Oxygen for the Ears: Film Review

Courtesy of PR
Although a bit scattershot to be truly satisfying, this film will be of definite interest to jazz aficionados.

Stefan Immler's documentary chronicles the history of the jazz scene in Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C., is not commonly thought of as a major hub for jazz, but that’s an oversight that Oxygen for the Ears is eager to rectify. Stefan Immler’s documentary chronicling the history of the jazz scene in our nation’s capital presents some fascinating tidbits about that little-known aspect of the music’s history while providing a capsule history of the form in general. Featuring thoughtful interviews with a slew of jazz greats as well as some terrific performance footage, the film, while hardly definitive, should find a welcome place in the collections of jazz aficionados upon its home video release.

Immler, whose day job is as an astrophysicist at NASA (he helped design the Hubbel Telescope), clearly has a passion for his subject, as evidenced by the loving manner in which he delineates the importance of jazz in the D.C. area. Such current and long-shuttered venues as the historic Howard Theater and the Bohemian Caverns assume a prominent role in the film.

“Jazz is the only thing that America owns,” affirms saxophonist Knud Jensen, in one of the many comments delivered throughout the proceedings by such luminaries as Esperanza Spalding, Buck Hill, Eric Lewis, Chuchito Valdes, the late Billy Taylor and many others.

The history of jazz is dutifully if briefly recounted -- from its beginnings in late 19th century New Orleans, where it was introduced to this country by former African slaves -- to the contributions made by such seminal figures as Louis Armstrong and Duke Elllington. Generous attention is paid to the self-professed inventor of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, whose voice is heard in archival recordings.

The film is somewhat scattershot in its approach, restlessly shifting its attention to such disparate topics as the story of Butch Warren, a legendary jazz bassist who disappeared for many years only to be discovered in a Maryland mental institution; the influential role that jazz played in the Civil Rights movement, and a 1960s government-sponsored tour that sent such performers as Dizzy Gillespie around the world. One particularly resonant segment describes how a recording of Louis Armstrong’s “Melancholy Blues” was included on a rocket sent into space, presumably for the enjoyment of whatever jazz-loving aliens are out there.

Footage of Spalding winning the 2011 Grammy Award for best new artist, as well as her performing at the White House for the Obamas, well demonstrates that this venerable musical form is far from its last legs.

Opens: April 11 (Indican Pictures)

Production: Giganova Productions

Narrator: Erik Todd Dellums

Director-editor: Stefan Immler

Screenwriters: Stefan Immler, Thomas Walker

Producers: Tom Abel, Caty Abel, Steffan Immler

Directors of photography: Stefan Immler, Manuel Lavalle, Corey Williams, Mike Ratel, Silvina Gatica, Anthony Lafleur, Thomas Walker

Not rated, 94 minutes

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