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The Making of Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense

Eric Benson By

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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 portraits—Coltrane 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 behatted—but 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 movement—that 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.)

Icons Among Us / Marco Benevento 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.

Icons Among Us / Lars Larson From left: John Comerford (producer), Michael Rivoira (director), Pete Vogt (director), Lars Larson (director)


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