INTERVIEW/PREVIEW: Hugo Berkeley – Director of The Jazz Ambassadors (New film, screening on BBC4, PBS and Arte)

Louis Armstrong and his wife Lucille pose in front of the Sphinx near Cairo, Egypt in 1961.
Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

A new film is to be screened on BBC4, PBS and Arte documenting the initiative by the US State Department under the Eisenhower administration to start sending jazz musicians abroad, promoting an inage of a racially integrated society and giving a lift to the Civil Rights movement. Interview with the film’s director Hugo Berkeley by Sebastian: 

LondonJazz News: What is The Jazz Ambassadors about?

Hugo Berkeley: To quote the press release: The Cold War and Civil Rights movement collide in this remarkable story of music, diplomacy and race. In 1955, as the Soviet Union’s pervasive propaganda about the U.S. and American racism spread globally, African-American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. convinced President Eisenhower that jazz was the best way to intervene in the Cold War cultural conflict.

“For the next decade, America’s most influential jazz artists, including Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck, along with their racially-integrated bands, traveled the globe to perform as cultural ambassadors. But the unrest back home forced them to face a painful moral dilemma: how could they promote the image of a tolerant America abroad when the country still practiced Jim Crow segregation and racial equality remained an unrealized dream?

“Told through striking archival film footage, photos and radio clips, with iconic performances throughout, the documentary reveals how the U.S. State Department unwittingly gave the burgeoning Civil Rights movement a major voice on the world stage just when it needed one most. Leslie Odom, Jr., narrates.” (end of quote)

LJN: How, when and where did the idea of making this film first occur to you?

HB: In January 2008, I saw a NYTimes article about photographs from the Jazz Ambassadors tour, and it was particularly the image of Armstrong playing in Ghana in 1956 – where I had recently returned from – that piqued my interest. I thought the story of the U.S. government sending musicians to Africa as part of a Cold War propaganda strategy was remarkable, and wanted to know more.

LJN: What were you doing in Ghana?

HB: I went to Ghana to film the 50th anniversary of indpenedence celebrations, and produced a short video for Vanity Fair. But the real reason I went was because I wanted to find out more about the period of African independence in the late 1950s, about leaders like Dr Kwame Nkrumah, and about the musicians that played the soundtrack to those Independence years. Musicians like the great Ghanaian trumpeter E.T. Mensah, Congolese singer Joseph “Le Grand Kallé” Kabasele, and Guinean Supergroup Bembeya Jazz. Actually, at that time, I wanted to make a documentary about those musicians and their freedom struggles, but alas it never came to pass, despite a great deal of trying!

LJN: Had you made a film about music before?

HB: Yes. In 2004, I met the Senegalese super-star Youssou N’Dour and collaborated with another filmmaker on a film about Youssou’s Grammy-winning album Egypt. In the end, my colleague and I had some disagreements about how the film should be made, so I didn’t see it all the way through to the end, but I did follow Youssou for almost a year around Europe, America and Africa, touring with his band Super Etoile de Dakar and an Egyptian orchestra led by Fathy Salama. That was a wonderful experience.

Over the course of the following years, I made a number of shorter docs and behind-the-scenes films for artists like Bill Frisell, Vinicius Cantuaria and Jessica Lee Mayfield.

One of the great filming experiences of my career thus far was a week in 2010 I spent documenting a recording session called “Miles Espanol”, put together by the arranger and producer (now sadly passed on) Bob Belden. He brought great musicians of the Spanish and Latin tradition together at Sear Sound in NYC for a five-day session that was just amazing to be a part of. Artists included Chick Corea, Ron Carter, Jorge Pardo (on flute), Edmar Castaneda (on jazz harp), Cristina Pato (on jazz bagpipes!), Sammy Figueroa, Alex Acuna, Chano Dominguez – the list goes on and on. The film we made is one of the things I’m most proud of and consistently go back to watch. It was just unmitigated fun – and produced beautiful music to boot.

LJN: What led you to Mick Csaky as producer?

HB: I first met Mick while working on the Youssou N’Dour documentary, as he was putting together the extremely ambitious and wildly successful Africa Live: Roll Back Malaria concert in Dakar in 2005. I guess we were sort of polite rivals for Youssou’s affection/attention back then. But time is a balm that soothes everything, and a few years later, when I was seriously thinking about making The Jazz Ambassadors, the executive producer at WNET (the NY Public television station that has produced this film) suggested Mick and I team up to make this happen. Mick has an incredible weight of experience as a filmmaker and producer, so it was a great fit. And I think that we were able to complement each other well as a team – despite going through some very difficult moments, particularly when trying to raise the funds for the film, we never thought of giving up. We share a hard-headed optimism, which is vital in this business.

LJN: I understand the big step was an approach you made to the National Endowment for Humanities. How did that all develop?

HB: Yes, raising the funds was very hard. There’s just not a load of money in television music docs any more, and we knew that the music and footage licensing costs would be steep. So we had to find a way of bringing outside money into the film. WNET (the NY-based production company) suggested that we apply for an NEH grant, and blithely I agreed. Then, they emailed me the application and I understood what it entailed! The application is massive, and essentially requires you to write the film before you make it. So, I did a two-week research trip to the U.S., talking with many of the experts who would end up being in the film. And we convened a panel of university professors who advised on developing drafts of the grant application and lend their credibility to the proejct. And finally, after writing almost 100 pages of stuff, we finished the application. Once we’d submitted it, we waited for 18 months, very certain that if we got the grant, we’d make the film, but that if we didn’t, we almost certianly would have to go back to basics and re-think the whole thing. So, it was nerve-racking to say the least. But thankfully, in March 2015, an email dropped into my inbox saying that we’d been awarded $500,000. Phew. I drank a lot of vodka that night! And that was really the impetus to finalize the funding (which still took another 18 months to wrap up) and make the film. The NEH support has been invaluable to our work.

LJN: When did you actually start making the film?

HB: We began filming in earnest on 8 February 2017. But as I say, the prep work had all been done years before, including much of the archival research. So the film did not take that long to shoot; about 10 days of interviews in total and a day for the reconstructions.

LJN: Were you able to find footage from the period?

HB: My goal in making the film was to try to insert the viewer into the time period at the beginning of the film, and then let them follow the chronology in a present-tense way as the film unfolded. That meant finding really good pieces of footage that could move the story forward at crucial moments. And, while audiences will have to judge for themselves whether we achieved this, when I stand back and survey the footage that we were able to dig up, I am amazed by how much we found. We did archive research in Russia, Poland, Sweden, Belgium, France, America, the UK – really all over the world – in public and commercial archives, university libraries and private collections. It was a massive effort, and Shari Chertok, our archive producer, who led the search, was absolutely brilliant and totally dedicated. She was amazing throughout the making of the film.

LJN: When it came to the music score what kind of brief did you give Michel McEvoy ?

HB: The brief to Mike was to write something that could stitch the disparate styles of the film together. As we were editing the film, it became clear that the different musical styles of all the different protagonists – Armstrong, Ellington, Brubeck, Gillespie, etc – had a tendency to make the film feel too chapterized. We needed something to unify it. And so we asked Mike to find his own way of borrowing from the period, but not being a slave to it, of memorializing important events in the film (like the Civil Rights protests, the African Indpendence struggles) but also updating the sound for a contemporary ear. And I think that Mike did a phenomenal job. The soundtrack is meditative, but also very musical. And he worked wonderfully with brass to create a sound that doubles both as ambassadorial and diplomatic, while at the same time sliding into the blues and mournfulness. I’d never realized how close those vibes could be, and I think Mike plays with that duality beautifully in the soundtrack.

The London band at the recording session (names below)
Photo courtesy of Hugo Berkeley
LJN: And where/when was the recording and who was involved?

HB:  The soundtrack was music-supervised by Maggie Rodford, who is one of London’s leading soundtrack supervisors (Darkest Hour & Paddington2 being recently examples). She runs Air-Edel studios in central London, so we recorded there. Nick Taylor produced the session, and Mike got some of London’s finest musicians to sit in for the two-day session: Paul Booth (saxophone, clarinet), Patrick Clahar (saxophone), Dennis Rollins (tenor trombone), Karl Rasheed Abel (bass), Mark Mondesir (drums), Fayyaz Virji (bass trombone), Kevin Robinson (trumpet), Freddie Gavita (trumpet, flugelhorn), Tom Walsh (trumpet), Graeme Blevins (sax), and Jane Fenton (cello). Often times, filmmaking can be a struggle, with lots of logistics and bashing your head against a wall. But from my persepctive, those two days in the recording studio are among the most relaxing and purely creative moments of the whole process. So when producers tell me (as they often do) that I can save money by getting library music for my films, I look at them with horror and move swiftly on to the next line item to be cut.

LJN: Tell us about some interviewees …Charlie Persip?

HB: The interviews were wonderful for this film. I had so many great discussions – some of them three-plus hours – where we’d lose ourselves in the details of the events, and only resurface when the camera had run out of batteries or a light-bulb had blown. That’s one of the good parts of spending nine years preparing to make a film – you really know the subject by the end.

Charlie, unfortunately, was not in the best of health when he came to our studio for the interview. He said that he’d lost his sight a few days earlier and was still struggling to get around. But despite his trying physical circumstances, his enormous charm and humour shone through. He made us all laugh and cry with his poignant, emotional stories of life on the road with Dizzy – both when the going was good and, in the American south, when it turned violent and bad. The most difficult aspect of the entire interview was getting Charlie out of the building. Somehow the elevator (one of those manually operated New York freight lifts that you see in gangster movies) had “gone missing”, and Charile was in no state to walk down two steep flights of stairs. He calmly waited for at least an hour while we tried to locate the elevator. Having given up hope, a consortium of six men were assembled to carry him down the stairs, but just then, deus ex machina, someone shouted that the elevator had been found. We all breathed a sgh of relief, as Charlie descended safely to the ground floor.

LJN: And Darius Brubeck as a boy kept a diary of touring with his dad?!

HB: Darius is a special person, and i feel very lucky to have got to know him and his wife Cathy over the course of this film. He’s a very thoughful, sensitive person, and you imagine that he could have been successful at so many different walks of life. That he chose to focus on music and channel his father’s legacy through his work is even more poignant for anyone who loves the work of Dave Brubeck. I particularly loved Darius’ perspecitve on the tours, which he experienced as an 11-year-old boy traveling with his father in Poland. Many of us have special childhood memories of our family life – maybe car trips or holidays, or just haning out – and it struck me that, while interviewing Darius, I was getting to re-live one of the most cherished events from his childhood.

In fact, almost everyone I spoke with for this film remembered their part in the Jazz Ambassador story as among the most important of their lives – whether as audience members, jam session partners or participants in the tours themselves. It’s always rewarding talking with people about their most treasured memories, and that was definitely the case with this film. It was a refreshing contrast to the last film I made, which was about the investigation into a horrific murder.

Director Hugo Berkeley and Bass Player Bill Crow in New York, February 2017
Photo Credit: Henry Adebonojo
LJN: And who was Bill Crow?

HB: Bill Crow is a storied bass player, who travelled with Benny Goodman to the USSR in 1962. He’s also a great writer and blogger, and a well-known raconteur in jazz circles. What i didn’t know is what a beautiful voice Bill has. When interviewing him, and then editing the interview, I was struck by how mellifluous Bill’s tone is; a kind of honey-dipped baritone that, with its patience and kindness, recalls a time when life was more gentle and strangers said hello.

LJN: And you got to hang out with Quincy Jones too..?

HB: Unfortunately, I did not actually get to hang our with Qunicy Jones. His daughter was in the middle of making a documentary about him, and they had their own film crew on hand. So they asked me to submit questions and then mailed me the footage. It was great that he could make time to participate in the film, and his answers are wonderful, but… I would have loved to put my questions to him in person. Meeting Quincy remains un-crossed-off on the list of things to do in life.

LJN: Where can people see it and what dates should we be putting in the diary?

HB: The broadcasts are:

• BBC4 (UK) – Friday 4 May at 9pm
• PBS (USA) – Friday 4 May at 10pm
• ZDF/Arte (France/Germany) – Sunday 20 May at 10:10pm

Also, we’ve got a few pre-broadcast festival screenings:

Washington DC – Monday 30 April, 6:30pm at the Warner Bros Theater as part of the History Film Forum: https://historyfilmforum.si.edu/
Newport Beach CA – Monday 30 April (7:45pm) and Wednesday 2 May (12pm) in the Newport Beach Film Festival: https://newportbeachfilmfest.com/event/the-jazz-ambassadors/
Harlem, NY – Friday 4 May, 6:45pm in the Harlem International Film Festival: http://harlemfilmfestival.org/

Beyond that, there will be a DVD release, and home video/streaming options, TBD. We also hope that the film will participate in more film festival and jazz festival screenings over the coming months. Please check the website (thejazzambassadors.com – see below for link) for more updates.

LJN: And what next for the film after that?

HB: Beyond the above, my hope is that the broadcast of the film is going to be a beginning, rather than an ending of this story. It’s such an incredible tale, and I think it is so pertinent to what is happening in the world today, that I hope audiences will sieze on the film and use it how they see fit – whether that’s in an educational setting, as a launchpad for telling more stories from The Jazz Ambassadors initiative and cultural exchange more generally (there are plenty more to tell) or as a pure entertainment. I’m excited for the film to get out there and carve out its own next steps.

LINKS: Trailer for The Jazz Ambassadors
Video: Intro to the USIA and Anti-Propaganda Efforts
Video: Adam Clayton Powell’s Role and Team-Up with Dizzy Gillespie

The Jazz Ambassadors press page

Categories: miscellaneous

1 reply »

  1. Simon Broughton writes:

    I’ve had a sneak preview of this film. It’s an extraordinary cultural and political story very well told. It deserves to be seen as widely as possible Make sure you catch it.

    Simon Broughton

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