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Raymond DeFelitta, Director  -  'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris

'Tis Autumn:
The Search for Jackie Paris

Raymond DeFelitta, Director

DVD documentary

Available from

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker

I've been in touch with an East coast critic who's written a script for a movie about Felix Pappalardi, famed musician (Mountain) and producer (Cream, Youngbloods, etc.), and the enthusiasm this guy presented me with has been responsible for greatly invigorating a sense of the late Pappalardi as a far greater presence than I'd ever suspected. I hope he sells the script, I think the movie would be fascinating, but the very act of devoting so much time and research to the bass player pal of Leslie West prompted me to consider: how many musicians have gone similarly underlauded yet held the potential to transform things. No sooner had the query entered my thinking than I was sent this documentary on jazz singer Jackie Paris, who went almost completely ignored except that…

…except that he was lauded by Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn, and others, and what could more possibly say you've arrived than the admiration of such notables? Yet Jackie Paris, a white guy who'd begun singing with even bigger names he wowed in the 40s -- Charlie Mingus, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, etc. -- was thought to have passed away in 1977 and then suddenly showed up in a comeback effort in March 2004. This is what caught the attention of film-maker Raymond DeFelitta, and a stunningly revelatory documentary was born, becoming an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival. The film, when released, ironically received excellent reviews from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and New York Newsday yet, just like Paris himself, too little consumer exposure despite.

You've probably never heard his name, neither had I, but Paris was a drop dead perfect blend of Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra, and Chet Baker, maybe even a bit of Paul Anka. He was a gent hugely admired by the greats of his day, and many still consider his take on Skylark to be the toweringly definitive version, and, listening to it, I have to agree. There's such subtlety and elasticity to what he does. Mingus was positive the singer was destined for great things, as Paris became the first vocalist to record Round Midnight. At the Newport Jazz Festival, he proved to be a hit. Yet no matter how titanic the critical and musician regard, one misfortune after another bayed at his heels. Before a record would be released, the company would fold or the date would be mysteriously withdrawn. One label exec even pulled a published album for the extremely flimsy excuse that the cover was "too lurid"…sporting a photograph of several young people lying face down on the beach sands and about as salacious as a Gidget movie.

Lenny Bruce loved the guy and rehearsed an act with him, lauding his name to the moon in a long letter to a producer buddy…and then never sent the letter, for reasons none can guess at. Lenny was not a mean man and truly loved great art, but the letter was among his effects and discovered after he died. The film-maker started unravelling the backstory, but it still doesn't explain matters, as the movie makes plain. What we find, though, is a story of emotional instability. Paris had once backhanded a club owner, possessed a violent streak earlier in life, and had turned down the Mafia's "desire" to handle him. His brother Gene was junkie, his father a womanizer who beat Gene when the son expressed a desire to train in boxing, and Jackie experienced a myriad of the usual dysfunctionality all too common in the American culture. In an interview with John Slocum in Downbeat, Paris portrayed his own downfall: "I was a louse". On the other hand, he was reflecting an upbringing not that unusual among artists, nor the behavior arising from it. After all, look at Buddy Rich and God only knows how many other jazz lions who were vastly nastier than Paris.

As the singer neared 40, the LP The Song is Paris issued on the prestigious Impulse label and was highly regarded by critics and musicians but failed to register with consumers. It was also issued on the cusp of the 60s British Invasion in rock, not to mention the advent of the reptilian A&R job title new to music circles, the MBA-type who didn't know shit from shinola in art but had connections. At his height, with his greatest LP, by one means or another, fate remained unkind to Jackie Paris after two decades bubbling beneath the Big Time.

The longer the film runs, the harder it is to credit that this guy never made it huge. His life story doesn't explain it, and thus the movie opens the doors on a genuine mystery. Jackie Paris just never got a break, much like Terry Reid, probably rock's most ill-fated singer, and his astonishing history. Paris should've been another Tony Bennett or even a Sinatra but blind destiny had another, a sadder, tapestry to weave. More to the point, his material is still fresh and invigorating yet has not seen CD reissuance except in Japan.

Throughout the footage, Ira Gitler, James Moody, Harlan Ellison, and a number of society and industry luminaries appear, all dumbfounded how such a fine voice and redoubtable talent could possibly have failed to bring the singer fame and riches. Then this DVD edition tacks on a generous 70 minutes of extras: further interviews with musicians, the filmmaker's commentary, and concert footage of Paris' final performance in a comeback at age 79, a failed gambit that was soon after followed by his death. 'Tis Autumn is a great look back at a genuine enigma in jazz history and shines a much deserved light on a figure who should've been a giant but remains almost completely unknown to this day.

Edited by: David N. Pyles


Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.

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