Archives for posts with tag: Doc NYC Fest 2015

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.

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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.
 
This week’s guest is trumpeter Hugh Masekela! He has no upcoming performances in the NYC area, though listeners in the Midwest and on the West Coast should check his site for dates with Larry Willis and see our review of their performance at Jazz Standard. And we have lots more music for you this week.
 
The Doc NYC Festival continues until the 19th and has several films of interest to jazz fans. The Sonia Sanchez documentary Baddd Sonia Sanchez screens on the 18th and 19th. The Jazz Loft According to W Eugene Smith collects material from the extensive recordings and photographs from Smith’s years in a Sixth Ave loft building frequented by several jazz luminaries and screens on the 16th. Finally, Liz Garbus’s Nina Simone documentary What Happened Miss Simone? Screens on the 17th and 18th. The Doc NYC website has showtimes and details and you can find links to everything and a festival preview on our blog.
 
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.
 
Vibraphonist Roy Ayers is at the Blue Note from November 17-22.
 
Pianist Harold Mabern leads a trio at Small’s on the 18th and is with Steve Davis’s sextet at Smoke from the 27-29th.
 
Drummer/percussionist Bobby Sanabria leads the Multiverse Big Band at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club from November 19-22.
 
Percussionist Adam Rudolph leads “GO”: the guitar orchestra in a CD release party at Roulette in Brooklyn on the 23rd.
 
Trombonist Dick Griffin is at The Stone on the 24th.
 
Bassist Larry Ridley is at The Stone on November 27th.
 
Drummer Alphonse Mouzon is at BB King’s with Larry Coryell for a Jimi Hendrix birthday tribute on the 27th.
 
Saxophonist René McLean is at The Cell Theatre on the 28th.
 
Drummer/percussionist Will Calhoun and vocalist Nona Hendryx will be at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater on the 29th in Parallel Lives: Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf.
 
Poet jessica Care moore is at the Blue Note on November 30.
 
Bassist Christian McBride leads two different trios at the Village Vanguard from December 1-6 and 8-13.
 
That’s all for now. Suga’ in My Bowl is back on WBAI‘s airwaves on November 29. 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
 
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.

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