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'The Last of the First': Life and All That Jazz

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page C05

Anja Baron's film "The Last of the First," about the Harlem Blues & Jazz Band, is an ode to musicians in their seventies and eighties. As such, it is melancholy, sweet, and not without painful insights about ageless dreamers.

The band members have marvelous pedigrees, having played with the likes of Fats Waller, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, among others. They're old men and a stylish woman, Laurel Watson, who once was compared to Billie Holiday herself. Baron's film chronicles several recent trips the band members made -- to cities in Europe -- and their regrets at being better appreciated abroad than at home.

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Singer Watson takes the filmmaker to some of the old Harlem haunts she once played. Small's Paradise used to be a lively joint, jumping and swollen with talent. Now it's boarded up. "I pay my bills, thank God," Watson offers in a voice-over.

The jam sessions are overlaid with bits of archival footage from the 1930s and '40s. As one band member relates, their fortunes changed after World War II, when nightclub owners could get away with smaller ensembles.

In the course of the film, a band member has a stroke, one dies, another, Al Casey, goes to visit the home of Fats Waller out in Queens and begins crying. In the end, the band loses its long-running gig at a New York nightclub. The fundraiser at the church is for singer Watson, who has suffered a stroke. It's a tender jam session in a movie as much about time as music itself.

The Last of the First is 88 minutes long and is showing tonight at 6:45 and Saturday at 6:45 at Landmark's E Street. The Alex Martin Trio is scheduled to perform before the screenings.

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