The Director's Chair Interviews

Robert Altman on "Kansas City" (and Jazz)
by Henri Béhar
Cannes, May 12, 1996

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Shown in competition Monday, May 12, and starring Harry Belafonte, Miranda Richardson and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Altman's "Kansas City" weaves several stories, and several moods, against the backdrop of a lively, lawless city in the 1930s, which was as well known for its jazz as it was for its party girls and its gangsters. The energy of the music reverberates through the entire film. For FilmScouts, Kansas City-born director Altman takes off below on a riff about the music, the politics, "cutting contests", fleshing out a film script as if it were a score and the actors instruments, along with some personal memories. - HB

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Kansas City became the hub of the music world at that time because it was the port for the center of the continent, the crossroad of commerce for one-sixth of America. All the airlines went through there, all the trains. You went from East to West, you went through Kansas City. It was the base for all musicians who traveled in what was called "The Territories", the Western territories. The bands would make up in Kansas City, travel through Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, California, and back to Kansas City through Nevada, Colorado. They played one-night stands. They'd go in a bus, usually. Many times, the bands would go broke, the guys ended up back in Kansas City and new bands were formed.

Between 1926 and 1936, Kansas City was run by Tom Pendergast, who had in his pocket both the political machine and the racketeers, led by Johnny Lazia. Pendergast never listened to music and was always in bed by 9:00 P.M. He made sure, however, that the town never did. It was a wide-open lawless town of dance-halls, nightclubs, honkey-tonks, clubs and brothels -- K.C. had the largest red light district in the country. The bars were always open, so musicians were always employed.
On their night off, which was Monday, everybody would come together from those different clubs and a jam session would occur that would go on for days! The day WE're talking about in the film was the Monday before an election. Of course, on Election Day, they wouldn't work.

The "cutting contest" between Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young that we describe in the film actually happened. Charlie Parker was there, too. But he played so badly that Joe Jones, who was the drummer, threw a cymbal at him. And Parker was kind of laughed off the stage.

"Cutting contests" happened all around, but Kansas City was particularly known for the energy of its jam sessions. The principle is simple, it originated in tap dancing. One guy would get up and do so many steps, the other guy had to do something different, and they just kept going till one guy ran out of ideas. And they did that in music as well...

There was a time, possibly, when a high-level aficionado could tell the difference between K.C. jazz and Chicago jazz. I wouldn't know how to describe the Kansas City sound. They weren't taking solos the same way as anywhere else. As the big bands began to grow -- Bennie and Buster Moten, Bill Basie, who wasn't yet nicknamed "Count" -- they came up with a certain kind of drumming... and swing was born. A particular brand of swing.

The jazz scenes didn't exist as such in the script. We put the bands together, made a 50-minute film with just the music. It's not a documentary, it's a performance. Like an album. Only, it's a visual album. And we integrated it in our narrative. There is nothing but live jazz, here. Sometimes you see the musicians, sometimes you don't. But that was always the intention, not one "incidental" note has been added.

From writing to editing, the film, to me, is constructed like jazz. Here you have Miranda Richardson and Jennifer Jason Leigh doing a riff, then Harry Belafonte cuts in with his own riff... They're doing improvisations off of the same theme. If you just stuck to the story --which would be the song, "Solitude" -- it could be done in three minutes: "Girl kidnaps a woman, hoping, with the ransom to pay off the debt her boyfriend has vis-a-vis a local gangster who owns the jazz club where Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young are engaged in a 'cutting contest' the Monday before Election Day." But put a jazz spin to "Solitude", and it could go for twenty minutes. Or two hours, depending on your performers.

I would say Belafonte was a brass. A trumpet, perhaps. And the two girls, Miranda and Jennifer, are kind of like two tenor saxophones. On the shooting, therefore, I acted less as a "director" than as an orchestrator, the arranger of the band. I'd write the charts and say, "Okay, you are going to play so many bars of this, and then the trumpet is going to do so many bars of this, and you're coming back in, and we're going to end with just a soft cello bass/fiddle duet." Which is another rendition of "Solitude".

I grew up in Kansas City. The housekeeper that kind of raised me was a black woman named Glendora Majors. She kept the radio on all the time. One day, I was about eight, it was the middle of the afternoon, and the two of us were in the house alone -- she said, "Bobby, come over here and listen to this." She sat me in front of the radio. "That's Duke Ellington's 'Solitude'. It's the best music there is. Now you sit and listen to it." And I remember I remained glued to my chair. "Solitude" is the first piece of music that I really remember. And it's the last piece of music in the film...

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