Category Archives: Film

The Cry of Jazz: Q & A with director Edward Bland

coj2by Damon Locks (original interview appeared in Stop Smiling)

cry_of_jazz4The Cry of Jazz, Edward Bland’s 1959 film, makes the argument that jazz is the embodiment of the spirit of African-American life. Filmed in Chicago with vintage footage of the Sun Ra Arkestra, as well as an astonishing glimpse of Chicago in the fifties, the film’s aesthetic value is almost as impressive as its content: Bland’s take on race and culture in America is still ahead of its time, almost 50 years later. 

 

For the late Fifties, there are a lot of complex and challenging ideas about race in your film. How was the film received when it was first released? 

It was considered the work of madmen. Black racists. At best it was considered a personal statement. Bad music, bad thinking, bad acting, bad writing and bad photography. Unfair to jazz, because we made jazz a political act. Kenneth Tynan, drama critc of the London Observer, called it historic, in that it was the first challenge to whites by blacks done in film. Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Nat Hentoff, hated it.

On the other hand, many younger American whites were surprised that we were so kind to them. Among filmakers moved by the film were Willard Van Dyke, Emile De Antonio, Lionel Rogosin, Jonas Mekas, Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie. It was a common observation among Chicago blacks in the 1930s and 40s that whites were soulless people. The historical and aesthetic evolution of the term soul and the incisiveness of that observation has been watched by me over the years with a bemused detachment. It struck me as a kind and gentle rebuke given Black history in the US. Years later it was realized that what we were talking about was American Black Culture and its impact nationally and internationally…a sort of “soft power.” The concept of Black culture was not around in the US until 10 or 15 years later as far as we knew.

What inspired you to tackle the subject matter of jazz and how it relates to race and culture?

Growing up as a jazz musician who later turned to musical composition – so called art music – jazz struck me as a perfect metaphorical construct thru which to formally examine Black American life in the present moment and historically.

The film has a lot of prophetic notions about jazz. Do you think that its ideas have played themselves to the conclusion predicted? Did jazz die?  

Currently jazz is yesterday’s news. It is now primarily an academic exercise. In fact it was on it’s way out when we started making The Cry. The first step away was the Delta blues, r&b and Little Richard who gave birth to Elvis and all of rock & roll. The second step away was hip hop.

As to the notion that jazz is dead, similar things have been said about contemporary hip-hop culture. Do you see any parallels with the two genres and how they reflect and respond to black culture?

Hip hop is poetry, not music. It needs music in order to strengthen its poetic message, like opera. It is revolutionary on a number of levels. The stars of hip hop own themselves, their music publishing, their recordings (if they choose to) and have allied businesses like clothing and jewelry lines. The “soft power” of American black culture, with its international impact, has come of age thru hip hop.

Why did you chose The Sun Ra Arkestra to perform for the film? 

We made The Cry on less than a shoestring budget. I knew of Sun Ra’s music and that he owned the recordings and his publishing rights. So we licensed it from his company, thus avoiding the costs of recording sessions. Most importantly the music was great for the spirit of the film.

There is an underlying sexual dynamic between one of the white women characters and the African-American lead character. I think that is an interesting element of the the film that creates tension. Is there something that you were addressing by including that dynamic?

There was a sexual dynamic between two of the actors. Yes, we were addressing American sexual racism.

The mixed race dynamic in the film creates a great setting for the discussion that takes place but African-American women are not represented in the film. Was this an artistic choice?

We got 65 people (black & white) to donate their services/labor to the film. They worked for free. We paid their expenses. We paid for film stock, rentals of cameras and sound equipment and motion picture labs. The actors were among the 65 people who were given contracts, in case substantial monies were made. We were unable to find any black actresses who would work for free. This was circa 1958.

Have you found that there is a consistent interest over the years in the film?

In the 60s and 70s there was quite a bit of interest in Black Studies departments in colleges and universities. Since the early 1990s there has been considerable interest including artcles, honors and a DVD release.

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You Weren’t There – A History Of Chicago Punk 1977-1984

yourwerentthere

Filmmakers Joe Losurdo and Christina Tillman explore the early days of the Chicago punk scene. Joe takes some time to talk about the documentary, hardcore and “the kids.”

Interview by Damon Locks

Can you tell me a little about your histories in the Chicago punk scene and why you felt it was important to document the birth of the scene?

I became aware of punk in general through my older sister around 1977-78 and she’s the one who gave me the Effigies Haunted Town EP in 1981. It really was a revelation because before then, Chicago had many new wave/power pop bands, but very few punk bands. I started going to Wax Trax Records around 1979 and I would pickup records and fanzines there but due to my age (born in 1969) I wasn’t able to go to shows until late 83. Chris is from Toledo, Ohio so she was tied in with that Necros scene. As far as why we wanted to document the scene, I just felt that the Chicago Punk scene was very different than it’s counterparts on the coasts. It was pretty much like being stuck on an island and that fostered a loose knit coalition of like-minded people who very into this bizarre (at the time) form of music. There was also no chance of any kind of success, so you could do whatever you wanted musically.

How & why did you choose the time frame focused on in the film?

1977-1984 really represents the “golden” era of Punk and Hardcore. It was still fresh and constantly evolving. After that era, you could see “punk” bands on MTV, and the majors started getting their tentacles in there.

Which of the Chicago bands had the biggest influence on your participation in the Chicago punk scene?

The Effigies, Naked Raygun, Strike Under, Articles Of Faith, Negative Element, ROTA, etc. Naked Raygun shows were so unbelievably fun back then. As a little kid going these shows, I would always go and talk to the bands and they couldn’t have been nicer. Even people who had reputations as being assholes like Steve Albini, ROTA, etc. were in fact, super friendly and personable.

As first time filmmakers, was the technology of making a film a huge hurdle for you?

It wasn’t too bad. Chris has a background in design so she knows her way around a Mac and me being a musician and  “recording enthusiast” helped. It’s pretty amazing what you can do with things like Final Cut and a decent quality camera these days. I probably wouldn’t have attempted this project with the old school methods. It would have been too expensive and difficult.

We are in a period of time where there has been a fair amount of recollecting images, thoughts and music from the era of the burgeoning American punk scene. Given the immediacy of the punk sentiment at its inception do you think there is any contradiction in ideology to collect, document, re-package and make fetishes of the elements of punk?

I don’t think so. People collected punk pretty much from its inception. It was a music scene after all, albeit one that had cultural and sometimes political implications. I think it’s important to document these movements because they are a snapshot of a certain time. To me, the punk movement in the context of the era is just as important as the music was.

At the end of the film, several of the band people remark on their feelings of punk music today. How do you feel about what is punk music today?

This is a difficult one for me to answer. I still play in a hardcore group called Regress and have many friends who still play in hardcore/punk bands. I will say that the most disappointing aspect of the punk scene today is how conservative it is. People forget that in the early 80’s you could have groups as different as Flipper, the Minutemen, Discharge, and the Misfits on the same bill. Today, those bands would all have their own “genre” and only play with groups exactly like them. And you really can’t re-capture the excitement of something new. Even the shows I first went to as late as 83, there was still an electricity in the air because kids were so excited to be there. Kids today seem bored and depressed. We were bored and depressed too, but punk and hardcore was our sanctuary and escape. We didn’t just want it…we needed it.

Given the inherent difficulties of making a film using your own money, time and elbow grease…will you make another?

I’m definitely pursuing film but I doubt I’ll do another documentary. It is a shitload of work! This one was close to my heart so it was worth it. 



 

http://regressivefilms.com/

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