Journal of Film Music, Vol 2, No 2-4 (2009)

Mingus, Cassavetes, and the Birth of a Jazz Cinema

Ross Lipman

Abstract


In November 1958, John Cassavetes premiered
his revolutionary independent film Shadows in a
series of midnight screenings at the Paris Theater
in New York City. Village Voice critic Jonas Mekas
immediately proclaimed it a work of genius, calling
it “the most frontier-breaking American feature in at
least a decade.” Most audience members, including
Cassavetes, hated it.Cassavetes reassembled his cast
and crew and shot extensive new footage, modifying
old scenes and adding new ones. The final version
premiered at Amos Vogel’s legendary Cinema 16 on
November 11, 1959, and was an overnight critical
sensation.One of the myths that propelled Shadows to
instant notoriety was its improvisational origins.
It’s considered by many to be the first “true”
cinematic jazz narrative, both for its racially
charged subject and its unconventional, unscripted
making in the streets of Manhattan.4 It’s been
further celebrated for an original score by one
of the all-time jazz greats, Charles Mingus.
However much of the legend is deceptive. Little of
Mingus’s music appears in the final film. Actual jazz
scenes are conspicuously absent. And recent writingsby Ray Carney, Tom Charity and others have attempted
to debunk or clarify much of the improvisation myth.

DOI: 10.1558/jfm.v2i2-4.145

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