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Who Killed Jazz is a 22-minute documentary by Ben Makinen. Despite its provocative title, jazz is very much alive but that question is used as a point of departure that leads to other relevant comments and conversations.
Makinen, whose previous film, the two-hour Jazztown, has a similar format, asked questions to a variety of jazz artists based in Denver during the past few years. Through expert editing, he alternates brief musical excerpts from the musicians with their comments. The statement of “who killed jazz” becomes “who killed the jazz business” and evolves into such queries as “why do musicians have to live in poverty while others profit from their life’s work,” “have jazz musicians lost touch with their audience,” and “why do you play jazz?”
A couple dozen jazz musicians are heard from. While Dianne Reeves (who appears briefly), guitarist Charlie Hunter, and trumpeter Ron Miles are national names, most are local players who are not that well known outside of their home city. Miles talks about the exploitation of musicians by club owners. Hunter says (not completely seriously) that the only people who can afford to play jazz are wealthy. Pianist Purnell Steen worries that jazz schools are eliminating the blues from the music and gives an example how some musicians are their own worst enemy. Bassist Charles Burrell (who is now 102) recalls how jazz musicians used to be able to play six nights a week and now are lucky to play a few times a month. Singer Teresa Carroll sometimes steals the show with her animated responses. A surprise is that Colorado governor John Hickenlooper is not only a jazz fan but seems quite knowledgeable about the music.
While none of the questions are definitively answered, this brief and colorful film is thought-provoking and well worth seeing.