The Independent Ear

The keen eye of Janet Macoska: transcending genres

Book Cover
In all my years writing about music, dating back to early 70s Kent State University undergrad days, its been a pleasure interacting with many exceptional photographers, none finer than Cleveland’s own legend, Janet Macoska. A true master of the photographic art form, Janet Macoska stands as living testament to why the shoreline of Lake Erie is such an apropos home for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where she currently serves as official photographer. Another of Janet’s stations is Cuyahoga Community College, home of the Rock Hall’s archives and the Hall’s principle education institution. During my 18 years as artistic director of Tri-C JazzFest we could always count on some of the sweetest images from every festival coming from the sharp orbs of Janet Macoska, whose eye for the nuances of jazz musicians is just as sharp as her vision for her first love, rock & roll. Recently I was delighted to receive a copy of Janet’s new book All Access Cleveland and clearly some Independent Ear questions were in order for my friend and colleague.
Janet Macoska in action
Janet Macoska and Smokey Robinson
Ace photographer Janet Macoska with Rock Hall of Famer Smokey Robinson

When did you have your ‘aha’ moment and realize that photography was your calling?
Janet Macoska: As early as ten years old. Because the Beatles came to America when I was 10 years old in 1964 and I knew I wanted to be close to the music I loved and be able to tell the story of those artists as told by the photojournalist publications of the day….LIFE and LOOK. My Mom subscribed to LIFE and I loved how the photojournalists were able to “hang” with the artists offstage and tell their story through photographs. It was intimate and revealing. That’s what I wanted to do.
David Bowie, 1983
When you shoot a performance, what elements most interest your intrepid eye?
My “mission” at a live performance is to capture the soul of the performer. Native Americans back in the day were wary of photography because they claimed it stole their spirit. In many ways, that is true. I don’t believe we “steal” their spirit, but we
certainly reveal the spirit of the invidivual we focus upon….if all the energies are in alignment. The best way to do that, for a photographer photographing a musician in performance, is to be still, let the music fill your soul, and shoot when the moment is right. You only know that by losing yourself in the music and letting a higher power show you the way (sorry to sound so crazy about this). It’s just getting out of the way, and letting the music flow through you. When you do that you inherintently know the micro second to shoot. It is a 60th of a second moment. It’s reacting to the performer, the movement and the lighting.
Clarence and Bruce 1980

Which artists have you found to be endlessly fascinating subjects for your photography?
I have to say that I love musicians who are performers. There are musicians, serious ones, who are dead intent on the music but show very little soul and emotion. That’s cool. Great for the audience that loves the sound. Not great for a photographer who wants
to see emotion and soul and expression. Some of my favorite performers to shoot have been David Bowie (who was trained as an actor), Bruce Springsteen (who shoots out energy to the audience the entire time he is on stage….a blast to watch…and its the Wimbeldon of rock and roll watching the energy and love bounce back between the audience and the stage) and Paul McCartney (Paul understands the music and the performance and the connection between audience and performer….which goes all the way back to The Beatles in 1964). Jazz performers wear their art on their sleeves, for the most part, and do understand visual performance as a part of their total performance. I have always found jazz performers a treat to photograph. Because jazz and blues are so pure, I always feel that jazz and blues performers should be photographed in B&W; to show them at their most stripped down authenticity.

Since we tend to focus mainly on jazz and jazz-related subjects in the Independent Ear, in your various photography stints for Tri-C JazzFest, what differences have you found in shooting jazz performances from your extensive work in rock photography?
Just as I’ve said, jazz and blues are authentic music. The performers are authentic. their performances are down to earth. When I photograph them I get the most authentic depiction of the artists. I like to see them in B&W. Of course, when I now shoot digital, I will shoot them in full high resolution digital….in color…but often convert them into B&W because that is how I feel and see them. Rock and roll is a blast of crazy energy from the stage, bigger than life, and the performers often are projecting that into a coliseum/stadium type venue. They are cult tilt color, as they should be. There are VERY boring rock artists who don’t feel their music matches this template and don’t perform in this manner. It is a struggle for photographers. At this point I often use the high tech computerized stage lighting to create a more interesting environment, and a more interesting photograph of the artist. Hey, but thats my job….to make it visually interesting.

Have you had any particular favorites among the jazz artists you’ve photographed, and what is is that makes any one particular jazz artist a favored subject over others?
Wow….I’ve loved so many!!! [Cleveland’s own] Jimmy Scott jumps to the front. Emotive, raw, real, singer. George Benson makes his guitar sing and you can see the emotions in his face and movement. Horn players are fun. Really, I’m a kid in a candy store!!!! Love them all.
jimmy scott 2002
How has the digital landscape changed – if at all – how you approach your subjects?
In the days of film, you had a limited number of frames on a roll of film, so you moved VERY SLOWLY. You watched and waited. You had the time to do that too because you had an entire show to shoot. Not any more. You are usually given the first three songs to shoot of a performance. So, as a photographer you suss out the energy and movement of a subject….its shorthand for a photographer (which is why it helps to have been doing this for so long)…and work out how to show that performer at his/her best. The lighting is now run by computers, so it is quicker. The photographer has to make everything in their soul and reaction time quicker. Figure out the performer. Look for the best angle. Follow the pattern of the lights in time to the music….and make magic. It’s a challenge, but its really fun. Helps if you’ve been doing it for awhile….as I tend to figure it out quicker than most.
Debbie Harry 1978
When you were putting together your latest book, what were you going for in terms of the images you pored over and eventually selected as demonstrative of your art?
Choosing the images for this book was tough in that I have shot for 42 years now……more than one million images, I’m sure. To cull that down to 152 pages was difficult. We ended up with 340 images, and obviously that was a small selection. I started with the favorites that kept popping up in my mind and heart….the artists I loved best too. My co-author Peter Chakerian, and I looked to find a cross section of selections that would cover the 70s, 80s, 90s and onward. Also I wanted to focus on particular spotlight stories. I think we gave 12 pages to the birth of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. I was shooting the process of Cleveland campaigning for and winning the Rock Hall, as well as the opening and early days through the days when I became the Rock Hall’s official photographer. As a native born Clevelander, I feel it is one of my greatest accomplishments to be the photographer documenting the artists and the history that moves through the Rock Hall. That kid in the candy store thing again….I’m the kid and the Rock Hall is the candy store!
jimmy heath B&W
What have you got up next?
(Maybe Janet Macoska’s take on the 2016 Miracle Cavaliers :))
I am the house photographer for the Rock Hall, which is always fun and rewarding and humbling. i also shoot all the live concerts at the Hard Rock Rocksino LIVE venue, which means I photograph about 80 shows a year and I have the most fun shooting these live performances!!!! The Hard Rock is family and they treat me quite well. They threw the kick off party for my book in 2015, and we produced a Hard Rock calendar. We will do another one for 2017. AND, Peter Chakerian and I have started work on a Volume Two of my book. Obviously, I have a lot more photographs and stories to share; so I’m looking forward to
assembling that book and look for publication in mid 2017.
Jimmy Page 1977

Jeff Clayton Kid Bop 2015


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Cape Town Jazz Festival ’16

Absolutely one of the best jazz festival trips is to South Africa for the annual Cape Town Jazz Festival (“Africa’s grandest gathering”), which remains the signature such event on the continent. Although the actual Cape Town Jazz Festival, which is held in late March at the beginning of what for the Southern Hemisphere is the equivalent of their Fall season, is a long-weekend event, prospective CTJF festival goers are urged to extend their stay in-country to sample one of the most beautiful countries on the planet. After all, from the U.S. northeast its a 17-hour flight on average – and that’s just to Johannesburg, Cape Town is another couple of air hours south – and who wants to travel that far for just a weekend! Occasional Independent Ear contributor Ron Scott, jazz correspondent for the historic Amsterdam News, traveled to the CTJF for this year’s event, his first trip to South Africa, and here’s his report.

By Ron Scott
Covering the 2016 Cape Town International Jazz Festival was an emotional experience that broadened my concept of South Africa during this maiden voyage visit. It was more than musical I was in South Africa, the country that enacted apartheid with the same shameless hatred as America enforced racism, segregation and lynchings.

South Africa the home of the ANC. The home of Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, and Stephen Biko (died in police custody 1977) like their U.S. black brothers (Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) they were committed to freedom and willing to die.

Being home in the motherland was an opportunity to witness through my lens and examine the myths and truths of South Africa. To dispel American propaganda and that dastardly slight of hand routine that always tries to stir one from the truth.

On arrival at the festival site, proceeding into the huge state-of-the art Cape Town Convention Center amongst the bustling music fans it was clear to comprehend the black emancipation but through the look in their eyes and conversation it was clearly understood the struggle continues in full force on both continents. This on-going struggle is held together by a music connection; the excitement of improvisational movements, a rhythmic flow that draws all of us together to dance in its most spirited moments taking relief from the noisy sounds of life’s struggles.

Nomsa Mdhluli, a festival publicist stated there were over 35,00 people on hand for the two-day festival (April 1-2). Like all jazz festivals it was a matter of so much music, so little time. Over 100 artists performed in the Convention Center’s five venues.
One of the weekend’s most lauded performances was South Africa’s own Legendary Ladies in Song: Dorothy Masuka & Abigail Kubeka featuring Lemmy “Special” Mabaso. They performed in the Kippies venue, which seemed to be the size of a football field (with three large video screens) holding at least 2,000 people mostly standing and dancing to every groove. The actor Idris Elba made a stage cameo for the introduction.

Masuka is known as a jazz singer but her fusion of swing and Zulu melodies gave another perspective to the sound of jazz. Early on her political commentaries, primarily through her song “Dr. Malan” got her exiled by the apartheid government for over 31 years, and every copy of the song was destroyed. Kubeka is more of a cabaret singer but just as swinging. She was discovered by Miriam Makeba and has performed alongside Eartha Kitt and Sarah Vaughan. “Special” played a mean saxophone and broke out his penny whistle. One of the most rousting performances of the festival with a band kicking feverishly throughout.
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – APRIL 02: (SOUTH AFRICA OUT): South African veteran artists; Dorothy Masuka and Abigail Kubeka perform during the 17th annual Cape Town International Jazz Festival on April 02, 2016 in Cape Town, South Africa. The Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF) referred to as ‘Africa’s Grandest Gathering' is the largest music festival in sub-Saharan Africa. (Photo by Lerato Maduna/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images) CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – APRIL 02: (SOUTH AFRICA OUT): South African veteran artists; Dorothy Masuka and Abigail Kubeka perform during the 17th annual Cape Town International Jazz Festival on April 02, 2016 in Cape Town, South Africa. The Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF) referred to as ‘Africa’s Grandest Gathering’ is the largest music festival in sub-Saharan Africa. (Photo by Lerato Maduna/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

For straight ahead jazz with skating African rhythms Benjamin Jephta Quintet followed the tradition of jazz with their South African roots. Jephta is one of South Africa’s young guns, an electric bass and acoustic bass player. The composer grooved with his able comrades; pianist Kyle Shepherd, trumpeter/flugelhorn, saxophonist Sisonke Xonti and drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko. Their repertoire includes songs like Homecoming (Jephta), the name of their current CD. It’s a mid-tempo blend somewhat blues oriented that allowed the band to branch out on a mellow track with a haunting saxophone solo along the lines of a stimulated Coltrane prayer, rousing drums on the back drop, piano riffs.
Kyle Shepherd

These musicians were in an intuitive mode never playing too many notes but allowing the audience to bask in the groove. They proved to be no strangers to the hard bop context with drummer Mazibuko wailing from the Elvin Jones school of drumming.
“I want to give the listener a musical biography of my life by using the harmonies and melodies associated with my upbringing,” said Jephta. Don’t be surprised if these talented jazz cats show up playing gigs in New York.

Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia known as (Amadou & Mariam) are known internationally as traveling exponents of the blues, their combined voices along with Amadou’s blues guitar are a force in Africa and worldwide. They had a hypnotic magic that captured the audience from the first song to their encore.
Amadou and Mariam

The eclectic composer, singer, bassist and keyboardist Meshell Ndegeocello performed on the large outdoor stage Manneberg before over 1,000 dancing and singing fans. She noted, “I try to create a set that flows well and feels well.” Her latest CD is a tribute to Nina Simone: Come To Me.

The surprise of the festival came on the final evening during the performance of BADBADNOTGOOD (BBNG), a young quartet (keyboardist Matthew Tavares, drummer Alexander Sowinski, bassist Chester Hansen, and saxophonist Leland Whitty), who mixed jazz, hip hop, rock and off-the cuff improvisation into their own brand of swing which was heavy on jazz improvisation. As they were finishing up their set the poet, actor, and hip hop icon Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) stepped on stage and intoxicated the surprised audience for 45 minutes.

Roberto Fonseca the Cuban pianist who combines classical, jazz and his Afro-Cuban roots never disappoints. His classical improvisational riffs, hard-hitting jazz crescendos and ever-winding rhythms were seamless. “I will try to play my two-hour concert in one hour, said Foneseca.” Of course he didn’t but it was a pleasure watching him make such an enjoyable effort.

Cassandra Wilson performed before a sold out audience in Rosies with her accomplished band; bassist Lonnie Plaxico, violinist Charles Burham, pianist Jon Cowherd, guitarist Brandon Ross and drummer Davide Direnzo. One could hear a pin-drop as Wilson performed her tribute to Billie Holiday with songs like “Good Morning Heartache.”

Shiela E, a protege of Prince performed with a large ensemble with her father Peter Escovedo on a few tunes. She was a ball of high energy performing “Baby Take Some Time” among other tunes.

Mark Turner one of my favorite tenor saxophone players held court with his group consisting of trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore.

TopDog an Afro jazz band focusing on the Cape Town sound featured the leader pianist Camillo Lombard along with musicians offering another perspective on the sound of jazz.

Victor Wooten known for his creativity on the electric bass kept the audience on the edge with guitarist Regi Wooten and drummer Derico Watson.

The press conferences I attended included young journalists who participated in the 17th CTIJF Arts Journalism course. Seeing them involved asking pertinent questions of the artists was very inspiring. Yes, music is a link that brings us together.

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From Brubeck to SFJAZZ… traveling west with Simon Rowe

Simon Rowe
Simon Rowe is a facile pianist from Australia who, after years on the St. Louis scene where he worked frequently with the late local tenor sax legend Willie Aiken, has been directing the Dave Brubeck Institute program at the University of Pacific in Stockton, CA. I had the great privilege and pleasure of twice participating in humanities programs there as part of their annual festival, once on a collaboration with friend and jazz journalist colleague Howard Mandel and NEA Jazz Master Gunther Schuller, both times with friend and jazz author Ashley Kahn. On each occasion Simon Rowe was our informative and gracious host; clearly here was a man who had found a welcoming, fertile home.

One thing about working in this music, those of us in administrative positions are always up for new challenges on behalf of jazz. So, though he always seemed firmly entrenched at Brubeck, it was no surprise when Simon wrote excitedly to tell me about his latest jazz education venture, one which will take him slightly west to the San Francisco Bay Area; but after learning more, clearly this was a green pasture Simon simply had to pursue. In what will be a new component of the ever-ambitious SFJAZZ organization, as Randall Kline and company continue to spread the SFJAZZ center’s tentacles in search of new ways to serve the music, in this case a partnership with the San Francisco Conservatory; Simon Rowe is headed to San Francisco. Clearly a few questions were in order for Simon.

How did this partnership between the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and SFJAZZ develop?
I believe that Randall Kline, founder and Artistic director of SFJAZZ had envisioned this potential partnership for some years.
When David Stull, former Dean of Oberlin Conservatory of Music was recruited as President of SFCM two years ago, Randall approached David and together they perceived the huge benefits to both organizations of establishing a “Roots, Jazz and American Music” Program……. and the wheels began to turn.

Somewhat in the manner of how Juilliard adopted its jazz studies program in conjunction with Jazz at Lincoln Center, does this new jazz studies effort mark a new turning point for the Conservatory, and what do you suppose inspired the Conservatory to take this on?
I believe that David Stull has an expansive vision for what arts education in the 21st century should look like. High level performers need to embrace art from many vantage points… as advocates, innovators, entrepreneurs and citizens. A program in jazz studies allows students to pursue these values while embracing a music that is woven into the fabric of American (and world) culture, now for more than a century. Simply put, a music Conservatory that strives to be contemporary must create opportunities for artistry across many genres, expanding beyond the realm of Western European traditions.

It sounds like you will be developing a brand new curriculum for the Conservatory. What do you envision as some of the essential key elements of that curriculum?
I am still garnering input from many of our finest leaders in education, but some of the values to be pursued are as follows:
A strong emphasis on the small ensemble experience, using this ensemble as a laboratory for the development of concepts in improvisation,repertoire,composition etc. An innovative approach to the teaching of musicianship,theory and ear-training, focusing on the acquisition of skills and knowledge directly applicable to the contemporary improvising jazz musician. An Afro-centric approach to the learning of music history, embracing the influence of music and culture as it moved out of Africa and into folk music around the world (from Cuba through the Caribbean and into South and North America)

You have suggested that, inspired at least in part by the Randy Weston autobiography “African Rhythms,” you will be thinking more “holistically” about this project. How did that book affect your thinking on these matters and what’s your sense of this curriculum being developed along more holistic lines?
I was very taken with Randy Weston’s story, recounting the evolution of his understanding of Jazz Music as a result of his exposure to sacred African music and culture. I believe that jazz music at its best retains these roots and becomes a type of “secular church” in our modern global culture. I am convinced that “the music” should be taught with this orientation and perspective so that a young jazz musician might understand the ways in which African influences have manifested themselves in cultures around the world during the last four centuries, whether in Cuba or Brazil or… in New Orleans.

The press release on your appointment suggests that San Francisco Conservatory students “will have the opportunity to hone their craft directly with members of the SFJAZZ Collective.” Ideally how will the SFJAZZ Collective musicians be engaged in your program?
The SFJAZZ Collective will be involved as core faculty in the RJAM (Roots,Jazz and American Music) program and will be involved in all types and levels of learning within the program. We are also hoping to plan some side by side performance opportunities.
[Editor’s note: There’s a nice bit of synergy at work here: the new Pres of San Francisco Conservatory arrived at his post from Oberlin College, whose jazz faculty boasts the brilliant trombonist Robin Eubanks, also a longtime member of the SFJAZZ Collective.]

What did you learn from your Brubeck Institute experience that will positively affect your work on this Roots, Jazz and American Music project?
Over the last five years at The Brubeck Institute, I have had the pleasure of working with some of the most talented young jazz musicians in the country at the High School and College levels. I believe that I have a good understanding towards developing an approach rooted in strong fundamentals, yet flexible and challenging enough to nurture unique sensibilities within the individual.
It is important to find this balance and to foster a community learning environment that supports affection, trust and courage between peers and towards and among faculty… on and off the stage.

Simon Rowe 1

What lessons have you learned from your experience as a performing jazz artist that you hope to bring to this new work?
I believe that the same human qualities that one experiences in a high-level ensemble… respect, trust, humor, courage, admiration, affection, tolerance, patience, integrity, etc. are necessary ingredients in any communal learning environment… on the stage or in the classroom.

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Interviewing Miles

Relaxin' with Miles Relaxin’ with Miles

On the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the birth of the legendary Miles Dewey Davis, here’s my up close & personal moment. Every journalist who had the unique experience of interviewing Miles has a story about that encounter, so here’s mine. Its fall of 1974 and the electric Miles, with Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas on guitars, Sonny Fortune on saxophone, Michael Henderson on bass, Al Foster on drums, Mtume on hand drums, and even a third guitarist, young Dominique Gaumont, flown in for what was apparently a week’s tryout, is holding court for a week at the old Smiling Dog Saloon in Cleveland. My good friend and fellow journalist Robert Fleming (scroll down for an interview on his new book project) and I simply must interview Miles! We spend one revealing evening at the Dog sizing things up. On the second evening we sense an opening and, hats in hand, make the big request.
Robert Flwming Robert Fleming

We’re told to show up at a certain hotel on Euclid Avenue at an appointed time the next Saturday afternoon. When we arrive and politely knock on the door we’re greeted by Miles valet at the time, a gentleman who simply went by the name Finney, who ushers us in for a sit-down. Cassette recorders in hand we sit down in what was obviously an adjoining room or suite from the Master’s abode. Finney slips away to inform Miles that we had arrived for our interview appointment. And we sit…

And we sit… at one point the door to the adjoining room opens just a crack and we can spot a shadowy figure in the next room: the Master in his bathrobe! And we sit… one hour passes, a second hour passes… still no sign of progress. By this point the door has opened just a bit wider and we can intermittently spot what is now clearly Miles passing across the open doorway in the midst of some task or other, no words yet exchanged. A third hour passes and we’re stuck with a Saturday afternoon, late Fall NFL tilt on television; this being 1974 and the days of the Steel Curtain dynasty, naturally its the Steelers – erstwhile tormenters of our hometown Browns – on the tube. Paying partial attention to the television, but much more to the occasional passing of that dark figure in the adjoining room past the doorway and our field of vision for just a fleeting moment.

And we sit… That third hour clocked and, young guys that we are, we’ve grown impatient and have reluctantly decided to give up the ghost and try later. We informed Finney that we’d come back to the club that evening and see if we could set something up for either that night at the Dog, or the following Sunday afternoon at the hotel. We ease up out of our seats ever so deliberately, hoping that our movements might spark some recognition from that shadowy figure in the adjoining room. Approaching the exit door I reach for the doorknob and suddenly, from the next room, comes that familiar raspy voice… “What ya’ll wanna talk about?”

Had our luck suddenly changed? Indeed it had, clicking on Play/Rec on our trusty cassette recorders – we dare not miss even one pearl of Milesian wisdom – we sit down in the company of the Master. Once seated, for the next three hours(!!) Miles regales us on myriad topics, from why he was currently going without keyboard or piano in his band (“I don’t need ’em…”) – including a few pearls on some of his faves – Herbie, Chick, George Duke… – to the then current state of trumpet playing (his three faves at the time – Woody Shaw, Don Cherry, Lester Bowie… with a bit of obvious contempt for Freddie Hubbard) – to his recording exploits (at the time telling us he had what he estimated as audio footage in the can enough for “…about 80 albums…”, a fact so far substantiated by Columbia’s ongoing policy of cranking out endless unreleased Miles recordings), to a treatise on boxing, to… Needless to say we were mesmerized!

A post-script: Remember, I said this was 1974, at a time when I was just a year out of undergrad years and still quite green as a writer. Well, befitting those youthful days, the unfortunate aspect of this adventure – which both Robert and I later published on our own in separate outlets – I came to that interview armed with one of the world’s cheapest blank cassette brands. Needless to say, after all these years that precious tape is barely – if at all – audible, and knowing Miles legendary whispery voice, you can imagine what that sounds like! So if you know any good cassette restoration services… hit me back!

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Rahsaan Roland Kirk documentary

Rahsaan Roland Kirk is one of the most singular, thoroughly unique musicians – and characters – in the annals of 20th century music. His story stands in vivid relief as one of triumph over tragedy, laced with enormous wells of humor and pathos. Filmmaker Adam Kahan has produced a remarkable documentary on Kirk, “The Case of the Three-Sided Dream” and I was fortunate to catch a screening last spring during the DC Film Festival. “The Case of the Three-Sided Dream” is slated to be released on May 31, and I’ll let Adam tell you more about that and his motivation for chronicling this one-of-a-kind figure.

We are about to make the film available commercially through Vimeo on Demand (streaming and download, May 1), itunes (streaming and download, May 31) and on DVD through Amazon in the fall. If you can mention that, that would be great. Here is a link to Vimeo-

What motivated you to produce a documentary on Rahsaan Roland Kirk?
First and foremost, Rahsaan spoke to me on an emotional level.

I knew nothing about jazz (liked music, but had a pretty limited view – weaned on classic rock, moved on to punk rock, didn’t know much more). I knew I wanted to get into jazz, so I decided to pick up a few records at a garage sale (this was in San Francisco, 1989). I picked up a Louis Armstrong record, one by Count Basie, and The Best of Rahsaan Roland Kirk on Atlantic records. The record just had a head shot of him on the cover, no visuals cuing the three horns or anything else. I was in for a surprise… I still don’t think I’ve listened to those other two records… I ended up playing that Rahsaan record until the needle wore out the grooves. I had just broken up with my girlfriend, had moved out, and was living alone in a dismal apartment on the bad side of town. I just kept playing that record, and I remember specifically – Lady’s Blues, which was a Rahsaan with strings arrangement, with him on the flute. In a way, he got me through a rough time. And I was hooked.

His music is so emotional, really comes from the guts and hits you in that same place. Then on top of that, he has this super-human, virtuosic ability as a player. Then, on top of that – when I started reading about his life story, and all the obstacles he faced, and overcame, well that’s when I decided to make the film. He is so rich on so many levels – musically, visually, life story… Just so far beyond. A film on Rahsaan seemed not only like a no-brainer, but a MUST.

I am still trying to get enough momentum up to do a bio-pic on Rahsaan and do have a script (my momentum isn’t the problem actually, it is the need for an executive producer and $$). That is a conversation I’d still like to have with someone… As I am sure you know, his story is just so rich, there is so much material there. It’s a field day for a filmmaker/writer/producer.

How long did it take for this documentary project to be completed?
This project took a long time… It’s a little tricky to say. I actually started in 1999 when I moved back to New York form France. I was talking about Rahsaan to my friend Reed Anderson, and saying how someone should make a film on him, and then my friend says – YOU should make a film on him. So I opened a phone book (remember those?!) and found the phone number for Joel Dorn -the legendary Atlantic Records producer and Rahsaan’s partner in crime for so many years. (Joel’s liner notes were also a huge inspiration for me to do this film.) Joel was a great guy and very open and into the project. We did some interviews. He introduced me to Dorthaan. He introduced me to Steve Turre. John Kruth was just finishing his book on Rahsaan at the time and he was gracious enough to share all of his Rahsaan contacts with me, so I got to Ron Burton, Walter Perkins, Hilton Ruiz, and then even [first wife] Edith Kirk and of course [son] Rory Kirk, and so many more. It took me about 5 years to get a pretty much finished version of the film done. But then it just sat on the shelf, largely because I could not get funding to license all of the music and archival material. Years passed (8 to be precise) and I picked it back up in 2012 and decided I had to push it through to finish. But after all that time, the old interviews looked really dated and the production quality was not good at all. They were really unacceptable from a visual quality standpoint, and I think that is why the film in its original version did not gain enough traction. So I decided to remake the film entirely. I re-shot all the interviews, but the problem was – some of the people had passed away, notably – Joel Dorn, Edith Kirk, Hilton Ruiz, Trudy Pitts, Frank Foster Walter Perkins and Bruce Woody. So these people are not in the film! It was a tough choice, but again, I felt (and still feel) that the film was not being taken seriously because of the low-quality of these interviews, so I had to take them out. I re-shot with all who were still around (Dorthaan, Rory, Steve Turre, Ron Burton…) and the film started to have “legs” as they say. I finished it in 2014. It took me two years to remake it (of course then I knew exactly what the story was, what clips I wanted to use, etc.) I should also mention that we will include Joel in the DVD extras.

What was your process for putting this film together, from start to finish?
It really started with finding and engaging all of the people from Rahsaan’s world, starting with Joel and then all of the others. Simultaneously I had to unearth the archival footage of him. Now, on the internet, it is pretty easy to find stuff. But when I started (again – ’99), it wasn’t so easy. So every new piece of footage was a jewel. I also found some stuff that is still not on the internet and I don’t think will ever be – it’s only in my film! Some really rare stuff like – well for one – home movies that Dorthaan Kirk gave me, also a post-stroke performance on Ken Kesey’s farm in 1977, and the biggie – his performance on the Ed Sullivan show with an all star band… (you’ll have to see the film to find out who… though I can tell you – one of the guys in the clip starts with a Charles and ends with a Mingus… but there are other giants with him on that date too…) Then it became about putting the puzzle together. Also, I had some audio recordings of Rahsaan talking on stage I wanted to use (because his stage persona was such a big part of what he did). But I didn’t know what to do for these segments for video, for what we would actually see in the film while we hear Rahsaan talking. The obvious would have been (like most documentaries) to do some slow pans into still pictures of Rahsaan, a la Ken Burns, or every other filmmaker. But because Rahsaan was anything but obvious, because he would never do the conventional, or what is expected, or what was easy, I wanted the film to take the same approach. So panning in to photos was out of the question. After much thought and many unsuccessful ideas/tries, I found a great animator/artist, (named Mans Swanberg) who really “got” Rahsaan. So we have these wonderful cosmic animated passages in the film that he created (one reviewer describes them as Fat Albert meets Yellow Submarine…) The rest was a lot of editing, massaging… Above all – I wanted to show Rahsaan in the film. So we include long passages of music and of him talking. After all, he is the star of the show.
Rahsaan film

What new facets did you discover about Rahsaan as you were researching for this project?
I read a lot about Rahsaan. All the liner notes, the book by John Kruth, another book by a French writer named Guy Cosson, and… there is a guy name George Bonifacio… Joel Dorn connected me to him in the early goings. George is the self-appointed (I believe) archivist for an ambitious collection of Rahsaan stuff, so to speak – newspaper clippings, dates, photos, recordings… He has a dense pile of articles on Rahsaan that he made available to me. There are so many great stories about Rahsaan that I discovered, and just could not get in the film unfortunately. Things like – Rahsaan driving a car (yes he was blind and drove a car), getting arrested for hijacking a plane (no he didn’t do that, but was arrested as a suspect because someone thought he as going to), Rahsaan breathing under water, and through his ears, his anger and outrage about the way the musicians and his music (Jazz, what he called – Black Classical Music) were treated in this country. So many things… the practical joker side of him (he had one of those hand buzzers that would shock you when you shook hands with him), and all the deep and sincere love that his fellow musicians, family and friends had for him. They really loved him. After making this film, I also realized that, at the very core of his being, this man was a pure Blues musician.

Given what you learned about him throughout this process, did your perception of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and his impact change at all from start to finish?
My perception grew deeper, because Rahsaan was so very deep. And my appreciation grew deeper. Impact is a tough one. He definitely had an impact on what Joel Dorn called “a small core of lunatics”, but I still think he is largely under appreciated, and not known nearly as widely as he really should be. Knowledge of him and his legacy is always growing. Is it enough? I don’t think so. I still think he has not gotten his “just due” so to speak. Most or all of the people in the film agree. His friend Mark Davis told me – “part of my image of fairness in the world, was that Rahsaan was going to get the recognition he so deserved… [and when that did not happen]… it was a message that – life sucks and it doesn’t matter what you do, who you are…” Mark is not necessarily a pessimistic guy, he is in fact a beautiful human being, but he, like most of the people from the Rahsaan world, and certainly Rahsaan himself, were really perplexed and deeply bothered by the fact that Rahsaan did not achieve wider acclaim. Someone once mentioned Rahsaan and Buddy Rich to Edith Kirk in the same breath, and she responded – “Oh Buddy Rich, we can beat him any day!” I think she was right! And then I think of all the recognition for some of the jazz giants like Miles, Trane, Monk, Duke Ellington… these guys are “A list” jazzers for sure. And their names are widely known outside of jazz. Yes – they deserve to be at the top of the pile by all means, but most of us (and now I’m talking about those in the Rahsaan world, the small core of lunatics who Joel also described as “a box of broken cookies”), we feel that Rahsaan should be there too. And he is not.

Ultimately what impressions are you striving to convey to those who experience The Case of the Three-Sided Dream?
This is a guy not to be missed. Don’t fall asleep on this guy. He is a beautiful, spiritual, unique individual with a one of a kind legacy. He is someone you want to check out.

Rahsaan RK animated still

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