Archives for posts with tag: Jazz Film

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.

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.

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.


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

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.

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