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A portrayal of the life and musical career of New Orleans banjo and guitar jazzman Emanuel 'Manny' Sayles. The documentary portrays the 71-year-old Sayles as both a musician and as a person, sketching in historical developments in his musical career from time to time, and following him through the neighborhoods of his past. Walking through New Orleans streets, pointing out small fragments of a long-lived and sometimes hard-fought musical career; stopping occasionally to meet an old face and dig up even older memories; reuniting with former musicians he once played with -- what emerges is the portrait of a man whose musical career has in many ways followed the development of American jazz itself.
This 'soft history' approach to Sayles' life includes reunions with Edmund Washington, the last remaining survivor (besides Sayles) of his first professional band, and 'Papa John' Creach, violin player in a 1938 Chicago trio billed as the 'Chocolate Music Bars' later gaining fame as a member of the rock group the Jefferson Airplane. It also includes sequences in which Sayles explains his musical philosophy, gives us a lesson in methods of combining classical training and improvisation into a particular New Orleans style jazz, visits his family gravesite and delivers his views on death and the afterlife, and speculates on what might happen to him if he were suddenly unable to play music again. His wife gives her opinions on the life of a jazz musician's wife and confides an amusing story about the cause of her sometime insomnia. Al Rose, jazz historian and critic, provides a critical context in which to view Sayles' career, and near the end of the program we move to a musical and thematic summary. In a backstage interview fellow musicians from the Kid Thomas Jazz Band discuss their belief in themselves as a dying breed performing a particular American musical [art form] that will fade with their passing. 'Oh, they'll be music (after we're gone),' says fellow jazz great Paul 'Polo' Barnes, 'but it won't be like us......We play from our hearts.' Sayles closes the program singing 'St. James Infirmary.'"