I recently read a New York Times article about a documentary by Danish filmmaker Janus Køster-Rasmussen. Set in the early 1960s, Cool Cats recalls the lives of American jazz expats Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster during their time in Copenhagen.
Both men were revered as jazz giants in their own right, but made the move to Denmark in search of better lives, more gigs, and less racism than they found themselves faced with back home amidst the turbulence of 1960s America. In Copenhagen, they were embraced as equals and celebrated for their artistry. The film is an intimate portrait of that moment in time.
Although both Gordon and Webster performed long before Køster-Rasmussen’s time, their story caught the director’s attention. By piecing together archival footage of the artists performing around town at famous venues like the legendary Jazzhus Montmartre and other small clubs, along with interviews with friends from their inner circle, we get a real sense of the two: Dexter Gordon, a master of suavity, as evidenced by his walk, talk, and fluid movements on the tenor sax. Ben Webster is depicted as having been a true master of the ballad—no doubt the sound of his tenor and breathy vibrato caused many a lover to swoon.
Surrounded by their enthusiastic Danish fans, the women who loved them, and the friends who knew them, it’s no wonder that Gordon and Webster preferred their self-imposed exile in Copenhagen.
Cool Cats won much audience acclaim at the Telluride Film Festival, as well as Portland, Seattle, and Boulder. Let’s hope this delightful documentary will become available on Netflix and other streaming services soon. It’s valuable stuff for any jazz fan.
Check out this interview with the director Janus Køster-Rasmussen.