|Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr.|
Two jazz related-films will play alongside this year’s Herts Jazz Festival in Letchworth. For this feature, Mike O’Brien, who is is the curator of the Herts Jazz Film Festival and a member of the Herts Jazz team, spoke to pianist GARETH WILLIAMS Williams about accompanying a Buster Keaton silent film masterpiece, and to director GARY BARBER about his documentary Dreams Are Free, about the much-missed BOBBY WELLINS:
– GARETH WILLIAMS, a Herts Jazz favourite will be accompanying the Buster Keaton silent film Sherlock Jr on Saturday 6 October at 10:15 am.
“I’m really enjoying the preparation for this screening” says Gareth. “You have to wonder how the original musicians played along to these films in the 20s”. Silent films were of course never silent, but always accompanied by musicians, either solo or in groups of various sizes. Their playing skills are legendary. When the “talkies” arrived at the end of the 20s, thousands of them found themselves out of a job. It was not only them who were affected. Gareth says: “My grandfather lost his livelihood. He was a singer in the Welsh language before talkies came along, and he performed light opera in London when he moved there from Wales. But once the talkies came more people chose to go to the cinema and it changed the face of entertainment, certainly in many parts of Britain.”
Gareth’s family are all still very musical. “My brother was a professional musician (he’s now a professional actor) and still does a lot of session work singing and he’s a very good arranger.” Gareth started piano at the age of 5 and became interested in jazz through his father. “He was a jazz trumpet player but not professional. He had a few jazz records around. I think it was Bix Beiderbecke’s “Singing The Blues” with its heartrending solo that really got me into jazz. Then I started listening to the Hot Five stuff with Louis.
These days his great inspiration is Bill Evans. “I’ve been getting more into the detail of Bill Evans. The intense lusciousness of his music. His harmonic skill has been unsurpassed. He basically compiled a way of approaching chords and scales in a methodical and distilled way that became the jazz ‘textbook’ for the last 60 years”
Gareth has absorbed these influences and developed a highly praised personal style. He is relishing the challenge of using his musical versatility to bring back the spirit of those early silent film accompanists with a contemporary jazz twist. “I’m really enjoying reacting to the film. Of course, I now have a clear idea of the structure and the detail of what’s coming next in the film, and there are times when gags are coming thick and fast! But the joy of playing to Buster’s creativity is having the confidence to trust your instincts and embrace the serendipity, the spur of the moment responses to what is happening on the screen.
You also have to remember it’s a conversation with the film. It’s about the film and the music working together. You need to work with Buster Keaton, know when to pull back and let him steal the show, and when to bring out those different moods, those contemplative moments amongst all the action. We’ll have some real fun in those action sequences, though!”
This is a new venture for Gareth. “I’m really enjoying working on this project and looking forward to finding out how the audience in Letchworth react. I think they’ll love this film. I watched it with my daughter the other night and we were laughing out loud!”
|Bobby Wellins: a still photo from Dreams Are Free|
– Dreams Are Free, Gary Barber’s documentary about tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins, a Herts Jazz stalwart, will be screened on Sunday 7 October at 10:15 am
Director Gary Barber has always been interested in jazz. “I’ve always listened to jazz, always liked to go to gigs – I still buy jazz vinyl now.” But he didn’t particularly set out to make films about jazz players.
“I run Brighton Film School. We teach students how to use cameras, sound, lighting, editing. I’ve always made films myself, though, whether short films, or producing and making documentaries, it’s kind of what I love doing. I did work commercially for a while, but for me I prefer to work on projects I’m passionate about. Particularly documentaries. It’s really about finding a subject that I find really engaging, that’s what motivates me.”
His route to Dreams Are Free started with another jazz player. “I met the drummer Spike Wells in Brighton when I was making another documentary, and I interviewed him in his role as a priest. When I went round to Spike’s house I saw all this memorabilia and his record collection and I was just amazed. I found out that he used to be a solicitor, then he became a priest, and he was also a jazz musician. So it was like, let’s make a film! It became a little half hour documentary.”
A film about Spike Wells was inevitably going to include his work with Bobby Wellins. “Spike mentioned how much he liked working with Bobby and so I went over to meet Wellins and did an interview. I always thought I would love to go back sometime and make a film about Bobby.”
It turned out to be quite a while before the opportunity arose. “In the meantime I worked on other documentaries and I’d done some broadcast docs as well, but I really wanted to make a film that was about someone who had a real story and was truly engaging. I’d always thought that if I could get Bobby to open up and tell me his fascinating story it would make a great documentary. It was about 12 years later that I called him up and we just carried on the conversation as if no time had elapsed.”
“My camera operator/co-producer, Paul Dutnall, and I went over to Bobby’s house with a camera and one light because we thought, let’s just do a test, see what it’s like filming in Bobby’s living room. Three hours later and Bobby was still talking!”
Wellins proved to be full of stories about his musical life but also open about the years of drug dependency. What came across above all, though, was the genuine warmth of this man.
The reception to the film has “been very positive.” Gary was particularly touched when Bobby’s daughter said to him “it’s like having dad back for an hour”. There can be no better tribute to the power of this film and its tribute to a much missed jazz great.