Mingus, Cassavetes, and the Birth of a Jazz Cinema
Keywords:John Cassavetes, Charlie Mingus, <i>Shadows</i>, cinematic jazz narrative, jazz cinema
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.
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