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"Chaography": A New Kind of Jazz Film To Be Made

R.J. DeLuke By

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Who wants to see a movie about jazz musicians that tells a good story, accurately portrays the lives of musicians and contains good, happening music?

Show of hands not necessary. Skepticism understood, based on past history.

Yet that's exactly the lofty goal of young filmmaker Doug Chang, a jazz fan who is hoping to start filming the project by mid-2010 or so. The story will be fiction, but loosely based on five jazz icons. The music will be original, composed by five hip musicians on the scene today. And the music will be performed "live" for the film by working bands, not synched in. So far, so good, right?

What's particularly intriguing, however, is the approach Chang and executive producer Dr. Ron Tikofsky are taking to the project. Improvisation—the key ingredient to good jazz music—will be involved in the acting and how scenes take shape. Listening to Chang talk about it, one hears phrases often spoken by musicians when talking about their work.

Another attractive aspect is that they have developed a funding model somewhat like ArtistShare, in that the public will be able to put money into the project and, depending on the level of funding, receive producer credits for the film and get other ancillary benefits—like being extras in some of the scenes.

The film is titled Chaography: Variations on the Theme of Freedom. It will attempt to weave five individual stories into one cohesive piece, each main character played by a working musician. As of February, pianist Eric Reed and saxophonist Stacy Dillard had been cast. There will be another saxophonist, a trumpeter and a bassist selected for the other roles. That's because the musicians that are the source of the created roles are Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. Reed is playing the Monk-based part and Dillard's character is coming out of Coltrane.

The seed for the film—which is still in development—came from anecdotes Chang heard from his father, who was a bartender from 1959 to 1963 at The Jazz Gallery, a New York City nightclub, and rubbed elbows with the many musicians who performed or frequented the establishment as patrons.

Chapter Index

  1. Concept Takes Shape
  2. Musicians As Actors
  3. Improvisation
  4. Public Participation

Concept Takes Shape

"It's all fictionalized in this work," says Chang. "The film is not going to literally take place in 1959. I wanted to make it contemporary and make it feel like this mythical place where jazz was always happening. It's going to take place in this New York jazz world... indelibly based on things my dad observed or things that happened to my dad or my mother, who was dating my father at the time.

"There's one story where this famous jazz legend... It was New Year's Eve and my dad was working that night. He brought my mom to see the celebration. This well-known jazz legend kind of chased her around the room all night trying to get a New Year's kiss from her. She had just come from China about a year-and-a-half before. This was all very strange to her. There are other stories I haven't heard anywhere else that I've taken as a springboard to create these fictional characters."

Explains Chang, "The five musicians are loosely based on people my dad used to see fairly regularly at the club. Either as musicians or patrons. He saw Coltrane a lot. He saw Monk a lot. He saw Ornette Coleman a lot. Mingus I don't think played there that often, but he would play around town regularly and stopped by. Miles was already playing the uptown clubs but would drop by pretty frequently. So it's kind of taking their music as a springboard. I use these characters to explore their different musical approaches to the idea of freedom. I came to the conclusion that each of them defined freedom in a different way and it comes out in their music. It's always what they see as freedom's antithesis. It could be freedom versus love, freedom versus order, freedom versus community, freedom versus discipline, freedom versus fate. In every case, it's a different relationship that freedom has to the other things in their lives. That's where the drama and the tension in the stories come from.

"The way my parents talk about that era sounded so creative and exciting. New things were happening all the time. I wanted to create the visceral feeling of that time, along with finding a way of bringing some contemporary musicians in for their take on that same kind of excitement."

Executive Producer Dr. Ron Tifofsky

Jazz as a subject on film—fictionalized like 'Round Midnight (1986) or bio pics like Bird (the 1988 Warner Brothers film directed by Clint Eastwood)—are met with varying degrees of criticism and wider degrees of success in general. Most fans liked the Warner Brothers film 'Round Midnight for its poignant story and outstanding music, as well as the performance of jazz great Dexter Gordon, who earned an Oscar nomination in the film's lead role. (Herbie Hancock won an Oscar for best original music score). But with Bird, for example, many thought—especially those still around who had known Charlie Parker—that it was overly negative and its Hollywood treatment didn't relate accurately to the real Parker.

But the Hollywood motion picture industry is known for taking "creative license" liberties with stories. It's also hard to make a movie about someone who hasn't been gone that long. Friends of Bird disagreed with his portrayal, even though producer Clint Eastwood is a big friend of jazz. Colleagues of Richard Nixon disagreed with Oliver Stone's portrayal of the former president in Nixon (1995). But Amadeus (1984), about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, won multiple Oscars. There is no one around, other than pure historians, to take issue with anything portrayed about Mozart, even though the script had him running about as an utter buffoon in parts. It makes one skeptical about the Miles Davis movie project that has been in the works for decades and, at last report, is in the hands of a group involving actor Don Cheadle in the lead role. There's plenty to sensationalize in that story that could steer audiences away from the true center of the mercurial Miles. It remains to be seen, of course.

No such sensationalism is planned in Chaography.

"The project is very exciting. I think it is the beginning of what can turn out to be a valuable series on lives in jazz that explores the musicians and how they live and struggle for their art, in a positive way," says Tikofsky, who does brain research in nuclear medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, and is also an amateur saxophonist and member of the board of directors at the Jazz Foundation of America. "Both I and a number of people feel that a lot of the recent stuff that's come out about jazz on film has not always been really positive and a good clean story that relates to the lives and the music of the people who do this."


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