For some, Ken Burns’ 2001 PBS series Jazz was a definitive, open-and-shut take on its subject, as comprehensive a portrait of the genre as one could hope for. For others, the series was a major slight. As Tom Surgal, director of the new doc Fire Music put it in a 2015 interview, Burns’ 10-part program “really got into pretty thoroughly depicting the entire history of the jazz continuum and virtually ignored free jazz altogether.”
Fire Music, which screens Monday night at the New York Film Festival, is his feature-length corrective. Whether you’re a free jazz partisan or not, the film, whose producers include Nels Cline, Thurston Moore and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, is a valuable addition to the already surprisingly broad canon of films on the subject. The film’s strongest selling point is a generous range of original interviews with key participants in and observers of the movement, as well as plenty of context to help situate “the avant-garde,” as it was sometimes called — and the contributions of pivotal figures such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane and Sun Ra — within the larger story of 20th-century jazz.
Surgal seems to have embarked on the project just in time. “Six of my interview subjects have died since I started the project,” he said in 2015. Since that time, another one, the trombonist Roswell Rudd, who appears briefly in Fire Music, has passed away. One of the film’s most memorable segments features the late reed player and flutist Prince Lasha and his frequent collaborator, the brilliant and underrated altoist Sonny Simmons, recounting what brought them to New York. In the mid-Sixties, the two then-California-based musicians stood together in a record store, marveling at an LP by the eccentric saxophone master Eric Dolphy. “‘Where is he?'” Lasha recalls asking Simmons. “‘He’s in New York.’ I said, ‘Gonna be ready to leave in two weeks?’ … I wanted to see this motherfucker, you know what I mean?”
The film is filled with accounts of those kinds of lightbulb moments, when an encounter with one musician’s work changed a younger player’s entire worldview. Trumpeter Bobby Bradford credits Ornette Coleman with cracking the code that made free jazz possible, by devising a system of improvisation that wasn’t dependent on pre-set chord changes. And both he and Simmons cite bebop legend Charlie Parker as a vital early influence. “I was amazed at how this human being, one man, can stand up there looking like a saint and an angel in a white suit, playing all this beautiful music,” Simmons says of seeing Parker live in 1949. “It changed my whole life.”
The way the film meticulously connects the dots between bebop and free jazz is exemplary, especially in light of how some talking heads in Burns’ film seemed to dismiss the later movement as some sort of aberration. “They’re not saying that ‘we don’t like the past’; they’re not saying that ‘we’re better than the past,'” the ever-lucid critic Gary Giddins explains early in the film of the so-called avant-gardists’ perspective. “They’re saying that this is another way to hear music.”
But Fire Music also immortalizes the harsh reality that for some musicians steeped in swing and bebop, the new music was a direct threat, to be suppressed by any means. Vocalist Ingrid Sertso, a friend of Ornette Coleman’s, tells a horrifying story in the film of the saxophonist being assaulted after a gig. Apparently displeased with what he was playing, the other musicians destroyed his saxophone and proceeded to beat Coleman himself, sending him to the hospital with a collapsed lung. Sertso also tells of Dolphy reacting to an infamous Downbeat interview with Miles Davis in which the trumpeter harshly dissed him, saying, “I think he’s ridiculous.” “He had the Downbeat on his lap and he looked very sad,” Sertso recalls. “And he said, ‘I don’t know why Miles put me down like that. I really like him.'” (Sertso and her husband, vibraphonist Karl Berger, also tell the heartbreaking story of Dolphy’s death in Berlin in 1964, a result of undiagnosed diabetes.)
Unlike some earlier free-jazz docs, Fire Music is light on extended performance footage. Those interested in the larger universe of this music will definitely want to track down Imagine the Sound, a 1981 documentary featuring Cecil Taylor, saxophonist Archie Shepp (who released an album called Fire Music in 1965) and others that Surgal’s film excerpts; and 1985’s Rising Tones Cross, a powerful and intimate chronicle of a later era of New York free jazz; as well as more focused, single-musician portraits like The World According to John Coltrane, All the Notes (featuring Cecil Taylor), Made in America (Ornette Coleman), My Name Is Albert Ayler, Sunny’s Time Now (drummer Sunny Murray), An Interrupted Conversation (drummer Denis Charles), Soldier of the Road (saxist Peter Brötzmann) and the recent, profoundly philosophical and radically impressionistic Full Mantis (drummer Milford Graves).
And with its tight focus on mostly New York–based musicians of the Sixties — one sequence delves into famed 1964 New York City concert series the October Revolution and the short-lived musicians’ guild it helped to spawn — Surgal’s film leaves unexplored just how deeply free jazz and related aesthetics took root everywhere from Chicago to Germany and Japan, and how vital the worldwide scene surrounding this music remains today. It’s worth noting that Surgal, an accomplished drummer known mainly for his work with the duo White Out, has been an active participant in this community for decades. It also bears mentioning that the film’s original teaser trailer featured key European musicians such as Brötzmann and Han Bennink, so it’s likely that Fire Music‘s focus on a very specific time and place was simply a way of making the vast narrative of this music into something compact and manageable.
In terms of the parameters it stakes out, though, Fire Music sets a new benchmark. The film clearly lays out how the original wave of free jazz evolved from what came before and how, for a brief yet indelible period, yielded a wealth of music that’s still unparalleled in its gritty intensity and deep spiritual resonance. “I call it one of the golden periods,” the late saxophonist Noah Howard says in the film. Thanks to Tom Surgal, we have a record of what it felt like to be there.