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Inside the Jazz Documentary: The Challenges and Rewards

Lee Mergner talks to several distinguished filmmakers about the state of their art

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Robert Mugge in front of Knoel Scott (L) and John Gilmore - Filmmakers Explain Jazz Documentary-Making
Robert Mugge in front of the Sun Ra Arkestra’s Knoel Scott (L) and John Gilmore during the filming of A Joyful Noise. (Courtesy of Robert Mugge)

The last 10 years have seen a remarkable upsurge in the number of documentaries focusing on jazz—films about artists both deceased (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Bill Evans, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Oscar Peterson) and living (Bill Frisell, Buster Williams, Jennifer Leitham), about record labels like Blue Note, clubs like Ronnie Scott’s in London, and immortalizers of the scene like photographer W. Eugene Smith. For fans of the music, it’s been a golden era. But why now? 

On one level, it seems like a no-brainer: Growth in digital technology has enabled just about anyone to make a film using digital cameras and recorders or even smartphones, and film-editing software like Final Cut and iMovie has become more readily available, affordable, and intuitive. On another level, that question’s not so easy to answer. Revenue streams are tough to come by for films such as these; theater screenings are never guaranteed (especially not in times of pandemic), and DVD sales aren’t what they used to be. You may love jazz and you may want to make movies about it, but you’ve still got to find a way to make it pay … right? Well, sometimes yes, sometimes no. And yet, despite the difficulties, somehow the movies keep coming out—and we keep watching them. 

We talked to several experienced filmmakers for further insight into both the whys and the hows of jazz documentaries.

Oscar Peterson in a Canadian studio in 1963 - Filmmakers Explain Jazz Documentary-Making
Oscar Peterson in a Canadian studio in 1963—one of many pieces of archival footage used in Oscar Peterson: Black + White. (photo: Archives Radio-Canada)

Hot Topic

Obvious first question: How do you choose your subject? That decision is often based on a mix of affinity and expediency. Robert Mugge, who’s made dozens of documentaries about American music—including films on Sun Ra, Sonny Rollins, Gil Scott-Heron, and Al Green—had first seen Sun Ra perform at the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival in 1972. “I saw incredible people there but Sun Ra—with the incredible breadth of what he was doing, philosophically, artistically, on so many levels—blew me away,” he says. “And I said, ‘One day I’m going to do a film about this guy.’” A few years later, Mugge seized the opportunity after completing grad school in Philadelphia and realizing that Sun Ra lived there. Despite having no funding support, he somehow made the now famous A Joyful Noise (1980) about the bandleader from the astral plane.

In the case of Gil Scott-Heron, an exec at Channel 4 in the U.K. had told Mugge that if the filmmaker would make a movie about the singer/songwriter/poet, he’d fund it. Living in DC at the time and a longtime Scott-Heron fan, Mugge filmed Black Wax (1983) on location around the nation’s capital. The genesis of Saxophone Colossus, his 1986 film on Sonny Rollins, came when Mugge heard from writer Francis Davis that the saxophonist was planning to write and perform a symphony for saxophone, thereby providing an unprecedented event to build a film around. 

Mugge points to the singular nature of each subject as the key factor in committing to the arduous but not necessarily profitable process of making a documentary. “I’ve been very fortunate that the jazz artists I’ve selected have all been brilliant, have all been hugely talented, and have all had very large, colorful personalities,” he explains. “Of course, I’ve found that same set of characteristics in Al Green, Boozoo Chavis, and Dr. John. But certainly, these three jazz artists broke the mold, as colorful, unique individuals aside from their incredible talent.”  


Without a doubt, there are few more singular subjects in jazz than the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk, about whom Adam Kahan made 2014’s The Case of the Three-Sided Dream. “To me Rahsaan was the Babe Ruth of jazz and still is,” Kahan explains. “He was my everything in jazz and no one was making a film on him. So as a filmmaker there was an obvious course of action.”

Kahan describes his most recent film, last year’s Buster Williams: Bass to Infinity, as a response to the Kirk documentary. “I decided that I wanted to do something on living musicians,” he says, “about the bass in the music. I originally imagined four bassists in four vignettes. After interviewing Buster, he said, ‘I want this film to be about me. I want to tell my story. I have enough of a history.’ After the interview I agreed. But I got what I wanted in the end anyway because it’s composed with all these vignettes of him with another player or two getting together and talking about the music and playing the music. You’re in a very intimate setting with them. I was able to bring in those other stories with people like Benny Golson, Rufus Reid, Kenny Barron, Carmen Lundy, Larry Willis, and Herbie Hancock.”

Judy Chaikin, who made The Girls in the Band (2011) about the history of female jazz musicians, grew up immersed in the music: “Coming up in the jazz world, I had a real affinity for this, and being an ardent feminist, who had worked a lot in movements, the idea of women jazz musicians was really intriguing to me. Once I started researching it and discovered all these women, it blew my mind. That’s what carried me through eight years of fundraising.” 


For director Barry Estrin and producer Mark Selby, making this year’s Oscar Peterson: Black + White was a fitting choice, given that they’d already been focusing on notable Canadian subjects. The success and fame of the Montreal-born Peterson is a matter of pride to his fellow countrymen. “He’s a figure deserving of being in that pantheon of jazz artists,” Selby says. “And the opportunity to tell his story in this movie was a way to cement that legacy.” It didn’t hurt that Bell Media in Canada was supportive of the project.

The legacy of Miles Davis needed no cement. But knowing that PBS was interested in having a film on the trumpeter for its American Masters series gave Stanley Nelson an opportunity he relished, which led to 2019’s Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool. “I’m a real jazz lover,” Nelson says. “I always wanted to make a pure jazz film. This was my chance to do that. I also am a real Miles fan. Who better than Miles Davis? He’s such an interesting character. There’s so much more to Miles than just the music, which is more than enough. He becomes this iconic figure, he transcends jazz in a way that very few jazz musicians have been able to.”

Miles Davis at the Plaza Hotel, New York, in 1958 - Filmmakers Explain Jazz Documentary-Making
Miles Davis at the Plaza Hotel, New York, in 1958, as seen in Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool. (Photo: Don Hunstein/Sony Music Archives )

Authorized or Not?

One might presume that to make a film about a particular artist, the filmmaker would need the permission of that artist or, in the case of deceased artists, their estate. However, Selby points out that if someone is a public figure, permission is not legally required. It’s still preferable, though, in part because the family, as in the case of Oscar Peterson’s widow Kelly Peterson, may be an important part of the narrative. “This wasn’t going to be this E! True Hollywood Story about Oscar,” Selby explains. “It was going to be respectful and honest. The good, the bad, and the ugly is all on display, but ultimately it’s about the music. We approached Kelly about the project from the beginning. We interviewed her for the film, of course, as well as some of Oscar’s friends and colleagues and artists who were inspired by him. We were able to show her a rough cut and determine at that point if she was comfortable with what we were doing. The response was overwhelmingly positive. She was very moved by it and wholeheartedly approved of what we had done.” 


Although Kelly received a credit as an associate producer, Selby is quick to explain that they retained complete control over the film. “Any feedback from the family had less to do with creatively altering what was there and more to do with making sure that we were getting it right. We were glad to know that when we screened the film for Kelly, we had gotten it right.” 

Similarly, the involvement of Miles Davis’ estate enabled Nelson not only to get access to valuable archival material but also to confirm the film’s veracity. “They had been in, beginning 15 years ago when we first started,” Nelson says. “We kept in contact over the years. They’ve been incredibly supportive of the film. They gave me the best compliment—that Miles would have loved this film.”

When a documentary is about a deceased subject, obtaining archival footage becomes an essential but often demanding part of the process. Davis was well covered throughout his career, but Nelson was also fortunate to get home-movie footage of Miles. “Corky McCoy, Miles’ friend, had a 16mm film camera,” Nelson explains. “Miles actually encouraged Corky to get a still camera and take some photographs of their time together. Then Corky bought a 16mm film camera and took a class in filmmaking. He shot all the boxing scenes. Corky had these 16mm prints of the film he shot of Miles that he never showed to anybody except his family.”


“A documentary should document. Why spend all your time and resources rehashing the past when you can go out and capture the riches of this moment?”–Robert Mugge

All the filmmakers we talked to have similar stories about that special joy: the discovery of rare footage. In her research on the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Chaikin found out about a 1946 movie they were in called That Man of Mine, but the only known print was at the Library of Congress. “I called them and asked them if they could send me a copy of it,” she says. “The next thing I know a cardboard box arrived at my house with two reels of 16mm film. They were so brittle that I was afraid to even touch them. The box was filled with dust from being in the archives all those years. Somebody just put a piece of tape across the top of it and shipped it to me. It was like they were cleaning out the closet,” she adds with a laugh.

Chaikin ended up raising money to have That Man of Mine restored—and even gave a new version to the Library of Congress. A lot to go through, but essential for her narrative. “All the scenes you see in my film came from that movie. That is the only film there ever was of them.”

Selby says that much of the footage in the Oscar Peterson film came from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). “It was just a treasure trove of TV and radio material [such as] interviews and concert performances, and they did a wonderful job of maintaining and preserving their archives.” They also found an interview with Peterson from The Dick Cavett Show, which would end up serving as narration for the film.


For Kahan’s film about Kirk, he relied on the “fair use” argument for much of both the footage and the music. “You [the rightsholder] can’t sue me for using portion of a clip or track because I’m not just repackaging it and selling it as is,” he explains. “I’m using part of it to weave into my own creation and it’s necessary to tell the story. It’s literally a legal argument, drawn up by a lawyer.” A legal argument isn’t the same as a law, however, and most documentarians do end up paying for at least some footage and music, which can be costly—and explains why many music documentaries are unreleased and stuck in post-production or fundraising mode. 

Charges for using music can vary quite a bit, so most filmmakers endeavor to get a “favored nations” deal, by which every rightsholder is guaranteed to receive the same fee per track. Chaikin’s angel for getting that deal turned out to be her friend Johnny Mandel, who recommended to Universal that they set a reasonable price for the music tracks she needed in her film. Of course, it helps when all the music comes from one source, like Sony or Universal, as is more likely with a successful recording artist such as Davis or Peterson.

A clip from Judy Chaikin’s The Girls in the Band - Filmmakers Explain Jazz Documentary-Making
A clip from Judy Chaikin’s The Girls in the Band, featuring an all-female take on Art Kane’s famous “A Great Day in Harlem” photo. (Courtesy of Judy Chaikin)

Finding the Through Line

It’s all well and good to gather footage and music, but determining how all that material forms a narrative arc is a challenge for the documentary filmmaker. With deceased subjects such as Davis or Peterson, the obvious storyline is “cradle to grave.” But with a living subject, little drama, and no smoking gun, as in Kahan’s film about Williams, it can be hard to find a compelling storyline. “To me, the music is the narrative,” Kahan says. “And it needs to be front and center. But it’s tricky because in filmmaking you want the story. Sometimes the music is sacrificed in service of telling the story. I don’t love the talking-head interview in a documentary film. With a living artist, they’re going to tell me the story. I may have certain plot points. But it’s really the story he tells. There is an evolution in Buster’s life, coming out of school, becoming a sideman and then a peer and then a leader and composer, and that’s all there in the music and the film.”


As someone who loves to show entire songs rather than short clips, Mugge often builds around a performance. “With all of my films, I try to find some type of event that’s happening—that they’re going to do a special musical presentation or they’re getting an award—something that I can build some story around,” he explains. “I’m much more interested in filming people in the moment. And then reaching to their past through that and then having them express their ambitions for the future.”

Mugge is justifiably proud of only focusing on living subjects in his dozens of music films, and he’s passionate about the importance of that point. “I do think that these historical films are a place to bring together archival footage, interview whoever is still [alive] who was there when the deceased artist was around, and try to analyze in retrospect what was special about this artist,” he says. “However, to me, those are history films. I know a lot of people call them documentaries but to me, a documentary should document. Why spend all your time and resources rehashing the past when you can go out and capture the riches of this moment, which will soon enough be past? And yes, there is a certain irony that now everybody in the world is doing a Sun Ra film and a Gil Scott-Heron film. I certainly had no competition at the time that I was making my films with those guys when they were at the peaks of their powers.” 

This also means that Mugge is now on the other end of the rights give-and-take, because filmmakers are coming to him to use footage from his films. “Yes, I can benefit from them wanting to purchase clips, but I just wish that people would commission films about what’s going on now. Okay, Nina Simone was incredible [but] I don’t think we need a lot of Nina Simone fans to remind us of that. There are some wonderful singers out there now. Go make films about them if you’ve got the resources.”

Buster Williams in a sequence from Buster Williams: Bass to Infinity
Buster Williams in a sequence from Buster Williams: Bass to Infinity (photo: Courtesy of Adam Kahan)

Money Matters

Which prompts one more question: Where do the resources for these films come from? And what is the economic model for success with a music documentary? It starts with fundraising. Kahan received funding from various arts organizations for his films. Over the years, Mugge was supported by the BBC, Mississippi Public Broadcasting, Starz, and other networks. Estrin and Shelby had help from the CBC. In recent years, crowdfunding has become an option as well. 


However, once the film is made, the opportunities for making money from it are limited. Some recent films haven’t even been released on DVD or Blu-ray. Yes, there’s video on demand now and the streaming services provide some revenue, but for the most part it’s, as Kahan says, “peanuts.” Nelson says that for him the model is to pay yourself while making the film and not depend on revenue from screenings and streaming. “Our model at Firelight [his production company] is to always be in production,” he explains. “While we’re working on one production, we’re trying to raise money for the next one.”

“The music is the narrative. And it needs to be front and center. But it’s tricky because in filmmaking you want the story.”–Adam Kahan

Given all the economic and logistic challenges, it’s clear that for these filmmakers their jazz projects are labors of love. Kahan keeps this quote from Sonny Rollins handy when questioning his own pursuit: “If you feel so passionate about music that certain recordings speak to you so deeply that you feel an uncontainable sense that this is what you’re meant to do, then please seek out those living and accessible individuals who represent the sounds and feelings that speak to you. If you’re sincere, there are people who’ve been given music by their elders and who understand that no one owns it, and that it’s to be passed along to those rare and brave individuals with the heart to treat a spiritual gift with honor and humility.” Leave it to our jazz Buddha to sum it all up.