IN MY MIND – The Long Road to a New, Exciting JLP Outcome

On September 7, 2006 I drove to Guglhupf Bakery and Café in Durham for lunch with the new director of Duke Performances, Aaron Greenwald.  We had never met.  Little did we know how much the work of Duke Performances and the Jazz Loft Project and the Center for Documentary Studies would come to overlap.  This week, more than three and a half years later, the latest product of the collaboration, a beautiful film called IN MY MIND by CDS filmmakers Gary Hawkins and Emily LaDue, will be unveiled in Durham at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (see poster by CDS designer Bonnie Campbell below).  It is an outcome of JLP that we never could have expected, or produced ourselves, and therefore it feels like a unique and meaningful milestone for everyone involved.  Here’s a look back at the meandering path:

As Aaron and I munched sandwiches at Guglhupf that day, he described his ambitions to present a series of concerts in the fall of 2007 to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Thelonious Monk’s birth in Rocky Mount, N.C. about ninety miles from Durham.  His vision was that Duke Performances could do more to connect with the fertile region from which Duke University’s vast endowment had grown, literally; the Duke family fortune originated in the tobacco fields.  Aaron knew that I had studied Monk as part of the JLP.  He didn’t know that I grew up in “little” Washington in North Carolina’s coastal plains and I felt a kinship with Monk, valid or not, based on our shared soil (not just the birth home but the Monk ancestral home in nearby Newton Grove) and Monk’s heavy southern accent which can be heard clearly on Smith’s tapes.  Over the following fourteen months my Jazz Loft colleagues Dan Partridge, Sarah Moye, and I worked with Aaron and his staff on a near daily basis.

In September and October of 2007 Duke Performances presented Following Monk, a stunning series of eighteen events including the likes of the Kronos Quartet, Jason Moran, Charles Tolliver, Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, Randy Weston, Kenny Barron, Andy Bey, Henry Butler, Jessica Williams, Jerry Gonzales, Johnny Griffin, Barry Harris, Paul Jeffrey, Alonzo King’s LINES ballet, writers Stanley Crouch and Robin D.G. Kelley, and more.  CDS and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz were co-sponsors of the series.  A number of Monk’s relatives from eastern North Carolina attended the shows.

Following Monk Sticker_web

During Following Monk CDS radio documentarian John Biewen created an NPR segment which was aired nationally on Monk’s birthday, “Digging Up Thelonious Monk’s Southern Roots,” featuring Monk’s son, T.S. Monk.  I wrote a cover story for the Oxford American’s annual music issue, “Is this Home?” concerning Monk’s return to North Carolina in May of 1970 to play for two weeks at Raleigh’s legendary Frog & Nightgown club.  Following Monk was covered by all the mainstream and alternative media outlets in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area.  Monk was in the air.  It felt like a significant achievement.

The cornerstones of Following Monk were two shows paying homage to Monk’s historic Town Hall concert from February 27, 1959, the first time Monk had performed his music with a big band.  The tentet arrangements were conceived and rehearsed by Monk and Hall Overton on the fourth floor of 821 Sixth Avenue, a diligent process that was documented by W. Eugene Smith in photographs and tapes.  In one Following Monk show trumpeter Charles Tolliver led his tentet through a powerful, near note-for-note re-performance of Monk’s original concert.  In the second, Jason Moran and his Big Bandwagon, an octet, created a seminal 75-minute piece called IN MY MIND.  The mixed media piece went back-and-forth in time, making explicit use of Smith’s photographs and tapes from Monk’s rehearsals, while evoking the Monk family’s Newton Grove homeland and blending elements of Jason’s own autobiography.

Moran’s connection to Jazz Loft in the first place was serendipity.  Let me backtrack.  In March of 2005 New York Times writer Ben Ratliff visited CDS for three days researching the first major story on the JLP.  Then, in the fall of 2006, not long after Aaron and I had lunch at Guglhupf, Ratliff interviewed Jason Moran on-stage at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Jason talked a lot about Monk and he mentioned a gig in San Francisco for SFJAZZ in mid-2007 in which he would lead a tentet, with T.S. Monk on drums, performing new, yet-to-be-written transcriptions of Monk’s original Town Hall arrangements.  After the program Ratliff asked Jason, have you ever heard about the Jazz Loft Project and Eugene Smith’s documentation of Monk’s Town Hall rehearsals?  Jason answered no, but left intrigued.  I got my first email inquiry from him in November 2006.  Over the next eleven months Jason visited CDS and Duke many times.  We made a pilgrimage to Newton Grove with Jason’s videographer, visiting Monk’s Crossroads and the Monk Plantation, the grave of Monk’s father’s brother, John Jack Monk, who never left Newton Grove and lived to be 102 (outliving his nephew Thelonious) and we ate barbecue at Eddie’s Cafe.  Jason also sent the expert transcriber David Weiss to CDS for several painstaking days in our offices transcribing Monk’s Town Hall rehearsals from Smith’s tapes into charts for Jason’s band to play.  The resulting IN MY MIND premiered in October 2007 as part of Following Monk. It was co-commissioned by partners Aaron lined up, SFJazz, Chicago Symphony Center, and the Washington (D.C.) Performing Arts Society and it traveled to those cities.

The success of Following Monk led Duke’s President Richard Brodhead and Provost Peter Lange to boldly support a risky new project in New York City February 26-27, 2009, a presentation of Tolliver’s tentet concert and Moran’s IN MY MIND at Town Hall to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Monk’s original concert in that space.  By this time, Lauren Hart had joined me and Dan Partridge on JLP staff and we did everything we could to help Aaron and his staff.  At times it felt perilous, like a potential disaster, mostly for reasons out of our control.  I think Aaron felt like his job could be on the line.  People told us we were naive not to have somebody like Denzel Washington or Clint Eastwood introduce the concerts.  Nobody would show up without the celebrities.  (Three months before our Town Hall shows I gave pre-concert talks before three nights of Monk shows at Jazz at Lincoln Center and TV stars Soledad O’Brien and Courtney B. Vance introduced and narrated the three concerts).  But Aaron resisted.  With Duke’s support, he put the music on a pedestal and the ticket prices were held at relative low levels.  The Hall was about two-third’s full both nights and it felt raw and energized, not a refined culture-night-out.  Tolliver’s concert was broadcast live by WNYC: New York Public Radio, our collaborator on the Jazz Loft Project Radio Series, and I joined their “Evening Music” host Terrance McKnight in the broadcast booth.  More than thirty Monk relatives chartered a bus from the New Haven, CT area to Town Hall for IN MY MIND. The concerts were received well by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times twice here and here,, and New York magazine, among others.  Some of the informal feedback from pros and purists in attendance heartened us the most.

With support from CDS director Tom Rankin and associate directors Greg Britz and Lynn McKnight, CDS film director Gary Hawkins and producer Emily LaDue videotaped the Town Hall performance of IN MY MIND with seven cameras operated by students from their advanced video course along with cinematographer Steve Milligan.  After a year of intensive editing by Hawkins and LaDue, the highly anticipated results will be unveiled at the Full Frame Documentary Film festival later this week, on Friday night at 10:30pm.  We’ve seen early cuts.  Gary and Emily have created a vital piece of work, weaving poignant interviews with Jason and his band into the concert footage.  It achieves a difficult double entendre:  It pays homage to history while rendering fresh, new expressions, making it a tremendous example of documentary art.  I don’t know of anything like it among jazz films of recent times.  It transcends jazz and will be engaging to people who know little about jazz.  Gary and Jason Moran will do Q&A after the screening.

IN MY MIND will have its New York premier at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center on April 19.  Jason and Gary will do Q&A after this screening, too.

Looking back over the twelve year history of the Jazz Loft Project (eight years full-time), IN MY MIND is an outcome with so many integral roles.  That kind of teamwork makes it all the more meaningful.

-Sam Stephenson


1 Comment

  1. Gary Hawkins Said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 9:36 am

    Folks, Sam has humbly skipped over the significance of his exquisite find. When I try to explain how it all happened I usually begin there. Or with Smith himself. As a seasoned doc filmmaker I’ve come to revere guys like Smith – people who actually made the effort to record events as they unfolded.

    I love what you wrote about the film, Sam. LaDue and I were debriefing over Carlsbergs just yesterday – and wondering, at what point did IN
    MY MIND become personal to us? I think it was last summer but I don’t remember why. We just looked at each other one day and said, “We can do with this material what Moran did with Monk’s original concert – we can cut and paste Moran’s words (“we went to Newton Grove, we went to Newton Grove…’), we can get Nasheet to play Monk’s Mood with brushes and trade out the music for commentary without losing the beat, we can illustrate the billy club sequence with faux album covers, we can do all this and more.” And that’s when the film became as you say, nothing any of us could have predicted. I do remember this much – our first sense of “newness” came on my birthday. It fell on Saturday last year, November 7th. LaDue and I began the day by watching a complete 100 minute rough cut at Smith Warehouse. The first hour zipped by. LaDue said something like, “My god, are we on the fourth song already? It feels like 15 minutes have passed.” When the film ended we felt like we’d been run over by a train. “This film comes at you hard,” I said, “Lots to take in, lots to process, and doesn’t let up the whole way.” LaDue said, “Yep, and that’s the way we want it.”

    And that’s the way we kept it. Jazzy. If jazz is not knowing what’s next, we honored the spirit of jazz with our film. The non-performance footage amounts to commentary which requires a certain amount of explaining, but we tried to avoid getting too caught up in that. We tried to keep the presentation breezy and impressionistic, same as the performance. And we never wanted to be “out of music”. Everything the audience sees and hears the whole way is musical. Maybe that’s why the film is unique as jazz films go. We never fully disengage from the music. The music is always there, even when it’s not there.

    I don’t know why, but I hope viewers appreciate the inclusion of Brother Ah in the project. He seems to represent the ghost of Monk. I love how excited he gets while recounting the night of the concert. When I interviewed Ah I led him through an exercise called “sense memory”, the essential element in method acting. You generate an emotion by calling up a poignant memory and allowing it envelop you. You do this by appealing to the senses. When Brother Ah says “creaky”, he’s responding to the question, “What is the first word that comes to your mind as you enter the jazz loft on a cold night at 2am in 1959. “Creaky. You creaked your way up the steps…”

    Hats off to you, Sam, and to Aaron Greenwald for your risk and perseverance. LaDue and I felt the full weight of your efforts, if indirectly, and responded in kind. I’m sure Monk would be amused. In my mind.

    - Gary Hawkins