Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Piano Blues: A Film by Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood's film, "Piano Blues" is a feature-length documentary about the history, players and styles of the blues piano. As is well known, Eastwood himself is a pianist, what is less well known is his lifelong affection for the rolling piano-blues, barrel-house, boogie-woogie, stride, bluesy-jazz and and black-gospel, that filled the air of the African-American communities for much of the twentieth century. For him - making this film was clearly a labour of love.

Clint Eastwood tells the story of the music with both archive footage of great exponents of the art (Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino etc), but in the company of several legends who were still alive at the time of filming, such as Ray Charles, Dr John, Dave Brubeck, Pinetop Perkins and Jay McShann. As such it is a wonderfully evocative exploration of the music, in all its forms.

I will never forget the first time I heard the blues. When I was a teenager, a programme in honour of Fats Domino was screened by Channel 4. Fats himself was engagingly entertaining, Jerry Lee Lewis faintly absurd, Paul Shafer not bad at all - but what took my breath away was Ray Charles short set at the end of the show. Charles in his later career had somewhat swamped himself with orchestras and choirs, and overly indulged his penchant for ballads. That night however he let loose an explosive piano-blues performance with just himself and a small band. It sent a shiver down my spine which still affects me when I hear that music played that way.

After that I began to explore Blues music, beginning - as with so many other people with Paul Jones weekly radio show, as well as Egham's great 2nd hand record shop - the now lost and lamented 'Musicwise'. For me then, it was all piano blues. Many blues fans talked about their guitar heroes - Stevie Ray Vaughan, Elmore James, the three Kings, but I began with the same stuff that Eastwood explores in his tribute -like early Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Champion Jack Dupree, as well Memphis Slim, Specked Red, and many others.

Sociologists, and record-sleeve writers often ask the question of the British Blues Boom of the 1960s - why did white British suburban kids feel such a deep affinity with the Black music of the Delta; when their life experience had so few points of contact with the bluesmen? I'm not sure that the question has ever adequately been answered- either in respect of the thousands of people who flocked to the American Folk-Blues festival UK tours in the 60s - or for strange teenagers like myself playing Albert Ammons LPs in my bedroom in the mid 1980s.

Whatever the explanation, the blues remain an intense, powerful, gritty, affecting genre that has spawned great creativity and inspired incredible loyalty. Moreover when the blues has got inside you - it never lets go; and always retains its power to move you - the piano blues in a unique and special way. Eastwood's film is a fitting tribute to this great genre, and the players who shaped it.

Not from the film - but a nice example of some of the sounds that filled my teenage years.

1 comment:

Lins said...

Brilliant documentary - really enjoyed it. Thanks for inviting me to watch it!