Solos Cut Short: Jazz Artists Who Left Us Too Early, with Howard E. Fischer

Howard Fischer 1


The founder and former executive director of the New York Jazz Museum (1972-77), Howard E. Fischer, unearthed some intriguing material about jazz artists whose brief lives brought stunning music to the world. Calling jazz “our most creative art form,” Fischer wrote and produced a film “They Died Before 40”  highlighting these musicians’ contributions to music and the sociological effects of their work. It was shown at the Big Apple Film Festival in NYC in 2016 and the project is currently seeking funding for music licensing (inquire at  

The film looks at the lives, music and struggles of over two dozen musicians; some notable and others lesser known. What they all had in common was a flame that burned bright and swung hard.

THEY DIED BEFORE 40 –   93 minutes, 600+ photos and graphics, 60 pieces of music

Why were you inspired to make this film?

As a longtime jazz fan, I realized that many music people I spoke to never heard of the musicians that I eventually chose for the film or they never knew how they lived and died.

What does it mean for this story to be told?

The film will tell a more important and mostly untold story about the culture of the jazz scene during the time these musicians lived.

When did you start your research and what sources did you use?

Started in 2013 and used my collection of 2,000 jazz LPs, Google Images and other similar sites for photos, as well as image license searches on Getty and other music licensors.

Did you get to speak to family members of the jazz artists?

I made brief contact with a few distant family members that did not add much to my research.

What permissions did/do you need?

I need synchronization (music composers) and mechanical rights (record companies) licenses in order to show the film publicly. There are almost 60 pieces of music in the film and over 600 photos and graphic images. I have determined that almost all of them are in the public domain.

Do you feel the same set of circumstances that led to the deaths of the various musicians still exists today?

No. Racism was more rampant then and musicians today have more balanced lifestyles.

When was the film completed and what has transpired from then to now?

I completed a second edit in late 2016. I have been trying to raise the money for the licenses since then. I have reduced my license requests to one year, USA, and TV so that the license cost would be reduced significantly. I am awaiting the word from experts and licensors. 

How is funding going?

Not well. I need to find a rich jazz fan. or two or three, who believes in the importance of getting this film out to the general public. 

Do you have a release date?

Not yet until all licenses are arranged. Takes time to deal with licensors. 

Where will it debut?

Will there be guests on hand for an audience discussion…? No thought about this yet. 

The license I seek is for TV only and for one year. 

When were you hooked by jazz and who are some of your all-time favorites?

My father introduced me to jazz at an early age. We had 78 RPM records in the house that we would play on our old Victrola and my parents would dance around the living room. They had grown up dancing at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem which wasn’t segregated then. My favorite band was Count Basie, who appeared at my New York Jazz Museum with many of his present and former band mates. Johnny Hodges was my favorite musician. So much soul. 

What is your film production background?

In 1998 I produced a film titled “THE HOLLAND AVENUE BOYS: A Success Story.” It played on 50 PBS stations in 1998 in the US.

It’s about myself and 10 of my friends who grew up in the Bronx, NY. I have also completed a 30-minute slideshow titled “Have You Heard Them Sing? Great Women Singers You Never Heard Of.” Again, I need licenses to show publicly. 


How did your experience as an attorney influence the making of this film?

I thought that I could traverse some of the legal barriers more easily, although I did not specialize in this area. I did represent some jazz musicians including Charles Mingus. I learned much from him. 

Howard Fischer film quote

What takeaway do you hope people get from viewing the film?

I think people would have a much better understanding of how difficult it was for jazz musicians at that time (1930s, 1940s and even 1950s for Clifford Brown). Also, of the eight men in my film, none died from drugs! Only one from alcohol abuse. 

I would like to disabuse most people from thinking that all jazz musicians were druggies. 

Other comments?

I believe that this film more vividly shows the lifestyles and deaths of these musicians than has been portrayed previously.

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Howard E. Fischer.
(c) Debbie Burke 2018

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