by Randy Freedman
Whether it’s just a brush of romantic license in how this film renders 1959 Los Angeles or the lush, warm and earthy tones of Gus Bendinelli's cinematography, Flock of Four (2017, available on Netflicks) practically oozes director Gregory Carouso’s nostalgia for a time gone by. This feature film debut, is a coming of age story about four teenage jazz musicians. They bravely venture out one night from the comfortable familiarity of their quiet Pasadena homes, to the culturally diverse South Central Avenue of Los Angeles, in the hope of hearing (fictional) jazz great, Pope Dixon perform. This relatively short journey becomes a virtual odyssey, during which the young men encounter issues of race, ethnicity, class, and social expectation as well as difficult questions concerning jazz itself.
Joey Grover (played with charm and dogged determination by Braeden Lemasters) has never given up the jazz his dad, a military vet who perished in the Korean War, taught him at the piano .Dad’s favorite musician was drummer Pope Dixon (played by veteran character actor Reg E. Cathey, who is perhaps best known for his recurring role in Netflick's House of Cards, proudly providing the White House staff with the highest quality barbecue foods.) He only gets a few scenes here, yet somehow manages to steal them all. Dixon is a jazz great who Grover learns is playing in town for one night only.
Grover is the most talented guy in the little quartet that rehearses in his garage. Arch (Uriah Shelton) can never quite get his lungs around a quality sax solo, though the rhythm section, Bud (Isaac Jay) on bass and Louie (Dylan Riley Snyder) on drums, is solid. While the young men are more than intelligent and a where enough to figure out that rock and roll is not going away anytime soon, they cling to their genuine love for jazz. For Joey, jazz also calls to mind his late father's passion, both for the music and the musicians who played it. So, when a plug on the radio mentions that legendary drummer Pope Dixon, who Joey's Dad had gone to hear in person several times, is going to appear that night only, at one of South Central’s last remaining jazz clubs, Joey is hellbent on dragging them all there to see "the Pope before it’s too late.”
The idea of four seemingly sheltered white kids from Pasadena traveling to a predominantly black neighborhood strikes each of us differently as individuals depending on our backgrounds and upbringing. When I was a child, I remember pleading with my father to take me to see professional wrestling at the International Amphitheater on Chicago's South Side in what was definitely perceived (certainly by my father) as less than the safest of neighborhoods.
Though modern, and diversified by 1959 (and perhaps even present day) standards; LA is a series of regions and sections where, for many, the twain shall never meet. Locals have said one can live in Pasadena, or South Central Los Angeles, or the San Fernando Valley, or even Downtown Los Angeles, without ever even getting to know their neighbors. So traveling twenty plus minutes to another city and attempting to blend in to a different culture, even for just an evening could be, a bit of a venture for many LA residents. Even including some of the LA movie critics writing about this film.
Despite some trepidations, the lads dash off, toward South Central. They go, even though Joey’s older brother Sam ( Shane Harper) has forbidden it, and enlisted his girlfriend Gene (Gatlin Kate James) and friend Tony (Connor Paolo) , who has a car, to track them down. The four friends can’t be encouraged when the taxi they have engaged dumps them off, nowhere near where they want to be. Furthermore, the first black kids they meet are big Johnny Otis fans and laugh in their faces, while saying “These cats ain’t got any rhythm…Or blues.”
The boys finally make their way to the jazz club only to find that Dixon has already played. But they catch a set by the club owner's children, fiesty and racially aware pianist Clifford (Nadji Jeter) and the lovely, charming torch singer Ava (Coco Jones).
With everyone trying to find common ground in their shared love for jazz, Ava coos in conversation that "jazz is a thick smoke, a smooth ride...it's happiness and pain". Meanwhile Clifford, annoyed with the white carpetbaggers, demands, "You two are such big jazz fans, tell me one thing — how did it start?" His answer, slavery, is supposed to put them in their place, but Joey and Bud are so insistent on their love for the music, that they wind up getting pulled onstage both to verify their musical skills as well as their familiarity with Charlie Mingus' work.
Director Caruso may be trying to encourage viewers, (by virtue of the song he chooses for the boys to play), to take a deeper dive into Charles Mingus. Of course, Mingus could have gone the easy route and just remained a venerated bassist. But he was a musician who loved to break boundaries that would push him (and his fellow musicians) to the artistic limit. “Better Git It In Your Soul” is one of Mingus’ trademark songs, taken from his seminal 1959 album Mingus Ah Um and the sheer energy of this track (as well as its name) are a reminder on how Mingus approached jazz (as well as life).
Now, it's off to a second club, which is supposedly getting a surprise visit from Dixon. Once there, they'll be caught up to, by big brother Sam who is convinced the boys aren't savvy enough for South Central. But instead it's Sam and friends, who wind up causing a ruckus, in fact two ruckuses. This brings the action to a halt, like a stage play taking a break between acts two and three. And thankfully, this sets us up for the film's most important scene. Set in the internationally famous Dunbar Hotel, which can legitimately claim to have hosted most all of the important African American celebrities of its time, we finally have the "meet-the-master scene" that the whole film has built toward. Grover and Dixon finally meet.
Reg E. Cathey, a one-time jazz player, makes Pope Dixon, every bit of the weary, wary and grizzled survivor of jazz and racism in America that the movie, absolutely needs him to be. He brings a burnished, bone-deep authority to the question of who the music belongs to, and it's handled in a way that doesn't apologize for any tonal missteps Caruso may be guilty of along the way. But, it also doesn't dampen the film's earnest and inherent nostalgia for a lost time. His scenes bring needed weight to a movie that might otherwise have seemed light and inconsequential. Dixon offers Grover a mix of condescension and sympathy. Neither validating his calling, nor quite berating him, Dixon delivers a prognosis that speaks to innumerable bebop buffs since: "You was born in the wrong decade." And then he asks the telling question “Know what they’ll call the decade that killed jazz? The SIXTIES!”
It seems like the last few generations of white American youth, that have fallen in love with Jazz, at some point take a look around themselves and ask, "Do I have any right to the sense of belonging I feel with this music?" Gregory Caruso's debut film, Flock of Four, is a visual and musical representation of that angst. It derives power and impact from the admiration Curuso shows for true musical genius regardless of skin color. Clearly seeing and recognizing our differences, even as he encourages us to transcend them. Those jazz fans who were uncomfortable with the questions asked by the (2016) film La La Land may be equally uncomfortable with those asked by Flock Of Four. Can we acknowledge this, with eyes wide open, while still deriving full enjoyment from our music?
Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.