You might think a film festival is an unusual place for jazz fans – and you might be right – unless the festival in question is DOC NYC. The annual celebration of documentary film usually has several music selections and this year’s no exception. We’re going to pull out a few that jazz fans might want to keep an eye out for, including some unexpected picks. Even if you miss them here, the festival circuit offers a trial run for films and often result in wider release for ones that garner positive reactions.
Baddddd Sonia Sanchez
Sanchez is a major figure in African American poetry and one of the key people in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s-79s. As with many artists in the movement, Sanchez drew lots of inspiration for her sound from the rhythms of jazz — particularly free jazz – that was the soundtrack of the time. See, for instance “a/coltrane/poem” that approximates the latter’s style with her phrasing and vocal inflections or “pharaoh sanders blowin’”, a homage to ‘Trane’s late career collaborator whose bloomed into a saxophone legend in his own right.

We interviewed Sanchez and devoted a full show to her in 2009 and talked to the directors in 2013, so needless to say we’re excited to see the finished product. You can, too, and if you show up on November 19th, you’ll get to see a talkback with co-directors Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, Barbara Attie, and Janet Goldwater. Sanchez herself is scheduled to attend, as is poet Byronn Bain. The film has already been picked up for distribution by California Newsreel.

Hustler’s Convention
This is another film centered around a poet who gained fame in the Black Arts Movement — Jalal Nurddin — though Nuruddin’s work is much different from Sanchez’s. Nuriddin was fascinated with the street vernacular and prison toasts he heard while growing up and fused that with the political sensibility of the 1960s as a member of The Last Poets.

The film frames Nuruddin’s work in the context of the period and explores how he came to poetry and some of the struggles he’s faced along the way. The film centers around a 1974 release he did for Douglas Records under the pseudonym of Lightnin’ Rod that collects a few of the aforementioned prison toasts. While its only DOC NYC screening has passed, it’s worth keeping an eye on for a follow-up theatrical run after the festival ends.

The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith
At the first screening, director Sara Fishko – who also presented much of the material that forms the basis of the film as a 10-part series for public radio station WNYC – said that she didn’t initially think of doing a documentary film while poring through the vast collection of still photographs and audio Smith left. But it works spectacularly well as a film, nonetheless.

Smith lived in a ramshackle loft at 821 Sixth Ave in the 1950s-60s in what was then in the middle of a district where wholesalers of flowers were concentrated. At that point, the area was rundown and solidly commercial, which made it the perfect spot for musicians to congregate. Smith, a professional photographer with credits in the legendary Life magazine and elsewhere, moved in to focus on his work. Musicians started showing up at the loft for late night jam sessions that would sometimes last for days on end and Smith captured lots of it on audio tape. Monk is the most prominent of the people at the loft and happened to do most of the rehearsals for his Town Hall concert there and this audio is the film’s centerpiece.

We’re working on a full review of the film, but until then here’s a video made for an exhibit of the materials made by the New York Public Library that will give you a feel for it and, of course, you can dive in and listen to the original radio series on WNYC.

What Happened, Miss Simone?
We talked to director Liz Garbus and others in July about What Happened, Miss Simone? when it debuted on Netflix (where it’s still available to stream) and had a short New York theatrical run. If you didn’t catch it then (or just want to see it on the big screen), then you have two more shots at it. Garbus is expected to attend the screening on November 17 for a talkback.

What Happened, Miss Simone? takes a biographical trip through the singer’s life and does so courtesy of Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone (who is interviewed extensively) and with full cooperation of the Simone estate, so there’s plenty of rare film footage and a lot of Simone’s songs are featured here.

Head on over to the DOC NYC website for remaining showtimes and a full list of films.
Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.