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

Eric Benson By

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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 performance—the 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.

Icons Among Us / Esperanza Spalding 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 filmmakers—he 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."

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