Documentary lets you jam with New Orleans greats
Editor's Note: Brian Friedman reprises his interview with the makers of "Tradition is a Temple" on WWNO radio Monday; to hear it, click here. this piece originally ran in October 2013.
When Darren Hoffman heard the song "Discipline Strikes Again," by Jason Marsalis, something clicked in his mind.
“When I heard this, it was one of the first times in many years that I was inspired to create a music video,” said Hoffman.
Unfortunately for the musician and filmmaker, time wasn’t exactly on his side.
“As we all understand, when we got to 2007, when I was thinking this up, music videos had been dead for many years.”
Still, Hoffman applied for a community partnership grant with the Jazz and Heritage Foundation to produce a handful of music videos. To his surprise, he won.
“By the time I got the grant, I’d met so many new masters of New Orleans and acquired so many new teachers that I decided well, 'why don’t I just piggyback on this grant that I got and invite all these new teachers that I had to record with us'.”
What began as a one or two day shoot with two musicians mushroomed into a nine-day shoot with nearly a dozen artists, including Steve Masakowski, Roland Guerin, Jason Marsalis, Lucien Barbarin, Shannon Powell, and vocalist Topsy Chapman.
“And what went from three to four songs to record, we recorded over thirty,” said Hoffman. At that point, he had so much content, he decided he had to make a film, because “it’s kind of silly just to make a bunch of music videos.”
The result is Tradition is a Temple: The Modern Masters of New Orleans - an official selection at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest.
Hoffman isn’t the likeliest choice to make a movie about traditional New Orleans music. After all, he grew up in Miami. He went to film school at Florida State University in Tallahassee, but soon found that he enjoyed the process of scoring his films more than the actual filmmaking. Then, an encounter with Marsalis, Guerin, and Marcus Roberts would change the course of Hoffman’s life forever.
“At that moment, I decided I would need to go to music school and study jazz, eventually, and the best place to do that would be in New Orleans.”
Hoffman moved to the crescent city in 2007, knowing only Guerin and Marsalis and began playing drums at the church across the street from his home. He soon met legendary drummer Shannon Powell, aka, the King of Treme,
“Darren was like a student,” said Powell. “Very, very ambitious and very creative.”
The student/teacher relationship between Powell and Hoffman became a friendship, and Powell helped Hoffman connect with most of the musicians involved with the project.
Not everybody was on board at first.
“It was so confusing,” said Topsy Chapman, vocalist for The Chapmans and Solid Harmony. “He was saying he was trying to do this project… but I just happened to fall in love with him like a son, so whatever he wanted to do, I was going to support him.”
Tradition is a Temple features interviews with musicians, classic film footage from Jules Kahn, and photos from the Historic New Orleans Collection. Original work by poet Chuck Perkins provides a loose narrative.
But the highlights of the movie are the actual musical sequences -- jam sessions shot against a pure black background.
“The black background was a way of putting, not in a vacuum, but pushing away all of the distractions of the things that surround the actual musician and his craft,” Hoffman said.
But he didn’t stop with just a documentary. A soundtrack for the film will be available, but what really has people talking is an app that Hoffman developed called the Tutti Music Player.
“You have a software platform that will display all the different pars of a musical ensemble in picture in picture on a screen,” said Hoffman.
If you’re a clarinet player, you can focus directly on what the clarinet player’s doing, how he’s playing counterpoint lines with the melody and things like that,” said Steve Masakowski, one of the musicians featured in both the movie and the app.
“So that’s what’s kind of neat about it -- the fact that you can sort of pick and choose who you want to look at and analyze, you can slow it down; you can do all kinds of things that we can do in the computer age now, to make learning very, very efficient.”
“It’s awesome to be able to pull up that kind of film to demonstrate showing musicians,” said Shannon Powell. “It gives the young student listeners and young audience and people that are studying a chance to see, hands-on, how this stuff is done rhythmically. It’s better seeing it and hearing it than telling somebody how to do it. Know what I’m saying?”
Most people don’t have that privilege of getting so close to master musicians, especially those from New Orleans, Hoffman said. “So with this application, my goal is to create an access point for people around the world to experience these best in the world musicians coming form New Orleans, which is the root of American music. And from there, we can create a world of better musicians.”
In November, the film will be part of the Art of the Reel Film Series at New York’s Lincoln Center, followed by digital and video on demand releases through Orchard distributors. But even after that, there are some who think Hoffman may have more work to do.
“Darren did a very good job at researching, but his film could go on for years to try to find everybody in this city who’s doing something,” said Chapman. “They have so much talent in this city. You can never ever get to the end of this.”
Brian Friedman writes about New Orleans for NolaVie.