This curious story begins normally enough in the middle of the 1990s in a Seattle record shop. Local vinyl lover and collector Kristian St. Clair enters Cellophane Square and begins to browse the jazz section. A two-LP set catches his eye. It's part of Impulse's Great Arrangers series. The cover is black with halftone dot illustrations of two cool-looking men: Gil Evans (the arranger of Miles Davis's masterpiece Sketches of Spain), whom he recognizes, and Gary McFarland, whom he does not. Had the former not been attached to the latter, St. Clair would never have bought the record and discovered the musician who would change the course of his life.

Gary McFarland is an almost completely forgotten jazz vibraphonist, singer, composer, and arranger who made a pretty big name for himself and worked with some of the biggest names of 1960s jazz (Bill Evans, John Lewis, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Lena Horne). McFarland was hardly an outsider. His records were reviewed and taken seriously, and he frequently appeared on national television. If you fear death like I do, then you will understand why the sad story of McFarland's rise and fall is so upsetting. How can an artist be so productive and so handsome, and achieve so respectable a level of fame only to become a complete nobody within a decade of his/her death? To make matters worse, McFarland died under mysterious circumstances in a Greenwich Village bar. Some say he was poisoned. Some say he killed himself. Some say it was a mistake. Some wonder why the police didn't make a bigger effort to solve the case. And some find it odd that the medical examiner concluded that he was killed by booze and not, as many witnesses claimed, by liquid methadone. McFarland was born in California and raised in Oregon, dropped out of two music schools, decided to learn the vibraphone because it was easy, often resorted to vocalese because he could not remember lyrics, married a beautiful woman, moved in celebrity circles, disappointed jazz purists because he experimented with rock and other popular forms of South and North American music, drank way too much, and died—just like that—in 1971 at the age of 38.

It's by no means an exaggeration to say that what has kept McFarland's memory (barely) alive is Kristian St. Clair's luck, love, and labor. And who even is St. Clair? He was born and raised in Seattle. He holds a degree in journalism from the University of Washington, and has worked mostly in advertising. He is not famous, nor is he a musician. He is, by all measures, a regular Seattle guy. But five years after discovering McFarland in the record shop, St. Clair began working on a documentary about his life and work. This process was to consume a decade of his life. And during this long period of attending classes on filmmaking at 911 Media Arts Center, conducting interviews, editing, finding rare footage, re-editing, running into obstacles, overcoming obstacles, screening drafts at local festivals and cinemas, St. Clair's life was the only thread that kept McFarland from fully falling into the void.

The result of his work and dedication is a CD/DVD called This Is Gary McFarland: The Jazz Legend Who Should Have Been a Pop Star, which was released in early November by Century 67 (St. Clair's film company) and Light in the Attic Records (a local label that specializes in reissues of rare or forgotten works). The CD contains a recording of a show McFarland performed with his quintet in Seattle in 1965 at the Penthouse. The performance captures McFarland at his jazz peak—his vibes, his Americanized Brazilian beats, his dreamy vocalese, his big and cool jazz-pop sound, his effortless charm. As for the DVD, it is organized into the main periods of life: his background, his easy entry into jazz, his rise in popularity, his pioneering fusion of rock with jazz, and, of course, his sudden death. From the interviews with McFarland's friends and family, we get the impression that he was a pretty smooth guy with lots of internal problems that never reached the surface. He loved his wife, and he got along with everyone but the critics, who failed to see that he was right about the future of jazz—the fusion with rock.

"When I finally had the physical product, the finished thing in my hand, I was in disbelief," says St. Clair of his film's DVD manifestation. "It was psychological closure. All the work I had done for all those years was not for nothing. Here was the movie and the music—done." After explaining to me how some cost-cutting TV executive erased the two appearances McFarland made on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson ("Two! Both gone forever!"), he says: "There was even a nice article about the documentary in the Wall Street Journal. Though the writer interviewed me, he also interviewed Creed Taylor, a guy who produced McFarland's Impulse records. This bothered me because I really tried to get Creed in my film, but he refused. He just wouldn't do it. But when he got a chance to talk about Gary in the Wall Street Journal, he did not hesitate."

History can be so unfair, so unkind. Even when the documentary met with good luck—a preliminary cut screened, for example, at the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival—the road to its release appeared to be never-ending. But St. Clair's perseverance has finally paid off. More than 20 years after his fateful trip to Cellophane Square, This Is Gary McFarland is officially in the world, leaving its director free to work on his next project: another documentary about another (slightly less obscure) '60s musician, the visionary producer/arranger Jack Nitzsche. He says he's about three-fourths of the way through the project, which he hopes will not take as long in coming as its predecessor, though you never know. In addition to having worked with Phil Spector, Neil Young, and countless other pop legends, Nitzsche very nearly shares a name with a German philosopher who narrowly averted the same obscurity that befell Gary McFarland. And look what happened to him.

"Jack's not as famous as the philosopher," St. Clair observes. recommended