FILMS

Kansas City stars

THE LAST OF THE BLUE DEVILS Directed by Bruce Ricker

MARSHA BOULTON June 29 1981
FILMS

Kansas City stars

THE LAST OF THE BLUE DEVILS Directed by Bruce Ricker

MARSHA BOULTON June 29 1981

Kansas City stars

FILMS

THE LAST OF THE BLUE DEVILS Directed by Bruce Ricker

Few films capture the feet of an audience as effectively as The Last of the Blue Devils. The rollicking jazz that thrived in Kansas City in the ’20s and ’30s is as persuasive an influence on the toe as it is uplifting to the spirit. The casual confines of the Mutual Musicians Foundation proved to be a perfect venue for this saucy music when the likes of Count Basie, Jay McShann and Big Joe Turner gathered there in 1974 with other Kansas City jazz alumni for a reunion that translates into visual rhythm on film. Hailed at film festivals in Montreal, Chicago and London, Blue Devils is finally making its way into Canadian theatres.

The Blue Devils were a group of musicians who took their name from the barbed-wire cutters used during the range wars between cattlemen and farmers. Founded in the mid-’20s by bassist Walter Page and directed by band leader Bennie Moten, it was the first big band Count Basie ever played

in. Graduates include such innovators as Lester Young and Charlie Parker.

The survivors of that era are now almost as rare as their early recordings, but mention of the corner of 18th and Vine triggers a jazzspeak of music and anecdotes. After barrelling through Shake, Rattle and Roll, Turner, who began his career as a singing bartender, speaks fondly of “a big, fine chick in Texas,” who slept with a pearl-handled .45 on her dresser “so you don’t mess up too much, you hear.” Basie enters wearing his trademark sailing cap and is greeted with good-natured hoots of “Big wheel, you left the ship outside.” McShann explains that Charlie Parker earned his “Yardbird” nickname when the band bus hit a couple of chickens and Parker insisted on picking them up for a future meal.

Director Ricker allows the boys from the band a loose rein, capturing the spontaneity right down to an impromptu tap dance by Speedy Huggins. When Baby Lovett joins Jo Jones in a drum duo, Basie’s face lights up as he comments, “Now there’s a drummer for

you ... if a fly jumped out on a piece of paper, he’ll play it.”

Two of the musicians have died since the reunion, a poignant reminder that these really are the last of the Blue Devils. As a historical document, the film is invaluable. As a celebration, it is an invitation to uncontrollable foot movement. —MARSHA BOULTON