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Jazz star becomes a film star

A fateful plane trip landed pianist Art Khu a starring role in a new jazz film.

FILLMORE JAZZ FESTIVAL | Saturday, July 3, at 2 p.m.

Art Khu was settling into his seat for the flight back from Mexico when he struck up a conversation with the passenger sitting beside him. And between takeoff and touchdown, a star was born.

The passenger was Kiva Knight, a cinematographer from the Fillmore, who was preparing to shoot a jazz film. They hit it off. Knight introduced Khu to director Marlon Gonzales, who agreed he’d be perfect in one of the lead roles.

Pictures from the Gone World” was shot last fall and will be ready for entry in the Sundance Film Festival this fall. Khu plays “a homeless, crazy jazz piano player,” he says, one of three present-day jazz musicians based loosely on historical figures. In addition to channeling Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell, Khu wrote much of his own music. He’ll present the new work — plus other original compositions and a few standards — on Saturday, July 3, during the Fillmore Jazz Festival. Khu and his band will appear on the California Street stage from 2 to 3:30 p.m.

Acting is a new role for Khu, but then so was jazz. A musical prodigy growing up in New Haven, Conn., he started piano lessons when he was 4, violin at 7, organ at 9 and guitar and bass at 13. In high school he studied at Yale School of Music before going to Oberlin Conservatory, where he got a degree in classical piano performance.

When Khu came to San Francisco 15 years ago, he met Flip Nunez, the legendary Filipino Fillmore pianist who played with many of the great singers, including Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, and was a member of the house band at Jimbo’s Bop City.

“He convinced me I was a jazz musician,” Khu says. “It was a revelation for me. I didn’t have any idea what jazz musicians’ lives were like.”

Now a mainstay on the local jazz scene, Khu’s got the jazz musician part down. And some of the technical parts are not entirely unlike recording an album. But playing a homeless character has been a greater challenge. “I’ve been studying street musicians and the homeless,” he says. “I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to be homeless — although being a musician, you’re only a step or two or three away.”

In the music he’s written for the film, he’s been in a ’50s frame of mind, since that’s the period the director set out to evoke. “Musically I tried to write songs that were of that era,” he says, “or at least what I like from that era,” incorporating the harmonic innovations of bebop and the influence of French impressionistic music. An album of his music from the soundtrack is forthcoming. And he’s feeling good about the film, too.

“The cinematography is pretty phenomenal,” Khu says. “And the director is a musician and has been a jazz fan all his life,” so there was a lot of improvisation during the shooting. “That just made sense for the subject matter,” he says.

Khu last appeared at the 2006 Fillmore festival soon after his album “Reconciliation” was released. He brought some of his young students to share the stage. Although he teaches students of all ages, he has a soft spot for the ones who start young, as he did. “I’ve got a couple of 11-year-olds who are doing well,” he says.

In 2006 he stuck around for a second set to play with vocalist Jacqui Naylor, with whom he has recorded and produced two albums. They have since married. This year Khu will appear with Al Marshall on drums, Sam Bevan on bass and possibly others.

“I just love the atmosphere,” he says of the Fillmore festival. “It’s human. All kinds of people are there — everybody — and everybody seems happy to be there. We just walk around, taste all kinds of culture and hear all kinds of music.” He adds: “It seems idealistic to me. I wish all of life was like that.”

Pictures From The Gone World (Trailer) from Marlon González on Vimeo.