Uncovering why a great be-bop jazz singer fell into near-total obscurity is only one accomplishment of Raymond De Felitta's magnificent and moving "'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris." Taking a time-out from his feature directing ("Two Family House," "The Thing About My Folks"), De Felitta seems a born documaker. He brilliantly constructs a tale born of a genuine love of jazz and a need to understand how Paris went from sensation to footnote in a generation. Pic will be essential viewing for jazz fans, but also could attract a wider aud if billed as an emotional mystery story. A swinging vid life is assured.
Akin to how Mark Moskowitz, who wanted to find out what happened to novelist Dow Mossman, made his marvelous doc "Stone Reader," De Felitta gets hooked on Paris and can't let go. De Felitta heard a mellifluous voice on Charles Mingus' "Paris in Blues" recording that combined innate sadness and reverie with a propulsive sense of swing.
Crucially, pic takes periodic pauses between De Felitta's voice-over first-person accounts and interview segments for the pure sound of Paris' voice -- the best evidence the film has to confirm his greatness.
How obscure is Paris? Try this: One of the standard jazz reference tomes has Paris dying in 1977, when in fact he was still working at the time, more than 30 years after he exploded on New York's be-bop scene. (Paris actually died on June 14, 2004.)
De Felitta begins searching for Paris discs and re-issues, and when he uncovers one in a store, it's misfiled under Oscar Peterson. Almost no Paris dates or records are available, to this day, on any U.S. label.
The film's mystery -- how could the singer of choice for everyone from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to Mingus, ranked by critics in the class of Sinatra and Tony Bennett and called "Chet Baker times 10" by singer Billy Vera, drop out of sight -- develops into a fascinating profile of a somewhat self-destructive artist of reputedly immense ego and violent temper, and with a family history worthy of a John Irving novel.
There are also the moments of plain bad luck: Touring as an opening act for Lenny Bruce (who helped urge Paris to work in some audience banter), Paris was the subject of a rave letter Bruce wrote to a powerful agent that could have easily revived his career. But, for no known reason, Bruce never mailed the letter.
Pic is crammed, but not to the point of exhaustion, with such telling details. De Felitta's real coup is spending quality time with Paris, interviewing him at length after learning that the singer was trying to kick-start his career once again with a gig at New York's Jazz Standard club.
Paris fibs to the director that he had no children, but, instead of taking him at his word, De Felitta tenaciously tracks down Stacy Paris and ex-con, heavily tattooed son Michael and gets them to talk about Jackie's physical abuse.
The more complex Paris' personal life becomes during pic's unflagging 101 minutes, including frank revelations about his troubled brother Gene, the clearer it becomes that the singer had authentic emotional reserves to draw upon for his crooning. His version of Hoagie Carmichael's standard, "Skylark," remains the classic rendition, and pic's sequence devoted to the song perfectly encapsulates Paris' art.
A who's who of the jazz world appears on screen, from critic Ira Gitler to impresario George WeinTypical of the film going the extra mile is how De Felitta ventures to Banning, Calif., to track down the world's top authority on all things Paris, J.D. Ehrhard.
John Wayland's editing, as well as soundtrack and sound editing (care of Ken Meyer), are elegantly judged. Lindy Agron is a key behind-the-scenes participant as researcher, and entire work is sculpted with great, personal care.
In a quirky touch that feels just right, Peter Bogdanovich, Frank Whaley, Nick Tosches effectively read reviews and reports about Paris in a visually theatrical setting.
Camera (color, DV/16mm/Super-8), Jeremy Saulnier, Chad Davidson, Eli Heitin, Ruben O'Malley, David Zellerford; editor, John Wayland; sound, David Grausman, Seth Cooper, Martin Goodman; sound designer, Ken Meyer; research, Lindy Agron. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 24, 2006. Running time: 101 MIN.