JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Responding to statements that whites can play jazz, Alex grants a slight concession, but clearly indicates white jazz doesn’t have soul. He contrasts jazz style in two places. First we hear a more driving style accompanying African American men in an urban pool hall.Then we hear slow Cool Jazz as the visuals ironically shift to a suburban town’s commuter train station, its snowy downtown shopping area with outdoor Christmas decorations, and a white woman grooming a dark-haired poodle, concluding with fluffing up the nappy hair on top of the dog’s head.

Alex’s history of jazz in the last third of the film is especially effective given the expressive styles heard on the soundtrack.

Climaxing his analysis of the contradictions in jazz form, Alex startles his white listeners by saying that “jazz is dead.” He elaborates, arguing that the music cannot transcend its inherent limits. This segues into a passage of increasingly discordant instrumentals. Images of destruction then appear such as an outdoor fire, with the rapid flickers of the flames matching the rapidly intensified music track.

Alex rests his case with the statement that the only way forward is for white America to accept Negro Americans as full members of society who can lead the way into a new future.

 

Making The Cry of Jazz

CK: Oh, that’s fascinating. How did you decide to make your film?

EB: Well, The Cry Of Jazz came into being, let’s see, something like this: There were four of us who were friends of a kind, with, various degrees of tension…Three of us were real close, and the thing is produced by a company called KHTB…

The K is for Mark Kennedy; the T is Eugene Titus, he was the mathematician; then there’s, H, Hill, Nelam Hill. All three of these guys are dead now. And then the B is me. Kennedy was a novelist, he wrote something called The Pecking Order. [21] [open notes in new page] Ah, I think it was, came out in paperback as Boy Gang. Nelam was a city planner, and at one time he was head of urban renewal or city planning for Jersey City. Titus was a research aide, working at the Museum of Science and Industry for the Air Force on missiles. It was key to the scientific group for the Cold War. After Titus left Chicago he went to Dayton, Dayton Air Force Base, and then he moved back to Chicago and died. And there was me, and, my interest was musical composition.

And so, we were sittin’ around drinking at Jimmy’s. [22] Drinking off and on. Kennedy’s book had come out, so he was heading out to New York. He was talking about some of the people he had met on the Near North side, and the power of film. You know how films could be done cheaply and inexpensively. So, and I knew something about film because my first job after being kicked out of schools was to score a film for the Anti-Defamation League in Chicago, called To Live Together, that came out about 1950. This guy, John Barnes later became head or close to head of Encyclopedia Britannica Films. [23] He worked out of his house. He had an editing bench all set up. In fact I saw how inexpensively it could be done, and I knew he was paying me, and there wasn’t anybody else involved. I saw it could be done relatively cheaply if one wanted.

So, that rang a bell when Kennedy had said that. Plus, knowing how ubiquitous film was in terms of getting around the world, there was a possible source of propagandistic power if one wanted to look at it that way. So, at any rate, he was telling me about some people he had met on the Near North side, one was a film editor, his name was Howard Alk. [24] But it was a long time before I met Howard, but it just, stayed in my mind.

So, after Kennedy had left, me and some other kids around that were white start arguing about jazz, and before I knew it, the thing that was getting to me was that they were trying to take all the credit for its invention and everything else. And I said, “Fuck this shit!” They, first of all, they don’t know anything, in terms of knowing the technical side of music or the historical side. And secondly, the way to put all this in perspective is to just make a film. We can do it quite cheaply.

So Nelham and I started thinking about that. We, got ahold of Titus who still lived in town, working at the Museum of Science and Industry. For money, whatever we could put together from our various jobs. It was mostly me and Nelham. I was working, I think, at the post office then. Nelham was at the Chicago Housing Authority. Kennedy was in New York. So, we sent scripts around and started planning. That’s how it all started. It came off an argument that occurred, you know, in Jimmy’s.

Then as it developed, you know the subject was bigger than music, especially after having seen what was going on with Chess and with migration from South to the North, and being able to put this stuff together. That’s, that’s how it started.

CK: How long did it take to make it from the time that you got the basic idea?

EB: The basic idea came out, probably in December of ‘56. And so we had this script and we had to try to find out what filmmaking was (laughs)…which we never did find out (chuckles) I don’t know when we started. Let’s see we finished New Year’s Eve of ‘58, cause the next year was ‘59. The copyright date was ‘59 on that film, and I remember being at Howard Alk’s place, and we very happy with what we had worked on. We were writing in ‘57 and rewriting, you know, auditioning and planning and, shot it in ‘58.

It’s probably about spring of ‘58 when we took time out, for the guy we wanted, you know who was gonna edit, was the cameraman but he’d never done any sync editing, and so he had to bow out, and that’s how Howard came in. And so I had gotten in touch with Howard, I went out to the Near North, and met with him, and showed him what we were doing and he said, “Well look, I’ll work with you for nothing. Just pay for the rental of the movieola.” Cause he was very busy as a commercial editor so, that we did and that’s how it all started, in terms of getting the final phase going.

Howard was completely shocked by it, and but, nevertheless he worked with us, and was a beautiful cat. I didn’t realize then that his closest friend was Paul Sills. [25] Cause I had known Paul from Hyde Park but I didn’t know him from the Near North Side. So, then Paul came to town while we were in the midst of editing. That’s when Second City started, and Al Grossman who ran The Gate of Horn. Howard and Al owned that. They had all those folk acts going. And I brought in Al Grossman. Nelham also knew Grossman, Grossman was also in housing, working for Chicago Housing Authority then. [26]

CK: Now where did it premiere? And how was, what was the reception like?

EB: Well the first time we had a chance to see the reception was at Howard’s place. Howard has the equivalent of what would be called a loft these days…So he had a bunch of his friends from the North side over, including Odetta who was one of Grossman’s clients at the time, and people from Near North and they had a fit. But you know it wasn’t too bad.

Now, where did it really show first? Well we couldn’t show it in any theaters in 16mm. And, at that time, nobody had dual capacity. I’m sure they do now in top theaters, or did, before the advent of video. It was shown at the Abraham Lincoln Center for about a month or so. [27]And nobody as I can remember was all that happy about it. Playboy was still in Chicago, and it was shown at the Playboy Jazz Festival (Aug, 1959) and then I think it may have gotten some reviews. [28]

And then about the same time we had sent a copy to Kennedy to see if he could do New York, and he was the one who got Cinema 16. He was friends with Ricky Leacock and got Cinema 16, and Cinema 16 said well we want to premiere this in February, had to be February of ‘60. And we want to have a panel with you and Ed if you can come to town and uh, Marshall Stearns, Ralph Ellison, and Nat Hentof. [29]

And so, that happened. It was getting to the point that I was thinking about moving to New York anyway, because of the music. First my friends had come to town from various jazz groups and they were saying, well you oughta move to New York. And I said, well, what am I gonna do in New York? They said well you could work in music. I said but I’m not playing anymore. They said, well you could write.

And so James Moody came to town, a friend, a good friend of mine. [30] Moody asked me to write 20 arrangements for him, do some work on tunes for him. So I did that, and then knowing how musicians don’t get paid, I said, “well, you know, the safest way to earn a living in music, and a good one, is by writing for recording sessions.” This friend of mine had done some work for some recording sessions so I asked him what the scale was, and did he know people? Yes. So, with these 20 charts under my hand, I went to New York. Me and my wife had a boy, and so I went to New York in February of 1960. It was the first time I had ever flown in an airplane. I couldn’t take the train, because some extra work had come up in Chicago, some film scores to do, so it was extra money, but I had to stay longer, and I wanted a night’s sleep before I got on that stage; I decided to fly. [31]

So, I got there and started getting used to being in New York. There was some controversy at the screening, especially from a cat, Ralph Ellison. Kenneth Tynan wrote about the film for the London Observer. He said it was a historical document, in a sense. This was the first time he knew of in film that blacks had challenged whites period, you know, on any grounds, and whereas it may not had been the greatest film in the world, it was at least an historical moment. It should be noticed. And he called the acting and everything else amateurish, said it was on a slim budget and looked like it, and had second-rate music by somebody called Sun Ra. And then Dwight McDonald said, “ A sorry paean of racial prejudice,” I think it was in the New York Magazine, uh, so on and so forth. [32]

CK: So the controversy really erupted very fast.

EB: Well, the movie was called racist. I mean people wanted to know whether we belonged to the Muslims. [33] I’d virtually never heard of the Muslims. I knew they existed, but I knew, I’d seen people on street corners. But you see a lot of funny things on street corners in Chicago.

New York City years

EB: So that was the beginning of it. Now, right along with that, some how or another, Jonas Mekas knew that this was in the works. He was in Chicago visiting other Lithuanians a few times and we lived in the Hyde Park area, so he came by and visited, to see just how this film was coming along.[34] When I was going to New York, he kept me aware of how to move into the Lower East Side, paying only $35 or $40 a month rent. So I had money saved up, and we made the transition. New York is so strange, you know coming from Chicago.

I had been there once before, I was gonna move there in ‘49 but, there was a love affair involved and we broke up, so I didn’t. The first time I saw it, I said I’d never live here. Never. It was impossible. Buildings like this (he smacks his hands together, laughs) When I did finally get there, I realized, tempermentally it’s very different place than Chicago. And my idea of New York was, ok, it’s three times as big or was three times as big then, uh, then it’s gonna be three times as rough as Chicago. So, but no, New York is a very soft and nice city, you know, once you realize the neighborhood character of it, and they’ve got this rough exterior but that doesn’t mean anything. Very decent place. And I was sensing that, and I didn’t wanna bring my Chicago aggressiveness, shall we say, to a place where it was inappropriate.

So, I didn’t work for a year, you know I had enough saved up and I could stop, so I just met people, and tried to get a feel of the place cause it was very different. Among the people I met at that time was Shirley Clarke, Willard Van Dyke, Emile de Antonio; we all became great friends. Let’s see. I met Pennebaker and Leacock and I’d hang with them, but I’d worked with Shirley on The Cool World. [35] Let’s see who else: then the Mekas Brothers, Sheldon Rochlin, Lionel Rogosin. De Antonio was very interested in The Cry, and started talking to us about what the next film could be. [36]

CK: Well, you certainly were introduced to a lot of people. And you were working closely with different people. In the piece you wrote for Film Culture you wrote, about, you said you were planning another one. So, what happened with those plans?

EB: Oh, it was written, all right. What had to happen, was that we had to learn how to write. Let’s see. This is probably the last copy I’ve got. This is what it ended up. (points to typescript). It took about, uh, ten years, it was like writing a novel.

And then once that was done, we got turned down I think at about a hundred and some places. And we didn’t we didn’t have the money to do this one. But at least it got done. It was good for me in a sense that it introduced me to what the discipline of writing was about.

Oh I had to earn a living. I’d had another kid, so I went to the record industry. I knew Clarke Terry and I met everybody, you know, a lot of guys I used to play with, especially when they were in positions with great connections. And so they introduced me to a lot of people. [37]

I wanted to do arrangements, behind singers, or for bands, so on. So, that’s what I did. It was rough, at first, even with all the connections I had. I remember getting on the phone, and making 600 phones calls in six weeks, but I got my first job after that. Then I got two jobs in one day and started getting really good work. I was still looking for a full time job or a day job, so to speak, but it just wasn’t happening. Finally I realized this is what I’m good at, and that’s what I’ve done for most of my life.

But, all kinds of things happened, like from ‘68 to ‘74, I produced, close to a hundred concerts for the Museum of Modern Art: the “Jazz in the Garden Series,” and the “Summer Garden Series.” Also coming out of that was the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I think I did 30 or 40 concerts for them. Plus film work because of my connections with the New York City film people. I was making my living by doing all these different short term projects, except for the four years I was head of A&R for Vanguard Records.

CK: When was that?

EB: From ‘74 to ‘78. It was the result of all this time in the record industry. They called me up and said do you want the gig, and it was the high point of a career. So I decided I better take it. I wanted to get back to writing, in fact I had started writing again. I decided to take it, cause I said I could always quit. (chuckles) But, you just don’t throw power away, just like that. It was an interesting, another type of madness in itself.

Sun Ra

CK: What about Sun Ra? [38] Were you close to him, or had you just met him in the environment ?

EB: Ohhh. Well, Sun Ra, you know, having been a former jazz musician, I’d asked my friends from time to time what’s happening, you know, who’s doing what? And so, one of my friends mentioned Sun Ra, said he had this thing going on in the park in Chicago, and all this, what I considered weird talk. Fine. I don’t care about that. What’s the music like? So about he same time, during the time I was around Chess Records, I became a disc jockey, in Chicago, under another name, a jazz disc jockey, and played all this stuff, and among the records that came to my attention was a recording that Sun Ra had made, you know, on his on label. And it was absorbing, and quite decent, you know, the man was a good musician. So, when it became time to make Cry of Jazz, I could’ve written the music for it, but that would cost money so, the thing was how to get the jazz soundtrack without spending any money. So, I got in touch with Sun Ra, and I guess more of his representatives. Alton Abraham who was his manager at the time, the time we spoke, about using the music for the soundtrack of the film. And that’s how it happened. And his music was certainly good enough and interesting enough to be used to illustrate some of the points, that I wanted to, in terms of music. So, that’s how it happened. Uh, Sun Ra and I, uh, were miles apart, you know, temperamentally.

He was a likeable man, and stuff, and there’s more to the story. We moved to New York. About a year after we’re there, I get a call from Sun Ra. He’s up in Canada. And he’s asking me, “do you think we could make it in New York?” I said, “well, it’s tough, but uh there’s only one thing to do and that’s to try.” So he came by and whenever we had extra places for dinner and stuff, the guys, you know, John Gilmore and Pat Patrick, came by. [39] And then, things started happening for me in the record thing. Ok, so then, when I needed side men for these record gigs, I got Sun Ra. He needed the money anyway. Good musician, I mean, very virtuous musician.

And then, extra things would happen. A lot of these singers and songwriters couldn’t read or write music. So, somebody would have to do the dictations and it wasn’t gonna be me, so I’d get an additional part of the budget. Sun Ra was very patient with the guy. One of the people was the guy who wrote “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,”….Another Chicagoan, I forgot his name: Curlee Williams. [40] And the trouble with taking dictation from amateur songwriters is, each time you write something down, it changes the next time around. So it’s a never-ending job. So anyway, Sunny grew a name for it. There was a budget there for him, so I used the guy as much as I could, instead of using regular studio musicians.

Another guy who hung around was Tom Wilson. Tom Wilson was the black A&R man at Columbia Records who gave us Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan. I first met him in Chicago with Sun Ra. Tom was out of Boston and he had an MBA from Harvard, and he had this little record label, Transition, and he was doing some recording of Sun-Ra also, so when I got to New York I looked him up. He was on the Fidelity Records at the time and I worked on many, many recording dates with Todd. He moved on to CBS and eventually gave us Simon and Garfunkel. And Dylan.

I stopped using Sunny because what happened was this: the key to any recording session is everybody has to be there on time. You gotta be ready to go. You got three hours, you got 14 weeks, you gotta do it. You know, it’s not the most disciplined thing in the world, but it’s disciplined, and you can’t walk in at two o’clock. And if you’re a drummer, you gotta be there a half and hour early in order to set up your paraphernalia. So..

CK: You’re paying for the studio, and the time, and the engineers and everything.

EB: Right,. So it go to the point where Sunny was getting there late to the session times. And he had started complaining about how he was doing earth music. He didn’t want to do earth music, he wanted to do his outer space stuff, I said well fine. Get yourself a record label. I didn’t know who would record him. The only person I could think of who might record him might be Todd. And Todd didn’t want anything. Todd was trying to establish his own realm, you know. But as he got more successful, he wanted less and less to do with Sunny. And, one, particular time, one, session we did, we had Sun Ra and part of the Blues Project, it was Danny Kalb and Al Cooper.

CK: I went to college with Danny Kalb. Yeah.

EB: But Sunny was talking about how earth music was a drag and I said well, I was doing him a favor, and then he starts showing up late for the sessions. I said, Sunny I can’t have this. And uh, so, I warned him, and then he showed up late again so then I started using studio men, regular studio men. That was the last time I really had much to do with Sun Ra. I remember I had just started doing the MoMA concerts, and he wanted to know when I was gonna book him in there. And I said, “I can’t. You know, you won’t draw anybody."

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