calle 54(2000)
director: fernando trueba
jerry gonzalez, tito puente, cachao, chucho valdez

. Among the countless omissions of Ken Burns’ recent, epic PBS documentary series “Jazz” was the virtually nonexistent coverage given to Latin jazz, a fertile branch of jazz that, since before bebop, informed and influenced the evolution of the music.

Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque) is a fan, and his documentary on modern Latin jazz, Calle 54, is a fan letter. Travelling all over Europe, America and the Caribbean, he provides portraits of the living masters of the music, from legends like Chucho Valdes, Tito Puente and Chico O’Farrill to younger musicians like Elaine Elias and Michel Camilo. The segments are serious, even aweuck; you can sense Trueba’s unapologetic admiration in every frame.

The dark heart of the film, however, resides with the legendary Gonzalez brothers, Jerry and Andy. Once leaders of the legendary Fort Apache band, they command a particular kind of reverence among fans of the music. Jerry, in particular, is a melancholy, even tragic figure whose appearance on the screen prompted gasps from audience members at a Toronto film festival screening. 

The trumpeter, whose longtime drug problems have sidelined him throughout his career, is a sort of symbol of the unfulfilled promise of the music, a virtuoso arena where the depth and complexity of the playing is often overshadowed by the irresistible beat. That beat, utterly essential to the music, is also its curse.