I remember seeing Jackie Paris sing and play guitar in the early 1980s at the West End, a New York jazz club and restaurant near Columbia University that closed some years ago.
It wasn't a great night for Jackie. Most of the dozen or so people there didn't seem to know who he was—and those who did were probably expecting the same guy who belted out Skylark back in the early 1950s. Applause was sporadic.
Paris was into a more subtle, hushed bag by then. Which at the time made me wonder how such a hip 52d St. singer with high-octane optimism on LPs could wind up tamped down in a pitcher-beer joint. Hey, for every Bill Evans, Dinah Washington and Sonny Rollins there were hundreds of amazingly talented jazz artists who almost made it but never did.
Some fabulous jazz artists remained in obscurity because they succumbed to drugs and couldn't honor professional commitments. Or were too angry and rubbed powerful people the wrong way. Or simply didn't have the stamina required to reach their full promise.
And then there was Jackie Paris, perhaps jazz's biggest near-miss. A jazz singer unlike any other in the late 1940s,
Paris' voice had a wide-open honesty and hip tenderness that captured the hearts of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and so many other jazz stars and audiences back then.
What they recognized in Paris' voice was an unrestrained emotional commitment that was unheard of at the time in male singers. Not until the early 1960s—when Paul Anka, Bobby Vee, Frankie Avalon and other young pop singers were tapped to win the hearts of teenage girls—do you hear a pleading boyish voice marketed aggressively by record companies. Back in the mid-1950s, that sound was still ahead of its time.
Chet Baker came close during this period—when he sang in tune, that is. But compared to Paris, Baker often sounded half asleep or mawkish. Where Paris had comet-like energy and a passion for lyrics, Baker had a passive-aggressive sound that seemed to wallow in style rather than substance.
Unfortunately for Paris, a series of missteps and misfortunes in the 1950s—some predictable and some random—kept him from building on his early success or reaching the level of commercial visibility that should have accompanied his vast talents.
Unable to establish himself before the rise of the teen idol in 1960 and the British invasion of 1964, Paris failed to become a legend soon enough. He was too hip by half and didn't record sufficiently to establish his name or sustain his reputation into the arid decades that would follow.
In all fairness, no male jazz singer survived the early 1960s. Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Peggy Lee and other female vocalists retooled and remained popular. But if you were a male jazz singer, you were finished unless you started swinging. There was no market for aging male sincerity.
For years, only the hippest jazz listeners knew who Paris was and the qualities that made him so popular with the "in" crowd. Now everyone can learn all about Paris' tortured, life-long struggle with fame thanks to 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris, a heartbreaking new documentary directed by award-winning filmmaker Raymond De Felitta.
Like any good documentary, 'Tis Autumn is obsessive. Despite a few minor flaws, the film is a haunting chronicle of unfulfilled promise and how the drive to succeed as a jazz artist—or any artist, for that matter—can clean your clock.
De Felitta's quest to discover why Paris fell short remains a shadowy mystery—was it the mob, a poor choice of management, an overly inflated ego, a hair-trigger temper or simply a voice that wasn't marketable? We'll never know, which only adds to the Paris mystique.
But that isn't really the point of the film, and De Felitta gets this early. About halfway through, the search for answers ends and a new storyline emerges that is even more harrowing than the first. Ultimately, 'Tis Autumn offers up a first-hand look of how illusive success is for many great artists, and how the same ego needed to propel you to the top also can turn on you.
In many ways, this is a documentary about the pain of coping with non-success and unfulfilled dreams. The difference for Jackie Paris, who died in 2004, is that he should have been bigger than he was. That's not debatable. You can hear the quality of his art in his voice. His failure to achieve what should have been his was part misfortune and part personality issues that plague any creative soul torn between art and commerce.
De Felitta's search for answers in this film brought many in the audience at Cinema Village to tears. Interestingly, I don't think that sadness was reserved exclusively for Paris—who by the end of his life seemed to accept his fate. Instead, I think everyone there in the theater knew a Jackie Paris, a should-have-been who couldn't manage to overcome life's dirty tricks.
I plan on seeing 'Tis Autumn again—not because Jackie Paris was more special than dozens of other artists. I just feel it's important to be reminded of what committed jazz artists had to endure to make a difference—and how frustrating it must be to have a creative message go unrecognized.
If you want to move on to LPs and CDs, Advance Guard of the '40s, an EmArcy LP, includes a rare 1949 recording of Paris singing 'Round Midnight—the first vocal version of Thelonious Monk's standard. The album pops up on eBay from time to time.
The Song Is Paris (Impulse) from 1962 is one of Paris' best albums. The arrangements are by Bobby Scott and the date features top session musicians from the period, including guitarist Barry Galbraith, alto saxophonist Hal McKusick, and tenor saxophonist Romeo Penque. It's available on CD only as a Japanese import.
JazzWax video clip: To see the trailer for 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris, go here.
To see Jackie Paris sing 'Tis Autumn from the film, go here.