A unique and exciting event was held in Harlem at the Apollo, where a full house of listeners came to see Louis, a modern-day silent film about a long-dead jazz legend. They had been lured by the appearance of Wynton Marsalis performing with an 11-piece band. The subject matter — trumpeter Louis Armstrong — seemed almost incidental.
The conventional imbalance between image and sound in music videos results from extremely sophisticated cinematic techniques often countered by amateurish musicianship and adolescent concerns.
But Louis, the debut effort of filmmaker Dan Pritzker, is not a case of the cart pulling the horse. Rather, this film provides an example of something that filmgoers rarely see: the power of the score to make a film seem far better than it actually is.
Thanks to Marsalis' music, elements that could be seen as sentimental silent-film clichés often slipped by or were made bearable by something that was never experienced during the actual silent-film era: live music performed by top-shelf players like trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, reedmen Victor Goines and Ted Nash, pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Enriquez and drummer Ali Jackson.
Even in the 1920s, the timeless vitality of jazz was not usually heard in those silent-movie theaters. Now and again, musicians like Louis Armstrong could be heard in that movie-theater context, but they were not surrounded by improvising bands filled with superior musicians. That night up in Harlem, the Marsalis band seemed to play with the epic range of feeling and technique that makes an event take on mythic power, which enhanced the quality of the film itself. There was never a band as fine as the one Marsalis led that night at the Apollo.
Though it easily could have been a very dull evening, Monday night at the Apollo was not a loud and lazy act of deadening nostalgia; unamplified, the music was absolutely vibrant, fully alive and ringing with a charisma that the audience probably found unfamiliar.
So far, that has not been the fate of Marsalis. Full disclosure: When it comes to Marsalis, I am most assuredly biased. We've been friends since he became a New Yorker in the early '80s; we have worked together on various jazz projects over the years. I have watched his evolution closely and have seen him mull over his artistic directions.
For at least 20 years, Marsalis has redefined virtuosity, firmly basing his technique on the elements that distinguished jazz from the beginning. Having been a master of European concert music from early in his career, the trumpeter disappointed his concert-music fans by devoting himself to jazz, which he knew was actually harder to play. This was evident to him in the range of techniques that were present in every jazz style until the music floundered into rock during the late '60s.
Jazz will never again be what it was during its heyday as dance music. As was shown at the Apollo, the present importance of jazz is that its players symbolize — as they always have — the perfect relationship between human beings and machines in an Avatar era. Technological gimmicks have been pushing humanity out of our films and our music for far too long, and novelty is usually mistaken for the kind of innovation that cannot truly be itself unless grounded by matters of the human heart.
Jazz virtuosity is most relevant when it takes on the task of revealing the constancy and infinite nuance of human feeling, memory and dreams. At the Apollo, the audience heard instruments sing, speak and imitate both natural and mechanical phenomena.
That the musicians were able to play in the style made popular during the 1920s was particularly important because black audiences, we are always told, have no interest in "period" films or anything else associated with earlier times. Sociologists and academics have largely defined the black American experience as no more than a halting march through one woe after another, all exclusively distinguished by bigotry.
The Marsalis band made one thing quite clear to those in the Apollo seats: In jazz, joy has always been the uppermost goal, and joy is why jazz has been universally embraced. Listeners have learned that whenever the music faces all of the shortcomings brought into life by the blues, the joy at the center of jazz is philosophical, spiritual, courageous, witty and affirmative in a way well beyond the sentimental. We all take slaps and punches and get stomped by the blues, which jazz acknowledges but fights back against with an evergreen memory and the performed realization of joy. Cynicism and bitterness do not appear in the best of jazz.
What I found most moving in Louis was the idea that a little black boy, even in a seamy section of a city at the turn of the 20th century, might have dreams and fantasies that he could make real through his music. Armstrong recalled having such dreams when he lay in bed at night and heard musicians playing out somewhere in the street. These days, that sense of possibility is not promoted among black boys in a school system that fails them and fails the nation.
Just as they countered the lesser aspects of the film, Marsalis and his musicians offered what all serious artistic work offers: proof that a far-from-soppy sense of vitality remains in place and is always ready to be "in the service of happiness," as Louis Armstrong once said of his work. Armstrong was right then and will remain right. So will jazz.
Stanley Crouch is an essayist and columnist based in New York. He has been awarded a MacArthur and a Fletcher and was recently inducted into the Academy of Arts and Sciences. The first volume of his Charlie Parker biography will appear within a year.