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Between a Smile and a Tear - A Night at the Montmartre Club in Copenhagen

By Mike Zwerin


COPENHAGEN, 20 September 2004—The pianist Niels Lan Doky, who is part Vietnamese, part Danish, was educated in America, and lives in France, conceived, wrote, co-directed, and stars in a documentary film, currently in post-production, about jazz being a universal language.

Although he's accompanied such famous acts as David Sanborn, Al Jarreau, the Brecker Brothers, Joe Henderson, and John Scofield, he's never made a film before. But he had been inspired by Wim Wenders's "Buena Vista Social Club." Doky liked that it was about the present time, that the featured personages were all alive, and that you got to know the musicians as well as their music. Why not do the same thing for jazz?

Starting about a year ago, carried away by the project, playing less and less piano, getting little sleep, Doky pulled out all the stops to make the movie before it was too late. Musicians were dying, and he wanted to document the living not the dead. He wrote outlines, drafts, budget-estimates, structure charts, and he pitched the project to film producers and money people. The Danish-based Ben Webster Foundation, the producer Jorgen Bo Behrensdorff of Park Films, and others, were interested. The total budget came to 400,000 euros.

Filmed in July, it has the working title Between A Smile And A Tear - A Night At The Montmartre Club in Copenhagen. The first part of the name came from Thielemans, who likes to say that he lives between a smile and a tear. Along with the singer Lisa Nilsson, Doky co-wrote a song by that name for the film, which will have a theatrical release in the Spring of 2005.

From 1959 to 1974, the Montmartre in Copenhagen was one of the most prestigious jazz clubs in the world. Johnny Griffin and Dexter Gordon would come in for months at a time. Stan Getz played there regularly. The house rhythm section was Albert "Tootie" Heath and Kenny Drew (both Americans), and either Niels Henning Orsted Pederson or Mads Vinding, both Danes, on bass.

"Thad Jones, Stan Getz, Oscar Pettiford, Don Byas…" Just pronouncing the names seemed to give Doky pleasure. "…Brew Moore, Ernie Wilkins, Horace Parlan, and Ben Webster, among many, many others, all lived and worked in Copenhagen. Copenhagen was less-recognized but it was just as important a haven for American jazz musicians as Paris."

The diplomatic 40-year old Doky went out of his way to avoid saying that the Danish are in general friendlier than the French; but he did point out that Copenhagen is smaller and less of a global crossroads than Paris, and that the people have more time and, perhaps, need for the friendliness of foreigners.

"Some of the musicians became Danish," he said. "They learned to speak the language. Tootie gave his son the Danish name Jens. Some of them are buried there. Ben Webster and Kenny Drew lie near each other in the Assistents cemetery, along with national icons like Soren Kierkegard and Hans Christian Andersen. Thad Jones is in the Vestre cemetery, where some of our prime ministers are buried.

"Jazz musicians have so much to offer. But they are not known as people, even by fans of their music. They lead such interesting lives, they are so smart, they have such a good sense of humor. I would like these people and their music to reach an audience outside the music's immediate circle, like the Wenders film did."

He lined up a core cast of Montmartre veterans—Griffin, Toots Thielemans, Heath, Vinding—to play with him in the band. He would also interview them, and they would talk about the new versus the old days, about the musician's life, and about the meaning of it all.

The breakthrough came when Doky discovered that the hairdressing school occupying the premises of the original Montmartre would be closed for vacation in July, that they had not partitioned the space, and that even their mirrors were on wheels. He rented it for the month. Art directors, set designers, carpenters, and a work crew were engaged to turn the empty space into a movie set, including the rebuilt bar.

The Montmartre opened in July for the first time in 30 years for two concerts with live audiences filmed by four cameras as part of the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, which also invested in the project. The violinist Didier Lockwood and singer Nilsson completed the band. Lockwood is from Paris, Griffin lives in Limoges, Heath flew in from Los Angeles. Thielemans (82) is from Brussels, Nilsson (33) from Stockholm.

"Jazz is a form of music with a unique character," Doky said. "People of radically different backgrounds - geographical, cultural, political, racial, religious, age, gender, etcetera—can in some strange way acquire an immediate mutual understanding and create a spontaneous common expression, all without any prior rehearsal or prior personal acquaintance. The musicians in the movie each speak English with their own accent. And they speak jazz with their own accent."


Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com. Zwerin who has lived in France for 33 years, was promoted recently from 'Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' to 'Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" by the French Minister of Culture.


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