The Making of Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense
“ The radical contribution of Icons Among Us is that it declares jazz to be not only a vital music, but also a cutting edge way of thinking. ”
On an August morning in 1958, a 33-year-old photographer named Art Kane gathered 57 jazz musicians together on the steps of a Harlem brownstone. The resulting picture, known as "A Great Day in Harlem," appeared in the January 1959 issue of Esquire and has become the most famous image in jazz history. The photograph lacks the emotional intimacy of many famous jazz portraitsColtrane at the Vanguard, contemplative with sweat on the brow; Miles in the studio, hungry behind great bug eyes; Monk at the Five Spot, the mystic, bearded and behattedbut it captures the family bonds that define both jazz bands and the jazz scene. When you see a close-up of Monk's enigmatic face, you see a singular genius; When you see Monk slouching next to Milt Hinton and Mary Lou Williams in "A Great Day in Harlem," you see a musician who's part of a continuum and a community.
"I look at that photograph every day," John Comerford, the executive producer of the four-part jazz documentary Icons Among Us, said. "It serves to remind me of the premise of our film, which is to look at a group in a moment in time, a group psychology. It's not just Count Basie, not just Dizzy Gillespie, not just Sonny Rollins or Thelonious Monk, but it's looking at them collectively from the perspective of a movementthat group mind."
When the first episode of Icons Among Us debuted on the Documentary Channel in April, most reviewers quickly contrasted it with the last major jazz documentary: Ken Burns's Jazz. That film infamously slighted the music's modern age, cramming the last forty years of jazz history into its final one-hour episode. (In contrast, Burns dedicated a full two hours to the five years from 1935 through 1939.) Icons Among Us came across as a corrective, a proudly contemporary chronicle that dedicated its entire running time to championing today's musicians and today's scene. It's not that Icons ignores history, but it treats past as prologue, opting for Art Kane's wide lens on the present.
Making an equivalency between Icons Among Us and "A Great Day in Harlem" is tempting, but they diverge in their depiction of time. Kane's photograph immortalized a fraction of a second on a summer morning; Icons tells the story of the music over seven years, from 2002 to 2009. The film doesn't organize itself chronologically and never mentions its long gestation period, but the passing of time is nevertheless palpable. We revisit musicians: their faces older, their music and lives evolved. We see the world's ebb and flow: Donald Harrison and Terence Blanchard rebuild their Katrina-wrecked homes, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey fires its drummer, the pianist Esbjorn Svensson dies in a diving accident at the height of his career. (We see the filmmaking process evolve as well: the early interviews of Russell Gunn, Eric Revis, and Frank Lacy were shot on Beta SP, grainier and less polished than the high-definition footage that would come later.)
From left: John Comerford (producer), Marco Benevento (keyboardist)
Icons Among Us began as a product of frustration. Michael Rivoira, one of the film's three directors and the originator of the project, was working at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley in Seattle in 2002, watching great young musicians come into town only to play to near empty houses. "There was a disconnect between general music lovers in society and where jazz was at that time," he said. "You say 'jazz' to a lot of people in the younger generation and they'll say right away, 'I don't like it.' But if they actually come check out the shows, it's a different story."
Rivoira decided the music's problem was quite simple: it lacked exposure. Burns's documentary had brought lots of publicity to jazz, but it was publicity that helped sell Ellington records, not fill Seattle clubs. In early 2002, as he began to film what would become Icons Among Us, Rivoira approached bassists Chris Thomas, Eric Revis, and Avishai Cohen, and drummer Jeff Ballard about participating in a potential documentary on the current jazz scene. All of them were supportive of the idea, and Cohen went one step further: "Man, why don't you come make a film of us at this festival in Costa Rica?" Cohen asked Rivoira. "Then the documentary will already be going, and you won't be able to stop."
A week before departing to film Cohen and his band, Rivoira met with Seattle-based cinematographer Lars Larson at a local Starbucks to talk about the project's potential. Larson had a history shooting music and a deep interest in jazz. Before the two men had finished their coffees, they'd agreed to become partners.
From left: John Comerford (producer), Michael Rivoira (director), Pete Vogt (director), Lars Larson (director)
Larson started up as cinematographer and co-director when Rivoira returned to Seattle, shooting concerts on a Super 16mm camera that Larson owned through his equipment rental company, Optimistic Camera. "We made a decision early on to shoot all the performances in film with a single camera," Larson said. "It gives [Icons] a certain stylistic sensibility, but it came about organically: we often didn't have anyone to operate another camera."
Producer John Comerford, who came aboard six months after Larson, proved instrumental in Icons' seven-year growth from a seed in the mind of a student working at a Seattle music club to a fully formed project that premiered at the jazz world's imperial seat: Wynton Marsalis's Jazz at Lincoln Center. Comerford committed his Seattle-based production company, Paradigm Studio, to help finance the project, but he's been more than just the money man. He may have mastered lingo like "personal connectivity" and "corporate communities," but he's still the kid who snuck out of his dorm room at the Choate Rosemary Hall prep school one night in 1983 to catch a Grateful Dead concert. ("In the state I was in, I was just feeling this energy of being exposed to true improvisational performancethe excitement associated with being out there without a net. That was one of the first moments when I thought to myself, boy, I really want more of this consistently.") He cites that Grateful Dead concert as his inspiration for joining the project. When Rivoira and Larson approached him with their proposal to make a film about jazz's present, he said that it hit him "like a lightning bolt," propelling him back to Jerry Garcia under the stars.
With Rivoira, Larson, and Comerford all onboard but money still short, the project came together in a series of fits and starts. The interviews and concert footage accumulated slowly, as the three filmmakers juggled jobs that paid with their jazz passion project. Rivoira served as the chief interviewer, with Larson, behind the camera, adding a few questions of his own. Both Rivoira and Larson describe the interviews as conversations far more than Q&As, but they made sure to address the film's key issues: education, the importance of a band, the process of improvisation, and the gap between jazz and mainstream culture.
Ever since Comerford signed on to the project, he'd been trying to find a way to increase the film's funding. Early on, he ruled out a financing model based on private investors in favor of a sponsorship deal with a corporation. This model, of course, was dependent on finding a willing sponsor, and jazz proved a hard sell. With help from the film's co-producer, Theo Ianuly, Comerford was able to interest Don Q Rum, a Puerto Rico-based spirit maker, and its distributor, Rums of Puerto Rico. Both companies initially rejected Comerford's pitch, but when he came back a second time in 2008, they agreed to help finance the film. A scratching/clawing enterprise now enjoyed the kind of backing that could finally send it to document the European scene.
Newport Jazz Festival, Newport, RI. From left: Lars Larson (director), Esperanza Spalding (bassist and singer), John Comerford (producer), Michael Rivoira (director)
The film's possibilities expanded by the sponsorship deal, Rivoira, Larson, and Comerford decided to bring on a third director, Pete Vogt, to help shape the raw material into a coherent story. Vogt was a friend of Larson's and had helped him shoot an early Bad Plus concert for the film. "When I came onto the project," Vogt remembered, "I distilled interviews into what I called 'podcasts.' I did the same thing with the music. It was the greatest hits we'd gleaned from the concerts." Once the raw materials had been winnowed down to a more manageable size, Vogt went about threading together a story, giving each episode its particular focus. (Although, like an improvisation, the episodes take plenty of liberties in straying from the predetermined theme.)
Vogt speaks more openly about jazz's controversies than the other filmmakershe calls the Young Lions period "a phony piece of history" propagated by "record companies attempting to play into a neo-classical category"and his story choices have given the film a bit of an edge. Vogt deploys opinionated speakers like keyboardist John Medeski and Seattle Times jazz critic Paul de Barros as provocateurs throughout the film, debating jazz's ability to communicate to mainstream culture and contesting that fraught frontier between jazz and "not jazz." The sunshine and smiles of "A Great Day in Harlem" work in a still photograph, but family togetherness alone would have made for a mighty boring movie. By giving play to tension, Vogt and the other filmmakers created a sharp counternarrative to the lofty, abstract sentiments"jazz is infinite," "jazz is everything everywhere"that, uncontested, might have turned the film into a swinging version of "kumbaya."
It was also around this time that Comerford underwent a shift in the way he viewed the project, causing him to encourage the directors to speed up the process. "One day, I was sitting in New Orleans at a café, and I though to myself: 'I'm in the center of this whole American experience in a huge way with this documentary. We have a real tradition and a bona fide understanding of what history is and its power, and, at the same time, we have this insatiable appetite for progress and reinvention. All these jazz musicians and the other people around this art form are having that experience day by day. They're really relying on the tradition, on what's come before, and at the same time, being asked to reinvent themselves and they have an absolute hunger for it on a daily basis.'"
Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, LA. From left: Efrem Towns (cornet), Lars Larson (director)
When Icons Among Us premiered in April, Comerford delivered opening remarks in which he said that the deeper subject of the film was not jazz but innovation. That word, "innovation," struck me as a dissonant note, applying the kind of hollow corporate speak parodied on The Office to music that demands serious and profound engagement. It sounded like a concession to the sponsors: the slogan for "Icons Among Us presented by Don Q Rum" rather than the real message of a jazz documentary.
Yet I now realize Comerford didn't use "innovation" in an attempt to cloak jazz in the fashionable/marketable/sellable; it was his way of placing jazz back at the vanguard. The radical contribution of Icons Among Us is that it declares jazz to be not only a vital music but also a cutting edge way of thinking. Using jazz as the springboard, the filmmakers are now planning several more documentaries based on the same approach. Their subjects are tentatively planned as breakthrough technology, the rebirth of the architect, and the green revolution. (Ken Burns's Jazz, in contrast, was the last installment in a series whose previous subjects were the Civil War and early baseball.)
Launching a film series about innovation with a two-hour documentary on jazz seems like a crazy gamblein the American consciousness, the music fits more snugly next to Joe DiMaggio (if not Stonewall Jackson) than Frank Gehry or sustainable design pioneer William McDonough. Yet the filmmakers see jazz as a natural opening to the conversation. "The TED Conference is a scenario that holds great interest for us," Comerford said about that annual ideas symposium. "You can throw Bill Gates and Herbie Hancock into a room, or Jamie Cullum and Jeff Bezos from Amazon, and really get something from it. I think that eclectic approach in itself holds a lot of profit, so we're interested in doing that too. But our point of entrè into this moment has come through this extraordinary music." In Icons Among Us' view, jazz is too valuable to be reduced to Americana. The "group mind" captured in Kane's "A Great Day in Harlem" helped shape the contours of American music, art, literature, and society over several tumultuous decades. The creators of Icons Among Us have wagered that the group mind they've capturedspanning from Wynton Marsalis and Donald Harrison to the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and Soulivecan have a similar impact on our own time.
Top: Art Kane
Second & Third: Lars Larson
Fourth: Pete Vogt
Fifth: Michael Rivoira