Apr 2015

“In My Mind”

At the Center for Documentary Studies, the “making” of documentary work as a means to learning about the documentary form has been an educational emphasis since the center’s origination. The student testimonial video and Q&A below about the 2010 film In My Mind, filmed and produced by students under the guidance of CDS instructor Gary Hawkins, is an example of how this educational emphasis was demonstrated in student coursework.

In 2010, CDS Instructor, Gary Hawkins and his current teaching assistant Emily LaDue premiered their jazz performance film, In My Mind, at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. In April 2015, the National Gallery of Art screened the film as part of their ongoing lecture series. Hawkins, LaDue and jazz pianist, Jason Moran were invited to the screening to conduct a Q&A.

In response to In My Mind’s National Gallery premiere, Jenna Strucko conducted this Q&A with filmmaker and CDS instructor Gary Hawkins.

STRUCKO: Could you tell us in a few words how the film came to be? There are so many disparate elements involved.

HAWKINS: Sure. Well let’s see, I came into the project after the other elements were up and running. And they weren’t just running, they were trains roaring down the track at 90 miles an hour. Jason Moran, a gifted young jazz pianist from Houston who was also a disciple of Thelonious Monk, was already planning to restage Monk’s 1959 Town Hall concert in NYC. Aaron Greenwald, director of Duke Performances was exploring ways to tie Thelonious Monk to Duke via the tobacco fields of Rocky Mount and Newton Grove, NC, where his grandparents and great-grandparents were slaves. Sam Stephenson had already discovered Eugene Smith’s cache of Jazz Loft photographs and recordings—although I don’t know the details of that discovery—and he was preparing a rather extensive presentation on the Jazz Loft itself. Somehow all three of them found each other and found common ground in a restaging of the 1959 concert.

STRUCKO: So what exactly is the Jazz Loft?

HAWKINS: The actual Jazz Loft? It was a late-night haunt for jazz musicians in New York City, active during the mid-50s to mid-60s. I seem to remember it was on 821 Sixth Ave, an abandoned building with no heat where jazz musicians hung out and jammed. Guys like Mingus, Zoot Sims and Bill Evans. Now and then a celebrity would show up, Salvador Dali, Norman Mailer, even Doris Duke. A retired Life Magazine photographer named Eugene Smith wired the building for sound, and by that I mean he drilled holes in the walls and attached hidden microphones to recorders throughout the building. Smith accumulated over 4000 hours of recordings in the decade he was there, and he took over 40,000 photographs as well. Buried within that mountain of documentation was Monk’s rehearsal for the Town Hall concert, including his one-on-one discussions with his collaborator, Hall Overton.

STRUCKO: And who was Overton?

HAWKINS: Overton orchestrated Monk’s piano solos for the ten-piece band. He worked out the arrangements with Monk. I think it’s fair to say that Overton was Gil Evans to Monk’s Miles Davis. He was a Julliard grad who taught music at Yale.

STRUCKO: And what about you? How were you a train roaring down the tracks at 90 miles an hour?

HAWKINS: (laughs) Hmmmm… my motive was survival. I was beginning to see the numbers in my intermediate nonfiction class slipping, and evidently it was because I hadn’t grouped the instruction around a compelling theme. I’m a big believer in practice, that you get good by being bad a long time and pushing through it. You put in the time and that’s how you improve. But that philosophy doesn’t fly in academia the way it does in the real world, so I asked around and got myself introduced to Sam (Stephenson), who told me that he and Moran and Greenwald had convinced the provosts at Duke to commission a concert from Moran—a re-interpretation of Monk’s Town Hall concert—to be performed at the original Town Hall. I reshaped my class as “performance-based nonfiction” and requested funds from the provosts to fly my class to NYC and record the concert. Then we hired Steve Milligan out of Freewater to make sure we got our shots, and we were off. That’s how we took the first step. When LaDue and I returned from NYC we reviewed the footage and agreed that we’d captured enough of the performance to build a feature-length “deconstruction” of Moran’s tribute to Monk. So we went back to Duke for more support, for another trip to NYC to interview the musicians, to generate b-roll, to hire a sound mixer, Ian Schreier, who worked miracles, and all the rest. It took us the better part of a year, but we finally pulled together a 100-minute show.

STRUCKO: What was the hardest part of the deconstruction process?

HAWKINS: Knowing when to interrupt a song and when to let it play. It’s trickier than it sounds because there’s no good moment to barge in on a performance. And it took a while to find the narrative, too.

STRUCKO: Which is…

HAWKINS: Monk gets busted by the Delaware State Police for drug possession, a bogus charge as it turns out, he loses his cabaret card which means he can’t work in a venue that serves alcohol, which means he can’t work at all, so he spirals down, gets himself committed to a sanitarium, gets discharged, and while all this is happening his savvy manager is setting up a performance in a non-alcoholic venue which happens to be Town Hall.

STRUCKO: Well congratulations, Gary.

HAWKINS: Thank you, Jenna.