How Kirk Douglas captured the struggles of a jazz musician

This month saw the passing, at the astonishing age of 103, of the last of the iconic actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. There is no need for a full obituary here or summation of Kirk Douglas’s storied career and status as true colossus of the silver screen (and the stage — a fact oft forgotten). That work is best done and has been done by many others since the news of his passing on Feb. 5.

The most appropriate tribute we can pay at JAZZ.FM91 is to call attention to Douglas’s performance as troubled jazz trumpeter Rick Martin in the 1950 film Young Man with a Horn, directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) and co-starring Doris Day (in only her fourth screen appearance), Lauren Bacall (Douglas’s old friend from AMDA in New York) and pianist-composer Hoagy Carmichael as the narrator and Martin’s loyal friend and sideman.

The film is based on a 1938 novel of the same name by Dorothy Baker, which in turn was loosely based on the tragic life of Bix Beiderbecke (a friend of Carmichael’s) who died in 1931 of causes related to alcohol abuse at age 28. Beiderbecke, in the words of jazz critic Terry Teachout, was (along with Armstrong) one of “the twin lines of descent from which most of today’s jazz can be traced.”

The film has its flaws — Douglas did not include it on his list of favourites — but it is held up by this tremendous cast and an absolutely scorching soundtrack that was to hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart in 1950. All of Kirk Douglas’s “playing” is dubbed by legendary bandleader Harry James, who gave Frank Sinatra his first big-band gig. (Sinatra delivered his eulogy.) James instructed Douglas in proper position and fingering, which allowed for a certain verisimilitude in Douglas’s performance. However, Douglas does occasionally tap his mouthpiece with his palm — a big no-no as any annoyed Grade 7 music teacher who has had to pry one apart from an overused horn will tell you.

Also notable is how the film pushes against the infamous Hays Code governing film content of the day with its depiction of the lead character’s descent into alcoholism and the none-too-subtle allusions to Lauren Bacall’s character’s sexual orientation. Curtiz and Douglas weren’t entirely successful, however. Though Baker’s novel depicts a tragic death more in line with that of Beiderbecke’s actual demise, studio head Jack Warner was having none of it and Douglas’s character recovers to play another day. Douglas, as his power in Hollywood grew, would keep fighting for truth on screen, finally smashing the blacklist by insisting on Donald Trumbo’s screen credit for Spartacus in 1960.

To me, the film stands out not just for the great music and Douglas’s powerful, mesmerizing performance — only four years after his screen debut — but for its frank depiction of a jazz musician’s personal struggles with creativity, poverty, addiction and other challenges that would set the tone for the soon-to-emerge subgenre of the jazz biopic. The Greenwich Village club segments in the second half of the picture (keep an eye out for a 27-year-old Dexter Gordon in his film debut) are also well worth the screen time.

So, as the tributes roll out and the retrospectives come to screens big and small, and while you are watching Spartacus, Paths of Glory or Seven Days In May, if you see Young Man with a Horn listed somewhere, spare the 112 minutes and enjoy — even if you just listen.

*Interesting bit of screen trivia: Bacall, Day and Douglas were among the last of Hollywood’s greatest generation to shuffle off their mortal coils. Bacall died in 2014 at age 89, and Day in 2019 at age 97. Between all three, they had 289 years on this earth! See The Big Band Show host Glen Woodcock’s tribute to Doris Day here.