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

Eric Benson By

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It was also around this time that Comerford underwent a shift in the way he viewed the project, causing him to encourage the directors to speed up the process. "One day, I was sitting in New Orleans at a café, and I though to myself: 'I'm in the center of this whole American experience in a huge way with this documentary. We have a real tradition and a bona fide understanding of what history is and its power, and, at the same time, we have this insatiable appetite for progress and reinvention. All these jazz musicians and the other people around this art form are having that experience day by day. They're really relying on the tradition, on what's come before, and at the same time, being asked to reinvent themselves and they have an absolute hunger for it on a daily basis.'"

Icons Among Us / Lower Ninth Ward Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, LA. From left: Efrem Towns (cornet), Lars Larson (director)

When Icons Among Us premiered in April, Comerford delivered opening remarks in which he said that the deeper subject of the film was not jazz but innovation. That word, "innovation," struck me as a dissonant note, applying the kind of hollow corporate speak parodied on The Office to music that demands serious and profound engagement. It sounded like a concession to the sponsors: the slogan for "Icons Among Us presented by Don Q Rum" rather than the real message of a jazz documentary.

Yet I now realize Comerford didn't use "innovation" in an attempt to cloak jazz in the fashionable/marketable/sellable; it was his way of placing jazz back at the vanguard. 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. Using jazz as the springboard, the filmmakers are now planning several more documentaries based on the same approach. Their subjects are tentatively planned as breakthrough technology, the rebirth of the architect, and the green revolution. (Ken Burns's Jazz, in contrast, was the last installment in a series whose previous subjects were the Civil War and early baseball.)

Launching a film series about innovation with a two-hour documentary on jazz seems like a crazy gamble—in the American consciousness, the music fits more snugly next to Joe DiMaggio (if not Stonewall Jackson) than Frank Gehry or sustainable design pioneer William McDonough. Yet the filmmakers see jazz as a natural opening to the conversation. "The TED Conference is a scenario that holds great interest for us," Comerford said about that annual ideas symposium. "You can throw Bill Gates and Herbie Hancock into a room, or Jamie Cullum and Jeff Bezos from Amazon, and really get something from it. I think that eclectic approach in itself holds a lot of profit, so we're interested in doing that too. But our point of entrè into this moment has come through this extraordinary music." In Icons Among Us' view, jazz is too valuable to be reduced to Americana. The "group mind" captured in Kane's "A Great Day in Harlem" helped shape the contours of American music, art, literature, and society over several tumultuous decades. The creators of Icons Among Us have wagered that the group mind they've captured—spanning from Wynton Marsalis and Donald Harrison to the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and Soulive—can have a similar impact on our own time.

Photo Credits

Top: Art Kane

Second & Third: Lars Larson

Fourth: Pete Vogt

Fifth: Michael Rivoira

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