What counts isn't the first image we see, but the first sound we hear in This Is Gary McFarland: the unmistakable sonic kiss of a needle settling into its vinyl groove. It's a sweet sound for those who care, this perfectly imperfect analog noise, and an altogether appropriate introduction to a movie about one of the great, unsung sonic explorers of the last century.
Hipster, jazz revolutionary, pop-lounge fusionist, and all-around architect of consummately groovy vibes, Gary McFarland was a true original. He's also the subject of This Is Gary McFarland, a fascinating documentary that will be screened at Tampa's Flight 19 Gallery on Fri., Dec. 15, as part of a special evening devoted to all things McFarlandish. "The IN Sound: A Night of Jazz Aesthetic Explorations" should be a great party, with eminent DJs Thee Analu, Brian Oblivion and Cherry Hawk spinning a tasty mix of McFarland-related jazz, pop and bossa nova, and a major collection of over 100 classic album covers on exhibit from Verve, Blue Note, Impulse and other jazz labels (a smattering of which will be for sale). And then there's the movie.
This Is Gary McFarland is a loving tribute that should be appreciated by fans and McFarland novices alike — a lively, comprehensive account of an artist who took the jazz world by storm and then enraged his original fan base by his flirtations with pop and rock in the '60s. Like Bob Dylan, another musician who alienated his original supporters when he turned to rock, McFarland never looked back. Unlike Dylan, however, McFarland never really found the wider audience he deserved. Although he produced over 30 LPs in the 10 years preceding his mysterious death in 1971 (at age 38), the world just wasn't ready for Gary McFarland.
Flight 19 artist Brian Taylor, who organized the evening's festivities, suggests that, for all his musical strengths, McFarland never quite fit in with any one world. While citing McFarland's "hipster dandyism," an attitude that "tends to irritate jazz purists," Taylor likens his output to the work of another great upsetter, filmmaker John Cassavetes.
"There's a mature hipness and a subtle decadence in both cases," he notes. "When he died, Gary was involved in a broad range of increasingly pop endeavors, but I don't believe he was ever going to be embraced. He's more of a phenomenon now with groovehounds, DJs and Japanese kids, the most ferociously talented record shoppers in the world!"
Director Kristian St. Clair, himself obviously a huge fan, corralled an impressive selection of McFarland's former sidemen, friends and family members to serve as the talking heads in This Is Gary McFarland, along with some priceless archival footage. The film is packed with interesting personal insights and solid information, but it's equally dense with the lurid stories we all crave of wacky, badly behaving jazz musicians.
One of the naughtiest of that lot is junkie genius Bill Evans, featured pianist on the early masterpiece The Gary McFarland Orchestra/Special Guest Soloist: Bill Evans (later made, curiously enough, into a ballet), who was constantly hitting up McFarland for extra cash to feed his habit. Evans repays the favor in spades with an absolutely stunning performance of "Gary's Waltz" from 1979, a tribute to McFarland captured here in all its haunting glory.
Other magical moments in Gary McFarland include a rare performance clip of a swinging McFarland conducting Stan Getz and his orchestra, a tag-team interview with Antonio Carlos Jobim and McFarland (who describes bossa nova as "something close to melancholy, but not quite"), and, best of all, home movies from McFarland's wedding. Capturing a virtual who's-who of the early '60s jazz scene in Manhattan, this extended footage shows a head-spinning array of musical legends, now mostly dead or decrepit, but here they are in their prime and en masse — looking young, fabulous and invincible.
At the center of this scene is McFarland, of course, and not just because it's his wedding. Tall, handsome, fashionable and oozing charm, McFarland projects the cool of a proto-pop star here, well before his music began to move into those realms. This was back when he was still strictly a jazz prodigy, back when The New Yorker was singing McFarland's praises as "the most gifted arranger since Duke," and before the fall so poignantly documented by St. Clair's film.
Soon enough, that same critical establishment, led by jazz bibles like Downbeat (and its part-time critic Harvey Pekar, now of American Splendor fame), would be soundly trashing the musician as a sell-out. The powers that be were simply unable to accept someone who blended the chops and complexity of big band jazz with the sensuality of bossa nova, all filtered through the charismatic persona of a pop star.
"McFarland was an important artist because of his ease in traversing styles and genres," says Taylor, "and his ability to merge everything into something sophisticated, stylish and infectiously catchy — and always with an undercurrent of existential angst and adult ennui. The IN Sound is probably McFarland's most perfectly realized blend of jazz, pop and bossa nova, but Soft Samba is also a masterpiece. Today is probably his last great effort in this vein, but there are literally no bad LPs that McFarland made, produced, or with which he was connected."
As filmmaking goes, there's nothing particularly fancy about This Is Gary McFarland (and some of its computer-generated graphics, frankly, border on cheesiness), but St. Clair covers all the right bases, telling us pretty much everything we need to know about this sadly neglected innovator. The movie is a much-needed primer, offering a solid overview of McFarland's life, right up to his final grand statement, the late period masterpiece America the Beautiful (a sort of jazz-rock parallel to Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On?), and beyond, to his bizarre end, poisoned in a New York City bar in 1971.
Even here, though, this man-who-coulda-been-a-contender goes out with a whimper rather than a bang. I'd always assumed McFarland's death was part of some grand, mysterious conspiracy, or maybe a hushed-up mob hit; the witnesses in This Is Gary McFarland suggest that it was probably just a dumb practical joke gone terribly wrong.
Flight 19's This Is Gary McFarland screening is the latest installment of Red Eye Cinema, a new film series Taylor is curating in parallel with his Best of the Bay-winning Sleep of Reason series. "Red Eye has a new concept tailored to Flight 19 gallery's needs and goals," Taylor explains, "and will often complement other programming at that space. The desire to explore obscure cinema and present it in a public arena is the same, but the focus of Red Eye will be more on rarely seen art films and odd documentaries, including films involving Brian Gisin, William Burroughs, Brazilian Cinema Novo, perhaps Stan Brackhage and Carmelo Bene. I have a whole line on great material available, so my imagination is on fire."
Doors open at 6 p.m. for "The IN Sound: A Night of Jazz Aesthetic Explorations," with This Is Gary McFarland screening at 7 p.m. There is a $5 suggested donation. Flight 19 Gallery is located at 601 Nebraska Ave., Tampa, in the Union Train Station Baggage Claim Building. For more information, call 813-247-2030 or [email protected]. You can also visit experimentalskeleton.com, myspace.com/Experimental_Skeleton or thisisgarymcfarland.com.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for the screening.
The text has been changed to reflect the correct date, Fri. Dec. 15.