Archives for posts with tag: Jazz documentary film

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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.

The festival runs from November 8-15 2018 at several locations in Manhattan and there are several other films that will likely be of interest to documentary fans besides the ones highlighted here, but this post will focus on our primary beat: films of interest to Jazz fans.

It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story

It Must Schwing! takes a look at the creation and golden era of the iconic Blue Note record label through a biographical look at the co-founders, German immigrants Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. The film follows the two friends from their first meeting at a concert in Berlin through their flight from Nazi Germany to their separate arrivals in New York and decision to build a record label that would do things differently and be focused on the artists and the music. It’s actually not the only Blue Note film out this year: Sophie Huber’s Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes had it’s debut in the spring at the Tribeca Film Festival. The two films actually complement each other, with some unavoidable overlap. Huber’s film attempts a broader overview and sacrifices some of the historical context for screen time devoted to the current Blue Note, whereas this film ends with the sale of the label in the early 70s and Wolff’s death. Schwing! features extensive archival footage of artists and some timely interviews with people recently deceased, such as Village Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon.

It Must Schwing! screens at 4 PM on Sat. November 10 at The SVA Theatre on West 23rd St. Details and tickets are here and those wanting a deeper dive can check out our 10/28 radio show featuring an interview with director Eric Friedler, who will also be on hand for the DOC NYC screening.

 

Quincy

 

Quincy takes a sweeping look at the life of Quincy Jones, whose immense legacy as a producer overshadows his work as a musician. Q’s daughter Rashida Jones and Alan Hicks followed him for three years to assemble the film along with interviews of some of the numerous artists whose careers he’s launched or shaped in his six decade career. Quincy is obviously primarily a first person narrative and may fall on the hagiographic end of the spectrum, but when the subject is someone like Jones, one can’t help but get a broad swath of music history along with the story.

While the film’s already streaming on Netflix, the DOC NYC screening offers the opportunity to see it on the big screen and the co-directors are scheduled to attend the screening for a post-screening talk. It’s screening at 8 PM on Thursday November 8 at the SVA Theater and at 10 PM on Saturday November 10 at Cinepolis Chelsea. Again, advance tickets are a must since screenings are likely to sell out.

There are, of course, a lot more films on offer at DOC NYC and likely something else that’ll interest you. Head on over to the DOC NYC website 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.

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Words by Hank Williams | Press still from Milford Graves Full Mantis

“This is a family house” Milford Graves says describing his house, which is down the street from the South Jamaica Houses in Queens, New York where he grew up. The house differs from everything else one might find on the block by the amount of decoration on the exterior—which supplies a hint that the man who lives inside isn’t your average resident.

in fact, “average” seemingly doesn’t apply to any aspects of the subject of Jake Maginsky’s documentary film of an innovative, yet somewhat unheralded percussionist.

Graves, probably best known for his role in the free/avant garde jazz scene, has put his stamp on a lot of things since his emergence in the early 1960s. Since his transition from Latin Jazz and conga drums to the drum kit (Graves found more acceptance and work playing the drum kit), Graves played with some key players, most notably saxophonist Albert Ayler. Although Graves missed playing with saxophone legend John Coltrane, he had a connection of sorts when he played at the latter’s funeral as part of Ayler’s band. Graves also suggested in a 2016 interview that he was behind Coltrane’s show at Harlem’s Olatunji Cultural Center, known as one of Coltrane’s last appearances before his death. An unofficial recording of which was later released posthumously.

When Graves turned to teaching, he poured the same passion into that as he did into his playing as he shaped a legion of students during his tenure at Bennington College. Jake Meginsky was one such student—though an informal one—he got a job at Bennington in order to meet Graves and convinced him to take him on as a student. Meginsky originally started recording Graves as a learning aid and began amassing a lot of footage. This is the base of the current film, though supplemented with extensive footage from Graves’s own collection.

One gets a skeletal biography from Full Mantis. It’s a deliberate choice and not necessarily a bad one. Meginsky instead chose to create a portrait of the artist via a view into his philosophy of the world, teaching, and approach to music. It works spectacularly well, especially considering that this is Meginsky’s first effort as a filmmaker.

The film centers Graves’s words and music and does an impressive job of highlighting his profundity (a word I don’t use lightly) in many areas and his enticing personality.

The other complicating factor in a project like this is Graves’s unorthodox approach to nearly everything he tackles. Actually, to say that Graves is an unorthodox teacher or musician would be a gross understatement. It would be accurate, though, to point out that Graves may be one of the most radical musicians one could ever encounter in the most literal sense of the word: he tries to get to the actual root of the issue–no matter what it is–for the solution to any kind of problem or challenge.

Full Mantis offers documentary evidence of Graves’s approach of going directly to the source in two key areas: martial arts and his understanding of musical time.

“Well, I started reading books,” Graves says about his martial arts training. Frustrated at the inability to achieve some of the lessons offered in Chinatown because there were limits placed on what non-Asian students could be taught, Graves decided to take lessons in his own hands, eventually settling on closely watching the insect the Praying Mantis after hearing that some of the movements were based on them. “I went to the source,” he says. He bought a few mantises and let them loose, observing their movements. “I just got the full mantis,” says Graves with a mischievous grin, noting that some interpreters or teachers might be hindered in various ways by their own physical or mental limitations. Graves wanted none of that.

The film next jumps to Graves’ musings on heart rate and musical time, noting that heart rate constantly varies in healthy people, which provided another breakthrough that led him to eschew the conventional metronome developing musicians use for keeping time.

Graves began closely studying medicine and human anatomy, haunting the medical textbook section in the former Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue. The next revelation came from a medical recording of human heart sounds he found there.

Graves, thinking that the heartbeats would be regular, was taken aback at the percussive patterns he heard. He eventually developed a software to translate the patterns from measured heart rates into music. He began taking the heart rate of everyone who enters his house and anyone he musically collaborates with: “I want to see how you’re vibrating inside,” Graves says. “How is your body oscillating?”

“Swing, it means, man, I want to live to the next day,” Graves explains, using the metaphor of someone crossing a busy street and dodging traffic as a way to explain the complex interactions involved in playing Jazz.

Watching a clip of Graves drumming all of a sudden makes the seemingly haphazard, disparate approach make perfect sense. Elements of his mantis-influenced movements are discernible as is his biologically-oriented approach to musical time signatures. Magically, concepts that seem impenetrable become clear.

Graves’s approach is also incredibly analytical, as would be expected for someone who bought his own EKG machine to track heart functions in an effort to better understand his own body and the bodies of those he interacts with to translate the information into a musical response that will connect with a particular audience on a vibrational level.

Maginsky shows a true example in a performance Graves does in Japan for a group of students in a gymnasium. Graves is surrounded by children dancing, jumping, and reacting in various ways; some even touch the drums or play the cymbals themselves while Graves, totally unfazed, keeps on playing, seemingly pleased with the results.

“We have to have some relevant vibrations,” Graves says, noting that the planet is changing all the time and that musicians should be in tune with that.

In a talk session after one of the New York screenings, Meginsky revealed that “ultimately the film was a labor of love” that just kept gaining momentum over time. Meginsky studied sound, healing, and music with Graves and that helped him structure the film and wrangle the disparate elements into place. “I wanted to see if I could structure the film in a way that had the same sort of energy transfer that Graves incorporates into his own performances.”

Given that charge, it succeeds on all levels. Graves smiled at the screening. His student has indeed learned his lessons well.

91 Minutes. 2018. Words and music by Milford Graves. Directed by Jake Meginsky. Playing at Metrograph Theater in New York and in select locations nationwide.

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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

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.


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

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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.

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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