The Book Cooks
Excerpt from
Play the Way You Feel:
The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories on Film

Kevin Whitehead
(Oxford University Press, New York)



Krakow Jazz Ensemble (People Band)                                                         Screen Shot by Kevin Whitehead


Stormy Monday (1988; 93 minutes; director/writer: Mike Figgis. Cast includes: Sean Bean (Brendan), Melanie Griffith (Kate), Tommy Lee Jones (Frank Cosmo), Sting (Mr. Finney), Andrzej Borkowski (Andrzej), People Band: Mel Davis, Terry Day, Ed Deane, Charlie Hart, Paul Jolly, Davey Payne (Krakow Jazz Ensemble).

–During Newcastle’s “America Week,” a young couple connect, while a pushy Texas developer, angling to acquire choice real estate, encounters pushback from a jazz clubowner and a Polish free-jazz band.

Robert Reisner’s book Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker, one source for Clint Eastwood’s Bird, makes its own cameo appearance in another 1988 film, Stormy Monday, English director Mike Figgis’s debut feature. We see the book, open to a Charlie Parker photo on page 101, sitting on a table in an establishing still-life that reveals much about our quiet hero, Sean Bean’s Brendan, who is about to become a minor player in a civic power struggle. The information in that shot – a couple of books, a typed note – tells us Brendan is into jazz, has spent time in the States, and is currently house-sitting, new in town. Such narrative efficiency is typical of Stormy Monday – every detail feeds the whole.

The action is set during the last three days of America Week in the city of Newcastle, and one of Stormy Monday’s themes is a perennial pet topic of filmmakers east of the Atlantic, the Americanization of world culture. That theme plays out in the background in myriad ways. It’s not just that tourist-magnet America Week has brought all manner of cultural coal to Newcastle: American movies, old Detroit sedans, a rodeo, a Sousa concert, a parade with a New Orleans-y jazz band and drum majorettes, a giant Pepsi bottle planted in the middle of an intersection. At an upscale mall, a punk with a mohawk checks out Plains Indians’ music and dance. (The Americanisms include the film’s incongruous title, cribbed from bluesman T-Bone Walker. The action’s set on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday.)

Newcastle’s Americanization was underway before America Week. Teens play midnight basketball. A diner is named for New York photographer Weegee and adorned with blow-ups of his crime-scene photos; the place carries American, not English, beers. (Even a pub stocked with Scottish single malts has an American bartender.) At a club called The Precinct, bouncers dress like New York cops.

American culture: Love it for its riches, hate it for its overbearing hegemony. Mike Figgis knew that attraction-repulsion response to American culture from his own experience as a musician and as a filmmaker. (He’d soon be working in Hollywood.) In London 20 years earlier, Figgis had played trumpet and guitar with the free-improvising People Band. Groups improvising without any written starter material had sprouted up all over Western Europe in the ‘60s in response to Stateside free jazz. Free improvisation’s jazz roots were unmissable – all those saxophones and piano-bass-drums rhythm sections made that plain. But the Europeans also put some distance between themselves and American culture, partly in response to the Vietnam War. Swinging was not a priority. Soon, distinct national styles developed; English improvising usually had more (British) reserve than continental versions. The rudely howling People Band were an exception; they claimed to have been booted from an Anarchists’ Ball for excessive anarchism.

The players did see political ramifications in their music-making, and aligned themselves with left-wing movements. Personnel was flexible. People Band had a lot of drop-ins, and they’d switch instruments to make things more spontaneous and unrefined. After the band dissolved in 1972, a few of its members worked with friend and proto-punk singer Ian Dury.

Figgis reassembled a six-member People Band, including multi-instrumentalist Terry Day and Dury saxophonist Davey Payne, to improvise and act in Stormy Monday. (The director didn’t join them, but did compose the film’s atmospheric jazzy score.) They appear as the Krakow Jazz Ensemble, a “Polski free-jazz” band whose music has its own stick-it-to-the-man political implications. There were such Eastern-bloc free-jazz bands, some of whom lagged behind their western models. A Polish group that sounded like the People Band of 20 years earlier is entirely plausible.

At heart, Stormy Monday is another jazz-and-gangsters picture, with a clubowner mediating between worlds, like The Cotton Club. One engine behind America Week is shady Texas oil man Frank Cosmo (a quietly scary Tommy Lee Jones), who’s moving into waterfront redevelopment, down under landmark Tyne Bridge. One property he covets is occupied by a jazz club run by a tough local who understands strongarm tactics himself, Mr. Finney (Newcastle’s own Sting). When Cosmo sends a couple of London gangsters to threaten him with a blowtorch, Finney gets the upper hand but lets them live, sending them home after confiscating their car and breaking only one arm in retribution: ruffians’ professional courtesy.

At his Key Club, Finney thumbs his nose at America Week (as far as any jazz clubowner can) by hosting English saxophonist Don Weller on Thursday and bringing the Krakow Jazz Ensemble in on Saturday. The American deejay on the local jazz station gives the KJE some airplay; Stormy Monday may be the only film in which free jazz not only gets played on the radio, but goes over with casual listeners, speaking to Newcastle’s sophistication.

The Polish musicians get no dialogue – their manager Andrzej does the talking, in halting English – but the KJE functions as a collective secondary character, making musical comments within the story, like the noise band in 1935’s Sweet Music. When the Ensemble is detained at the airport till their paperwork’s sorted out, they’re corralled in a transit lounge. Since there’s a spinet in the room, their pianist (Mel Davis) sits down and begins to play something soothing and pastoral, and a few travelers look cautiously appreciative. But when we cut back to the lounge moments later, the other Krakowiaks have joined in, on three saxophones, bass and electric guitar. Now the listeners look less enchanted; you can hear the band all over the terminal. Coincidentally Cosmo arrives as they’re playing; he glances in their direction without betraying annoyance. This improvisation seems to help expedite the Ensemble’s release: effective practical protest music.

Cosmo will encounter them again, once a day. On Friday, he’s throwing a hotel-ballroom luncheon for the mayor and city brass who will signal their support for his big plans, and he endlessly fusses over the details. But the band booked to play the event has had a road accident. (This literal car-wreck of a band is called Transatlantics – that’s symbolism for you.) Since the Polish musicians are staying in the same hotel (all the cheaper ones are booked up, as Figgis plugs his plot holes) and no one there knows what they sound like, they get drafted as a replacement. Before Cosmo can give his rousing let’s-all-make-some-money speech, the band plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” on cue, and the guests rise out of respect – but the tenor saxophonist (Payne) overblows like Albert Ayler, the guitarist (Ed Deane) puts a little Hendrix in it, and the band doesn’t really know more than the start of the tune, which devolves into sarcastic blues licks: a middle finger to the USA from behind the iron curtain. The Poles attack the Americans in their own language, rudely.

We see Cosmo give them the beady eye, but he keeps his irritation to himself until a little later, when a conversation-time bossa nova gets spiky. To the event planner: “You shut those motherfuckers out.” As luck will have it, when Cosmo goes down to the Key Club Saturday night, making one last bid for Finney’s property, they’re playing when he walks in. He catches more of their gigs than anyone in town. Cosmo does miss one show. Friday night they make a side appearance at a northside Polish Club, playing for the expatriates, and here the KJE are on very good behavior, doing traditional songs to sing along with or polka to, with the pianist on accordion. (Here People Band act, not react: They become those Poles, bonding with homesick compatriots.)

The Ensemble’s minder in Newcastle is house-sitting newbie Brendan, who’d been hired by Finney on discovering their mutual admiration for drummer Dave Tough. These two jazz fans have commendably broad tastes; they dig Eddie Condon’s trad jazz and the way-out Poles. There’s also a romance plot: Brendan meets cute with Kate (Melanie Griffith), a waitress from New York whom Cosmo has persuaded to come over to work as a paid escort, a decision she regrets. Kate also waits tables at Weegee; she misses some shifts, but has a marketable American accent.

Cosmo recognizes that violence is bad for his business. (There’s only one gun in the movie, though it does go off – killing the picture’s only black henchman.) But Cosmo’s judgment is clouded when he learns Kate’s involved with Finney’s flunky, and he tries to wipe out the couple with a car bomb. (Quick joke: The bomb’s faceplate has a blue field and red and white stripes.) But Brendan lends the car to Andrzej and his girlfriend who get blown up instead – collateral damage – just down the block from Finney’s club. That blast that will prove to be Cosmo’s undoing, a step too far. Inside, unaware, the Krakow Jazz Ensemble is just wrapping up a very well-received set. The Key Club’s all-ages crowd digs their bracing free music. We are not in Hollywood. But this triumph will bring the musicians no happy memories.

In Stormy Monday, the members of People Band have an integral role and get to improvise in character, and on camera, and get to be as dissonant and high-energy as they please, in a studio picture with Hollywood stars. There’s only about six minutes of their free music all told, but dramatically and musically it feels like the right amount. As we saw with ‘Round Midnight, even in prestige pictures, club music is highly compressed, and meted out in small doses. (Sting improvises on camera too; Finney plays an acoustic bass solo when the club’s empty, a frustrated musician.)

Mike Figgis did well by his old London scene, getting free music’s political implications on screen without preaching. He would play with the old gang again, after Stormy Monday prompted People Band to reunite for real.


© 2020 Kevin Whitehead

 

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