INTERVIEW: Nicolas Pillai (New book Jazz as Visual Language, to be published 30 Nov)

DR NICOLAS PILLAI is a writer and a research fellow at Birmingham City University, specialising in the field of jazz and film studies. His book “Jazz as Visual Language: Film, Television and the Dissonant Image” is about to be published. He describes it in this interview as “a book about how jazz has been mediated through film and television.” Sebastian asked the questions:

LondonJazz News: What first sparked or nurtured your interest in jazz?

Nicolas Pillai: I first listened to jazz with my grandad, Peter Welstead, who introduced me to all kinds of culture: poetry and opera but also hard-boiled detective novels and Hollywood films. I don’t think he would necessarily have described himself as a jazz fan, but he did love Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton and Ella Fitzgerald. We used to listen to Benny Green’s programme on Radio 2 every Sunday and that ritual ingrained a lot of American popular song into my memory at a young age. Around this time, my uncle gave me a stash of his old records and among those was Kind of Blue, Getz and Tjader, stuff from the 1950s and 1960s. I was quite an odd teenager really – the first CD I bought was Giant Steps!

I was also becoming increasingly aware of jazz influences in the film and TV I was watching at that time: the incidental music in BBC2’s repeats of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Courtney Pine’s cameo in Doctor Who and I remember Johnny Mandel’s score for the Paul Newman film The Moving Target made a big impression on me. I didn’t know it then but I was doing a kind of research through my listening, reading and viewing – making connections between the different kinds of music that I heard and attempting to construct histories that made sense of them. And that experience of jazz as a teenager was entirely shaped through recorded media; it wasn’t until I went to university that I saw it played live (Harry Beckett at the Warwick Arts Centre). That certainly impressed upon me how jazz is mediated by technology and culture, which is a strong theme that runs throughout my book.

LJN: What sparked this book?

NP: I’d always been fascinated by Gjon Mili’s short film Jammin’ the Blues, but it wasn’t until I started using the abstract animations of Len Lye and episodes of Jazz 625 in my teaching that I considered a book. I’d been very struck by the profound effect these pieces of film and television had on my students but also on attendees at screenings and talks I ran at the National Jazz Archive, the British Music Experience and the Vortex Jazz Club. For me, these responses really contradicted the common assumption that jazz on film and TV is always compromised or diluted. Simon Frith once wrote of ‘an uneasy relationship’ existing between music and television, but that didn’t seem to fit with something as considered and successful as Jazz 625. So I was motivated to challenge those stereotypes but also to extend Krin Gabbard’s pioneering work on jazz film into thinking about encounters with the avant-garde and television. And it’s encouraging to see other writers doing work in this area, with the two recent edited collections Jazz im Film and Watching Jazz.

LJN: Is it for the general reader ? / general jazz fan?

NP: Yes, I do hope the book has value for non-academic readers. One unexpected thing that happened as I was writing was that jazz suddenly became foregrounded in mainstream film-making once more (I suppose the last time this happened was the late 1980s and early 1990s). In very quick succession, we had American Hustle, Whiplash, Birdman, Miles Ahead, Born to be Blue and now the Lee Morgan, Coltrane and Bill Evans documentaries. One thing that I strongly believe is that we shouldn’t separate jazz music from its other manifestations in culture. The two inform each other – to go back to Frith, it’s not really that film and TV do bad things to jazz, it’s that jazz is in constant dialogue with its presence in popular culture and society. The music doesn’t exist in a vacuum – you only need to watch Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance this year to see that.

I’ve been encouraged by the response my work has received at public events from jazz fans. Many have generously assisted me (I’d particularly like to mention Louis Barfe, Barrie Kendrick, Paul Pace, Mike Rose and Mike Telega). But it is worth saying that, like all academic books by first-time authors, this is an expensive book to buy. I’d be really grateful if people would order copies for their libraries – the more copies of the hardback sold, the more likely it is we’ll get a more affordable paperback edition!

LJN: Is there a basic message or elevator pitch ? 

NP: Simply put, this is a book about how jazz has been mediated through film and television. We often ask ourselves, what is jazz? This is a question reflected by these film and television representations. Through image composition and editing, they present that question in visual terms: what is jazz? How has its meaning changed over the decades? What is its significance to the people who play it, who finance it, who listen to it or dance to it? My notion of ‘the dissonant image’ is one that allows us to see how film and television poses these questions and how they look to the music for answers. And I’ve placed this theoretical work within institutional histories of the GPO Film Unit, Warner Bros studios and the BBC, paying close attention to the technologies that permitted these presentations of jazz.

LJN: Which chapter/ section did you have the most fun with?

NP: I really enjoyed the opportunity to do a close analysis of the composition and editing of Jammin’ the Blues. Of course, Arthur Knight has written a wonderful chapter on this film but my chapter also considers the evolution of Mili’s work in the later films with Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck. I’ve also connected up Mili’s film-making with his photography for LIFE magazine, which Benjamin Cawthra has previously written about insightfully.

There’s a section in the introduction that allows me to trot out my pet theory that Whiplash is a horror film. Given how that film was pilloried by many in the jazz press, it was satisfying for me to demonstrate the way in which Damien Chazelle recreates shots from Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s always important to consider the wider context: these films are not just part of jazz culture, but of a larger framework of conventions shaped by genre and production methods.

LJN: And which the most agony and rewrites?

NP: I went through many drafts of the chapter on Len Lye. That was a problem of balance. I was struggling to deal with divergent histories (of modernism, avant-garde film-making, public information films, advertising, jazz in 1930s Britain) as a backdrop to a theorisation of Lye’s very unusual artistic practice. Lye scratched and painted directly onto celluloid, synchronising his strange films to commercially available jazz records. I think I cracked it in the end but it wouldn’t have been possible without some very thoughtful comments on a late draft of the chapter from my friend Richard Wallace.

LJN:  Which has the most which breaks new ground ? 

NP: Jazz on television is very under-researched so I’m proud of my chapter on Jazz 625. I spent a lot of time at the BBC Written Archive looking at the behind-the-scenes paperwork for that series, which was fascinating – not just memos and production documents but also camera scripts. What I’ve tried to do in that chapter is place an account of Jazz 625’s innovation within a larger institutional history of how the BBC has treated jazz. After all, it was one of the first programmes broadcast on BBC2 and it provided an opportunity for British audiences to see American musicians previously unavailable due to the Musicians’ Union ban. And it was so stylish, full of dynamic camerawork in the HD of the time and presented by intelligent commentators Steve Race and Humphrey Lyttelton. I’m especially interested in how the programme has survived in the popular memory, its legacy in BBC4 repeats and clipshows, and its perpetuation through platforms like Youtube. It’s a superb programme and it deserves a BFI boxed set.

Nicolas Pillai

LJN:  Brecht once wrote (Bad Time for Poetry) that it was hard to write about beauty when there were things to be angry about …..what is it that draws you to your writing desk? 

NP: I think most academics are motivated by a desire to understand how things work and to communicate those findings with the wider world. I wrote this book because I wanted to find out why Len Lye’s films fascinated me, why Gjon Mili’s moved me and why Jazz 625 brought me such joy. These weren’t just personal questions. As I was writing, contemporary events kept intruding on the past. The disastrous selling-off of Royal Mail gave me a greater appreciation of the social responsibility of the GPO Film Unit. The vilification of immigrants now so commonplace in public discourse was a reminder that the racism challenged by Mili and Norman Granz is far from dead. Thinking through the public service ideals of the BBC in the 1960s reinforced to me the value of the public sector today as it faces its most prolonged and vicious assault from the Tories. Jazz is a music of freedom and resistance. It gives me hope and that’s how I’d characterise the encounters between jazz and the moving image described in my book: as defiant, progressive and hopeful.

LJN:  Give us the practical stuff  – publisher, date and all that

NP: The title is Jazz as Visual Language: Film, Television and the Dissonant Image. It is published in hardback by I. B. Tauris, and will be available from 30th November 2016. £64.00, ISBN 9781784533441.

LINKS: Jazz as Visual Language at I.B. Tauris
Dr Nicolas Pillai at Birmingham City University

Categories: miscellaneous

1 reply »

  1. An insightful interview. I've had a few chats with Nick over the last couple of years about various topics that he covers here as these strands gestated, also attending screenings that he curated at the Vortex and the O2 and it's great to finally see this all appear in a nice weighty tome… looking forward to settling down with a copy!

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