Third Annual New York Jazz Film Festival Living Up to Its Promise
-- Harlem based festival creates opportunities for jazz musicians to act on screen --
Black Jazz News Staff
Director Andre' Joseph (right) and tenor saxophonist/actor Beavin Lawrence (left) for Best Film The Saxophonist at the 2018 NYJFF held at Paris Blues in Harlem on Sunday, August 26, 2018.
Three years after the Jazz Times’ piece “First Annual New York Jazz Film Festival Coming This November” was published, the Third Annual New York Jazz Film Festival which presented its awards at the historic Harlem jazz club Paris Blues this past Sunday, has kept its promise to “put jazz back in the streets and showcase jazz musician-actors”. NYJFF, the first of its kind to exclusively screen films related to jazz, fills a void of a music long abandoned not only by Hollywood, but by the African-American public at large who once cultivated the once popular music it created; a national treasure and the forefather and foremother of Rock & Roll, R&B and yes, Hip Hop.
NYJFF founder and celebrated jazz musician Gregory Charles Royal has been an advocate for preserving instrumental music, particularly jazz in the Black community, for over a decade with American Youth Symphony, producers of NYJFF which he runs with his wife, non-profit activist Sue Veres Royal. AYS has produced television, theatrical, and film projects with the assistance of celebrated musicians such as National Symphony Orchestra violinist Marissa Regni; clergy such as the legendary Dr. James A. Forbes Jr.; and celebrities such as American Idol/Rent actress Frenchie Davis and CNN/FOX/et al. contributor, Vh1 Love and Hip Hop star Dr. Jeff Gardere . The purpose of these projects is to present jazz in popular culture to a generation who has grown up on a diet of electronic sounds and to a Black generation who often views singing and rapping as their only musical options.
Enter the Third Annual New York Jazz Film Festival where after two prior years of the Royals preaching on the importance of the jazz musician, particularly the Black jazz musician, to embrace the film medium as actors and to bring jazz back into the mainstream; two projects, The Saxophonist, which won this year's Best Film honors and the NYJFF 2018 Landmark Project Giant Steps -- a dramatic comedy television series -- have lit a spark.
The Saxophonist, conceived and written by Brooklyn native Andre’ Joseph, casts a vibrant young jazz musician, Beavin Lawrence, as the lead with a roughly 35 person cast. The film’s tagline reads “a struggling young jazz saxophonist is torn between love and career”. The conscience choice by Joseph to tell his story in this manner is crucial as there have been dramatic jazz films in the past, they featured actors impersonating musicians. There is something intangibly unique and curious about experiencing the story and the artistry from a single person.
Giant Steps (https://vimeo.com/283613126) which morphed from a 2017 pilot test sitcom to a 2018 dramatic comedy about Black rival New York Jazz musicians, evidences the jazz 'mainstream' itself catching onto the idea. Originally featuring legendary bassist Mickey Bass, Royal, and Lauren Hill saxophonist Brent Birckhead, the first year found many musicians shying away from the opportunity to be cast. After testing on Amazon Prime and the positive reaction and a subsequent controversy (http://www. blacknews.com/news/giant-steps-new-jazz-sitcom-controversy- white-college-students-rant/#.W4bKBc4zrIE) on social media, the 2018 reworking had no problem with top musicians signing on. They included Mark Gross ; James Zoller ; the Johnson Brothers Billy and Mark; Anthony Wonsey; and Bobby Lavell -- all veteran New York musicians with extensive resumes -- who Royal says were naturals, having worked with them over decades in the bands of Duke Ellington, Broadway shows and other projects.
More telling is that the project caught the eye of acutely aware social luminaries such as Wendy Oxenhorn of the Jazz Foundation of America and television personality Dr. Jeff Gardere who as a native jazz loving New Yorker, with a bona fide Harlem presence as Assistant Professor and Course Director of Behavioral Medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in Harlem, signed on as a producer and was cast in a principal role.
These TV/film projects absolutely normalize the existence of a jazz musician in a scripted program as was the Black comedian in the early 1990’s with Def Comedy Jam; the jazz musician can expand his/her horizons and comfort zone to bring their talents to screen. Oddly, the 'jazz-actor' is merely a lost concept as it was common in the Golden Age of Hollywood with artists such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and many others.
(L to R) Dilip Varma, Gregory Charles Royal, Dominique Varma. John Ochs and Andre' Joseph.
Two other films received awards at the presentation: Swingtime in Limousin -- Posthumous Documentary Award, and Piano Jazz Chicago Style! -- Historic Documentary Award. The films pay homage to the historic contributions of an advocate of jazz and of jazz styles.
Swingtime in Limousin, Directed by Dominique and Dilip Varma is about the contributions of Jean-Marie Masse who died in 2015 after 75 years of promoting jazz and musicians, including American musicians, in France . The Varmas, who travelled from France to accept the award, also offered words in the Q&A with other filmmakers on the state of streaming film distribution. They cited the dilemma that although many of the streaming platforms have made it accessible for filmmakers to show their work, the platforms have not shared a commensurate amount of revenue with filmmakers to remain viable.
Piano Jazz Chicago Style!, directed by John Ochs, a long time jazz program producer out of Seattle, Washington, is a performance/narration about the various Chicago jazz piano styles and personal experiences with the musicians who performed them through the eyes and fingers of pianist Ray Skjelbred. The filmed performance by Mr. Skjelbred was recorded live and mostly unedited.
The NYJFF 2018 Official Selections included the following jazz films:
The Sound of Selflessness directed by Nelson Salis-- is about the musical approach of saxophonist John O’Gallagher.
George Garzone: Let Be What Is directed by Theron Patterson and Can Kozlu -- is about the influence and teachings of the eponymous saxophonist.
The Stars of American Jazz in Astana directed by Arsene Bayanov and Produced by Askar Alimzhanov -- is about the vibrant burgeoning jazz scene for American jazz performers in Astana, Kazakhstan.
Sting of the Cactus directed by Bekky O'Neil -- is a fun-filled animated music video about singer-songwriter Ori Dagan's journey in jazz, from the streets of Toronto to the world stage. Dagan also performed a selection at the presentation. The films are available to view FREE online until August 31, 2018 at the New York Jazz Film Festival’s Facebook Page @NYJFF. https://www.facebook.com/nyjff/
Copyright 2018 Black Jazz News/ SVR & Associates. All rights reserved.
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