JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

Sexual politics

CK: one of the things my students always notice when they see it is a certain level of sexual politics in it. Within the film, one white woman is very obviously, it seems, very attracted to the black men. And at the same time, there is an antagonism there as well: the white guys function as sort of a counterpoint as well. Can you say some more about that?

EB: Well, there’s not really much to say.

CK: The film shows the racial conflict, but my students, from today’s perspective, say, well isn’t there something else that’s going on here as well? It’s not just black and white; it’s also men and women.

EB: Well, as expressed to the white/black thing, I can say that I imagine it’s much cooler out there now, than it was then, but this was what was going on in terms of, that was the University of Chicago area. It’s like, if you had a white girlfriend, and these were liberal guys, the guys would come up to you and wanted to know whether you were pimping. Who needed that type of shit? I mean that’s insulting, and the other thing is, well, what it came down to, is they weren’t getting nothin’. (laughs)

CK: (laughs heartily)

EB: And that’s the problem. I mean, you know, put it this way: there wasn’t that much of that, but I didn’t need any of it in the first place. And secondly, it was uncalled for. Getting back to what you were talking about in terms of that club thing. There are no black women in that Parkwood Jazz Club scene. What happened in terms of that: we did try to get some black women in, but they wouldn’t work for nothing. You see nobody, nobody got paid. We had 65 employees. And nobody got paid except the film writer, and Royal Stock Footage and the equipment rental place.

Distribution

CK: How was the film distributed? It was held by Grove Press Films for a long time, but then they disappeared.

EB: Well Cinema 16 originally screened it and they ran distribution too. But Grove bought Cinema 16, and about three or four years ago [1994] they closed down their film department.

CK: Right. So how is it distributed now?

EB: Well, people call me up.

CK: They just call you up and you send it to them.

EB: Right. It’s got to be put on video.

CK: Oh, you have a website too? [41] [open endnotes in new window]

EB: In fact, that’s why my wife wants me to do all this, so that I can put The Cry of Jazz up on the website.

CK: Oh! That would be fantastic!

EB: The thing that’s most amazing to me: this film is 40 years old, you know, and I still keep getting people interested in it. To me, it’s such ancient history. It’s kind of gratifying in a way to think that something you did which was essentially artistically kind of a mistake in terms of music, but can have this kind of lasting power. I was talking to my wife the other day and said well, why are people doing this? To me it’s old hat. She said look, if you are 25 years old, and you saw, you know a figure of history is now, you see Martin Luther King, leading some marches….And that’s it. And you’re 25 years old, and you see that for the first time, what would you say? And she was right, she was absolutely right, in that sense, (laughs heartily) It’s a revelation.

CK: The course that I teach the film in is an historical course on avant-garde and film in the U.S.. When we get up into the transition, in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, I’m also showing other stuff like Shirley Clarke’s films, and talking about how there’s a whole efflorescence of connection between all these different areas: of music and poetry and filmmaking , and theater and so forth. I’m trying to give the students a sense of what this whole environment was like. Anybody who says that the Eisenhower years were totally passive and quiet isn’t looking at the many ways artists were expressing things and developing things that later became full blown and open throughout the culture. Change was happening in culture. There was a lot of ferment at that time, which then in the ‘60s became obvious because of the political developments.

EB: Well abstract expressionists were brooding all over the place during the ‘60s, and aside from west coast jazz, there was all that fusion jazz, that was taking place. It’s interesting. I was producing these concerts at the Museum of Modern Art. So Willard Van Dyke came up to me one day and says, “Ed, whatever happened to that film you did?” This was 1971. He saw it in 1960. I said Grove Press distributed it. He said, “I want to give you a couple days of screenings here.” I said why? He said, “Well, that’s the most prophetic film in film history.” I said, “Yeah?” He said, “Yeah. It foretold the riots of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the reasons for them.” I said, “yeah, ok.” It didn’t strike me that way, but it was fine, I understand what he was saying.

CK: Now in the credits for the film, it said it was based on a book.

EB: That’s a book I never finished…

Later career

EB: I worked for Vanguard Records 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.

CK: And then eventually you moved to L.A.

EB: Well I left Vanguard in ‘78. We had a loft in Soho, but, as all things happen in New York, since that whole city is about real estate, the place got sold, so we had to think about what we were gonna do. I had a number of friends out here in films, you know, and I’d been invited out quite frequently to the University of California, San Diego, you know, La Jolla: as a visiting artist. So, I was out here quite frequently, and uh, made a number of contacts, and uh, so uh. All the composers opened doors for me, in terms of getting work, like Lalo Schifrin and Gerald Fried. [42]

So I was out here about 2 months, and I had my first film thing to work on which was A Soldier’s Story. [43] I got to play the orchestrator on it. Herbie Hancock did the music, to the extent that any music was done. But, anyway that was my job. I didn’t do any ghost writing, you know ‘cause it was not about getting anything like that.

Then I did the music for a film called House of Dies Drear (TV movie, d. Allan A Goldstein, 1984) which was seen all the time on the Disney channels. [44] There was another one I did, A Raisin in the Sun. It was not good for film, but you know, they put a stage play on film, happens all the time, and I scored on that. [45]

And then about that same time, people started getting interested in my compositions and I started getting commissions and records. In the meantime, it was so crazy the Hollywood scene. It was crazy. I mean, I thought the record business a bad, but it was much crazier, and it was sicker, and so… things were coming all right in terms of the concerts, and so who gives a fuck about that? And that’s the way it’s been going since. In fact, I’m working on a CD right now. It’s supposed to be out in June.

CK: Well this is really fascinating background. Obviously you’ve done so many different things, and being adaptable is absolutely central to working in this business.

I had some specific questions on a couple of moments in it. How do you feel now about the analysis that’s presented in The Cry of Jazz? The argument that that you made?

EB: Many people have asked me, why don’t you make another one? You know, and I say well, that was that, that was then. But in terms of anything additional, I would like to couch it this way: when the film was made the idea of black culture was not around. At the time we did it. You know, there may have been, maybe Herskovits had an idea or two. [46] But he wasn’t highly regarded at all.

Once you understand the argument of black culture, that there is a persistent African heritage, shaped by the fact of slavery, then the film fits right into place. But in fact, that could not exist until somewhere around the mid or the late ‘60s, when many more people started talking about it. If I had anything I would add, I would add this film existed before the concept of black culture existed as we know it now.

CK: When I first saw it, I thought, wow, this film was made about six or seven years before Leroi Jones wrote Blues People, and the argument is very similar. [47] I had the sense he must have written his book because he saw the film, or something like that. You are both arguing a similar theme about the nature of black culture and the importance of how music fit in.

EB: You know I’d never met Leroi Jones, one. Two, my friends told me when we first got there, Leroi Jones hated The Cry of Jazz. Nelam told me (he died in ’92, so I think it was about 6 or 7 years prior to that) he said that Leroi Jones was telling him how much he loved it then. And that he’d changed his mind. I never paid much attention to Amiri ‘cause I knew he didn’t know any music. And I really don’t see how one can write very much about this unless one knows at least something besides one’s feelings. The way I saw Cry of Jazz was there was a structural identity between the black experience and the nature of the music. Now Leroi Jones would not know what the structure of the music was, you see, or what the disciplines there were involved in order to achieve the various effects that were going on.

CK: Right, there is very little musicology in what he does. It’s much more about the culture of individual artists.

EB: And the way he deals with that. And fine, you know, he’s using music, I’m sure, like most people do. I mean, it’s a consumer’s thing. I like it, I don’t like it, I don’t have to know anything about it. I get a Baby Ruth, I don’t have to know how that candy bar is made I like it. (laughs heartily) And then if you’re forceful enough, you can tell people why your likes should be paid attention to.

I met Helen Levitt in New York, and she’s good friends In fact, after I met her in New York she said, “Well, I hate the film, but I really want to know how you put it together.” Just from a production angle: you get 65 people who work for nothing, and they get something done. It cost, maybe out of hand, about, two or three thousand dollars. One week we do Nelham’s paycheck, next week we do my paycheck, maybe get a little bit from Titus and a little bit from Kennedy, and then, go around again. We had to postpone some bills to keep going.

CK: Well I show those films that Helen Levitt made in my classes.

EB: The Quiet One?

CK: The Quiet One and also In the Street. [49] I think what’s happening now is that people have enough distance on things, to go back and to say, “What was going on there? Why was it going on? And let’s find out more about it.” It’s time for a re-evaluation. In terms of the whole area of independent film at that time, certain films got a lot of attention remained famous. Those are the ones that people keep writing about and, teachers keep teaching. I’ve always been interested in other ones that in a certain way haven’t gotten the same amount of attention. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been interested in your film. One of the things that I just see is how the students have reacted to it. They say, “Wow, that was made, that was made in 1959, I can’t believe it.” They’re really surprised and they’re really provoked into thinking.

EB: Yeah well, all kinds of little things like that provoke thought. The film I worked on in 1950, doing the music, To Live Together: there’s a line in it that’s particularly cruel. One of the white girls is talking about one of the black girls, and she says, “Oh, it’s ok, they’re human, at least they’re human too. That’s what my father says.” And that just struck me, I said, “Wow, that’s very nice of her to say the words, human too.” And that’s why that line is in Cry there, you know, it fed off that. The assumption, or the arrogance as if nobody can question their humanity. And, if one did, you know, on what basis? Let’s just do it another way. And, I just thought to myself, it’s just interesting to me, that this is happening, that this interest is so hilarious. (laughs) But it kind of makes me feel good.

CK: I think artists often don’t know who’ve they’ve affected, especially when you do something like film, cause it goes out in the world and you don’t necessarily know all the audiences that are experiencing it. But when something is live performance, you know who experienced it. But when it’s recorded, and it goes off in another way, it can go on for years and I think that s the wonderful thing about the film: it exists. So we can still see it, we can still enjoy it.

EB: You know. Well, what’s even more interesting to me is getting the dovetail into something that is happening with my music right now. Namely this project that I’m working on. I’ve been hanging out with some rappers, in south central L.A. and I didn’t realize that education had gotten to this point where people can’t complete any more than two words together. Well, this is becoming interesting, this became interesting because it’s something that’s happening with the music. Anyway, I’ve been hanging out with these rappers, at a kind of community center arts place. It reminds me again when I was growing up. And the guy who runs it teaches film at Cal Arts, he runs the film department up at Cal Arts, Ben Caldwell.

CK: BEN CALDWELL!?

EB: You know Ben?

CK: I know Ben! I interviewed him about 5 years ago. Does he still have that little storefront?

EB: Yeah, KAOS Network. That’s where it’s all been happening. [49]

CK: I just love his work and, of course it fits together! I see all the connections now.

EB: Now, Every Thursday night, there’s a rap jam session, of these up and coming rappers. Some of them want to know how to read music, so, I have a class.

You know, I own my own time, no obligation, you know, it’s fine. I’m halfway curious about how these people think, you know, and what’s the divide. And it’s like teaching my grandchildren. This kid who I’ve been introducing to Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Pound, and telling him about that and the politics. But to get him look at it in terms of craft, that’s all. I didn’t expect the kid to go to the library, to get the books. I was shocked. And, he had these scarecrow clothes on (laughs) Three words was just about all he could say at once, and then you had to figure out what he’d said, you. But, he’s sitting there listening to this CD I have coming out. And then he turns to me, he says, “You write rap.” I said, “What?” You know I didn’t say anything. “Yeah. Rap, without words.” (claps his hands) And then it suddenly hit me, what he was saying... In the same way that the music is talking to his generation, so on, so forth, the film is too. And that is very satisfying, especially since I’m in good health. (laughs heartily) And plan on staying that way.

This kid is about the same age as my daughter, 23, the youngest, and I can talk to her just like that to, so, this is, it’s getting to be interesting. I just wish The Cry of Jazz, was made a little better, but, it’s representative.

CK: Well you know I think there’s been a change too. In the later part 1980s I think in terms of video, a lot of people who were making work were much more willing to make something that was very didactic: “I’m gonna put forward a position, this is what it is,” and so forth. But I think before that, it had been really discouraged in media making.

There were a whole lot of things that were going on, especially the attack on arts funding and stuff like that, suddenly artists who before hadn’t ever questioned very much were suddenly saying, “well wait a minute: why is the government trying to take our money away, or why are they trying to censor us?” And I think a lot more people became actively involved. Then people from other social movements who were organizing around AIDS, the women’s movement, stuff like that.

EB: With video it was so easy to do.

CK: Right. They had positions to put forward. We want to argue for things. And I think now people accept that much more, it’s like, of course if someone has a strong opinion and they make a work of art demonstrating that, it’s not so exceptional. In that sense, Cry of Jazz has an audience today…

EB: Very good point.

CK: I don’t think that you have to apologize very much for the way that it was made. It’s obvious it was made on low budget.

EB: Well I’m a perfectionist. That, that’s why to me, it’s kind of a strange thing to have in my background. I don’t do anything until I know it’s gonna be so smooth and so polished. But it’s the only thing I’ve ever done out of anger. In the sense that, obviously there’s anger behind the work, in this film it shows. In my other work, you’ll get an anger, but it’s never up front. I was noticing in the late ‘60s and ‘70s too, the cinema verité movement came along, which made art of the things that people hate, so many things had happened in The Cry of Jazz visually and stuff, began to be art, suddenly. Not that we were thinking cinema verité, in all honesty we weren’t. It was just a matter of what we didn’t know, it was our crudity. But that crudity is now art. (laughs heartily) And now, didacticism is kind of the accepted norm because of so many competing positions that have to be documented. And because of the ease of use, video equipment. You know everybody can be a video filmmaker. It’s not like carrying a Mitchell or an Arriflex around. Interesting, how things just change. Some things for the better. Or to one’s gain. It’s funny.

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