When it came to jazz, Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster were giants among men. Both were tenor saxophonists—Gordon helped adapt the instrument for bebop music, Webster specialized in swing—and both had played with the greats and inspired those to follow. And while their music is timeless and their talents impressive, they also share a rather peculiar footnote: both left America for Demark.
There’s a lot of fame that comes with being a jazz musician, but in 1960s America, jazz musician or not, a Black man was still a second-class citizen. When Gordon and Webster landed in Copenhagen, they found no signs that read “Whites Only” or “Colored Toilets.” Instead, they found kind people who were not only impressed by their talents but attracted to them as well. As one Dane remembers, it was fashionable for a white Danish girl to date a Black American musician.
Cool Cats, from Danish director Janus Køster-Rasmussen, is a documentary about Gordon and Webster’s years in Denmark, the music they played, and the vices that crippled them. Drugs and alcohol always seem to go hand in hand with stories like these, and Gordon, a heroin user, and Webster, a heavy drinker, play their part.
Køster-Rasmussen also does his part. Cool Cats could have been a by-the-numbers documentary with talking heads and archival photographs, but Køster-Rasmussen unearthed a plethora of home movies from Webster, all shot on 8 mm, that add a great deal of authenticity. Combined with early TV performance footage and grainy home movies from die-hard jazz fans, Cool Cats gives a taste of a time and place.
Cool Cats (2015)
Directed by Janus Køster-Rasmussen
Produced by Morten Thomsen Højsgaard
DR Historie, Not Rated, Running time 83 minutes, Premiered Nov. 9, 2015 at CPH:DOX
The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 24, No. 30, “Ushering in a great era for film.”
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