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Cool Cats

Still just a cat in a cage: despite all their talent, saxophonists Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon faced a tormented life of addiction, even as they went into self-exile in Denmark - film is part of the Doc'n'Roll Festival taking place right now

New York? Chicago? Atlanta? Or is it Paris? None of the above. In the ’60s the best city to listen to live jazz music was Copenhagen. Cool Cats (Janus Køster-Rasmussen, 2015) is the story of how Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon, two of the jazz world’s greatest saxophonists, found a haven way from the racial discrimination in their homeland US in the capital of Denmark.

Initially, both jazz stars traveled to Europe in 1962 for only a couple of gigs, but they soon considered a self-exile. The US entered a decade marked by turbulent changes. President John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963. Widespread economic prosperity in the country, amongst other factors, contributed to the growth of social activism. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. rose his popularity and became a target, too. As the 1960s progressed, rock’n’roll became the dominant popular music as the music industry focused on youth culture. Considering this scenario, it is natural that Webster and Gordon thought of Copenhagen as a more peaceful place to live.

The film provides some useful insight into the lives of two talented musicians, and some of the old footage is particularly impressive. It also reveals a lesser-known side of Copenhagen, and a vibrant jazz destination in the 1960s. It also slips into some platitudes. But that’s about it.

The director skilfully orchestrates archive material of the gigs, including Ben Webster’s own home footage. It portrays interviews with their friends and lovers. Both jazz musicians were black with white spouses. The women understood their suffering back in the US. Dexter was in prison for several years. What their lovers seemed not to realise was that both of them were drug addicted and heavy drinkers. The film takes the easy path of exposing the artist’s tormented life.

Instead of focusing on their art, compositions and their influence on the music scene, the tone of the interviews is usually around “I cannot understand why they chose to be addicted”. Danish filmmaker edited the interviews of their friends with images of wild, lonely and aggressive animals in cages in the zoo, and the metaphor is very simplistic. It is very clear though that both musicians regretted their addiction. Webster cannot explain in words why he left Duke Ellington band. He starts to cry. Dexter said he wrote a theater play called “Connection” that was a fiasco because the actors “didn’t have the necessary background to do the play properly”. The show talks about narcotics.

Years later, Dexter Gordon brilliantly portrayed a fictional tenor sax player in the film Round Midnight (Bertrand Tavernier, 1986). In Round Midnight, sax player Dale Turner slowly loses the battle against alcoholism, estranged from his family, and hanging on by a thread to the 1950s’ New York jazz world. Dexter found an artistic way to apologise.

Fortunately art is stronger than men. The legacy of the artists is still alive in Copenhagen. Ben Webster has a street named after him in southern Copenhagen. While in Copenhagen, Gordon was able to record continuously. They both inspired the Copenhagen Jazz Festival. Lasting 10 days, the festival envelops the Danish capital, offering a sumptuous musical feast to the 250.000 guests year after year.

Cool Cats is part of Doc’n Roll Film Festival, taking place now in London. It is showing at Picturehouse Central, on November 8th at 8:30 pm. Get your tickets here.

Watch a talk with the film director Janus Køster-Rasmussen:

By Maysa Monção - 06-11-2016

Maysa Monção is a Brazilian writer, teacher, translator, editor and art performer who currently lives in London. She has a Masters Degree in Film Studies from Tor Vergata University in Rome, Italy, ...

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