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Movie Review: ‘Tis Autumn – The Search for Jackie Paris

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He recorded with Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, and Peggy Lee. He toured with Charlie Parker, and was admired by Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan, who called him a "kissy" singer. He opened for Lenny Bruce, who wrote a fevered letter to his own agent that "he knew he could be a star." He was the first vocalist to record "'Round Midnight." He won the Down Beat magazine poll for best male vocalist of 1953. But chances are you've probably never heard of Jackie Paris. Raymond De Felitta's bittersweet documentary 'Tis Autumn will make you wonder why.

Born in Nutley, New Jersey in 1924, Paris cut his teeth in the jazz clubs on 52nd Street in New York City in the late '40s and seemed poised for stardom. But despite moderate success in the '50s, he never broke out, and fell so far out of the limelight that one jazz reference source claimed he had died in 1977. He was alive, but he languished, and it wasn’t until 2004 that he staged an eleventh hour comeback to the New York club scene at the Jazz Standard. It was a critical and popular success, but it came too late. Jackie Paris died just a few months later at the age of 79.

The all-star roster of talking heads includes famed promoter George Wein, critic Will Friedwald, pianist Dr. Billy Taylor, and singer Mark Murphy. More than one notes a touch of wickedness in Paris's voice. While the choir-boy sound of a Chet Baker masked the demons inside, Paris actually sounded dangerous.  Paris was obviously well-admired, but a few talking heads hazard a guess at his career stagnation. Was it his refusal to get involved with the mob? Was it his volatile personality? Was his voice not commercial enough? Or was it just a matter of bad luck?

De Felitta previously directed the modest family comedies Two-Family House and The Thing About My Folks. The filmmaker injects himself into the Jackie Paris story, framing it as his own quest for a lost singer and his elusive recordings. De Felitta's appearances in the film are not too intrusive and give it a personal touch. More disruptive are recitations of news clippings and other ephemera by actors Peter Bogdanovich and Frank Whaley, and author Nick Tosches, with clippings projected behind the dramatically lit performers. They are fine dramatic readings but don't further the story so much as call attention to itself. But for the final reel or so, De Felitta lets the most powerful material in the film speak for itself.

Like the best music documentaries, 'Tis Autumn will make you want to dig out your musty records and rare CDs if you have them . And if you don't have any Jackie Paris, you'll want to buy some. His CDs are hard to come by in the US, but Paris is surprisingly well-served in the realm of MP3 downloads. Amazon sells his classic '50s albums Skylark and Songs by Jackie Paris in 256kbps MP3 format, and iTunes does that better, offering three classic albums — as well as his recording of "'Round Midnight" — for digital download.

Watch the trailer:

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.
  • James A. Gardner

    Many of the best biographies I’ve read and documentaries I’ve seen have been about “should have been huge” artists like this, that make me want to learn more about them. This sounds like one of those. Nice review.