What does jazz’s Old Guard think of the music industry today and what was it like to come up into it? Filmmaker/producer, drummer and jazz lover Ben Makinen has just released a documentary called JazzTown that examines the changes in the music biz and the performing life. With a loving eye to the greats who prevailed through all their battle scars, challenges and the joys of being a musician, the film is an incredibly entertaining and vibeful experience where the artists, some now gone, provide their honest opinions on how it was to be part of the mid-century jazz scene in America. Some of those featured include Dianne Reeves, Ron Miles, Charles Burrell, Ayo Awosika, Charlie Hunter, Creighton Holley, and many others. A very strong recommend.
Do you remember when you first heard jazz, and why was the moment so impactful for you?
Memory is a funny thing: I grew up hearing a lot of jazz before ever remembering the name of a song. It was all just music.
My father was a huge jazz fan, having grown up with it in Detroit on the 1950s. He also took my mother to hear Coltrane play live in a small nightclub a few years before I was born. He had a wonderful jazz record collection and as young children we lived in San Francisco where jazz was played in the streets and in the parks all summer long.
Jazz was all around me growing up. During the ’70s, there was a lot more jazz on television and I would be allowed to stay up late with my dad and older brother to watch the Johnny Carson Show with its big band.
I hadn’t been taught to internalized any of this music as jazz music per se. My parents had a lot of classical music and ’60s-’70s rock as well in their record collections. I do have a memory from 8th grade when the distinct awareness of it being jazz music hit me hard- a swingin’ ride cymbal drivin’ a big band! ALL MUSIC has an emotional impact for me regardless of genre.
I was living with my mother in a small rodeo hicktown in central Washington State called Ellensburg, and one of the older drummers from the high school came to pick me up in his car one Friday night, with my mother’s permission, to take me to the VFW hall and listen to the Glenn Miller Big Band that had come to town. This would’ve been around 1979. This was the first time I had ever seen a live big band up close on stage: the musicians in tuxedos with soft, golden-glowing stand lights, the audience dressed up and dancing on the floor beneath the sparkling disco ball – the nightclub vibe, with dark shadows in the corner – the secret world of adults at night, but without parents! It was pure magic. And when the music started, I was transported to a time and place I had never been yet where I felt I belonged.
It’s funny to think, and to admit, that it was the Glenn Miller songbook that moved me
so powerfully that night, but the power of nostalgia within the contemporary atmosphere I described above plus watching and feeling the drummer drive the bus…it all transformed me.
The first jazz song I can remember by name is “Sing, Sing, Sing.” When I first listened to the Benny Goodman 1938 Carnegie Hall performance of this in my dad’s record collection, I was nearly moved to tears of joy! This led me to Count Basie and Ellington…Then I quickly got hooked on John Coltrane Live at Birdland, and it was just off to the races.
When did you start playing drums?
I had been drumming on things since I was two. My mother tells me I was watching Sesame Street on TV when the Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji came on with his large hand drum. I turned over my cylindrical can of Linkin’ Logs (wooden toys) and began playing along with him. I never stopped and my poor mother suffered through early mornings of me banging on the breakfast table for many years.
What were the biggest lessons you’ve learned about the business from your time performing?
One of the biggest lessons I have learned having been in the music business for over 40 years is that the business is separate from the art. I wish someone had helped me to understand that a long time ago because there is a lot of pain and struggle for the artist who fails to appreciate and respect the distinction and to not be threatened by it. When an artist is struggling with the business, it’s dangerously easy to question and blame the art, to feel as if it is the art that has failed to deliver on a promise that was never clearly defined from the start. That is when artists consider giving up or worse, self-harming themselves through abusive addictions.
Many of life’s lessons I learned performing professionally from a young age. Touring with Broadway shows doing one- and two-nighters across North America, (sometimes 38 shows in 31 days for four months in a row) trained me to perform consistently at the drop of a hat regardless of my physical comfort or health. No time or place for excuses – and good reason to learn to stay healthy because “you are easily replaced with a phone call!”
Young musicians that come out of the university system tend to develop warm-up routines that serve as a crutch – they feel they need to go through these before going onstage. Professional touring will not always allow you that, so you have to learn how to throw the switch and do what you’ve already spent years training to do.
When I joined Colorado’s legendary bluesman David Booker’s band I was on stage under the bright lights every night rather than tuxedoed in a dark shadow-filled Broadway show pit. He taught us all many lessons about how to comport yourself as a (somewhat!) responsible adult and how to dress professionally and how to dress the part of an entertainer: the music always came first, but to walk on stage you had to look the part. He thought the band should always be better-dressed than the audience. It was show business! Which meant he took us shopping at thrift stores and got us excited about finding vintage clothing and lectured us about reinvesting a bit of what he paid us back into our wardrobe…flashy and fancy does not have to be expensive, but it does take effort!
The arts are notorious for attracting strong personalities who make no attempt to hide their internal struggles with alcohol and substance abuse. In fact, in live music especially – blues, rock and jazz – it’s almost celebrated…so most of a person’s professional experiences become dealing with people who are under the influence and as a result can be very erratic and abusive.
One of the very hard lessons especially for younger people is to learn what your boundaries are and how to set them. How to recognize a situation that is not beneficial for you despite being financially rewarding; learning how not to remain trapped to a paycheck, so to speak, but to trust in knowing that it’s more important to seek out a healthier environment to work in and not worry about the immediate loss of income. And that lesson goes directly back to the need for musicians to comprehend the business side of things, particularly financial literacy and how to have at least three months of savings tucked away so that you can leave an unhealthy environment immediately and be self-sustaining for a couple months until you get more work. When I was young (pre-internet days), this was known as “always have enough cash in your pocket to by a bus ticket back home!”
Of course, playing in theaters and bars and nightclubs nearly every night of the week for many many years, you get to meet and understand many different kinds of people. That is perhaps one of the greatest gifts – connecting with humanity in all of its shapes and sizes and colors and accents and learning to recognize what we all have in common while at the same time celebrating, or at least respecting, the differences that make us all so wonderfully unique.
Before I became a pro I had been an extremely shy person and performing forced me, uncomfortably so at first, to become more extroverted and social. That’s something anyone considering going into live performance should be on the lookout for because the danger is that a person starts using alcohol and drugs as a means of coping with this discomfort and as a means of appearing fantastically extroverted and confident under the spotlight and in front of large audiences.
It’s very important to never let drugs and alcohol cloud a relationship with art because as children when we fell in love with and were comforted by these artistic impulses it was in the complete absence of alcohol and drugs. The fact that substance abuse can destroy one’s business and personal life as well should be obvious.
Why did you decide to make this film?
I made JazzTown as a way to honor and celebrate my early musical mentors and to ask them if there was anything they wanted to leave behind for those that followed. My goal was to simply express to them my thanks and gratitude for their patience and knowledge by way of preserving at least a small part of their story and their life for future generations. I knew that most of them, once dead and gone, would become forgotten footnotes in dusty tomes of jazz history, for despite having once performed and recorded with the marquee names of yesterday’s jazz giants, they had either chosen to live the rest of their lives out flying beneath the radar, or were simply overlooked. Either way, they had all helped to keep the flame of jazz burning bright in small clubs scattered throughout a big city filled with country and rock music. They were also the last generation of jazz musicians to have learned the craft before there were any university programs teaching jazz: entirely from the streets and the clubs and the jam sessions; from playing on the road in touring bands.
All of us who learned from them learned things that are not to be found in the university programs.
How did you decide on whom to interview? What did your research involve?
I began by choosing the musicians with whom I’d been closest, those who had directly mentored me and with whom I eventually began to perform with. I had a master list of about a dozen questions that was designed to cover a little bit of past, present and future, as well as their thoughts on the business of music l, how they survived, and to share any recipes for success snd advice for future generations. These questions were designed to be guides and conversation-starters. I knew I wanted to ask everyone for their own definition of Jazz . And I knew I wanted to ask them all about the economics of jazz: how they made a living at it, why it’s so hard to make a living and why have the wages remain frozen for so long?
I really did not do much research at all with the exception of Dianne Reeves and then Governor John Hickenlooper. Because I didn’t know either of them personally, I was very careful to respect their time and busy schedules. I had crafted questions that showed I had an understanding of their life’s work. I read newspaper interviews with the governor, who was preparing to leave office after two terms (he is now a US senator), and familiarized myself with the topics and accomplishments he wanted his legacy to be remembered for, and I tied this into my questioning. Including Governor Hickenlooper was a natural choice, given that back in the early 1990s I was working as a sound man in a jazz club that he was part owner of. He was making Colorado’s first micro-brews (beer) and booking jazz acts like McCoy Tyner! So he had a lot to say about jazz.
For documentary films especially, it’s often suggested that a person does a lot of research first and while that does have merit, in my case I saw that as a great obstacle to getting started, especially when the people I wanted to interview were growing old fast and dying. For the most part I knew them and they knew me, so it was really like asking to come over for a cup of coffee and “oh by the way can I set up a film camera and record you?” I simply didn’t have the time go down to the library and start digging, and many of these people had close to no information at all about them on the internet. Interestingly enough, my interviews became the research and I ended up learning so much about them that I never knew even after years spent playing with them on stage!
What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
Doing it entirely by myself. Having to become proficient in the many aspects of filmmaking, post-production, legal, distribution and marketing was mostly an empowering and fulfilling experience. I had already been producing music and was a competent music editor, and I had been shooting film for a decade (although much less practiced in editing film) and had shot and produced a number of music videos. So I had enough skill to confidently jump into making a feature film, and I was ignorant enough not to be afraid!
I had no clue how hard it really is – I made a tremendous number of mistakes! I was challenged to face my deficiencies and that is how I began to learn the nuances of filmmaking both technically and from a storytelling perspective. I should add that I began to really fall in love with these people in the edit room and this is quite dangerous. I became enthralled with their stories and on-screen presence that I forgot to keep the edit tight and moving forward…I began to forget about my audience and to edit for myself. I took some constructive criticism from my brother, who is a professional copy editor, former actor and huge movie buff, and went back to the editing room with a sharpened razor. This also allowed me to consider the possibilities of making additional movies and behind-the-scenes reels with all that I was cutting out.
What made these things all the more challenging was that over the course of the thirteen years it took to complete the film, I went through two divorces, a slow and painful death of my father to cancer, and the eventual need to sell nearly everything I owned from my drums and recording gear to my car and finally to my home in order to complete the film. There were also natural disasters (floods) that almost destroyed my hard drives that sent an entire home sliding down a cliff narrowly missing our home (miraculously not a single person was hurt!). During this time, there were people close to me telling me I was either crazy, wasting my time, or that I didn’t know what I was doing, etc. Finding the kind of support that is helpful to balance that was difficult for me because I was keeping my project somewhat hidden from the public for all of the fears associated with doing something of this magnitude for the first time.
There were of course those who were very supportive and encouraging and I am grateful for their voices. What was challenging working on my own was creating timelines (ha!), setting (lots of mini) goals, and maintaining momentum (being your own drill sergeant and cheerleader) while finding time and making money. (Much of this time I was a single father with full custody of my young daughter living on a jazz drummer’s earnings…)
Being self-taught and learning on the fly with filmmaking means you’re oftentimes trying to reinvent the wheel that someone else has already made. There are obviously creative benefits to this and more room for happy accidents to occur, yet it means it may take a lot longer and that you’re going to fall down a lot more often. It also means you’re probably not surrounded by very many people who want to help you get back up and encourage you to keep going as was the was the case for me.
A person who decides to undertake this by themselves needs to be on the lookout for becoming too isolated. There is a balance to protect your creative vision and process vs. the need to stay connected with like-minded creators, mentors and friends. I was also fortunate in that every time I sat down to edit, I would look into the faces of my mentors and hear their music and their voices and I knew I was on the right track.
Why did you decide on Denver as a setting?
I chose Denver simply because that’s where I had been living and that’s where I got my start as a jazz drummer, so I knew the clubs the stages and the people very well; I had access. The making of this film would’ve been a very different process had I had to fly into another city on a timeline with a budget. In that case, pre-planning and research would be absolutely critical.
I had no timeline and I had no budget but I did have access to all of these amazing musicians and I knew the city inside and out. If I missed one person’s performance on a given night, I could go find them the next week It also gave me great flexibility to go over to their homes and spend time with them on their off days.
For those who have passed on, if you had the chance, how would you update them about jazz in today’s post-pandemic world?
If I could update any of the musicians from JazzTown who have died on what post-COVID jazz sounds like I would simply play them recordings of what’s going on. They’re smart enough to know what to make of that. Great jazz musicians are never surprised to see the music change and adapt and take on new shapes.
That is the spirit of jazz after all. Those who do not like the way it’s changing /the new sounds and styles tend to say things like “jazz is dead” and what they mean is that the jazz that they grew to love and play is gone. I think they would be happy to see that some people were creative and clever enough to find new ways to perform and make money particularly with the in-home concerts that were streamed. The fact that many clubs went out of business due to COVID would’ve been sad but of course this has happened before, particularly when jazz lost its popularity after the ’40s and downsized from the big bands to small combos and went underground, so to speak, into the nightclubs and then again in the ’60s when it took a back seat to rock ’n’ roll, and again in the ’70s, when pop radio and disco clubs ruled…I think the only thing that would really surprise the musicians who have passed on would be to find out that relations between musicians and club owners/concert promoters have developed to a healthy and equitable level. That would be a shocking but pleasant surprise that has not happened yet: the musicians now in their 80s recall more economically healthy times when the unions were stronger, when the Mafia controlled the music biz, and when bands were booked for a week at a time.
Interestingly enough, it is the people who reinvented the 19th-century “rent party” by live streaming their gigs from their living rooms who may be the ones that have found a solution – an end run around the middlemen and gatekeepers (club owners). It’s quite similar to busking on a street corner, which I did for more than a few years, where the consumer of music puts their entire “purchase,” their tip, straight into your bucket – straight into your pocket. You set your own hours and play the music you want to play.
Obviously with the internet, your street corner has over 1 billion people potentially listening and you have absolutely zero need to sell any beverages and you have zero need to keep anyone dancing: you can focus entirely on your music and the way in which you want to entertain or interact with your audience completely on your own terms. It does change dramatically the nature of the performance… But that’s jazz! That’s where jazz is going in the immediate future – it’s going become more tiny desk concerts and live streaming from small living rooms …more music will be made via Zoom-like conference calls (internet collabs) where individuals playing in small chambers are mixed together either live or in post to appear live.
Do you agree that jazz is dead, or do you think of the current university music programs as feeders for the jazz scene and that jazz is always evolving?
Jazz is a spirit and as such can never die. It is in constant motion; always changing and evolving. In that context, it is easy to understand what is meant by people like drummer Gene Bass in JazzTown when he says, “Jazz as we know it is gone.” What he is saying is that the style he considers to be the greatest will never be performed authentically again. It simply cannot because the people and conditions of life that gave rise to it have all naturally changed. That’s life. That’s jazz.
Most all of the popular subgenres of jazz – Dixieland, swing, bebop, hardbop, cool jazz, avant-garde, fusion – enjoy about 10-20 years of popularity until the innovations dry up and they then become a style of music that is standardized and imitated. To some that means dead.
The universities have done a great job of preserving this music of codifying it or distilling it and refining the pedagogy of technique and theory. They have also created advanced laboratories in which to study and refine the music. Students of jazz at the university level are becoming master technicians with exposure to a lot of advanced theory, rhythm and harmony and access to curated global musical resources. In essence, the universities have turned jazz into a classical music and, as such, the training creates musicians who have a skill set that once only belonged to classically trained musicians: advanced reading, writing, and technique. The music students they turn out into the professional world are very enthusiastic and well equipped to preserve and re-create the music of the past. In some cases, they feel empowered to expand boundaries with advanced harmony and metric modulation, and occasionally to sneak old melodies into contemporary-sounding arrangements (a celebrated jazz tradition), but for the most part, at least from the perspective of many US universities, their goals appear to be mastering and reproducing curated hits (standards) of yesteryear.
Because the universities de-emphasize the blues (seemingly too simplistic to study in a PhD-fueled university atmosphere), one of the unintended consequences of the university system approach to jazz is the loss of what I call The Big Voice: your unique sound, powerful and individualistic. This is the voice found at the core of all great jazz musicians being dissected in the laboratory. From Armstrong to Hawkins to Rollins to Fitzgerald to Miles to Getz to Corea to Brecker…they all have a sound instantly recognizable, a big, bold, confident and unique voice.
I believe that comes from the fact that they all developed before jazz was taught in schools (and the old greats developed their technique without microphone amplification). They did not learn music at university; they learned while playing it in the streets, at jam sessions, on stage by touring night after night and as such their incubation period was much shorter from the time they were imitating their teachers and heroes to the time they developed their distinct voices. Part of this was necessary to survive and distinguish yourself from others and to be hired but a large part of it was simply because of the freedom jazz offered and demanded: say what you want to say strongly, confidently, in your own voice!
The masters were innovators and the irony found in university jazz education is that the study of innovation leads to imitation and imitation is not celebrated as a distinguishing quality of jazz.
The voices coming out of the university system today sound attenuated to me: less dynamic storytelling from the heart, more fiery technique and musical gymnastics.
A big part of that is the de-emphasis of the blues at the collegiate level. Blues music allows for a more primal emotional expression than the precision and technique being taught to whip through 2-5-1 turnarounds with advanced substitutions. It is simply easier to grade on advanced techniques than it is to grade a student’s compelling emotional honesty in musical expression. How can one codify and grade the subjective?
Which brings up the other component of pre-university jazz development, and that shorter incubation period I mentioned. A person began living their life within society at a younger age and thus began experiencing the emotional highs and lows, the joys and pains and hardships of a working adult life, that lead to more compelling and universal storytelling. The musicians coming out of university are stepping out of a life spent within a protective bubble. This is not a criticism; this is simply a way of explaining why their musicianship, their soloing and storytelling, lack the depth of those whose inspiration they are generally copying and channeling. And to be fair, it’s not that they don’t have any life experience to share, quite the opposite: they have just as much as any other 22- or 25-year-old in school, it’s just a set of experiences that are not as universal as the kind of storytelling the musicians of old brought to the bandstand.
And this brings us to another obstacle the university jazz musician is challenged to overcome: breaking with tradition and striking out on their own contemporary path at the risk of being labeled a traitor to jazz (or simply a failure in the school system).
Depending who is directing the jazz program at any given university, one of the tendencies is to become enthralled with the sanctity of jazz as it is being disseminated at your school so that the minute you stray away from the syllabus, you risk losing the support and possibly the grades and possibly the love and respect of your professors and peers. They may simply say, “Oh, that’s okay. But it’s not jazz.” Or they may completely ostracize you, possibly creating the apologist who says, “Well, I studied jazz, but my music isn’t really jazz…”
This is compounded by the fact that if you begin gigging successfully as a jazz standard cover band/musician then you also risk a potential financial suicide by disappointing and abandoning your fan base or rather having your fan base abandon you, should you branch out in search of your own unique voice and musical concept.
The irony here being that what defines the jazz musician deemed to be great and worthy of study and emulation does exactly that: has a history of change, adaptability, and growth as an artist.
The more clever university directors allow for the hip-hopification of jazz so that students study all the same classic jazz material but they are encouraged to perform it within any given contemporary genre, as a well-intentioned method of remaining culturally relevant (and for keeping the students invested in class).
In the 1980s, my high school band director accomplished just this by adding the theme to Rocky (with a disco beat), and Weather Report’s Birdland (fusion) among the Basie and Ellington charts. These made us all feel like we were playing something modern from “our” generation, despite them already being close to ten-year-old songs.
Were there any surprises for you along the way?
I was quite surprised at the number of people who declined to sit for an interview and for the reasons they offered. There were a couple of young women who declined to be interviewed, stating that they did not think they were worthy of speaking on the topic of jazz despite my having played with them on stage and assuring them I felt they had a very valid voice and opinion in the matter. I was also surprised by one older musician who actually talked himself out of being in the movie by insisting that he retain editorial control over his segments. He was afraid I would use his name and reputation simply to boost the popularity of my film. That was a bit surprising as his “fame” did not extend beyond the borders of Colorado. He was a smart guy with a lot to offer, but I was not interested in having anyone tell me how to make my movie, especially coming from a place of ego – not like that, anyway.
In another case, pianist Ellyn Rucker agreed to participate only if I agreed to show only her hands and face. She had become quite self concious of the weight she had put on later in life. These are the kind of requests I understand and respect; they are easy to honor. Ellyn was a great pianist and singer, a generous mentor, a beautiful soul. She is dearly missed.
The other big surprise for me was a lesson in humility. After having spent over 40 years as a professional sideman, an accompanist, I felt quite confident that I was an excellent listener. But there were times when I got home after an interview to edit what I shot when I heard things that I had missed while sitting right in front of someone listening to them!
As a filmmaker, I was reminded of a very valuable lesson that applies directly to jazz musicians. The importance of listening without an agenda, of being fully present. That means having a clear and open mind “on stage” while not being distracted by any technical concerns. An interviewer typically sits down with an idea of what they want, of what questions are important to ask. As a result, they sometimes fail to hear important information that falls outside of the scope of their questions. And a filmmaker who is doing everything by themselves runs the risk of being overwhelmed with technical thoughts about focus and white balance, audio levels, lighting and framing- their focus cannot be entirely on their subject.
The musicians are challenged by this as well, especially in the realm of jazz where we are reacting to sound and nuance every moment from other musicians. If you go on stage with an agenda (preconceived notion) of what you’re going to play – the cool licks you’ve been practicing all week long – and thinking about how you’re gonna fit them in at just the right spot in the song to sound super slick, then you’re not listening honestly to all of the other musicians around you. In fact, you may be trampling over the other musicians. It s the same for a musician who goes on stage consumed with thoughts of technique. When this happens, your listening is directed inward at yourself more than openly and outwards towards the rest of the band. We study technique so that it may be invisible while serving the needs of the music. These were humbling reminders to me and they were delivered in a symbolic way through the voices of my old mentors on film in the editing room.
What was the most gratifying part of this experience?
The most gratifying part was hearing from singer Teresa Carroll how much she loved the film. I had played drums in her band for a couple years and knew how exacting she could be. She had no idea that she would be featured so prominently in JazzTown and she was nervous about how I would use the nude photo of her, and how people would react. She was thrilled that both her husband and close friends loved JazzTown. She was suffering through cancer treatments at that time and the film made her happy. She died shortly after. I am thankful she knew how much she was appreciated and loved.
Teresa and I spent a lot of time discussing the inclusion of the photo. It had been taken by a portrait photographer who was the mother of one of her former boyfriends many years ago, during our interview in her home. In it, she’s reclining artfully in a lounge chair fully nude. Weeks later, she contacted me to say that she was having second thoughts about the photo after talking with one of her girlfriends. We met and discussed it and we spent a lot of time talking about classic art and nudity found throughout the history of art and we both agreed that it would be in best taste to not include anything below the waist.
What are the plans for this film, where will it be shown, and do you expect it will be used in music curricula?
I am self distributing JazzTown on my label Bmakin Film (www.BmakinFilm.com) and I have had success selling digital licensing directly to university library acquisitions departments.
JazzTown is a perfect fit for university curriculum as it offers an overview of jazz performance (straight-ahead, bop, blues, R&B, avant-garde, electronica) from a wide range of musicians with a wide range of opinions in an entertaining format. I have developed study guides for both JazzTown and its companion short, the award-winning Who Killed Jazz. I am booking screening tours with Q&A both on university campus and virtually.
Jazztown is now available on Apple TV/iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vimeo and VUDU.
JazzTown (a one-hour, edited for TV version) is also scheduled for broadcast on Rocky Mountain PBS in Colorado during April’s Jazz Appreciation Month.
JazzTown has screened at 60 film festivals around the globe and has won numerous awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing. I will soon be releasing the JazzTown soundtrack which also won Best Soundtrack at the New Orleans Second Line Film Festival.
I am currently seeking contributors and investors for my next film exploring the experiences of female jazz musicians working within a mostly male-dominated business. This film is based upon additional questions I asked the women of JazzTown and their varied responses. I will be including the voices of more contemporary jazz musicians in this new feature-length documentary.
No animals were harmed in the making of JazzTown.
Any one who has read this interview and made it this far can email me for a free and personalized photograph. It will either be a JazzTown movie still or from my private collection of flower photographs, some of which I planted myself, others I which have discovered on my world travels. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and include the phrase “Burke’s Blog” anywhere in the body of email and you will receive this gift!
For more information, visit https://benmakinen.com/jazztown.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Ben Makinen.
© 2022 Debbie Burke
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