Tours of duty

By JON GARELICK  |  May 18, 2009

Does Clifford see parallels between the situations for Vietnam vets and Iraq vets? "It's worse for them." Thinking about it, he adds, "I've marched and protested this war — and I find myself marching with a lot of the same guys I marched with in the '70s."

The first shot of the documentary Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense (airing this month and next on the Documentary Channel) is of the trumpeter Nicholas Payton — and he startles without playing a note. He's sitting in close-up, in a fedora, jacket, and tie, his eyes alive in his broad face, taking in his interviewer with a serene gaze, his emotions, it seems, just below the surface, ready to bubble up at any moment as he talks slowly and evenly. "You have to be able to let go everything you believe, everything you've seen, everything you've been taught and heard, to experience the truth. Because the truth never remains the same. And to me, a lie is anything that has nothing to do with now. Truth is now."

The last great jazz documentary I saw was Ken Burns's epic Jazz in 2001 — engaging television, even if what lingers in memory now is Wynton Marsalis's discussing Louis Armstrong for several hours, and the film's curt dismissal of the '60s avant-garde.

Directed by Michael Rivoira, Lars Larson, and Peter J. Vogt, Icons Among Us has obvious advantages. All of its footage is new within the past few years. Instead of Burns's talking heads and pans of still photographs, we have beautifully shot and edited live performances. The camera seems to move freely on the bandstand, whether it's in Seattle, New Orleans, New York, Newport, or the Netherlands, directing your attention to the drummer's brushwork just as your ear becomes conscious of it, then cutting to the opposite side of the stage to catch the horn player's reaction. An opening sequence will establish a performance that continues to play under the talking-head interviews, or break into a diagonal split screen, then return to a full shot of the players. This is not the quick-cut nervous energy of music videos but an illusion of musical performance taking place in real time — lived time.

Jazz had the advantage of its built-in historical narrative. Aside from stray references to Coltrane or Monk, Icons is all about that Payton "now." But how do you build a narrative on four hours of musicians talking about the existential moment? The four one-hour episodes are split into the expository "A Quiet Revolution" (introducing the diverse wealth of contemporary talent), "12 Notes in Real Time" (the experience of improvising), "In the Spirit of Family" (about intra-band relationships), and "Everything and Everywhere" (geography, genealogy, and evolution).

The arguments are familiar, often boiling down to the usual monomythic question "What is jazz?" There are familiar answers (Donald Harrison: "You can't move a tradition forward without knowing it.") And there are the near-poetic felicities (Bill Frisell: "Music is a place I can go where things work right.") And yes, the film always threatens to break into commonplaces as old as Orpheus: "I don't care what it's called, I just want to play my music, man."

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