While several other films about early American jazz, such as Ken Burns’ overweight PBS series, have put music in a museum, Anja Baron’s “The Last of the First” places it back with audiences and in clubs where it belongs. Her profile of the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, a steady ensemble of vets in their 70s through 90s, observes their playing, camaraderie, highs and lows and a determined notion to never hang it up. Hankies will be a must for jazz-hungry auds at fests. In Euro markets (always more eager for jazz programming than the States), TV will be a prime home for this fine docu.
Longtime jazz observer and hepcat Nat Hentoff declares “no one can duplicate what these players did,” and, though they’ve slowed down measurably, the band members can still lay down the swing. Some of them recall that New York once boasted nearly 70 clubs; still, the Gotham jazz scene is hardly moribund, with venues that stress modern and contempo styles. Pic’s narrow focus is a storytelling strength, even as it reinforces the discredited notion that jazz after the Swing Era doesn’t matter.
Taste differences aside, Baron and editor Philip Shane artfully assemble archival footage that links the players with their legendary leaders, including guitarist Al Casey with his great mentor and band leader, pianist Fats Waller; drummer Johnny Blowers as Sinatra’s favorite time-keeper; and singer Laurel Watson with Count Basie and Duke Ellington then, and crooning in Manhattan’s Louisiana Club in the docu.
The sense that these players literally live for their music comes through best in two stirring sections that trace tours to Mexico, Berlin and Stockholm, and a later, emotionally explosive date in Moscow’s Tschaikovsky Hall, where Blowers delivers a heart-stopping solo. Part of this emotional tenor comes from the aching, drip-by-drip loss of dying bandmates. Casey, however, after a serious accident, recovers and straps on his guitar.
Vid work is little better than TV news broadcast quality, but it keeps viewers close to the living masters.