Woody Allen's reality seems as absurd as anything he ever wrote for the screen: a white Jewish guy from Brooklyn playing New Orleans jazz steeped in black culture and Christian gospel to audiences who aren't there for his clarinet skills.
"All my mileage comes from the fact that I do movies," Allen, 76, says in a telephone interview, sounding only slightly less neurotic than his celluloid persona. "If I wasn't in the movies I would starve to death as a musician.
"I have a great love for it, a great enthusiasm, but I don't really have much talent for it. I don't say this modestly or facetiously. I'm a very poor clarinet player."
Yet for nearly 40 years people have packed Allen's weekly jam sessions with the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band at New York's tony Carlyle Hotel, and their concerts worldwide. Most don't know Joe Oliver from Jelly Roll Morton, but getting that close to an Oscar winner is worth the ticket. Allen realizes this, and his fellow musicians are fine with it. Anything to keep their favorite music from disappearing any faster than it already is.
Like Martin Scorsese preserving rare films, Allen keeps early 20th century Big Easy rhythms alive and noticed simply by showing up.
"I don't mind any contribution that I can make to New Orleans jazz," he says. "It's a great form but, you know, all over the world — except the United States, where it originated — it's a big deal.
"I'm always surprised when anyone wants to hear authentic jazz. We're not currying favor with the crowds, usually. . . . They're usually used to musicians playing what's called Dixieland, (wearing) straw hats and Hawaiian shirts, playing When the Saints Go Marching In and making a big fuss. We don't do that."
What the band does is whatever their star player wants to do. Allen calls the tunes without a set play- list, with six other musicians raring for any direction he wishes: Big Butter and Egg Man, Potato Head Blues, spirituals like Precious Lord Take My Hand and Just a Little While to Stay Here. The New Orleans style is ragged enough for any missed notes to slip by, and generous enough for Allen to allow better chops to shine.
Watching Allen perform in YouTube video clips is a study of insecure rhythm, with a nervously bouncing leg keeping time while he's playing. When it's someone else's turn, Allen's head is bowed, often with a hand over his mouth, either wiping spittle or seeking anonymity. Sitting with his clarinet upright on his knee, Allen seems to wish it were a wider instrument to hide behind.
He didn't imagine this 60 years ago when a radio show introduced teenage Allen to classic New Orleans jazz: Morton, Oliver, Louis Armstrong and especially Sidney Bechet's soprano saxophone.
"The musicians that I responded to so much could play very simple things, take a tune and just play the melody," Allen says. "It was played with such feeling, the tone and such great rhythm that it was fabulous to listen to. It's not that it's very elaborate. It's very simple, primitive and crude.
"With any teenage boy some things just become obsessive, like batting averages do. I became really obsessed with New Orleans music, read everything I could about it, bought every recording I could and listened endlessly. Finally I took up an instrument myself."
Allen bought a soprano sax but quickly realized he'd never be another Bechet: "He sort of monopolized it. It was hard to play without just imitating him as best you could . . . but there were any number of fabulous clarinet players." One of them, Woody Herman, provided young Allen Stewart Konigsberg with a stage name for an illustrious movie career.
The music since then has influenced Woody Allen's films, notably on soundtracks from early farces like Sleeper, where he plays clarinet with the Big Easy's own Preservation Hall Jazz Band. As his filmmaking matured, Allen's musical choices became more sophisticated — George Gershwin, Cole Porter and the like — yet steadfastly jazz in sound and, he says, structure.
"I do find in making films that music helps me," says Allen, whose most recent film was Midnight in Paris. "In jazz music you're working with rhythm all the time, and putting a film together you're also working with rhythm. Interestingly, when it comes to comedy I have a very good sense of rhythm and timing. That's just natural for me. But I don't have great musical timing."
Again Allen dismisses his own musicianship. It's a coda to most topics of a too-brief conversation, that he's an average clarinetist chasing legends and surrounded by pros: "I do it the way a weekend tennis player plays. I can do it for fun but I'm no great shakes.
After stammering so wittily on screen about love, death, crimes and misdemeanors, Allen speaks in gently measured tones about his music, a fading art he'll admit he doesn't know everything about. He sounds glad that someone wasn't afraid to ask.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365.