Friday, April 5, 2013

“Charles Lloyd: Arrows Into Infinity”: Talking with filmmaker Dorothy Darr

Most jazz fans know something about multi-instrumentalist and composer Charles Lloyd. For a time in the 1960s, so did many rock and folk music fans.

He’s the one who made “Forest Flower” (1968), an album as likely back then to end up in the record collection of a 14-year-old Deadhead as a jazz devotee. The one who played Monterey, both Fillmores, and music festivals of all kinds. (At the Seattle Pop Fest in July, 1969, he was sandwiched between the Ike and Tina Turner Review and Led Zeppelin.) Who played with the Beach Boys and toured Russia in 1967 with his now-legendary first quartet (Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette). Who dropped out in the ’70s and moved to Big Sur. Who came back in the late ’80s and has released a steady stream of stellar albums on ECM – 16 so far, from “Fish out of Water” with Bobo Stenson, Palle Danielsson, and Jon Christensen (1989) to “Hagar’s Song” with Jason Moran (2013).

"Charles Lloyd: Arrows Into Infinity," an extensive, expansive new film about Lloyd’s life and music has recently been released and was a last-minute addition to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. A regional premiere, it screens on Friday, April 12 at 8:30 p.m. and again on Wednesday, April 17 at 9:20 p.m.

Director and producer Dorothy Darr, an artist, photographer, architect, filmmaker, Lloyd's manager, and his wife of more than 40 years, will be present at both screenings.

The film was added to the schedule with help from Lowell Pickett, owner of the Dakota jazz club and a great admirer of Lloyd. The Dakota has presented Lloyd often since he returned to touring, most recently in March of this year. I was there, as I always am when Lloyd comes through town. A Charles Lloyd performance is a transporting experience. It's never the same, and he always plays with fantastic musicians.

I spoke with Darr on Friday, April 5.

PLE: Why did you make this film?

Dorothy Darr:  Charles is a very enigmatic person, and he chose an unusual and independent path. I wanted to share many of the things I know to be true about him and the great contribution he has made to this art form called jazz, as well as to share more personal aspects of his life and our lives together.

I started working with my co-director and producer, Jeffrey Morse, about ten years ago, when I made the documentary about Charles and Billy Higgins, “Home.” I wanted to develop my own editing skills, so I hired Jeffrey as my Final Cut tutor. We became friends, and I took him on a number of tours as kind of my road and sound assistant.

In 2008, we both agreed there should be something far more comprehensive and informative about Charles in the form of a film or video that would give people a more complete view of him, not only as a musician but as a human being. That’s when we dove into it more earnestly.

Dorothy Darr
Courtesy of the artist
Have you been documenting his life all along?

I have been taking still photographs forever, but with the advent of Hi8 video film, it was easy to get a relatively small camera and be mobile. I carted this everywhere and filmed everywhere. As a result of that, I made an hour-long documentary in 1995 called “Memphis Is in Egypt.” That was built around Charles’s quartet with Bobo Stenson, Billy Hart, and Anders Jormin. It essentially covers 1993-95, with a little bit of historic material. That was my first experience. I did not do the editing.

The next film was “Home,” with Billy Higgins. That was when I took up and learned Final Cut and did all of the production in-house. Meanwhile, the technology went from Hi8 to MiniDV and now a little card with HD.

For “Arrows into Infinity,” we went back to material from the 1960s. There was a film about Charles called “Journey Within” by Eric Sherman that was shot on 35mm film, some in Eastern Europe, some in San Francisco at the Fillmore. I was able to get material from the 1960s shot on film, and other source material from France also shot on film, converted to video. My source material is kind of all over the place.

So, in a way, “Arrows” is also about your own evolution as a filmmaker?

You can say that. Yes, it is. I would say it’s my most developed work to date, most cohesive. The closest to me.

Do you think you’ll ever make a film about somebody else?

I don’t know. I might want to make one that’s more visually oriented, more painterly.

Was “Arrows” a 75th birthday gift to Charles?

It was! It went on for a long time. Jeffrey is considerably younger than me, and I don’t think he felt the same pressures, but I was bound and determined to get it done before Charles’s birthday.

[Note: Lloyd’s 75th birthday was March 15. The public celebration was at the Kennedy Center on March 22, with a concert featuring Lloyd, Jason Moran, Zakir Hussain, Reuben Rogers, Sokratis Sinopoulos, Eric Harland, Alicia Hall Moran, and Maria Farantouri.]

What was the most difficult part of the film?

There were a few things that were difficult. Challenging. We had a collection of interviews with a wide range of individuals, and everyone had glowing things to say. And then there were the periods of Charles’s life that were darker and more difficult – essentially things he left New York for, and Malibu, to go to Big Sur to get away from and heal. 

It was difficult to get Charles to talk about that in any kind of detail. And yet – this came quite late in the process – I felt that we should not gloss over that period. I also didn’t want this to be a fluff piece film about him, which I was afraid it could become.  I finally was able to sit him down, and that was really the last piece that went in, the last element: the shots I converted to black-and-white, where he talks about hitting the wall and so forth.  

Another challenging part was just editing down so much really interesting information from all these people. Getting it down to the essence without losing the importance. There’s so much more of everybody’s interview. I’m thinking ahead to a DVD with extras – whole interviews, amazing, wonderful stories, historical elements. There wasn’t enough room in the film. It would have to be a six-hour movie.

[Note: The film’s many interviews include Herbie Hancock, Stanley Crouch, Geri Allen, Zakir Hussain, John Densmore, Michael Duscuna, Robbie Robertson, Jack DeJohnette, Don Was, and Manfred Eicher.]

Charles Lloyd at the Dakota,
March 2013
Photograph by John Whiting
What is the most important thing that one – anyone – should know about Charles?

Herbie Hancock summed it up very beautifully when he said that Charles has a huge heart that’s brimming with love. A few other individuals have pointed this out over the years. It’s not something that people will readily acknowledge or necessarily realize. His love for the individual and for humanity at large is enormous. He puts this love and care into his music and the expression of it.

He’s a deeply emotional person. That intensity of emotion comes through in his music. When he’s with a group of musicians, whether playing in duo, quartet, or sextet, his sense of sharing on and off the stage is very deep. His generosity to the other musicians is very great. He allows them all to have their individual time within the space of a collective expression. This is a beautiful and special quality about him.

From your perspective as the filmmaker, what is the high point of the film?

I love the credits! The music behind them, which is from a concert in Salzburg with the quartet, with Jason [Moran]. That was a great concert. So the energy music-wise is very high. And I like seeing Charles walk through our property.

Other parts I love: the section with Michel [Petrucciani], which was shot in my studio in Big Sur. We hadn’t quite finished building the house and my studio. It was a special, tender time. Both the immense talent Michel had, and the close musical association he and Charles shared, shines through.

The same could be said for the footage with Charles and Billy Higgins – probably to an even greater degree, because their friendship and musical collaboration endured through a lifetime.

And I loved finally getting the rights to use about three minutes of film from the Antibes festival in 1966. I had to fight to be able to use that. More than any of the other footage that’s in there, it shows how remarkable that particular formation was. [Note: Darr is referring to the original Charles Lloyd Quartet with Jarrett, McBee, and DeJohnette.]

I also loved the footage from the BBC with Cannonball Adderley, where you’re hearing and seeing Charles in his early 20s. For a musician who has been extremely harshly criticized throughout his career as being “Coltrane Lite,” who is constantly being thrown into comparison with Coltrane – which is natural, because they both have a very spiritual approach – seeing and hearing him in the context of playing with Cannonball through to today, you can see the thread and continuity of an individual artist who very much had and has his own voice, sound, and approach.

I read an otherwise positive review of “Hagar’s Song” that began with these words: “Say what you will about saxophonist Charles Lloyd, but the guy has exquisite taste in piano players.” I get the second part, but what does the first part even mean?

That’s what I don’t know. The implication is fairly negative.

You met Charles in 1968, when he was famous. Then he dropped out and moved to Big Sur. You followed him there. He largely disappeared from the public eye. How did you feel about that?

There are a lot of facets to that. When we met, he was married. I was a freshman in college.

How did you meet?

I was in Providence and he had a concert in Fall River [Rhode Island]. My best friend and I went to the concert, and I was bowled over by the power of his music. We didn’t meet that night. That summer, I took a job in Philadelphia doing graphic design for one of the first summer music festivals, the Schmidt Beer music fest in Philly. I took the job because he was one of the artists who was performing in the festival. I thought, I’ll for sure meet him. And I did.

During those first years of knowing him, he was married, so when I graduated from college, I decided to leave the country. I lived in Italy and France for a couple of years. Then I got the news that he was leaving his marriage and going to Big Sur.

He was going to a completely different life than he had when you met. Back then he was a star, and now – to quote from the film  –  he wanted to "live in a cave and drink lemon water."

That was irrelevant. What drew me to Charles was – I grew up  in a family of artists. My father was a painter, my mother a writer and sculptor. One of the strongest elements of growing up in that family was when other painters and writers would get together and there would be those wonderful conversations about ideas and expression. When I heard Charles play, I was hearing something that went beyond music as a form of entertainment. He was communicating something very deeply to his audience. I saw him as a great artist, not as a star. That was always how I saw him. I was young. Fame, stardom – I didn’t really know what they meant, what they equated to.

Some people think that Charles became a spiritual person when he went to India, or when he was working with Billy Higgins. But this film implies he has always been a spiritual person. What is the source of his spirituality?

I learned an interesting thing about Charles many years ago that’s not in the film. I was visiting him in St. Louis – I was in graduate school, and he had a concert there in a high school. One of his classmates came and brought their high school yearbook.

When you’re in high school, everybody has something to say under their class picture. Things like “Most Likely to Succeed.” The statement under Charles’s picture was, “All that is in tune with thee, O Universe, is in tune with me.”

This was a young man from Memphis, Tennessee, just graduating from high school. I think his sights were already set, his path already turned in a spiritual direction.

He didn’t physically go to India until a few years ago. He was very interested in [George Ivanovitch] Gurdjieff in college, and in the writings of [Rabindranath] Tagore.

When did he start meditating?

In the 1960s. He started with TM [transcendental meditation], then moved into Vedanta and the teachings of Ramakrishna.

Do you share his spiritual beliefs?

I do. I’m on that path.

Why is there almost nothing in the film about Charles’s childhood – no family pictures, no father, no siblings, no school, no early saxophone teachers? There are references to other musicians who were his influences, but what about his family?

We had an earlier version where some of that was included. Because the film is so long, it seemed to drag down the momentum and pacing. Once we took it out, it flowed.

There’s a fair amount [about his childhood] in “Memphis Is in Egypt.”

I thought maybe he had a horrible childhood.

He did. It was so complicated. He had a very unhappy and difficult childhood. We thought – do we have to go into all of that to make this film?

What do you want to tell people about this film?

You watched it from the standpoint of someone who’s a follower of jazz, someone who not only listens to jazz but hears Charles live. I hope that this film has an appeal to that audience but also to a larger audience, to a more universal viewer who’s interested in life, life’s experience, and music.

Where has “Arrows Into Infinity” screened so far, and where is it going?

It’s been in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. It’s invited to the Munich Film Festival in early July. It’s going to screen in Kansas City at a film festival on the same night as one of the screenings in Minneapolis. We’re invited to the Chicago Black Harvest festival at the end of August, and to the Burlington, Vermont, Discover Jazz summer festival.

My hope – and I still probably need to edit the film down more – is to get it on the “American Masters” series [on PBS]. Charles is an American master and should be treated as one.



MJF/49: Charles Lloyd at the 2006 Monterey Jazz Festival: Still drunk with the music 


From the film

“He had his own sound. Nobody ever sounded like Charles Lloyd. He just captured a certain element that was flowing, almost like a flowing river, cascades of sound that almost had kind of an environmental aspect to it.” — Herbie Hancock

“I saw them in Central Park, when Keith [Jarrett] was plucking the strings inside the piano. It was just fantastic … When musicians are that high quality, and then when they go outside, it’s fabulous. It could be faking it, but they weren’t, and I knew it.” — John Densmore, drummer for The Doors

“We were starting to listen to music in a different way, because it was something unheard of, what this group as a quartet produced in live performance. I realized it was something alternatively to what I heard from Coltrane and other groups, and it sounded like a young and dynamite, beautiful dancing group.” — Manfred Eicher, founder, ECM

“[‘Forest Flower’] was the key that opened up my heart and my spirit to jazz.” — Jessica Felix, founder, Healdsburg Jazz Festival

“I’d had some success with ‘Forest Flower’ and Monterey and all that, with the group of Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette and Cecil McBee, but the problem was the business wanted me to become a product, and to become a product, I’d have to give a repeatable, boring, retelling of the truth.” — Charles Lloyd

“The melodic richness of Charles, and his tonal creative mind, is actually made for Indian music. The way I see it, he’s like the pandit, the guru, of Indian music.” — Zakir Hussain

“I was thinking about going back into the forest again, and not playing in a public way anymore … [Billy Higgins] wouldn’t let me stop, and he gave me such a strong rebuke that I had to recant that and bow down to his wisdom, because this music is not my music, I’m a conduit, it comes through me, I’m in service. Billy always said we were in service, and he looked upon it like that.” — Charles Lloyd

“He’s a kind of perfectionist, but a free perfectionist.” — Geri Allen

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