"Chaography": A New Kind of Jazz Film To Be Made
He adds, "Our decision to make the players the players and the actors is going to give it a sense of authenticity, even though it's fictionalized, that you wouldn't ordinarily get. I think the exposure, if it gets out into the general public, will paint a very different picture of the jazz artist, particularly today's jazz artist, as not these weird characters they see portrayed in cartoon-like things, but really serious family people, concerned people. They're using their music as a way to search for freedom. Jazz is about being free to express yourself, but express yourself responsibly within the community of the people with whom you're playing. It builds a chemistry. It builds a community. Every band is a community and the people who play in the band have to relate to one another."
"Chaography" is a word invented by Chang that describes what the film will try to capture. "It's a word I put together from the word 'chaos' and 'graphy,' which roughly would mean 'the mapping of chaos.' I saw it as an appropriate metaphor for the kind of tension that occurs in jazz, where people are really trying to ride that edge between going off into the void and still take it back to the other side."
The film, its creators say, will seek to explore what freedom means, using jazz as a mirror of the choices people make in their individual and collective pursuit of happiness. Interwoven throughout will be the parallel storyline of Max and his girlfriend, Ava, two Chinese-American students who enter the jazz world as bystanders and whose attempt to build a life together in America provides a counterpoint to the journeys of the artists.
When Chang started to write for the project, he researched jazz's historical figures, going through a stack of biographies. "Then I felt like I'd rather take these anecdotes from my dad and other things I had picked up talking to other people, these little fragments... sort of like being a jazz musician myself. Taking them and jumping off from them and letting my imagination fill in the gaps and make sense of what those stories were about. I ended up using the anecdotes as the framework for the film and not really the biographies of the people."
"The way I've conceived it is that the film is really taking jazz as a model for how we actually make the film, how we produce and direct the film," Chang says. "The way I see the script is that it's divided into five separate stories which overlap and interact, but they all have different styles, different textures, different moods. Like a jazz composition, the script is going to be the skeleton for the performers and the production crew to work from and then strategically embellish, the way you might improvise in an actual jazz performance. So you can take 'Embraceable You' and turn it into something completely different from what's on the page. For me, that is the essence and the goal of film anyway. Otherwise, why don't people just read the script? There's this added dimension that the performers and the camera people and everybody really are going to bring to it."
Spoken like a creative jazz artist.
"In this case, it's going to be so driven by the music; there's that whole extra dimension too. The texture and mood of each story is going to integrally linked to the sound of the music," Chang explains. "That's one of the reason why, production-wise, we're intending to film the music sequences first. So we can work with the music. Figure out with the musicians what kind of mood we want to capture, and then once we get into the editing room, those tracks are actually going to be instrumental in helping us determine how we actually put the final film together."
This concept comes direct from Chang, the author and creator of the film. "As far as I know, I don't think anyone's tried it so far," he notes. Chang has spent much of his career in public television and independent film. He produced, directed and co-wrote the narrative feature film Absent Father (2008), about a girl who gets impregnated by God, only to find he's not around when she needs him. The film premiered at the Dhaka International Film Festival in 2008 and was nominated for best feature at the Religion Today Film Festival in Trento and Rome, Italy. He was involved with two PBS programs, P.O.V., the acclaimed documentary series, and City Arts, a Peabody Award-winning PBS creative arts show in New York. He was once programming director for KCET, the flagship PBS station in Los Angeles, and has also contributed to documentaries as a writer, producer and unit director, including the films Latinos 08 (2008), The Jewish People: A Story of Survival (2008) and Jerusalem: Center of the World (2009), all broadcast nationally in the United States on PBS.
He says the improvisational aspect "is part of the thrill of the project. Not knowing exactly where it's going to go. I think everybody that's involved so far feels the same way. On a deeper level, it's taken me a while to get myself to this point in my career where I feel confident enough in my abilities and my training to know that one way or another, I'm going to be able to pull this off."
Isolated, that's a comment that could come out of the mouth of a young jazz musician who feels he's finally at the point where he can sit in with the big boys, or make a bigger statement on his next recording. It's part of the makeup of a jazzman.
"With the great talent, some of which is already on board and some of which we're hoping to get," notes Chang, "this is going to be a pretty exciting project to work on and to watch, to listen to."
Says Tikofsky, "It'll be true to the artist. The artist will make as much of a contribution to the film as anyone else does, and that's unusual. What usually happens is they bring in somebody to play Charlie Parker, which is what (Clint) Eastwood did. You don't get the real musician. They did a good job, but when I talked to Red Rodney about it when he was still alive, he was on the set and he said it was driving him crazy because you weren't really getting the feeling of the players."
The music being filmed will be from real bands and the improvisations will be in-the-moment. "That's the way the community works. The guys find people with whom there's a common chemistry, they build a community, they work together and they share," says Tikofsky. He believes seeing these bands at work can be an example to the average person about how people should relate to one another. "These are a bunch of guys who have some talent, but they put themselves together and subjugate their egossome of whom have very large egosto make the group work."
Dillard says he was surprised to be approached about the project, but likes the idea of taking on the challenge of acting, especially the improvisational aspect.
"I like that," says the Michigan native, now New York City based, who has played with the likes of Reed, Winard Harper, Lenny White, Clark Terry and Terell Stafford. "I think it's going to make it a more relaxed feeling for me. For people like myself who don't have any acting experience... and the fact that the role we're playing is really ourselves... it shouldn't be too difficult. I don't have it in my head that it's going to be difficult."
Dillard's character "is supposed to be Coltrane-esque, so I have the liberty of being the character that I am. I don't think it's going to be exactly John Coltrane, but a John Coltrane-esque character. So they're giving me more leeway to play my music," he says. "But the influence [of Trane] is going to be definitely there. Seeing that that's going to be present, that's going to make the whole thing work out... I have a lot of [music] ready to go now. I don't know if they wanted me to particularly write for the movie. But I have a nice size library of music of my own that I can pull out that would be fitting."
"I found Dillard in New York," says Chang. "I'd heard about Eric [Reed] and his music before. It turned out Dillard and Eric had played together and like each other, so it worked out very well for the stories. Both Stacy and Eric are helping me get in touch with other musicians to see if we can get their participation. Stacy has no doubt we're going to get really great musicians for this."