Musician-turned-filmmaker Raymond De Felitta's first documentary plumbs the mystery of singer and guitarist Jackie Paris, who vanished into obscurity despite critical raves he was regularly called Frank Sinatra's equal and collaborations with a who's who of jazz icons, including Charles Mingus, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, and Dizzy Gillespie.
De Felitta was hooked on Paris' distinctive vocal stylings from the moment he heard Mingus' song-drama "Paris in Blue" in 1991, and was shocked to find most of Paris' recordings unavailable. What little he could glean about Paris' life included the fact that he had died in 1977 at age 51. Imagine, then, De Felitta's surprise when he found Paris playing a New York City club in 2004. De Felitta introduced himself and was thrilled when Paris agreed to share his stories about the golden age of jazz. But even in the first flush of fanboy infatuation, he suspected that some darkness lay behind the convivial-hipster persona. Born in Nutley, New Jersey, in 1927 to Italian immigrant parents, Paris was discovered as a teenager by Harry Mills of the Mills Brothers and spent the 1940s and '50s performing and recording with the greats. He caught some great breaks: Sara Vaughn lauded his "kissy voice," Mingus featured him on the first release by his new label, Debut Records, and he was the first to record Thelonius Monk's classic "Round Midnight." He caught some bad ones, too: Paris' 1955 album "Can't Get Started with You" was withdrawn because of its "salacious" cover art, the elaborate audition admirer Peggy Lee set up at Capitol Records came to nothing, a letter filled with extravagant praise that Lenny Bruce wrote to a powerful agent was never mailed. None of the musicians, historians and critics De Felitta interviews can explain why Paris never became a star: He had talent, looks and a marquee-ready name; critics championed him, women loved him and he put on a great show. Then De Felitta started talking to Paris' family including the son Paris flatly denied existed and the widow of the brother he never mentioned and the pieces begin to fall into place.
Like Mark Moskowitz's STONE READER (2003), about his search for a novelist who never produced another book after his acclaimed debut, De Felitta's documentary plays like a mystery. But the mystery isn't just "what ever happened to…": Moskowitz and De Felitta want to know why they love the things they love, and how a hugely talented artist can disappear from the cultural radar. De Felitta's portrait of Paris who died in June 2004 isn't always flattering, but it is genuinely moving on many levels, none of which require knowledge of or even interest in jazz. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh