:
1. The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) (Jeff & Beau Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer)
Jeff Bridges is one of my favorite actors and is extremely versatile. Characters seem real and the movie avoids relationship cliches and stereotypes that so often leave the viewer less than satisfied.
2. For Love or Country (2000) (Andy Garcia)
Garcia portrays Cuban trumpet player Arturo Sandoval. All musicians talk about how important our art is to us, but this movie makes you ask the questions, “How much do I really love music and what would I do to pursue it?”
3. Swing Kids (1993) (Robert Sean Leonard, Christian Bale)
Compelling story of a movement of young kids who used Swing dance and jazz as a form of rebellion against the Nazi movement in pre-WWII Germany.
4. Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) (Richard Dreyfuss)
Some might find this movie corny or sappy, but I love it. The movie really captures the essence of what makes great music teachers great – The ability to reach into the core of each student individually and give them what they need and to grow as a musician and as a person.
5. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) (James Cagney)
The most iconic performance by James Cagney in his portrayal of Broadway legend George M. Cohan, especially when you consider that Cagney was known as a tough guy, gangster type in most of his movie roles.
6. The Buddy Holly Story (1978) (Gary Busey)
This movie captured the excitement of the early days of rock and roll. Though Busey’s career never lived up to its potential, he turns in a great performance here.
7. This is Spinal Tap (1984) (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer)
Every cliche of the ego-driven rock star is exposed here – some real laugh out loud moments and don’t underestimate the value of the musical talents of the leading actors here in making this movie work.
8. Walk the Line (2005) (Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon)
It’s difficult to portray flawed celebrities in a way that makes you understand both why they were beloved and how they could be despised at times. This film “walks that line” wonderfully.
9. Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) (Sissy Spacek, Tommie Lee Jones)
Like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn’s story had an unpleasant side (primarily her relationship with an abusive husband) that needed to be a part of the mix if the movie was to be credible. Likeable for many of the same reasons.
10. A Mighty Wind (2000) (Ensemble Cast)
It’s clear that the cast and creators of this movie, who have also put together a string of satirical films with a cult following (This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman) had a clear affinity for the folk music movement of the 1950’s and 60’s while understanding how the personalities easily lent themselves to jest. Heartwarming and funny and not far from an accurate portrayal of the mindset of the folk musician.
11. The Five Pennies (1959) (Danny Kaye, Barbara Bel Geddes, Louis Armstrong)
Danny Kaye was one of the most likeable and engaging celebrities on the screen or off. Movie features a fun performance by Louis Armstrong.
12. The Blues Brothers (1980) (John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd) Though the movie resorts to car chases and the storyline gets slow at times, this movie stands the test of time for 2 reasons: a plethora of cameo appearances by legendary blues & R&B musicians; and the chemistry and playfulness of the lead actors in their most lovable and enduring roles/characters.

Here are a few others that I haven’t seen that are highly regarded:
Sid & Nancy (1986) Gary Oldman delivered a powerful performance portraying Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols.
Bird (1988) The troubled life of brilliant and groundbreaking jazz saxophone player Charlie “Yardbird” Parker is portrayed by Forest Whitaker. Directed by jazz aficionado and musician Clint Eastwood.
Lady Sings the Blues (1972) Diana Ross gives an Oscar-nominated performance as jazz vocalist Billie Holliday.
Ray (2004) Jamie Foxx in his Oscar-winning performance as Ray Charles.
Round Midnight (1986) Dexter Gordon gives a critically acclaimed performance as an aging jazz saxophonist.
Amadeus (1990) The story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart garnered 8 Academy awards.
Shine (1996) Based on the true story of Australian pianist David Helfgott.

Here’s a more extensive list from UC Berkeley

Your thoughts?