Top 5 Jazz Biopics That Are Long Overdue

By Sam Griffith

In the last 25 or so years, we have had a handful (a pathetically small handful) of movies made that focus on the lives of jazz musicians. We’ve had a flurry of jazz-movie news over the last few months with the production of the Miles-Davis biopic, the national release of “Whiplash” (about an abused jazz drummer), the documentary “Keep On , Keeping On” and the casting of Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in another movie. That got us thinking, which jazz musician is the most overdue for a dramatized theatrical release.

When making this list, we dealt with one big issue. Jazz musicians don’t end well. There are lots of instances in the jazz musicians life where adversity is overcame, but typically things seem to end incredibly poorly. We shouldn’t expect many comedies.

Secondly, we wanted to consider which musicians had significant stories outside of just their musical brilliance. Which stories should the public know more about? Which are the most interesting? All difficult questions.

Here is our first unofficial list of top 5 Jazz-related Movies that should happen.

5) Roy Eldridge

  • Before Jackie Robinson, we had Roy Eldridge. The Roy Eldridge Story would make for an enthralling motion picture because of his role as a figurehead of social change and exceptional musicality.

4) Lee Morgan

  • Doesn’t end well. But does seem to set itself up to be a compelling murder mystery. Maybe tell it from the Mistress’ point of view, starting on the night of Morgan’s death. Then piece together everything from the weeks leading up it. Its pretty bizarre, and in some sick way, fascinating. For those who don’t know the entire story, Billy Hart tells it well.

3) Duke Ellington

  • This just needs to be done. Lots of joy. Lots of heartbreak. WAY overdue.

2) Art Tatum

  • A success story about a blind kid from Toledo, Ohio who moved to New York in 1930s and developed into such an amazing pianist that other his peers were terrified just to SEE him play, nonetheless hear him. This could be our “feel-good” jazz story, with a lot of amazing piano playing.

1) John Coltrane

  • This should be next in the jazz-movie que. Such an important to figure to music, not just jazz. Strong cult following, his time in the army, serious vibes/resentment/anger from jazz’s old guard. We should make the John Coltrane movie happen.

We also considered: Louis Armstrong (should be done), Art Blakey (he lived a LONG time for a jazz musician and played loudly). Birth of Free Jazz (reflections upon living in New York during the late 1950s, the push for social change), Death of the Red-Light District in N.O. (jazz is born, jazz leaves), Benny Carter (lived for a real-long time), Sonny Rollins (has seen/done it all, still playing, this might be the comedy jazz needs).

Find out more about Sam on his website


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