David G. Berger and Holly Maxson Turn the Camera on Milt Hinton
“I went into music because it’s the only thing I ever found any freedom in. It’s an auditory art—we respect each other by how they sound. The entire world respects everybody by how they sound. This is utopia. It keeps me not thinking about anything else besides the future.”
That’s Milt Hinton talking, standing before a staved blackboard and relating his philosophy to students in Keeping Time: The Life, Music and Photographs of Milt Hinton, David G. Berger and Holly Maxson’s new documentary on the famed bassist. The one-hour film will have its American premiere at the Second Annual TriBeCa Film Festival, May 3-11, in New York City.
Hinton, who was born June 23, 1910, and died December 19, 2000, began playing the violin at 13, four years after he arrived in Chicago from Vicksburg, Miss. An Argus camera was a gift for his 15th birthday. He eventually taught himself bass, which led to gigs in local clubs, and even early on his camera was always nearby.
In 1956, David G. Berger (not to be confused with composer-conductor David Berger) was a Queens, N.Y., 14-year-old determined to become a bass player. He approached Hinton for lessons. “Milt worked with me on scales, reading and intonation,” Berger says. “He taught me basics about chords and the creation of bass lines. He would always say that I had ‘time’—something you can’t teach—but he complained about my musical ear.”
On visits to the Hinton basement studio in Queens and eventually into Manhattan, young Berger met legendary artists including Ben Webster, the Hintons’ longtime houseguest. Hinton took his wide-eyed student along to record and club dates.
Berger traded bass study for a sociology major at the University of Wisconsin in 1959, but he spent every school break with Hinton, intrigued by the history he was absorbing from his host and his legendary colleagues: Count Basie dropping by to play Milt’s piano, Dizzy Gillespie eager to discuss the writings of sociologist C. Wright Mills, Illinois Jacquet arguing about race.
Through the years, Berger had been questioning Hinton and annotating the mushrooming but rarely identified piles of photo contact sheets, negatives and occasional prints stored mostly in shoe boxes in the basement. In the mid-’70s, Berger’s interview with Hinton for the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Oral History Project metamorphosed into their collaboration, Bass Line—The Stories and Photographs of Milt Hinton (Temple University Press, 1988); OverTime—The Jazz Photographs of Milt Hinton by Hinton, Berger and Holly Maxson, (Pomegranate Artbooks, 1991) was next.
Maxson, a paper and photo conservator, was recruited from the Historical Society of Philadelphia for the massive challenge of rescuing, restoring and archiving Hinton’s collection. As Hinton and Berger collaborated on a biographical public-radio series in 1990, and Hinton expanded on the stories behind his photographs, Berger and Maxson realized that a motion picture cried to be made. “As we processed his photos, Milt was becoming a better and better storyteller,” Berger says. “We wanted this on film. Milt was agreeable but I knew that, as a sociology professor, even one specializing in the sociology of music, I lacked the expertise to produce a film.”
Nonetheless, in 1995, they began researching historical jazz footage and filming interviews. Veteran jazz film producer-director Bruce Ricker (Thelonious Monk—Straight No Chaser, Jim Hall: A Life in Progress) became an invaluable consultant. Film editor Kate Hirson (who worked on Reds and Running Fence) joined the team as cowriter and codirector. “Kate held our hands every step of the way on a daily basis for four months,” Berger says. “She helped us capture Milt’s humanity.”
The film makes clear that Hinton was sharply aware that he was participating in significant history and was always ready to click the shutter on it. Keeping Time vividly chronicles the African-American experience in the 20th century through the life of Hinton, from his early days in the oppressive segregation of Mississippi through his world travels as a performer to his position as one of the most respected elder statesmen of jazz. He relates witnessing a lynching as a child, the intervention of gangster Al Capone to save young Milt’s finger from amputation after an auto accident and breaking the race barrier in the New York recording studios. Mona Hinton, as the only band wife on the road with the Cab Calloway Orchestra, describes knocking on doors in colored neighborhoods in the South to arrange lodging for the musicians. Hinton also verbally relives the 1958 Esquire magazine reunion celebrated in A Great Day in Harlem as the footage shot by his wife appears on screen. Joe Williams, Clark Terry, Quincy Jones, Nat Hentoff and Ray Brown are among the two-dozen interviewees.
An exhibit of Hinton photos will open simultaneously with the film’s American premiere in at the TriBeCa Film Festival. For gallery hours, screening times and locations, see www.tribecafilmfestival.org.