The pianist Niels Lan Doky conceived, wrote, co-directed and stars in a documentary film about jazz as a universal language.
Mike Zwerin INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE
Wednesday, September 08, 2004
PARIS: The pianist Niels Lan Doky - part Vietnamese, part Danish, educated in America, and living in France - conceived, wrote, co-directed and stars in a documentary film, now in post-production, about jazz as a universal language. Although he has accompanied such acts as David Sanborn, Al Jarreau, the Brecker Brothers, Joe Henderson and John Scofield, he has never made a film before. But he was inspired by Wim Wenders's Buena Vista Social Club." Doky liked that it featured people who were all still alive and that you got to know these Cuban musicians as well as their music. Why not do the same thing for jazz?
Starting about a year ago, carried away by the project, playing less and less piano, getting little sleep, Doky pulled out all the stops to make the movie before it was too late. Musicians were dying, and he wanted to document the living, not the dead. He wrote outlines, drafts, budget estimates and structure charts, and he pitched the project to film producers and money people. The Danish-based Ben Webster Foundation and the movie producer Jorgen Bo Behrensdorff of Park Films were interested. The total budget came to E400,000, or $480,000. Filmed in July, it has the working title Between a Smile and a Tear: A Night at the Montmartre Club in Copenhagen."
The first part of the name came from veteran harmonica player Toots Thielemans, who likes to say that he lives between a smile and a tear. Along with the singer Lisa Nilsson, Doky co-wrote a song by that name for the documentary, which they hope will be released next spring.
From 1959 to 1974, the Montmartre in Copenhagen was one of the leading jazz clubs in the world. Johnny Griffin and Dexter Gordon would come in for months at a time, and Stan Getz played there regularly. The house rhythm section was Albert (Tootie) Heath and Kenny Drew (both Americans), and either Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson or Mads Vinding, both Danes, on bass.
Thad Jones, Stan Getz, Oscar Pettiford, Don Byas." Just pronouncing the names seemed to give Doky pleasure. Brew Moore, Ernie Wilkins, Horace Parlan and Ben Webster, among many, many others, all lived and worked in Copenhagen," he says. Copenhagen was less 'recognized,' but it was just as important a haven for American jazz musicians as Paris."
Doky went out of his way to avoid saying that the Danish are in general friendlier than the French. But he did point out that Copenhagen is smaller and less of a global crossroads than Paris, and that the people have more time and, perhaps, need for the friendliness of foreigners.
Some of the musicians became Danish," he said. They learned to speak the language. Tootie gave his son the Danish name Jens. Some of them are buried there. Ben Webster and Kenny Drew lie near each other in the Assistents Cemetery, along with national icons like Soren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen. Thad Jones is in the Vestre Cemetery, where some of our prime ministers are buried.
Jazz musicians have so much to offer. But they are not known as people, even by fans of their music. They lead such interesting lives, they are so smart, they have such a good sense of humor. I would like these people and their music to reach an audience outside the music's immediate circle, like the Wenders film did."
He lined up a core cast of Montmartre veterans - Griffin, Thielemans, Heath, Vinding - to play with him in the band. He would also interview them, and they would talk about the new days and the old days, about the musician's life and the meaning of it all.
The breakthrough came when Doky discovered that the hairdressing school occupying the premises of the original Montmartre would be closed for vacation in July, that they had not partitioned the space and that even their mirrors were on wheels. He rented it for the month. Art directors, set designers, carpenters, and a work crew turned the empty space into a movie set, including the rebuilt bar.
The Montmartre opened in July for the first time in 30 years - for two concerts with live audiences filmed by four cameras as part of the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, which also invested in the project. The violinist Didier Lockwood and Nilsson completed the band. Lockwood is from Paris and Griffin lives in Limoges. Heath flew in from Los Angeles. Thielemans, now 82, is from Brussels and Nilsson is from Stockholm.
Jazz is a form of music with a unique character," Doky said. People of radically different backgrounds - geographical, cultural, political, racial, religious, age, gender, etc. - can in some strange way acquire an immediate mutual understanding and create a spontaneous common expression, all without any prior rehearsal or prior personal acquaintance. The musicians in the movie each speak English with their own accent. And they speak jazz with their own accent."
International Herald Tribune