"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."

Musicians As Actors

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."

Eric Reed

"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."

Stacy Dillard

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 egos—some of whom have very large egos—to 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."

Public Participation

In trying to raise funding for the film, Chang and Tikofsky entered it in the Ultimate Filmmaker competition, the winner of which receives a grant. The project is now a finalist for the award.

But another method is getting public participation. Explains Tikofsky, "I found out about ArtistShare through Maria Schneider and John Gordon, primarily. I thought it was a good thing for the artist to do because it's the only way they can control their own destiny. Given the problems of the recording industry now and the Internet and the difficulties in raising money, particularly for things that are not going to sell in the millions. Let's face it, a brilliant recording by John or Geoffrey Keezer or Maria is not going to sweep the charts."

Schneider has become pretty much the shining star of ArtistShare, showing albums can get noticed without label backing, winning awards including Grammys.

"Knowing how ArtistShare worked, I thought one of the ways we could open up people's participation in a project like this was to develop a concept like ArtistShare," says Tikofsky. "For example, we're going to film the musicians playing in a real club-like setting. If you gave x-dollars, you could be in the audience and be on film. For x-dollars you could be listed as an associate producer. We thought that might be very attractive and bring in some people and it wouldn't mean you had to give $25,000 or $100,000. But it would have an appeal for the jazz fan.

"To me, it seemed to have some inherent appeal for us, on the film-making end, to be able to raise some dollars. And of course we're going to produce a DVD and a CD from this, which we will sell. We plan to donate some of the profits, if there are any, to the Jazz Foundation. Because I think the project is out there, in part, to help the jazz community as a whole. The foundation is doing such great work this would be a way to bring some money in, to the film and the foundation," says Tikofsky. "I think because of the way we're trying to portray the artists, the artists will see that we are concerned about the music and their lives. Because all of this is being done with the help and the active participation of the musicians."

He adds, "In a sense, that's what the USA is about... this is underlying all of this. The diversity of people who come into the music as players, the diversity of audiences that come to hear and interact with the music. Our unique American phenomenon. In spite of all the interest in jazz overseas, I don't think it's quite the same experience that you get from U.S. audiences responding to people from here who are playing. That's my take on why I'm interested in this; why I think it will work as an artistic venture; why I think it'll be interesting to people in terms of wanting to work with it. I've gotten calls from people who've said, 'Hey, I heard about this. Is there anything I can do?' I think as the buzz goes out more and more, we'll see more of that and it will become a core of people, but a community that builds around that core who want to participate."

Notes Chang, "We're reaching out to the jazz community. We're reaching out to studios. We're working on several fronts to make sure it happens."

There are plans in the works for a website, but for now, people can find out about the film and how to participate at a Facebook page.

Dexter Gordon

"That's probably the easiest way to get in touch with us. It's probably the most up-to-date resource right now, where they can not only get in touch with me very quickly, but find out the latest news on the film. We try to keep people updated as often as interesting news comes up," says Chang.

He feels getting public participation is "a great way to do this kind of thing. Ron's larger objective in getting involved with this particular film is that he wants to see if he can use this as a springboard for a funding operation for many films about jazz, both documentary and fiction. If this film is successful, hopefully it will mean more resources toward recording and archiving jazz on film in many different ways."

Chang and Tikofsky hope one of the benefits of the project will be helping to reenergize interest in jazz music and those who make it.

"That's one of my big hopes," says Chang. "I'm probably an optimist, but I'm almost positive this stuff can do that. It's not like any jazz presentation on film I've ever seen before. It's going to be hip, I think, and it has really cutting-edge music that both respects tradition and tries to push beyond it. And I think it's going to reach more than just the existing jazz community. I think the reception we've gotten at the Ultimate Filmmaker Competition is an advance is indication that there are a lot more people interested in seeing this film made than just musicians and jazz fans. I think if they see how jazz music can really be and how integral it is to a lot of the larger, more philosophical things the country is struggling with these days, this has a chance to reach a much larger audience, much faster than going from club to club."

From his perspective as one inside the jazz music industry and directly affected by its vagaries, Dillard has similar hopes, "especially more so for the general public to see exactly how it is that we operate. The film isn't going to be filled with these stereotypes that you hear about musicians. You'll see the experience... Not just the typical things that people who don't know better generally associate with a jazz musician."

Dillard says there are many young music listeners who think jazz is an arena for older musicians, previous generations. "I like what it's going to be and I like that it's going to bridge the gap, as well," he said. "So many people associate this music with music that only older people play... But there should be something to keep the generations bridged and show what the younger cats are doing. And that's what this movie is going to do. It's going to be a combination of young cats and old cats working together, as we do (in real life). I like what's going to be on the film."

Round MidnightSays Chang, "I loved watching 'Round Midnight and Dexter Gordon and that performance. I think one of the problems with most of the jazz movies we've seen made up to now—this is something I talked about with our adviser Hank O'Neill, a distinguished jazz producer—most of the serious films about jazz have always wallowed in the aspect of how these men destroyed their lives, either from drugs or through some kind of tragic confrontation with the society of the '50s or something like that. I wanted to do something without those issues. They'll all appear in the film.

But I wanted the focus of this film to be about how jazz artists struggle to create their music. The focus is really on the creative side of their lives. How life informs the way they create their music. There are no portraits of idiot savants... All of these artists are dynamic, vibrant characters who are making their choices in order to live the lives they want, in order to play the music they want. That's the aspect of their stories I want to come through most stalwart."

Chang's hopes for the film are grand. "I'd love to see it get a theatrical distribution. I'd like to have it get a good reception at festivals" like Sundance, Slamdance and South By Southwest. "What I'd like to see is that this film gets received well at a couple festivals and particularly ones that focus on music. I really do think that this, in a lot of different ways, ranging from the quality of the musicians to the innovative nature of the way we're telling this story, and the kind of characters that people don't often see in any movies these days that are made in America... I really have a strong belief this is going to get a wide reception in the country. Of course Europe and Asia, where jazz is even more popular than it is here, are places where we want to have a big presence."

"After the theatrical run, we'll see where we go after that. I've had pretty good relationships with people at PBS. I've worked for the Great Performances unit. Maybe they'd be interested or maybe an indie film channel would be interested. Who knows? It's all speculation. Right now, we're focused on making sure the film itself gets made in the way we want it to get made."

"We've talked about using this as a base to build a whole series of films that take the history of American jazz and present it through this kind of approach to film biography," says Tikofsky. "I really have fallen in love with the project and I'm doing all I can to find people and get help and do things to support the work."

The group is excited about the process and very much looking forward to rolling up their sleeves and delving into it once all the ducks are in a row. Chang likes the feel of the project and the way it's shaping up.

"Movies are almost like a snowball," he says. "You spend a lot of time doing the groundwork and a lot of times it feels like you're never going to get to the start of this thing. Then all of a sudden enough pieces fall together—not all of them, sometimes—but enough of them. And then you can't stop it even if you wanted to. That's what happened with my last film. This film, if anything, seems to be moving along a lot faster than the last one in terms of the reception we've been getting, in terms of getting the people we want involved. All of us are pretty much raring to go."

He recalls that while working on the "City Arts" program at PBS, the group interviewed pianist Cyrus Chestnut. "He was saying, early on in his career, 'I'm not going to do anything stupid that I know I can't do. If there's even a shot that I could do it, I'm going to go for it.' I think that's what I feel about this film. Somehow with the energy and the talents we're going to be able to put together for this film, it's going to turn into something special. I think having worked on the variety of things I've worked on; I have a pretty good sense of how I want the music to work with the story lines and how the different stories fit together. It all feels good. No matter how much of a tightrope you're walking, you have to make sure the tightrope is tight. Otherwise you're going to fall. I think we've got a pretty tight tightrope as our basis right now."

As for Dillard, "I've taken a look at it. I'm ready. I don't know my lines. But I'm ready to go to work."

Photo credits

Page 1, Page 3 (Top): Courtesy of Chaography

Page 2, Eric Reed: Courtesy of Eric Reed

Page 2, Stacy Dillard: Courtesy of Stacy Dillard

Page 3, Dexter Gordon: Plas Johnson

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