Tradition is a temple – A motion picture of New Orleans music

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A motion picture of New Orleans music | ARTIST OWNED PRODUCTION

Darren Hoffman started this project more than 4 years ago and we were curious about where the idea came from. We forced Darren to take a break from work and sit down for a cup of tea to finally get the story straight about how this film came to be.

You’ve been working on this movie for over four years. How did it all get started?

In January of 2007, I had recently graduated from the Film School at Florida State University and began studying percussion at the University of New Orleans. Tradition is a Temple was born out of an attempt to capture the nuts and bolts of New Orleans music and present it on a proper stage.

When I drove into town, I could count the number of people I knew with the figures of one hand. And I was extremely fortunate that two of them happened to be Mr. Roland Guerin and Mr. Jason Marsalis, who I met as members of The Marcus Roberts Trio during one of the band’s residencies at Florida State University in the spring of 2004.

At first I couldn’t read a note of music, but I tried as hard as I could and after a fair amount of ego bruising semesters, I had become somewhat musically literate. Still devastated by the flood and its aftermath, the environment was tender and nurturing.  It felt like a family of people that all experienced a major loss, and everyone was working together to pickup the pieces.  And as example of how crazy things were back then, within a few months after moving to New Orleans, I was actually offered money to play the drums. Why? I don’t know. But if I had to guess… it was likely because most of the really good players still hadn’t returned to the city… and I happened to own a drum kit.

As sad as my playing was, I did everything I could to pay respect the music and the musicians that have been carrying this sound for generations. Because I knew that my place in this city and its musical environment was insignificant… and the sooner I realized this, the easier it would be understand the music as a whole.

With the intention of absorbing the maximum amount of information and objective understanding of my own personal progress, I often requested to video tape my lessons with my teachers. I was trying to codify the learning process.  It didn’t take long to realize that the “nuts and bolts” of this music were more about soul and tradition rather than theory and technique.

During that first semester at UNO, I applied for a grant from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation to document Guerin and Marsalis using several cameras and an over-dubbed “one-man-band” style performance. The technique was pioneered by New Orleans legend Sidney Bechet, who, at the time, was reprimanded by the musician’s union because of a fear of job losses due to the fact that one musician could be recorded as an ensemble.

I received the grant in late 2007 and the ball began to roll.

The in-studio performances by the musicians are unique. How did you produce them?

I wanted to very simply document the process and technique of the musicians. So I wanted the documentary process to be minimal and “out of the way” of the music.  Too often I feel nausea when confronted with a music video of some sort that puts the attention of the “video” well ahead of the “music.”  So I took inspiration from Johnathan Demme’s music video work with the band New Order, and their song “Perfect Kiss.”

I love this video because it does a great job of documenting the process without a single camera trick or gimmick. Nothing but locked down cameras recording professionals and their craft. However, in order to port this technique for the jazz idiom, I needed to make a few simple, yet drastic adjustments to the production process.

New Order and Demme had an advantage because the music they worked with was rehearsed and through composed. So reenacting or lip-syncing to tracks and having everything look and feel authentic is a relatively straight forward process: capture with one camera each musical part, one at a time… grab some closeups, a couple wides… you know, “spray it.” – Plus you have no need for a sound crew, because the music has already been created. This entire process of a the music video is “after the fact” of the music. So, in my honest opinion, the hard part (producing the music) is already taken care of.

If one wanted to make a music video in a style and fashion similar to New Order’s “Perfect Kiss,” but for a band of improvising musicians, instead, one would need a plethora of cameras and a full recording studio equipped to record the actual music the artists are creating on the set. Essentially, one would need to produce the music itself and the video simultaneously. And, for the most part, the music and video can only be captured one take a time, without much -if any- room for editing separate takes together. Therefore, one would need to set up enough cameras to capture all that is going on with a musical ensemble in order to be able to communicate the process as a whole.

So on a very lean budget, we went to work.

In May 2008, Cinematographer, James Laxton (Medicine for Melancholy and the Myth of the American Sleepover), flew into New Orleans to work with me and no more than 2 other crew members to set up and operate up to 20 individual cameras to record our featured musicians (virtually all of the cameras we locked down on tri-pods). Grammy Award-winning sound engineer, Steve Reynolds, recorded all the sound for the studio performances… And Steve did that part alone, with out any assistants.

Over the course of 9 consecutive days, we recorded 8 master musicians, and over 30 pieces of completed music.  Some of the pieces were shot with more than 17 camera angles and 6 to 8 over-dubbed tracks, therefore yielding, on the high end, between 70-125 options… of course, you skim off a good number right off the top (as you might not need the shot of the drummer’s left foot in every minute of every performance), but it was still a good bit of syncing and media managing. There was no way I could afford an assistant editor to sync all this material, so over the course of the next 2+ years, I synced all the content, in my spare time, while I produced and edited the rest of the film. Finally, in the fall of 2010 Ryland Jones took on the challenge of editing and creating visual effects specifically for these studio performances and within 6 weeks had put together most of the segments that are featured in the film. I think he did a great job.

How did spoken-word artist Chuck Perkins get involved?
During my last year of film school, in a completely, seemingly coincidental fashion, my documentary teacher, Valerie Scoon, arranged for Jonathan Demme to screen one of his documentary works (on the opposite end of the spectrum from the music video for New Order’s “Perfect Kiss”), his film The Agronomist.

During the master class/Q&A after the screening at FSU in 2005, Demme described how he came to the conclusion that he couldn’t tell the life story of one character, Jean Dominique, without somehow telling the history Haiti itself.

So with Tradition I felt we had a similar challenge. How to create a portait of a modern music (defined only as being manifested today) and the individual characters who play such music, while also presenting some type of historical context for the traditions the musicians learn when growing up and later teach to the next generation?

I didn’t even consider laying out a full on history lesson of the music and traditions. Ken Burns did a great job, with the 1st chapter of “Jazz,” entitled “Gumbo.” As did Dawn Logsdon & Lolis Eric Elie with their recent doc, Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, which focused on the history of the people and the geography.

One major factor in my motivations to create a feature length documentary was the realization that most of the rest of the United States had very little awareness or even access to the vast majority of the musical heritage of this city that “gave birth” to jazz and American music.

For the most part, say the words “New Orleans,” and many Americans think Mardi Gras, beignets, trumpets (hopefully) and maybe a hurricane or oil spill.  Honestly, I was sick of seeing New Orleans, and jazz music as whole, continued to be portrayed as such a stale brand, one-dimensional and flat. We needed to find a way to bring the visual impact to the audience that complements the music properly.

I wanted to transcribe the learning process I went through to learn about this city, its people and the story behind all of it.  This process was by no means linear. In New Orleans you pick up information and vibrations from various sources, discovering pieces of the puzzle everyday.

Chuck Perkins, a spoken word artist and musical band leader in New Orleans, began working with me to mold a narrative structure based on some of his poems and others he was commission to write specifically for the film.

Chuck is a wordsmith like no other. With his poetry, he is able to colorfully and concisely layout all the information that is necessary for the audience to enjoy a full and enriching experience, while delivering a narrative that is seasoned to perfection and marinated with all the musical ingredients required.

So as a first push into creating the narrative of this film, I paired Chuck’s poem, titled simply “New Orleans,” along with wonderful city scape cinematography from Jason Powell and Shane Sauer and created our first teaser for the film, setting the tone and feel for the full length doc.

Collaborating with Chuck and his work allowed me, as an editor, to “swim” seemlessly from interviews to studio perfmances to poems without jarring or cheap transitions.

Are there other movies that you compare Tradition is a Temple to?

I was always impressed with how a film like Bueña Vista Social Club, by Wim Wenders, could provide a cinematic access point for people around the world -especially Americans- to connect with the a unique musical community that is largely invisible behind a smoke screen of bad news media.

Buena Vista is a movie about music and people. And the voice of the film, itself, seemed as though it could care less about communism and Castro.  So the conditions and the politics were merely distanced background imagery. In Buena Vista the story is with the music and the musicians. Is that not enough?

Why is the movie artist-owned?
Economics have always influenced the development New Orleans music as well as contributed to the periods of decline.

The longer I lived in New Orleans, the more I discovered more about such a tumultuous current in the local music industry (both today and throughout history). So I made a commitment to myself and all the artists that I work and study with, that we would find the most reasonable way to compensate each artist for the value the bring to the project.

In the past 10 years, we have seen the music industry’s pendulum swing so far in both extremes. Now that the dust has settled, I think it’s time for a new set of “best practices” that have learned the lessons of the past and are socially responsible for the future.

We are working to build a creative environment where New Orleans musicians can better leverage their skills and identity as more highly valued asset in scope of a the production of major recordings and motion pictures.

The musicians we work with are dedicated to sharing their experience and knowledge with the youth of the city. In doing so they work to continue the traditions that they hold dear will live on. And we, as creative partners with these individuals, are honored to be a part of it.

So ensuring that the musicians, the creators of the music, and therefore the film, are taken care of properly… well, to me this is not simply about fairness. This is about responsibility.

It is my responsibility, not only to make sure that the featured musicians hold equity in the works they help create, but more importantly, to make sure that this equity is worth real value.

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