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Words by Hank Williams

Veteran documentarian John Scheinfeld (The US vs John Lennon; Who is Harry Nilsson) took on a major task with his latest film: charting the legacy of the late saxophonist John Coltrane, who has nearly mythical status in Jazz and is a cultural icon. Scheinfeld’s Chasing Trane wrapped up the 2016 DOC NYC Festival and is in limited release nationwide.

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Chasing Trane director John Scheinfeld (center) with DOC NYC Artistic Director Thom Powers (L) and DOC NYC Programming Director Basil Tsiokos (R) | Photo by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND.

Aside from the obvious pitfalls of dealing with a musician of Coltrane’s stature and renown, much of his life and musical legacy has already been well documented and analyzed. That’s not to say that there’s no more to discover, but rather that the obvious parts of the tale have already been covered. However, the existing The World According to John Coltrane and segments in Ken Burns’ Jazz both leave room for improvement, which opens the door for the current film.

Scheinfeld’s expressed goal was to make a film aimed at a broader audience, including people unfamiliar or marginally familiar with the musician’s work

Indeed, Chasing Trane largely treads familiar ground, tracing Coltrane’s life story from the family’s southern roots through the migration north and the development of his career. There’s not much that’s new here — certainly not for jazz fans — but Scheinfeld’s expressed goal was to make a film aimed at a broader audience, including people unfamiliar or marginally familiar with the musician’s work, so its probably fairer to ask how well the film accomplishes the task it sets out to do. And it’s a monumental task considering the subject, even when accounting for the inevitable compromises necessary for any film, much less one tackling such a large subject.

Scheinfeld had several points in his favor from the beginning by gaining the blessing of Coltrane’s estate. This is a huge advantage, especially when the subject is a musician because of the frightfully high cost of obtaining music rights. The Coltrane family’s assistance resulted in getting favorable deals and made it possible to use a stunning amount of music. Chasing Trane largely uses songs on the soundtrack to set moods for specific scenes, rather than as primary objects of study themselves. The strategy works well, especially combined with Rudy Gutierrez’s impressive animation and visuals, though more identification of songs would be useful considering Scheinfeld’s aim at a broad audience that likely can’t name songs by ear. Simple captions would suffice.

Scheinfeld assembled a star-studded cast of interviewees to add context to the film and tell the story, including former president Bill Clinton, philosopher and writer Cornel West, and rapper/actor Common. West adds some valuable historical insight and interesting reflections on Coltrane’s wider social influence. Unfortunately, Clinton’s contributions, while thoughtful, add little to the narrative. Common appears to be in the film solely for name recognition, as his points are rather obvious and totally forgettable. Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Wynton Marsalis appears, too. While Marsalis does have the musical background to discuss Coltrane, his contributions are minimal and don’t feel particularly necessary.

Much stronger insight comes from Coltrane biographers Ashley Kahn (A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album; The House That ‘Trane Built) and Lewis Porter (John Coltrane: His Life and Music) who provide the film’s narrative structure and Coltrane colleagues saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson. Several of Coltrane’s children appear in the film including his stepdaughter Antonia Austin (also known as Syeeda, the name used for ‘Trane’s tribute on Giant Steps) and sons Ravi and Oran.

Another coup for the film is securing Denzel Washington for narration. Coltrane did very few recorded interviews in his lifetime and, unfortunately, Scheinfeld found the audio quality poor enough that they couldn’t be effectively used in the film. (Pacifica Radio Archives still provides the most famous and lengthy audio interview done by Frank Kofsky.) Instead, Washington’s excellent narration of Coltrane’s printed interviews is weaved throughout the film. Scheinfeld reported that Washington “was mimicking Coltrane’s persona through the words” during the recording and he indeed perfectly captures Coltrane’s understated spirit in his delivery.

Chasing Trane proceeds in chronological order, beginning with the family’s beginnings in North Carolina and northern migration to Philadelphia, mirroring that of hundreds of thousands of African Americans. Coltrane’s service in the US Navy, where he played in a band, is the next focal point. This furthered his musical development and gave him his first commercial recordings as part of the naval band. At this point, he was working on developing a distinct sound on the instrument. Like an entire generation of saxophonists, Coltrane recalled that “the first time [he] heard Charlie Parker [he] knew that [jazz] was the thing” he wanted to pursue seriously.

Coltrane returned to Philadelphia and started gigging after a year in the Navy and traveled with Dizzy Gillespie from 1949-51.

As anyone familiar with the story knows, however, all was not well. Saxophonist Jimmy Heath recalls playing in nightclubs that were hangouts for pimps and hustlers and being exposed to the scene of drugs and hard drinking. Writer Ashley Khan also points out that there was the misguided notion that drugs would enhance playing. Heath recalls getting high with ‘Trane and being fired from Dizzy Gillespie’s band after getting caught, though Coltrane was able to gain a temporary reprieve with promises to straighten up.

Coltrane’s big break was securing a spot in 1957 with one of the hottest working bands around: that of Miles Davis. Bassist Reggie Workman recalled that “you could hear that [Coltrane] was going somewhere and Coltrane could tell that he was going somewhere.” Indeed, the opportunity wasn’t wasted on Coltrane either, who revealed that “It was Miles who made [him] want to be a better musician.”

Unfortunately, Coltrane’s heroin addiction (Davis was addicted also, as were scores of others in that generation) worsened and he became unreliable enough that Davis had to fire him.

Coltrane heeded the wakeup call of getting fired and seeing his life beginning to spiral out of control and made the decision to quit drugs and alcohol: a process done (similar to Davis) at home with the help of his first wife Naima. Antonia Austin provides recollections of the process, remembering the struggle involved for her stepdad. Indeed, her interview is one of the strengths of the film and serves to draw a fuller picture of Coltrane beyond the confines of the bandstand.

According to Kahn, Coltrane was a man on a mission after quitting drugs and sobriety increased his energy level and focus. Pianist Thelonious Monk then hired Coltrane for his band, which signaled the saxophonist’s return to the jazz scene at a high level.

Coltrane’s return also meant another shot at playing with Miles at end of 1957: a key career move that placed him on Davis’ landmark Kind of Blue album. Biographer Lewis Porter also points out that Davis gave ‘Trane a lot of space to improvise: something that would define his career.

coltrane_giant_stepsColtrane was able to sandwich recording his own Giant Steps in between recording sessions for Kind of Blue. His own release established ‘Trane as a writer and bandleader of his own and signaled that he had outgrown Davis’ band. His breakthrough was an adaptation of a simple Broadway pop tune from The Sound of Music. Coltrane’s cover of “My Favorite Things” was a radio hit and became a song he would return to throughout his career, although the familiar melody would become simply the starting point for improvisation: shattered, run through the shredder, and reassembled as a colossal sound collage with scant connections to its namesake.

a_love_supreme_300pxColtrane’s next chapter is familiar to many: the classic quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison with an expansive ensemble marshalled to live up to the task of bringing Africa Brass to life. The core quartet developed into a well-oiled machine that also reflected (and apparently shared) Coltrane’s developing spiritual approach to the music. Tyner is the only living member of the core group and, fortunately, is interviewed for the film. While he doesn’t say much, capturing almost anything from him is valuable considering his advanced age. Tyner asserts that the quartet felt their music was sharing a “gift that came from the almighty.”

A nice touch is the coverage of Coltrane’s last tour in Japan which included a concert at Nagasaki where “Peace on Earth”, the second song of the set, was dedicated to victims of the US nuclear bombing. Coltrane insisted in stopping and praying at the site before the concert to ground himself spiritually and imagine sound of the planes and pain of the people in an effort to incorporate the feeling as part of his sonic approach. They’re small details, but speak very much to not only Coltrane’s humanity and sensitivity but also his political commitment and leanings and even artistic approach. While it’s true that Coltrane was not as overtly political as some musicians of the era (especially those on the avant garde/ free jazz end of things), his politics seemed to emanate from the deeply spiritual place that his art came from and a deeply felt sense of right and wrong.

So how well does Chasing ‘Trane cover its subject and accomplish its mission? It’s a good introduction to neophytes, very entertaining viewing, and does indeed present Coltrane’s life in an accessible fashion. While it avoids the trap of ignoring the more technically challenging and (to some) controversial music of his last recordings, the treatment here is cursory. This is a shame, as Coltrane’s last period is one area that warrants more attention.

A notable absence is that of saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, a collaborator on several of Coltrane’s late albums who also played with Alice Coltrane’s ensemble after John’s death. Sanders is one of the few musicians living who played extensively with Coltrane and indeed the last living member of his late career groups. Sanders still tours and plays actively and his comments on Coltrane’s legacy could only be an asset.

The section of the film covering the latter part of Coltrane’s career is where writer Ben Ratliff might’ve been put to more use, as his Coltrane: The Story of a Sound explores some of this territory, with an eye toward Coltrane’s evolving musical approach. In the film, John Densmore, former drummer of The Doors, recalls seeing half of the audience walking out from later concerts: a sobering reminder that the Coltrane of 2016 exists in a form and level of adulation far removed from the contemporary views of his work. Deeper and more nuanced investigation of this era would be helpful.

The end result is a film that’s reception–like most films–will depend largely on the prospective audience. For those who Scheinfeld primarily aims to attract, Chasing ‘Trane provides a good, if understandably brief, overview of Coltrane’s life and work with the emphasis on the former. There’s value in that, as it’s easy to forget that John Coltrane has now been dead longer than he was alive and it’s the constant reintroduction of the sheer joy, beauty, and virtuosity of his work to new audiences that will keep his spirit alive and hopefully inspire some to see how they can take it further.

The impressive array of visuals, excellent production, and music make for an enjoyable experience. Fans steeped in Coltrane lore will probably wish for more depth, but the film’s not primarily for them. That said, if one loves Coltrane, it’s still difficult to resist what’s on offer. At minimum, Antonia Austin’s insightful reflections as a mature adult on her stepfather’s life and McCoy Tyner’s thoughts will be new to many.

The above strengths make some of the narrative decisions in Chasing ‘Trane disappointing because of the possibilities given the strength of the subject: Coltrane’s story has built-in drama, tension, and triumph at the center that make for an automatically compelling tale. It may be personal bias, but this reviewer wishes the film leaned more toward deeper investigation. These are judgment calls, but a strong story can be trusted to provide compelling viewing for the audience, and that’s the case here.

Does Coltrane’s story need Bill Clinton and Common to attract funding and viewers?

Does Coltrane’s story need Bill Clinton and Common to attract funding and viewers? Maybe. But maybe it could stand on its own and eliminating some of the fluff would keep the storyline tight while creating enough space for some of what’s missing. At the very least, more screen time with Benny Golson (who is still clearly deeply affected by Coltrane’s passing) and Jimmy Heath would be valuable additions. Golson’s continuing emotional connection speaks very much to why Coltrane still matters.

Chasing ‘Trane works because of its subject and Scheinfeld’s competent handling of the story. Asking it to do much more than it does may be unfair. But a subject who seemed to believe that anything was musically possible prompts one to ask all sorts of questions and demand more. Maybe that’s the point.

(Original post lightly edited for spelling and clarity and updated to add screening information. Original publication date of 12/19/2016)

Chasing ‘Trane is playing at the IFC Center in New York City through April 25 and in limited release nationwide. See the film website for upcoming screenings in other areas.

Related: For a deeper dive into the film’s backstory, see Joyce Jones’s radio interview with Chasing Trane director John Scheinfeld in the Suga’ in My Bowl audio archives.
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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.

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Words by Hank Williams | MAIN PHOTO: Lee and Helen Morgan

Director Kasper Collin’s documentary film I Called Him Morgan on the late trumpeter Lee Morgan opens and closes with the beginning notes of the subject’s “Search for the New Land”. Morgan’s plaintive, sensuous notes on the trumpet stand in counterpoint with Grant Green’s shimmering guitar. It forms an appropriate frame for a musical life that ended too soon.

Early on, Lee Morgan’s wife–and killer–Helen Morgan informs the viewer via an appropriately fuzzy interview that she’s not to be taken lightly. It’s an ominous yet appropriate premonition that helps frame the narrative around a story that attempts to add richness of detail to a tale where the outcome is a foregone conclusion but the reasons remain murky.

Helen shot Lee on February 15, 1972 in between sets at the famed Slug’s Saloon in front of a club full of astonished guests and his own bandmates then waited–sobbing and clutching his prone body–for the police to arrive.

Indeed, as the story unfolds, one is constantly reminded that Helen is as much of the story as Lee.

Lee Morgan lit up the jazz scene in the 1950s with his bold, evocative voice on trumpet. His big break was entry into the band of legendary drummer Art Blakey, who took it upon himself to mentor and develop generations of young musicians through his Jazz Messengers bands.

These were the the days when jazz was king. Fast cars, women, and lots of money were all on offer for the jazz musicians of the era, who were some of the biggest pop stars of the time.

Lee, supremely confident–almost cocky–with his skill as a trumpeter and youthful energy, was at the center of all of it and and relished the attention, fast life, and everything that came with it.

Although one of Lee’s childhood friends is interviewed, one doesn’t learn much about the trumpeter’s background or what leads him into the jazz scene at such a young age: he was barely out of his teens when he became a rising star. Instead, in somewhat of a jump in the narrative, viewers get a snapshot of Lee’s rapid ascendancy in the jazz world, though how he gets there is left for viewers to ponder.

In contrast, Helen’s childhood is examined in slightly more detail via an interview with a childhood friend and an interview with herself, conducted by radio host Larry Reni Thomas only a month before her death.

Thomas’s interview with Helen is one of the film’s key pieces of documentary evidence and is one of the few pieces of the film that attempts to answer the question of why Helen shot Lee. Like much of the film, even this is frustratingly vague: a promise for a follow-up interview comes to naught when Helen dies before the second part, where she might have gotten comfortable enough to give deeper answers.

To Collin’s credit, the film avoids the current trend toward handing over valuable screen time to celebrities who contribute little to the storyline and are seemingly present just for name recognition. Those who appear on screen have a direct connection to the Morgans or are musicians who played with Lee. This is a direction more documentarians should take: trusting the strength of the story and characters enough to let them tell the tale.

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter, for instance, remembers that Lee “was always digging back into his roots, his history” for musical inspiration, following the advice of drummer Art Blakey to tell his story while soloing. It’s one of the film’s small details, but indeed reveals a lot about the legendary bandleader and Lee’s approach. Blakey’s prodding seems to illuminate Lee’s trumpet style that juxtaposed boldly stacatto notes with brash, impeccably phrased bursts on the open horn, yet made space for plaintive melodies.

Indeed, Lee’s time with Blakey’s Jazz Messengers is presented as somewhat of a high point. The youthful exuberance and carefree confidence of Lee and the rest of the band is infectious and provides a beautiful portrait of the artists.

Much of the above is done via still photos, music, and interviews of surviving band members. Lee’s voice only appears via an early 1970s interview with writer Val Wilmer and snippets of video. As with the recent Chasing Trane documentary on John Coltrane, there simply isn’t much audio or video of either Lee or Helen: a stark reminder that capturing and broadcasting even minute details of daily life is a very recent phenomenon.

Aside from the technical limitations, the strategy also helps to freeze the dual subjects into the time period. Life ends early for Lee; Helen lives on, but returns to a relatively nondescript life in North Carolina far removed from the speed of New York City’s jazz scene after a short stint in jail followed by time in a mental institution.

The film does reinforce the invariably intertwined nature of Lee and Helen’s relationship.

Lee became addicted to heroin, which wrecked his career and almost took his life. Saxophonist Bennie Maupin recalls seeing Lee on a subway platform while on a passing train and not recognizing him at first: “he looked like a homeless person,“ Maupin remembers ruefully.

I Called Him Morgan doesn’t flinch in describing the depths of despair Lee fell into while gripped by addiction: he got his teeth knocked out, spent a lot of time on the streets, and was once roused by the smell of his own skin and hair burning: he’d passed out next to a radiator.

Collin does an admirable job of balance, however. Wayne Shorter and other friends of Lee who didn’t succumb to drugs are interviewed and show the genuine concern they had for their friend and fellow musician. Shorter’s overall reaction seems to be a mix of frustration and bewilderment at the inability to save Lee. It’s a thoughtful touch that helps highlight the fact that while a lot of musicians (and some very prominent ones) from the era did fall into drug addiction, not all did.

This is the point where Helen re-enters the story. She’d moved to New York City from North Carolina at a young age and gotten herself a job and her own apartment on 52nd St during the time period when it was still the epicenter of the jazz world. She began hanging out in the clubs and became known for her parties, which drew an eclectic crowd from the jazz scene. This is where Lee and Helen meet.

The couple became inseparable. Helen, who was several years older than Lee, took a motherly interest in him; intently supporting him and encouraging him to resume his career. Lee was perhaps at his lowest point, having sold his horn and even overcoat for drugs.

Bassist Jymie Merritt recalls that “Lee’s life’s was restored by Helen and it was a joy to watch”.

Collin’s noir style and indirect storytelling fit the subject well, though force close attention to details. While less impressionistic than his earlier My Name is Albert Ayler, Collin prefers to draw his characters in broad strokes.

Along the way, viewers find out that Lee has a girlfriend and is spending less and less time at home with Helen: details which become central to the tragedy at the heart of the story.

Lee’s fatal final night at Slug’s seemed to be dogged by bad omens. New York was gripped by a blizzard and his girlfriend Lena Sherrod wrecked her car in the snow while driving him to fetch his trumpet for the club date. Ironically, his renewed commitment to being a responsible bandleader drove him to appear at the club, as he was aware of his previous reputation for unreliability while addicted to heroin.

Helen followed downtown as well, though only meant to stop by Slug’s briefly before catching a different show in Greenwich Village.

I Called Him Morgan is a deeply unsettling film because it calls to mind the fragility of life and ironic elements in Lee and Helen’s interconnected lives. Without Helen’s help, it seems unlikely Lee would’ve made a successful musical comeback or even quit heroin. If Lee hadn’t been driven by the musician’s credo to make the gig no matter what, things might have ended differently. Lee, like novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s doomed protagonist in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, hurtles toward a seemingly inescapable fate while evading several possible turns that might change it.

Saxophonist Billy Harper remembers that the police came immediately after the shooting to arrest Helen, who surrendered quietly. Slug’s—and the Lower East Side neighborhood—was well known to police at the time because of crime and drugs. The atmosphere of the club itself merely mirrored the surroundings. Because of the blizzard, the ambulance took an hour to arrive. One can’t help but be haunted by the mental image of Lee lying on the floor of a dive bar for an hour, his life slowly dripping into the sawdust-covered floor for an agonizingly long time as musicians and patrons alike look on in horror.

The film doesn’t fully answer what drove Helen to shoot Lee and hints that she possibly isn’t exactly clear on the motivations either. The suggestion is that a combination of disrespect and humiliation at the hands of Lee’s womanizing drives her over the edge, but the only one who could answer that question for sure doesn’t give a straight explanation.

James Gavin’s account in a 2015 Jazz Times profile of Slug’s Saloon notes that Lee had fallen back into heavy drug use and as his addiction got worse, so did his abusive behavior toward Helen, who still served as his manager.

Lee Morgan’s end came in a dive bar that was home to some of the most brilliant musicians of the generation–including himself–and he died a junkie’s death.

Harper’s lament of the tardy ambulance seems a metaphor for Lee Morgan’s life. Had Lee been gotten medical attention sooner, Harper opines, “I think he could’ve been saved.”

(Original post lightly edited for spelling and clarity.)

92 Minutes. Playing at Metrograph and Lincoln Center Theaters in Manhattan and select theaters nationwide. See the film website for screenings.
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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. Find him on Twitter @streetgriot

bandstand_picPhoto Credit: Hank Williams

Welcome to Suga in My Bowl radio‘s weekly feature, On The Bandstand, where we collect upcoming NYC area shows from current and past Suga’ guests. We’re online weekly and on the air on NYC’s WBAI-FM radio alternate Sunday nights from 11 PM -1 AM. Keep up with us via Facebook, the blog here, or our main website, or Twitter and we’ll keep track of the schedule for you.
 
This week’s show features John Schienfeld, director of Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary. You can see it on the 17th at the SVA Theater in Manhattan as part of the DOC NYC Festival. Also, thanks to any of you who supported us during WBAI’s Fall Fund Drive and if you didn’t get around to it, it’s not too late. You can also pledge for the Pacifica Radio Archives-produced 2-CD John Coltrane audio documentary that features a rare, famous interview with Coltrane by Frank Kofsky. And let’s get to our music listings.
 
Pianist and keyboardist Marc Cary leads a trio at Smoke on November 14th.
 
Saxophonist Gary Bartz is at The Blue Note on November 14 with pianist McCoy Tyner and on the 21st with trumpeter Wallace Roney.
 
Pianist Michele Rosewoman is at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem for a talk on the Afro Cuban beat on November 15.
 
Harpist Brandee Younger is at Newark NJ’s Gateway Center for a lunchtime set on November 16 as part of the James Moody Jazz Festival.
 
Pianist Harold Mabern leads a trio at Smalls on the 16th.
 
The new documentary film Chasing ‘Trane is screening at the SVA Theater on 23rd St in Manhattan on November 17 as part of the DOC NYC Film Festival. Director John Scheinfeld is scheduled to attend and advance tickets are highly recommended.
 
Percussionist Steve Kroon leads a sextet at Smoke on November 17.
 
Drummer and percussionist Bobby Sanabria leads the Multiverse Big Band at Aaron Davis Hall on The City College of New York’s Harlem campus on November 18 for a birthday tribute and retirement celebration for legendary percussionist Candido Camero.
 
Bassist Christian McBride leads a James Brown tribute at The New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on November 18 as part of the James Moody Jazz Festival.
 
Bassist Christian McBride and Vocalist Dianne Reeves are at The New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on November 19 for a Sarah Vaughn tribute as part of the James Moody Jazz Festival.
 
Vibraphonist Gary Burton joins pianist Chick Corea at The Blue Note for a Miles Davis tribute from November 22-23.
 
Also joining Chick Corea at The Blue Note is saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, from the 25-27th and for a Return to Forever tribute from the 30th-December 4th.
 
Bassist Henry Grimes is at Harlem’s Rendall Memorial Presbyterian Church on the 25th.
 
Low brass specialist on tuba Joe Daley will be at Terra Blues with Hazmat Modine on November 26th.
 
Drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts is at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan on November 29 with several other musicians for a benefit concert for the Syrian American Medical Society.
 
Drummer and percussionist Will Calhoun’s gallery exhibit of his visual art collaboration Aza is on view at the Bronx Music Heritage Center through February 11. We reviewed the show earlier this year.
 
Finally, looking much further ahead, the Winter Jazz Fest has released a teaser and preliminary lineup for the 2017 shinding from January 5-10! We’ll have a lot more to say about it, but for now, we’ll point you to their promo video with the highlights.
 

That’s all for now. Suga’ in My Bowl is scheduled to be back on WBAI‘s airwaves on November 27. We’ll also have another edition of “On the Bandstand” online next Sunday with a fresh set of listings.
 
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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.

bandstand_picPhoto Credit: Hank Williams

Welcome to Suga in My Bowl radio‘s weekly feature, On The Bandstand, where we collect upcoming NYC area shows from current and past Suga’ guests. We’re online weekly and on the air on NYC’s WBAI-FM radio alternate Sunday nights from 11 PM -1 AM. Keep up with us via Facebook, the blog here, or our main website, or Twitter and we’ll keep track of the schedule for you.
 
We’re (finally!) back on air this week with guest Jessica Edwards, director of the Mavis Staples documentary Mavis! It’s screening at City Cinemas’ Village East in Manhattan until February 25th and will be on HBO later in the year. We have six individual tickets to give away for the screenings this week, graciously donated by Village East Cinema. To get one of those, pledge for a WBAI membership at the $25 level or higher with a credit or debit card or call the pledge line at 212-209-2950. Check the theater schedule and tell us which night and show you want to see when you pledge. And we have lots more music for you this week.
 

 
Trombonist Craig Harris is at Harlem’s Rendall Memorial Presbyterian Church for a W.E.B. DuBois Jazz Celebration on the 23rd.
 
Drummer and percussionist Bobby Sanabria is at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club with Joe Chambers on the 23-24th and leads Quarteto Ache at NJPAC in Newark on March 6.
 
Saxophonist Kamasi Washington is at Webster Hall on February 24th.
 
Pianist Michele Rosewoman is at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem for a listening party and talk on “Jazz From an African Perspective” on the 25th.
 
Bassist Christian McBride is at Jazz at Lincoln Center with Jonathan Batiste on the 26th.
 
Vocalist René Marie is at Ocean County College in Tom’s River NJ on February 26th and The Side Door in Old Lyme CT on the 27th.
 
Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington brings her “Mosaic Project” to Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room on the 27th.
 
Drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts is at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club from February 29-March 1 with Gerald Clayton.
 
Also at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club is saxophonist Tia Fuller who leads a quartet including bassist Mimi Jones on March 2nd.
 
Saxophonist Gary Bartz is at the Blue Note on March 1 in the last of a series of shows with pianist McCoy Tyner. Tyner’s been less public lately, so it’s a good idea to catch him and see the last remaining member of Coltrane’s classic band in action.
 
Guitarist Marc Ribot is at Lincoln Center’s Atrium on March 3 for a free concert with with Los Cubanos Postizos and the same ensemble will be at Le Poisson Rouge on the 4th.
 
That’s all for now. Suga’ in My Bowl is back on WBAI‘s airwaves on March 6. We’ll also have another edition of “On the Bandstand” online next Sunday with a fresh set of listings.
 
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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.

JazzLoft_Film_Marquee
What do you get when you cross a professional photographer driven by an obsessive (some might say self-destructive) work ethic, a rotating selection of musicians from the golden era of jazz, a ramshackle New York City loft, archive of roughly 40,000 photos and 4,000 hours of reel to reel audio tape? The answer is a book, public radio series, and—finally—documentary film that provides a fascinating look at its subjects and unearths some visual and audio documentation of an important piece of jazz history.

WNYC Radio producer Sara Fishko listened to around 400 hours of the tape from W. Eugene Smith’s collection to put together the original radio documentary and the film.

W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978) was an award winning photographer best known for his photo journalism, including several essays published in Life magazine during its heyday and a stint as a paid staff member: a plum job.

While Smith is the central figure in the film, an equally important character is the ramshackle loft at 821 Sixth Avenue that Smith inhabited from 1957-1965. The building happened to be an after hours hangout for jazz musicians and had the perfect environment for them. At the time, the area was the center of the wholesale flower trade and largely uninhabited at night. Large, spacious loft spaces without neighbors to complain about after work jam sessions—which meant the wee hours of the morning for working musicians—drew several jazz luminaries. Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk were all drawn to the space and Smith captured some 300 musicians on tape, including Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Roland Kirk, Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, Paul Bley, and Ron Free.

Smith originally moved in to the loft (abandoning his family in the process) to focus on his work and finish an ambitious project he had been commissioned to do: a photo essay on Pittsburgh, PA for its bicentennial. This period is where the film begins in earnest. Smith’s experience in Pittsburgh is probably an equally apt metaphor for his life and approach as is his prodigious output and awards.

Meant to be a fairly quick and lucrative project, the Pittsburgh photo essay drew him in. Instead of the two to three weeks and 200 photos he was contracted for, he stayed for months (later returning for more photos) and took some 17,000 photos. Smith, driven to prove his artistic chops after quitting his staff position at Life over creative differences, had taken on a Sisyphean task—and one that he would not complete in his lifetime.

While the film doesn’t dwell on the point, Smith’s obsession with work took priority over his family. It’s probably an understatement to say that he wasn’t the ideal father.

When telling stories like this one, it’s difficult to avoid falling into the twin traps of painting an uncritically nostalgic picture of the magic of the loft scene or reducing it to a story of tragic artists consumed by their work to the exclusion of all else.

To Fishko’s credit, the film avoids value judgments, instead allowing the subjects to tell their own story and viewers can come to their own conclusions.

Still, the film points out the toll that the loft life took on the musicians. Drummer Ronnie Free is interviewed extensively and was in the midst of the loft activity. Free ended up in Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward. Exactly why isn’t explained, but Free and others recount the prevalence of drugs on the scene and a generally unhealthy vibe. Following his release, Free got out of NYC and never returned. It marked the end of his jazz career, but it’s suggested that the decision may have saved his life.

Toward the end of the film, Smith’s son returns to recall that toward the end of his father’s stay in the loft (he was evicted in 1965), he finally had to put firm boundaries on their relationship. The elder Smith would call in distress and the son would rush down in the middle of the night. He put a stop to it to preserve his own family — and sanity — from the type of disruption that, viewers can presume, took its toll on the elder Smith’s family.

thelonious-monk-the-thelonious-monk-orchestra-in-town-hall
The centerpiece of the film, however, is an account of preparations for pianist Thelonious Monk’s 1959 Town Hall concert and collaboration with Hall Overton, who helped arrange Monk’s complex music for the large ensemble. Rehearsals lasted for three weeks and the loft was the headquarters for the effort. Historian (and Monk biographer) Robin D.G. Kelley is interviewed and the helpful context he provides for Monk is a welcome addition.

As usual, Smith was there and kept the tape rolling as musicians worked through the arrangements and debated how best to adapt the more challenging parts while several microphones Smith had embedded all over the space captured the sounds. The musicians’ comfort level with Smith was high enough that he just blended into the background, his camera clicking away, visually documenting preparations for what ended up being a historic performance.

Saxophonist Phil Woods appears throughout the film both on Smith’s audio recordings and in a recent interview reflecting on the loft. It’s an unexpected but welcome treat considering his recent death.

Kelley and Woods shed light on the difficulty of Monk’s music and the task of translating his idiosyncratic phrasing into work for a large ensemble. Monk and Overton collaborated on this and the film chronicles their working relationship and process extraordinarily well.

The large segment devoted to Monk in the middle of the film threatens to derail the storyline, but it goes safely back on course.

One major unanswered question of the film is left to a police officer walking his beat who climbs the rickety stairs to Smith’s loft to ask what’s going on. Why record all of this stuff and document it all so obsessively?

Smith’s quick reply to the bewildered officer—recorded on reel to reel audio tape by himself of course—is that he’s writing a book. While Smith did complete a photo essay of street scenes shot from his loft window for Life as a freelancer, whether or not a full length book was truly his quest is something only Smith could answer for sure. The same goes for exactly why he began capturing everything possible decades before technology would progress enough to provide viable platforms to display his obsessive documentary efforts.

Smith’s departure from the loft seems almost anticlimactic and minimal space is devoted to it: a wise choice, considering the film’s focus.

To a certain extent, it’s the end of an era. Jazz declined precipitously in popularity in the late 1960s and artists were having an increasingly more difficult time supporting bands and finding work. Sixth Avenue, with the elevated railway becoming a more distant memory and with its rebranding as Avenue of the Americas, was in the process of becoming the more upscale strip it is today and less amenable to quirky spots like the loft.

The loft scene itself would continue, with musicians simply moving elsewhere: Ornette Coleman’s loft downtown and Larry Rivers’ Studio Rivbea as just two examples.

What we’re left with is a film that does an admirable job of assembling several diverse storylines into a coherent whole. Expert editing combines Smith’s wonderful photos and impressively good audio into a very watchable package.

The Jazz Loft According to W Eugene Smith captures a snapshot of a New York that’s largely disappeared, an important era in jazz history, and an artistic mad scientist who aimed high and didn’t always meet the impossibly high goals he set for himself, but left an astonishing body of work in his wake. The film does justice to all of that.
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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.

DOC-NYC-600x400
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.
 
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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.

bandstand_picPhoto Credit: Hank Williams

Welcome to Suga in My Bowl radio‘s weekly feature, On The Bandstand, where we collect upcoming NYC area shows from current and past Suga’ guests. We’re online weekly and on the air on NYC’s WBAI-FM radio alternate Sunday nights from 11 PM -1 AM. Keep up with us via Facebook, the blog here, or our main website, or Twitter and we’ll keep track of the schedule for you.
 
WBAI_F15_Drive
 
WBAI’s fall fund drive is coming to an end, which means you have one more chance to pledge for the DVD of our “Who Owns Music” panel discussion from earlier this year. Even a relatively small pledge of $5 helps a lot and sends the message to station management that people want to hear jazz and will support it. Now let’s see what else is going on musically this week.
 
Pianist Vijay Iyer is at the Met Museum of Art on the 12th with Holding it Down: the Veteran’s Dreams Project.
 
Bassist Christian McBride is at NJPAC in Newark NJ on November 12 and returns to play with vocalist Dianne Reeves on the 14. Both events are part of the James Moody Jazz Festival.
 
The Doc NYC Festival from the 12-17th has several films of interest to jazz fans – and a few definitely to keep an eye on for Suga’ fans. The Sonia Sanchez documentary Baddd Sonia Sanchez, will get screenings, as will The Jazz Loft According to W Eugene Smith, culled from the extensive and eclectic ephemera of the photographer’s years in a Sixth Ave loft building frequented by several jazz luminaries, and Hustler’s Convention featuring members of The Last Poets.
 
Saxophonist René McLean is at Sista’s Place in Brooklyn on the 14th.
 
Trumpeter Hugh Masekela is at Monmouth University in West Long Branch NJ with Larry Willis on November 14 and the Landmark in Port Washington Long Island on the 15th. See our review of Masekela and Willis at Jazz Standard for a preview of what you’ll see.
 
The Wilbur Ware Institute’s annual festival/fundraiser is at the new Cassandra’s Jazz club in Harlem this year and features pianist Harold Mabern and pianist/vocalist Andy Bey on November 14 and presents a lifetime achievement award to bassist Bob Cranshaw on the 15.
 
Vibraphonist Roy Ayers is at the Blue Note from November 17-22.
 
If you missed the weeklong run of Jeff Lieberman’s The Amazing Nina Simone documentary in NYC, you’ve got another shot on the 18th, when it screens at Huntington LI’s Cinema Arts Centre. Those of you (far) north of the city can catch it in Rhinebeck NY on the 20th and Woodstock on the 21st at Upstate Films.
 
Drummer/percussionist Bobby Sanabria leads the Multiverse Big Band at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club from November 19-22.
 
That’s all for now. Suga’ in My Bowl is back on WBAI‘s airwaves on November 15. We’ll also have another edition of “On the Bandstand” online next Sunday with a fresh set of listings.
 
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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.

bandstand_picPhoto Credit: Hank Williams

Welcome to Suga in My Bowl radio‘s weekly feature, On The Bandstand, where we collect upcoming NYC area shows from current and past Suga’ guests. We’re online weekly and on the air on NYC’s WBAI-FM radio alternate Sunday nights from 11 PM -1 AM. Keep up with us via Facebook, the blog here, or our main website, or Twitter and we’ll keep track of the schedule for you.
 
WBAI_F15_Drive
 
Our last show was a special fund drive edition. We played excerpts of the “Who Owns Music” panel discussion Suga’ sponsored earlier this year. A pledge for the DVD will get you the full discussion and all proceeds go to WBAI and help us stay on the air. Even a relatively small pledge of $5 helps a lot and sends the message to station management that people want to hear jazz and will support it. This week’s guest is trombonist Craig Harris. You can catch him at Harlem’s Rendall Memorial Presbyterian Church on November 3 for two lunchtime sets. Now let’s see what else is going on musically this week.
 
Vocalist Catherine Russell is Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies on November 4th with a Billie Holiday tribute. The event’s free with RSVP.
 
Guitarist Marc Ribot is at the Village Vanguard from November 3-7 with Electric Masada, John Zorn and others and organist John Medeski takes the stage on the 8th with Simulacrum.
 
Pianist and NEA Jazz Master Barry Harris and bassist Bob Cranshaw play the music of Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley at Flushing Town Hall on November 6.
 
Saxophonist Oliver Lake leads his Organ Quartet in a free concert at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark NJ on November 7 as part of the James Moody Jazz Festival.
 
Pianist Vijay Iyer is at the Jazz Gallery on the 6 and 7 and presents the Veteran’s Dreams Project at the Met Museum of Art on the 12.
 
The Doc NYC Festival from the 12-17 has several films of interest to jazz fans – and a few definitely to keep an eye on for Suga’ fans. The Sonia Sanchez documentary Baddd Sonia Sanchez, will get screenings, as will The Jazz Loft According to W Eugene Smith, culled from the extensive and eclectic ephemera of the photographer’s years in a Sixth Ave loft building frequented by several jazz luminaries, and Hustler’s Convention featuring members of The Last Poets.
 
The Wilbur Ware Institute’s annual festival/fundraiser is at the new Cassandra’s Jazz club in Harlem this year and features pianist Harold Mabern and pianist/vocalist Andy Bey on November 14 and presents a lifetime achievement award to bassist Bob Cranshaw on the 15.
 
Bassist Christian McBride is at NJPAC in Newark NJ on November 12 and returns to play with vocalist Dianne Reeves on the 14. Both events are part of the James Moody Jazz Festival.
 
That’s all for now. Suga’ in My Bowl is back on WBAI‘s airwaves on November 15. We’ll also have another edition of “On the Bandstand” online next Sunday with a fresh set of listings.
 
—-
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.

NINA-Website
When we did a show on Nina Simone back in July, Joyce Jones interviewed Liz Garbus, who directed What Happened, Miss Simone?, then a new release on Netflix and enjoying a theatrical run. It was heavily influenced by Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, who was the film’s executive producer.
 
Joyce also interviewed Simone’s brother, Dr. Sam Waymon, in relation to another Simone film in the works. That film is the Jeff Lieberman-directed The Amazing Nina Simone and we’re happy to report via the Shadow and Act film blog that it has an initial week-long run until October 22 at AMC Empire in our hometown of NYC and in limited release elsewhere, with wider release planned across the US on the 23rd and in November.
 
The films appear to take different approaches to covering Simone, with the new film features over 50 interviews with former Simone bandmates, family members, and Simone scholars to trace her career, where the earlier production leaned on archival footage of Simone herself.
 
While we haven’t seen the new film yet, obviously there’s room for several approaches to tell the story of someone as complex and fascinating as Nina Simone. Both documentaries are good pre-emptive reality checks on the forthcoming Nina biopic, which has been criticized for the choice of Zoe Saldana to play Simone and the ensuing decision to darken her skin and add prostheses to make her more resemble the character, choices Simone Kelly told the Huffington Post were “a further example of how much this project really just veered away from what the truth was”.
 
While The Amazing Nina Simone might be held over if it does well, it’s best to get to the theater during the initial run, especially since further release of films often hinges on how well they do in their initial runs in larger markets. And if you haven’t seen What Happened, Miss Simone? yet, the good news is that you can still catch it on Netflix.
 
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While we’re talking film, a reminder that director Carol Bash’s documentary film on pianist Mary Lou Williams, The Lady Who Swings the Band, screens at the ReelSisters film festival on October 25th at LIU’s downtown Brooklyn campus.
 

The Amazing Nina Simone – Documentary Feature Trailer from Re-Emerging Films on Vimeo.

Much beloved and often misunderstood, the story of Americaʼs most overlooked musical genius is finally brought to light in “The Amazing Nina Simone.” Director Jeff L. Lieberman (”Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria”) brings audiences on Nina’s journey from the segregated South, through the worlds of classical music, jazz joints & international concert halls. Navigating through the twists & turns of the 1960’s fight for racial equality, the film delves deep into Nina’s artistry and intentions, answering long-held questions behind Ninaʼs most beloved songs, bold style, controversial statements, and the reason she left America. Opens in Theatres October 16th. http://www.amazingnina.com

 
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.

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