Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Charles Burnett moved with his parents to Los Angeles during the great migration to escape the Jim Crow south when he was still a boy. Suppressing vague artistic urges as a teenager for economic reasons, Burnett enrolled in a more practical degree program of electronics hoping for job security. But the encouragement of a writing teacher, and a lifelong fascination with movies, led him to a UCLA film degree at just the right time to become part of the emerging Black Independent Movement of like-minded young African-American writers, cinematographers, and directors in the area.
Throughout his career, he has persisted against the odds of what big studios consider Americans’ limited interest in black and working-class subjects, and experimental techniques, calmly but fearlessly continuing with project after project across genres. His films have won prizes throughout the world. He has earned a McArthur “genius” grant, and in 2017 an honorary Oscar for his career work. Just before the pandemic, Amazon announced that he would be making a new film about the escape of a slave called Steal Away. I feel I can hardly wait, but of course, I’ll have to. In the meantime, I’ve been looking at the highlights of his career and present brief recommendations below. Occasionally I’ve quoted the director’s own comments from interviews throughout the years, and descriptions from critics more eloquent than I am.
KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)
A legendary but unseen film which was unavailable for three decades because of the complications involved with obtaining the rights for recordings used on the soundtrack. An anonymous donation to the UCLA restoration project cleared the rights and produced a clean new print. The release in 2007 caused a sensation in international cinema.
It’s a risky movie—instead of a straightforward narrative, it’s a stream of interlocking anecdotes punctuated by lyrical interludes of pure visual poetry, all of it revolving around life in late 70s Watts. As Burnett said, “I don’t think a film should tell you A happens, and then B, and then C will necessarily follow. Life isn’t necessarily that simple. Films have a tendency to generalize, to reduce complex issues.” And so he portrays the life of the titular worker at the slaughterhouse as he tries to hold his family together while keeping his own sense of dignity and purpose in a challenging environment. And he shows the man’s life in relation to his neighbors in vignettes that are both straightforward observations and moments of poetic insight.
As fellow director in the movement Bill Woodberry says, “He was working in a way that was not exploitative or stereotypical. He had decided early on that those lives were epic in quality. The people who lived in the stories didn’t realize it, but it was his job as an artist to give them form and shape.” The movie’s soundtrack turns out to be worth the investment because Burnett’s use of a great range of styles—Dvorak and William Grant Still; Earth, Wind, and Fire and Louis Armstrong; Dinah Washington and Paul Robeson. He’s probably the most interesting cinematic purveyor of matched musical quotations outside Martin Scorsese.
The trailer for Killer of Sheep
Richard Brody of New Yorker magazine comments on the film and presents clips:
MY BROTHER’S WEDDING (1983)
Burnett’s second feature is like a parable with a quizzical punchline. The protagonist is a young man who feels trapped in his job at his parents’ dry-cleaning business in Watts, but who nevertheless is too proud to embrace his brother’s aspirations to escape through marriage into a middle-class family. He feels loyal to an ex-convict hustler of a friend and must choose between them in the climactic sequence. It’s a coming-of-age saga that Burnett has called a “tragicomedy.”
His method is deceptively simple, catching the protagonist’s neighborhood seemingly on the sly, but again what looks like neo-realism or documentary has more going on in the frame. As A. O. Scott put it in the New York Times “They are involved, Mr. Burnett and his crew, in a project of making art out of materials and inspirations that lie close to hand. And the result is a film that is so firmly and organically rooted in a specific time and place that it seems to contain worlds.”
Trailer for My Brother’s Wedding
Here is the opening sequence of the film to give you a flavor:
TO SLEEP WITH ANGER (1990)
Although its budget was modest by Hollywood standards, the movie was well-funded and it was backed by the enthusiasm of its star, Danny Glover in the press. (You can see that enthusiasm in the trailer below.) Drawing on his sense of his own past, Burnett shaped a tale of a couple, Gideon and Suzy, who emigrated from down South to L.A. years ago, and are beginning to settle in to a well-earned comfortable version of the American Dream with their two sons and their grandchildren close by. Enter Harry Mention, a suave and sly neighbor from their past down home who insinuates himself into their lives, and begins to disrupt their sense of identity and security as a family.
The film combines folkloric African mythology of the trickster with a mysterious sense of absurdity and dread—funny and spooky at the same time like Zora Neale Hurston with a touch of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming superimposed. The cast is a wonderful selection of black actors we don’t see often enough: Paul Butler, Mary Alice, Carl Lumbly, Richard Brooks, and more. As usual, Burnett makes music a crucial part of the atmosphere, employing the great Kansas City blues shouter and jazz balladeer Jimmy Witherspoon at the end of his long career to play a supporting role and sing commentary on the action.
To Sleep with Anger trailer
Here are some very brief interviews with the cast and director about the film:
THE GLASS SHIELD
Some of the director’s films are fascinating variations on mainstream genre films. This one is in the tradition of police investigation films mixed with racial tensions, such as Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story, and also resembles police corruption exposés like Sidney Lumet’s Serpico and Prince of the City. Another terrific actor we haven’t seen often enough, Michael Boatman, plays a fresh-faced and eager rookie cop who stoutly faces the hazing of resentful and bigoted white veteran officers, and soon finds himself over his head as he discovers criminal conspiracy of fellow policeman. Lori Petty plays another new recruit, a slightly more wised-up cop who faces variations on prejudice because of her gender.
This time Burnett is telling a straight-ahead plotted film, with clues to trace, and suspenseful scenes, but his thematic concerns are as strong as ever—how do I fit in with the America that wants to exclude me, and still keep my vision of my own self? Veteran actors, including Elliot Gould, M. Emmett Walsh, Michael Ironside, and, at the beginning of his career, Ice Cube, strengthen the supporting cast. The clear-eyed, unflashy cinematography is by that wizard and Cherry Hill West graduate, Elliot Davis, who also shot the next film.
The trailer for The Glass Shield
A favorite with students of all ages in my film courses. Based on the young adult novel by Gary Paulsen, who also wrote the script, Nightjohn tells the story of an escaped slave who comes back south to search for his wife and child, secretly teaching the forbidden skill of reading to any fellow slave curious and brave enough to try. When literacy can result in maiming or death, the risks are high. John the teacher, played with warmth and humor by Carl Lumbly, is a flesh and blood hero, but he also looms as a mythical figure in the story. The film is told from the point of view of young Sarny, a slave girl, savvy and sassy played by Allison Jones, wonderful here in one of her only two film appearances.
Burnett’s family themes reappear in a new variation. Sarny’s mother was sold off the plantation when she was a toddler, so she has become part of an extended family, including Delie (Lorraine Toussaint) as her adoptive mother. The only intact nuclear family is that of the plantation owner (Beau Bridges), whose wife is cheating on him, whose brother condescends to him, and whose sons fear him. Once again, music is crucial to the meaning of the tale—see if you can keep from choking up in the climactic scene where the slaves give voice to a spiritual they have repurposed for new significance. This film is an unknown little gem. Here’s hoping its director gets to finish his latest project soon
Trailer for Nightjohn:
Time to celebrate one of the most innovative instrumentalists of the 20th century, a figure whose influence is still felt today, the high-flying bird, Charlie Parker. I’ll start with a few observations about his life and art and I’ll pass along some links to various celebrations across the internet. I’ve also chosen some clips to form a Bird Jukebox for the occasion. Happy Bird-day!
"Ever since I've ever heard music, I thought it should be very clean, very precise — as clean as possible, anyway, and more or less tuned to people. Something they could understand, something that was beautiful, you know? Because definitely there are stories and stories and stories that can be told."
Parker with the Metronome All Stars
So many jazz musicians have testified to the moment they first heard Parker, and when you assemble their comments, it seems like a mass conversion experience! Trumpeter Red Rodney: “When I heard him play I nearly fell out the window. Oh, my God! Everything came together at one time. I knew then. I knew where it was and who it was and what I had to do.” Clarinetist Budd De Franco: “He was a deep, extremely knowledgeable person, though self-taught. I don’t think had professional training, but his fingers were perfect. His technique was just perfect—as though he had years of schooling. To me it’s incredible that he’s the one person in jazz who influenced an entire world.” Trumpeter Joe Newman: “The first time I heard him play I couldn’t believe it, because he was doing something different from what everybody else was doing, and it was obvious his style was going to force things in another direction.”
Bird and Diz
The same effect could happen over a great distance, too. Trumpeter Thad Jones: “I was in the army on Guam, traveling with a GI show. There were about six of us, all in our tent…listening to the radio, and all of a sudden Dizzy [Gillespie] comes on playing ‘Shaw Nuff’ with Charlie Parker. And you know, I can’t describe what went on in that tent. We went out of our minds!...It was the newness and the impact of the sound, and the technique. It was something we were probably trying to articulate ourselves and just didn’t know how. And Dizzy and Bird came along and did it. They spoke our minds.”
First there was the sheer velocity of the playing. Bop, the style ushered in by Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, Parker and a few key other originators, simply moved faster than the swing of the 1930s. Parker skimmed, and flitted, and soared. His nickname was the result of a road trip with some fellow musicians. When one of their cars hit a chicken on the side of the highway, Parker insisted they go back and scoop up the fowl’s carcass and he had it cooked up for dinner when they reached the next town. But it probably stuck because of how his fingers, and that signature sound, flew faster than anyone else’s.
Charlie Parker with Miles Davis
Then there was the harmonic adventurousness. Bird was open to all kinds of music, but he was particularly enamored of contemporary classical composers such as Stravinsky and Bartok who were pushing the limits of tonality and exploring new harmonies. As with many of his fellow boppers, Parker often took a traditional pop song that had become a jazz jam session standard, such as “I Got Rhythm” or “How High the Moon,” and superimposed new chord changes on them, exploring remote intervals. Parker’s ability to play these difficult changes, especially at such daring tempos, was the result of hours and hours of practice from his early teenage days as a devout saxophonist.
And there was the revolutionary sound—beautiful without being pretty, expressive yet still cool. The cool probably came in part from his admiration for fellow Kansas City native Lester Young with the Count Basie band. Lester could swing hard while not bearing down on the beat, and his dry tone was somewhat detached, but beautiful on any ballad. The timbre came from devotion to the sound of many alto sax players, including Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Carter, and Duke Ellington’s magnificent band member Johnny Hodges. But whereas Hodges’ glorious notes were creamy, Bird’s were tart. The slightly acid edge gave Parker’s tone a modernistic, somewhat alienated feel that appealed to fellow youngsters in the jazz and also to literati like the Beats.
Unfortunately, Charlie Parker’s career was brief. Afflicted with recurring bouts of heroin addiction, he also drank too much when trying to stay off junk. Substance abuse had worn his system down even as he cleaned up. By the time of his death in 1955 at the age of thirty-four, the coroner guessed he was fifty-three. Within a week, graffiti was appearing in New York proclaiming “Bird Lives!” Thanks to recording technology, that’s vividly, startlingly true.
Charlie Parker with strings
To start our musical tour, let’s take a look at the only footage of Charlie Parker playing. (There was a short made by photographer experimental filmmaker Gjon Mili, but the soundtrack was lost. To look at a TV appearance in which Bird and the other musicians mime playing to a pre-recorded track you can click here.) Jazz producer and journalist Leonard Feather presents awards to Bird and Diz from Down Beat magazine. The brief ceremony is precious because we get to hear Parker’s speaking voice, too. The band plays “Hot House”:
A NIGHT IN TUNISIA
To get an idea of how new listeners felt lightning strike when they first heard the Bird, I’ve chosen Parker’s first version of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia.” (Miles Davis is on trumpet and Dodo Marmorosa on piano.) This features what is now called the “famous alto break.” When the other instruments drop out after the intro, Parker’s first solo packs harmonic daring and dazzling speeds into a concentrated four bars. The other musicians on the date were so startled they couldn’t make it through the first take!
Here’s something even more amazing from Bird’s first recording session as a leader. Parker had been improvising on Charlie Barnett’s big band theme “Cherokee” for some time, and would have been familiar with Count Basie’s epic two-sided 78 rpm version. Here he recasts the harmonies and revs up the speed to astonishing effect. Dizzy plays both trumpet and piano. An earlier take has Diz laughing in joy at Parker’s playing. To hear Basie’s version of the original you can click here. For an excellent short article and a ten minute radio bit from NPR, you can hear Gary Giddins discuss how “Ko Ko” came about by clicking here.
ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE
Next I want to give an idea of Parker’s inexhaustible inventiveness. It’s said he had capacious taste—opera, pop songs, dance band numbers, calypso, Salvation Army Band music. And he had a predilection for gorgeous tunes, as well. Here is one of the early hit versions of Jerome Kern’s evergreen “All the Things You Are” played by Artie Shaw’s Orchestra in 1940 with Helen Forrest on the vocal.
Now here’s how bop players transformed the melody in 1947. There’s the cool tag at the beginning vamping until the main theme enters, and there’s still plenty of lyricism as the soloists, mostly Dizzy with a soupcon of Bird, weave in and out.
And finally Parker, playing at a jam session in someone’s apartment in 1950 exploring every angle of the melody and flowing endlessly (well, OK, for six choruses) and showing how it’s done.
Now for a controversial bit of Bird lore. This cut comes from the infamous session the night Parker was arrested in Los Angeles and sent to the sanitarium in Camarillo for rehab. Bird had run out of money and drugs during this period and showed up to the studio very drunk. His timing was off and his intonation a bit shaky, yet many people hear so much soul in this reading of the classic ballad. Bassist/composer Charles Mingus regarded it as one of the greatest jazz pieces ever recorded. Others demurred. Gary Giddins reports that despite its flaws “the performance is oddly indigenous and moving. When producer Ross Russell released it, and indiscretion for which Bird never forgave him, callow musicians memorized it, mistakes and all.” I myself find it heartbreaking.
NOW’S THE TIME
A much happier moment. Traditionalists resisted the bop revolution of the 40s, saying the speedy rush of notes and changes crowded out the elegance of the swing beat. But Parker and company knew how to lay down a groove when they wanted to, and the motion here anticipates the funky force of the “hard bop” of later decades in music like Horace Silver’s. The cool swagger here promises a good time even as the title proclaims modernity.
Although skeptics found the concept pretentious or ill-advised, Charlie Parker insisted that producer Norman Granz provide him with a small symphonic orchestra for his first project on the Verve label.
It’s true that the opening bars of this number evoke a cheesy movie soundtrack, but then the lushness of the strings is cut through with the luster of the master’s tone. This track was found on jukeboxes throughout the country and it gave Bird the closest thing to mainstream hit he had. He was dashed when he was prevented from exploring this vein further.
Charlie Parker was born and raised in Kansas City where jazz was steeped in the blues. Part of his apprenticeship was spent in the territory band of blues pianist Jay McShann. In this composition, Bird holds the twelve bar form, as essential to our indigenous music as the sonnet is to English poetry, up to the light and explores different facets of harmony and intonation. Solid.
I just wanted to end with some straightforward gorgeousity—Charlie Parker playing a Gershwin ballad with all the spirit and affection that even a bop resister can embrace.
To find out more about Charlie Parker, the best place to start in print is with Gary Giddins’ book Celebrating Bird, handsome in layout and lavishly illustrated with photographs even in its paperback form. (The hour long documentary Giddins directed to accompany it is available used on DVD for reasonable prices, too.) Stanley Crouch’s biography Kansas City Lightning is a marvel of research and imaginative empathy for its subject.
Recently Terry Gross’s Fresh Air featured a short piece by jazz critic Kevin Whitehead that does a fabulous job of summarizing Bird’s impact and career which you can hear by clicking here.
NPR’s Jazz Night in America with host bassist Christian McBride recently celebrated Bird’s birthday with a full program, including a generous section on the Parker with Strings sessions and lots of fabulous music inspired by the birthday boy. Hear it by clicking here.
There’s a New York Times item that lists the various celebrations going on this year here.
One of the things I love about pop culture is the many ways media and artforms can interconnect. This week I celebrate a collage of music, radio and internet journalism, photography, and street art. This is the story of East Side Story.
Twelve or so years ago, I found a discount box set of twelve CDs containing a few tracks I knew, and many I’d never encountered before, so I took a chance. Each volume’s cover was labeled in the same distinctive lettering that evoked graffiti and featured a photo of someone posing with his car. It was all very mysterious to me, but the music was fabulous—some doo-wop, many sweet ballads, and an awful lot of soul music that hit a certain mid-tempo, easy-loping, magical feel. Whenever I played a disc for friends, they’d ask for more.
Re-releases of classic East Side Story albums on display
Over time, I figured the East Side of the title must be referring to the Chicano neighborhood of Los Angeles, and as I began to discover vocal group music of Texas and L.A., the stuff people called “brown-eyed soul,” I noticed the names of groups like Sunny and The Sunliners were on both kinds of anthologies. Cool, I thought, these folks on the cover are from East L.A. and the music is the soundtrack of their ethnic surroundings and their remembered youth. But why were there so many African-American bands, and why did most of the tunes come from Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and even New Orleans?
DJ/journalist Melissa Dueñas at a gallery show highlighting lowrider culture and Chicano art
I started to find some answers from the Google oracle, specifically when I found an article about a certain Melissa Dueñas, who was making a documentary about the East Side Story compilations. Dueñas, who had been a drummer as a kid and is now a DJ and podcast host, had become a graduate student in journalism. I soon found several of her pieces about Latino culture online, and was delighted when a few weeks later an audio report about her relationship with her dad was aired on NPR for Father’s Day. (You can read about it, and play the piece, too, by clicking here.) She clearly has the skills, and the heart, to tell the story of her family, her neighborhood, and Chicano culture in general, so I hope she gets to finish the documentary about the East Side Story compilations. (Read about her project—and watch the trailer, too—by clicking here.)
Dueñas with compiler Mr. B. at a swapmeet
What Dueñas is doing is tracking down the people who were in those cover photos, and also is interviewing the man who put those pictures on the original 8-track tape and vinyl versions in the late 1970s, a business man who goes by the name of Mr. B. One of Mr. B’s hobbies was collecting old records (another—no surprise—is vintage cars), and he got the idea for making bootlegs of old soul tracks from the enthusiastic response to certain cuts at the San Diego Starlite swapmeet. (Later, when the compilations became regarded as classics, the artwork was re-released with legitimately licensed tracks.) Soon he was putting local folks and their cars on the covers, because fans of these classic and obscure-but-well-loved 45s associated the tunes with cruising in their lowriders on and around Whittier Blvd. in East L.A.
Lowriding is a crucial part of the cultural scene there. As Chris Kaiser, a blogger for DailyDriver.com explains:
“People know lowriders represent a specific American car sub-culture. Yet this still might understate their cultural significance. Lowriders are drive-able artwork representing a specific mode and medium of personal and cultural expression emanating from a specific time and place. They belong within the wider Chicano arts movement that includes visual arts like murals and graffiti, El Teatro Campesino and similar street theater, and the zoot suit fashions pioneered some 80 years ago by the “pachuco generation.” The flamboyance of lowriders, with their lurid colors and hopping, mirror the attitude and ostentation of these other forms of Chicano art.”
1964 Impala, retooled and repainted, classic lowrider style
(You can read his full article, and see some eye-popping photos, here. There’s also an excellent detailed examination of the history of lowriding enthusiasm at the History Channel’s website here.)
It makes sense that the taste of Mr. B’s fans throughout the year should lead the 144 tracks he chose to become the soundtrack to their lowriding nights. Whereas the hot rod craze was for young car fans who wanted to chop up and reform older cars to make them run faster and louder--souped-up American dreams-on-wheels barreling down Thunder Road-- lowriders were reshaped for a sleek and shiny look, and a smooth, cruisin’ feel—the quiet storm of laid-back Chicano cool. I’m no gearhead but I can appreciate the tenacity of the guys who retooled their rides. But what I really appreciate is the syncretic imagination it takes to hear all these different romantic pop tunes woven together, an eclectic mix from all over the country that makes listening another form of creativity.
Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. with cruising classic cars
For this entry I’ve created a jukebox of a few selected tunes. (You can search on Spotify for a playlist one ESS fan has made of most of the tracks under “Actual East Side Story.” You can also listen to Melissa’s (aka Lil Smiley’s) podcast called Lowrider Sundays by clicking here.)
You don’t have to wait until it’s starry night and you’re driving around with your significant other while you play this through the car speakers, but you can dream you are. Hope you enjoy!
“MR. DJ” VAN McCOY
I’ve started with a “meta-song,” one of those records about the importance of playing records. (Another one Mr. B. chose for the series is Little Caesar’s “Those Oldies But Goodies Remind Me of You.”) This obscure slice of doo-wop is an early creation of Van McCoy, the mastermind behind many Philly productions of the disco era, including “The Hustle.”
“AIN’T NO BIG THING” THE RADIANTS
Chicago guys who met in the Baptist youth choir, like so many gospel singers of the time they moved on to the secular realm of doo-wop, R & B, and then soul. Their biggest hit was “Voice Your Choice.” This one, on the big, brassy Chess records sound, made it to #91.
“I’M AN AVERAGE GUY” THE MASQUERADERS
These Texans got their group’s name from their reputation for being able to copy any other group’s sound, and perhaps that was what stalled their careers from time to time. They flunked their audition at Motown but became legendary in clubs around Detroit. When they tried out at American Sound Studio in Memphis, they were encouraged by Bobby Womack to stick around. A great harmony group, you can hear them on other people’s hits, including Wilson Pickett and The Box Tops. This plea from a common man whose love is uncommonly big is a lost gem. (Also: Top marks for proper use of the subjunctive!)
“ANGEL BABY” ROSIE AND THE ORIGINALS
Rock and roll balladry does not get more basic than this. Rosie Hamlin composed the song for her boyfriend when she was fourteen in San Diego. A year later they recorded it for an amateur studio, and legend has they promoted it by convincing the manager of Kresge’s department store to pipe it through the speakers for shoppers. It went top 40 and Rosie became the first Latina on Dick Clark’s Bandstand and the first Latina inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. John Lennon often expressed awed admiration for her voice and her composition.
“HAVE I SINNED” DONNIE ELBERT
One of those singers who kept chasing fame from city to city and label to label throughout two plus decades, Elbert almost hit the charts a number of times. This one was a regional hit in Pittsburgh but charted nowhere else. That distinctively rich falsetto and the sinuous alto riff intertwine memorably. The record sure made an impression on Martin Scorsese—it’s in a key scene in The Irishman.
“THAT’S HOW HEARTACHES ARE MADE” BABY WASHINGTON
Justine Washington had a number of hits in the 1960s that walked the line between pop chanteuse and soul crooner, somewhat similar to early Dionne Warwick. This wonderful number was her biggest hit, and was covered by many others, including The Shirelles and Dusty Springfield.
“SMILE NOW, CRY LATER” SUNNY AND THE SUNLINERS
Texan Chicano Sonny Ozuna and his groupmates recorded for their own local label in the early sixties, and like other Texas Latin vocal groups could shift between Tex-Mex rock, doo-wop, pop covers, and smooth ballads like this one. Louisiana record producer Huey Meux (aka “The Crazy Cajun”) picked up their singles for distribution (as he did with Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, and many other Texans) and they became a favorite of the lowriding oldies crowd.
“I’M READY” BARBARA MASON
A savvy mainstay of the music publishing industry, Mason was writing her own material in from an early age and scored a #5 hit when only eighteen with this wonderful single. She continued her career for decades on different Philadelphia labels. The winsome freshness of the vocal and the languid lyrics are carried away by those tumbling strings…
“RIGHT ON THE TIP OF MY TONGUE” BRENDA AND THE TABULATIONS
Another Philly gal, Brenda Payton started with such songs as “Dry Your Eyes,” a doo-wop ballad backed with male vocalists. (I never quite understood the group name. Do they bring adding machines to the gig?) By the time of this track, Van McCoy was writing and producing Brenda, and The Tabulations were now women.
“STILL WATER (LOVE)” THE FOUR TOPS
When Mr. B., the East Side Story compiler, chooses Motown, he steers clear of the obvious. I didn’t remember this cut at all from my Motown-drenched transistor radio youth, but when I heard it on the compilation, I ID’d Levi Stubbs’ trademark shout, even if it’s toned down in the medium groove The Funk Brothers lay down. The song is composed by label stalwart Smokey Robinson, and as usual, he gives a new sparkle to a worn-out proverb. Now “walk with me…” everybody.