Cool Cats – Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon in Copenhagen
(2015, dir. Janus Cøster-Rasmussen, Barbican 3, 19 November 2017. Film review by Peter Jones)
Copenhagen has always been a jazz city. Although it is now throwing up gigantic, hideous new buildings, until very recently it still had the human scale that made it a far more gentle environment than most world capitals – certainly more gentle than New York or Los Angeles. The twin threats of the Vietnam draft and the rise of rock music caused large numbers of American jazz musicians to leave the U.S. in the 1960s and early ’70s to live in Paris, London, or Stockholm. Among them were two giants of the tenor saxophone – Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon, who relocated to Copenhagen.
This new film draws on archive footage from DR, the Danish national broadcaster, where Janus Cøster-Rasmussen is a producer. It’s a low-key affair. There are interviews with ageing Danes who knew the musicians. There’s some live footage from the great Jazzhus Montmartre, which is still going strong. Webster had bought a little 8mm film camera, with which he filmed fragments of anything that interested him – animals in the zoo, friends waving up at his apartment window, Dexter doing a little street corner business… Ben also had his demons: after a drink or two he was prone to turn nasty towards those nearest him.
Despite the unfortunate detritus of their American lives, what makes the film so profoundly affecting is that neither musician could quite believe how well the Danes treated them: paying them fairly, and promptly; allowing them the freedom to date white women; treating them as friends. No wonder they stayed so long.