Clint Eastwood: Jazz Was His Earliest Muse

Carmel, Calif.

I’m here to talk to one of America’s premier filmmakers about his career in the industry, but his eyes light up when I ask him about his first love—jazz. “It’s always fun to talk about jazz,” says Clint Eastwood, seated at a small table not far from the baby grand piano that fills his Mission Ranch Restaurant with jazz each night. We’re looking out at a picturesque meadow and a flock of grazing sheep he jokingly calls his “girlfriends.”

At 80, Mr. Eastwood is busier than most men half his age. A self-taught pianist and composer, the actor and Oscar- winning director has (with longtime collaborator Lennie Niehaus and, more recently, his son, Kyle Eastwood) scored and written songs for many of his films, including “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River,” Million Dollar Baby,” “Gran Torino” and “Hereafter.”

He once said jazz and westerns are perhaps the only truly American art forms. I ask him where he acquired his love for the former. “When I was a kid, I’d listen to jazz records and copy them on the piano,” he says, fingering imaginary keys. The Fats Waller albums his mother brought to their house near Oakland, Calif., were an early influence.

Before long, while still in his teens, he was hitting local jazz clubs. “In the Bay Area,” he explains, “there was a resurgence of Dixieland jazz in the ’40s—there was the Frisco Jazz Band, and Lu Watters and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band. I used to go out to a place called Hambone Kelly’s in El Cerrito. And because I was fairly big for my age, I could go in there and get a beer and sit in the back and listen to these players.”

As the ’40s progressed, Mr. Eastwood, along with jazz enthusiasts everywhere, embraced the new harmonic and rhythmic intricacies of bebop. “I started listening to modern jazz players like Charlie Ventura, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.” As a young man, he saw Parker perform several times, which later influenced his decision to make “Bird,” the critically acclaimed 1988 film about the brilliant but troubled alto saxophonist.

“I became kind of a jazz freak,” he says. “I read every book there was on jazz, about the original players—King Oliver, Buddy Bolden and all those groups. At one time I was fairly well schooled in that . . . I could tell you who played where and when, historically, way before my time.”

Sneaking into jazz venues at a young age sounds a lot like Bix Beiderbecke, the innovative white musician of the ’20s who would skip school to play with black musicians after hours in Chicago clubs. Was he ever attracted to Bix’s story?

“Yeah, I was,” he says. “I liked him very much. . . . He was an interesting piano player. He wrote ‘In a Mist,’ for example, which was a hit in its time. . . . Then the fact that he moved to the cornet, the idiosyncrasies he had, wanting to have the music closer to his head, and that sort of thing. He was definitely a great player. But [like Bird] he was one of those guys who lived hard and burned out fast. . . . I don’t want to make a habit of doing stories on people who have brilliance but shine bright for a very short period of time.”

Mr. Eastwood’s known for featuring classic jazz recordings in his films, most famously in his 1971 film “Play Misty for Me,” which is named after and centered on Erroll Garner’s ballad “Misty,” first recorded in 1954. Last year, he executive-produced a documentary on one of jazz’s most respected and enduring artists: “Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way.” Directed by Bruce Ricker, the film premiered in December just in time for Mr. Brubeck’s 90th birthday. Similar Eastwood projects include the superb biopic “Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser” (1988), which he produced; and “Piano Blues” (2003), which he co-produced and directed for Martin Scorsese’s seven-film documentary series for PBS, “The Blues.”

But what is it, I ask, that makes jazz so quintessentially American? “It’s something that could only come out of such a diverse country as America,” Mr. Eastwood says. “And jazz players . . . were pioneers of integration, because you were judged by your ability in an era when people were judging people by a lot of other things—social factors, color, etc. So it seemed like respecting somebody just for their talent was important.”

Born on May 31, 1930, in San Francisco, Mr. Eastwood remembers the lean years of the Depression and the blues and jazz that came out of that time. His father, Clinton Eastwood Sr., traveled from town to town looking for work before settling the family in the Bay Area.

“Growing up I was always rooting for the jazz musician,” he says. “I remember I was disturbed when there was a big objection to Nat King Cole moving into Hancock Park in Los Angeles. I didn’t know Hancock Park at that time, because I was just a kid in Oakland. But I always thought: ‘God, who wouldn’t want to have Nat Cole living next to him?’ Not only because he was a popular guy, but he was one of those few popular guys who was a great jazz player as well, a great piano player.”

Some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, for instance, were not allowed to play certain venues or alongside white musicians. Jazz may have been born out of America’s unique diversity, I suggest, but it also collided head on with the racism and bigotry of the time.

“It was a disgraceful time,” Mr. Eastwood says. “I remember living through it. You had to have all-white bands or all-black bands or they’d send you away. Woody Herman and Ernie Royal had an occasional mixture. But by and large you couldn’t play certain places . . . especially in the South, but across the whole country, really.”

Armstrong, he continues, helped spearhead integration in jazz and elsewhere because “he traveled with a band that was mostly black, but he also had [the white trombonist] Jack Teagarden with him. So certain places wouldn’t book him. But he didn’t give a [expletive]. Dave Brubeck and a lot of people would eventually have integrated bands. But it’s a sad state of history when here you’ve got this great art form and certain people can’t play it together.” Still, he says, it’s the racial and cultural melting pot of America that “gives jazz its great power.”

After the interview, I join Mr. Eastwood for a few drinks that evening back at the Mission Ranch piano bar. He rattles off the name of every tune the gentleman at the baby grand plays—who performed it, when it was recorded, etc. Then, as the opening notes of one song are played, his expression changes —he’s listening intently. It’s the theme to “Hereafter,” his 2010 film. “This one’s mine,” he says, before losing himself once again in the music.



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