Must-see jazz documentaries you can watch right now
The historic art form of jazz has long been a rich resource to be mined by documentary filmmakers.
The musicians are often as unique and interesting as the music they make. It can be riveting to be transported through time and space to see these artists in their element, making the records that have since been enjoyed by millions and playing the concerts that went down in music history. With the help of archival footage, photographs and interviews, we get a window into the life of an artist we’ve long idolized, and all of a sudden they become that much more human and real.
Behind every artist, there’s a story.
If you’re looking for a great way to pass the time at home, why not learn more about the music you love? Here are nine excellent jazz documentaries that you can watch online right now.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2019)
This film audaciously stretches beyond a standard life story, delving into the creative impulses, the personal tracks and the organic sinew and muscle that made Miles Davis such an imposing figure. His life was a path of struggle, intense creative focus, demons, pride, fight, valour and sensitivity. The film boasts archival content and never-before-seen footage. We see him climb to amazing, deserved heights of fame; we see him begin to fall into obscurity, only to be rescued by Cicely Tyson; and then we see his spirit continue to rise and set the bar higher and higher. This film is as raw as it is entertaining. Afterwards, you’re likely to hear the music a little differently.
This film is a celebration of the life and music of the great John Coltrane. Using archival photos, home movies, rare performance clips, excerpts from Coltrane’s writings (voiced by Denzel Washington) and firsthand accounts from friends, bandmates and famous fans, this film provides an intimate look at an iconic jazz pioneer whose musical influence still resounds today. Chasing Trane is both a love letter to the hardcore Coltrane enthusiast and an engaging, comprehensive overview of a musical genius that novice jazz lovers will appreciate.
Chances are that you have heard the name Quincy Jones before. But while you’re surely familiar with his music, you may not know much else about the man himself. This film highlights the pure genius of Quincy Jones that goes far beyond producing hits that have topped decades of charts. Written and directed by Alan Hicks and Quincy’s daughter Rashida Jones, this fascinating documentary shows his evolution from humble beginnings as a young trumpet player, to a master arranger, to an American icon. The music, footage and interviews are pure gold. Quincy is not just a music documentary; it is an inspiring rags-to-riches tale of a boy who fell in love with music and through it found himself.
From the very beginning of this film, you’ll be captivated by the complicated force that is Nina Simone. The documentary’s use of archival footage makes you feel close to her — sometimes like you’re in the same room — and through interviews with Simone, much of the story is told by the singer herself. Conversations with her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly and her longtime collaborator Al Shackman add fascinating perspective to that story. This documentary does a fantastic job of honouring Nina Simone and showing all of her complexity.
The life of trumpet master Lee Morgan has always been largely defined by its explosive ending in 1972, when he was shot inside a Manhattan club by his common-law wife Helen. But there is a lot more to Morgan’s story than the way it ended, and Kasper Collin’s documentary does a fantastic job of revealing a more complete picture. A 1996 interview with Helen Morgan serves as the backdrop for the incredible story of a young musician who was one of Blue Note’s most commercially successful musicians. The added perspectives of Wayne Shorter, Paul West and Jymie Merritt round out this creative, sad and shocking documentary.
Separated by about 1,000 kilometres of the Gulf of Mexico, music is the lifeblood of both New Orleans and Havana. As the leader of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Ben Jaffe wished to fulfill his late father’s dream of retracing the musical roots of New Orleans to the shores of Cuba — to dig deep into the music that gave birth to New Orleans jazz. A Tuba to Cuba explores those many rhythmic and cultural connections. The film is full of touching, memorable scenes and, of course, plenty of mind-blowing music.
This documentary led to my torrid love affair with Latin music. Not that I hadn’t already had Latin music in my life — I am Spanish, after all — but I had never before experienced the emotional reaction that Wim Wenders’s documentary awoke in me. The film tracks the musical adventures of Ry Cooder and his son Joaquin upon arriving in Cuba. Their original intention was to work with local Cuban and African musicians, but things get much bigger as the story follows the pair from the streets of Havana to the prestige of Carnegie Hall. The characters and the music will warm your heart and fill your soul with joy.
The enigmatic Thelonious Monk wasn’t one for explanations; he preferred to let his music do the talking. In this documentary, director Charlotte Zwerin weaves illuminating interviews with friends and family together with up-close-and-personal footage of the pianist and composer in concert, on the road and in the studio, coaxing out an intimate view of the taciturn artist. In 2017, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, lending additional weight to a New York Times critic’s declaration that its footage of Monk is “some of the most valuable jazz ever shot.”
This documentary by Bruce Weber traces the turbulent life and career of Chet Baker. Following the trumpeter and vocalist from his achievements with jazz giants like Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan in the 1950s up to his self-imposed exile in Europe in the ’80s, the film starkly juxtaposes the young, successful musician who earned comparisons to James Dean and Frank Sinatra against the older Baker still struggling with his addiction to heroin. Featuring both archival footage and original interviews with Baker, this film has been lauded for its examination of personality and the mysterious power of stardom.