'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris



Outsider Pictures

NEW YORK -- Part adoring fan letter, part meditation on the elusive nature of fame and success, part investigative piece, " 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris" is a music documentary of uncommon richness. Although roughly hewn in its elements, Raymond De Felitta's portrait of a legendary jazz singer who flirted with the big time before lapsing into obscurity is fascinating.

The titular and perfectly named subject was a Jersey-born, Italian-American singer who seemed to have it all: Good looks, a haunting voice and a terrific facility for be-bop phrasing made him a favorite among such legends as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and he toured with both. Paris was named best new male vocalist of 1953 in a Down Beat Critics Poll, and his recording of "Skylark" was considered a classic.

And yet his career fell apart and he disappeared, to the point where one jazz reference book stated that he died in 1977. This was the assumption of the filmmaker, who became fascinated by the singer when he happened upon one of his old recordings. So he was quite surprised when, in 2004, he came across a listing for an appearance by the then-79-year-old Paris at a Manhattan jazz club.

This resulting profile, featuring commentary by such jazz figures as Billy Taylor and George Wein, as well as such authors as Harlan Ellison and Ira Gitler, attempts to get to the mystery of the singer's failed career. The frail but clear-minded Paris, who died not too long after his comeback attempt, adds his own perspectives on the tale.

The film's many dramatic revelations -- from the effusive recommendation letter to a high-powered agent that Lenny Bruce wrote but never sent to the embittered son whose existence was denied by Paris but who was tracked down by the dogged filmmaker -- add up to complex psychodrama.

We also get to hear many samples of Paris' beautiful recordings, which vividly remind us of the tragic loss the jazz world suffered by his fall from grace.