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Red, White & Blues
Director Interview
My dad was crazy about jazz and blues. Growing up, my first memories are of albums, actually of 78s, because my dad inherited this very concise, Catholic collection of blues and jazz records: Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith. I learned everything I know about music from listening to albums. In the case of my dad, he'd put on, say, an Eddie Condon record, sort of white Chicago blues from the thirties and forties, and say, "Just listen to the drummer. He is maybe the greatest drummer you'll ever hear, because you can't hear him. But if you really listen carefully, you'll hear what he was doing and it's miraculous." And so through my dad, I developed the skill of just listening to what bass players did, and what drummers did, and understanding rhythm sections and things like that. Talking to all these musicians whom I had the good fortune to meet while making Red, White & Blues, it emerges that they all had the same experience. It was all about listening to albums — whether it was in London or Birmingham or Newcastle or Manchester. They all got together in a house, smoked some dope, or drank some beer or whatever, and listened to albums all night.

My dad played the piano, so I started playing drums when I was ten, trumpet when I was eleven, took up the guitar when I was about fourteen, and eventually took up the piano as well. I understood the structure of the blues, in terms of the music, pretty early on. And as I then expanded into free jazz, classical music, and things like that, I always retained the sense that musicians whom I loved, like Charlie Parker or John Coltrane, remained grounded in blues. I never went for music that didn't contain some element of blues. So it was always something that was, I guess from birth, ingrained. If you listen to Bessie Smith, you understand what blues is.

One of the first things that my dad made me do when I got a trumpet was put a Louis Armstrong record on, and he said, "Play along with it," to develop my ear by listening and playing along.

My ambition was to be a jazz trumpet player like Armstrong or Bix Beiderbecke. Then I started listening to bebop, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, when I was sixteen, seventeen. Then, about the mid-sixties, there was an explosion of pop music, even up in the north of England where we lived. I found a pop band looking for a trumpet player; the band played covers of Del Shannon, the Shadows, the Beatles, and stuff like that. So I started to play and discovered I really enjoyed public performance, being in a pop band. And then in the local university, at Newcastle, there was a blues band called the Red, White and Blues Band. The lead singer was Bryan Ferry, and the guitarist was John Porter. They were looking for a brass section, because they were just getting into Otis Redding and Bobby Bland. I found myself very popular because there weren't that many trumpet players around who understood that kind of stuff. So I found myself in a blues band, and I really got into it, started playing guitar a bit more, singing a little bit. Interestingly enough — much as the documentary charts some of this — you go into a band and do covers of Otis Redding and Bobby Bland, then you start listening to Dylan and more way-out stuff from the Beatles, or the Byrds: You start fusing those ideas and what's happening culturally. I didn't see that expansion as being detrimental to what the blues was.

What characterized that period, which is the middle and late sixties, early seventies, was a very open attitude toward music and culture, and toward race, as well. So the idea that, for example, in a place like Britain, which was far enough removed from the problems of race as they were experienced in America and the problems with blues musicians there, you could listen to a very eclectic range of music, from, say, Ray Charles, to a guitarist like Steve Cropper, or to the Beatles, and think of them as coming from the same idea. There wasn't a wall between those cultures.

I've always felt that a kind of certain selective amnesia takes place, and also a selective viewpoint takes place when people talk about the period of the sixties, and it's just fallen into its cliché compartment. Having been through it myself, and being, in a limited way, part of it, and certainly as an observer very passionately a part of it, I've always felt the story wasn't really told properly. I still have some bands' albums; I still listen to them, and they are stronger than ever. A classic example would be Steve Winwood, a young guy who could sing "Georgia on My Mind," play the piano like a cross between Ray Charles and Oscar Peterson, play the guitar really well, and sing like a dream. In talking to Steve, I've realized he had a very similar background to my own. You realize that there is a very interesting viewpoint and story to be told about that aspect of the blues and the reinterpretation of it.

What we talk about in terms of the evolution of black music has entirely to do with the invention and development of recording. Really, this is as much a documentary about that phenomenon, about recorded music. Eric Dolphy once said that music shouldn't be recorded, it should be heard and kept in the memory. Well, great if you were at Woodstock, great if you were at that famous Ellington concert at Newport, great if you were at the Ray Charles gig; but what a terrible loss that would be if it hadn't been recorded.

What I didn't want was to put together a jam session to film at Abbey Road studios that was self-indulgent, where musicians are having a great time and there are great moments, but the self-indulgence is what comes across and it cuts people out. The great temptation with fantastic musicians is for them to become florid, and I didn't want that to happen. I made a rule that it should be acoustic; that there were to be no headphones; the amplified guitar could only be as loud to the point where it wasn't overwhelming; string bass; brushes on the percussion; and the piano would be an acoustic piano and not amplified; to get a great room with great acoustics; and to make everyone sing live. I felt if that were the discipline, it would not allow people to get indulgent. Indulgence comes when there are two electric guitars and they keep turning up the volume, and it keeps getting louder and louder, and at a certain point you can't hear the rhythm section anymore unless they use sticks. I just felt that set of rules would be repressive enough to make people listen to each other. Every time I felt it was getting a little indulgent, I would say, "I'd like it to be more minimal. I'd like you all to cut back a little bit."

As to why I chose the musicians who participated in the film: Over the years, watching Tom Jones and occasionally catching him doing something on TV or listening to an album or something — the guy's got a great voice! And I know when he was with the Squires in the sixties, he was a good blues singer — you don't lose the ability to be a blues singer. I also once did a gig with Lulu where I was in the backing band, and she was with the Lovers. She was a tough little cookie! She was eighteen years old — a great singer. And I always knew she had the chops. Van Morrison, no one questions. Jeff Beck, really since the Yardbird days and the stuff he did with Stevie Wonder, has always been someone who clearly is a phenomenal musician.

During one of the first conversations I had with Tom Jones, we were talking about Sinatra and Harry "Sweets" Edison playing with Sinatra, and Tom was saying the great thing about those sessions was that the accompanying musicians who were playing loose and free never ever cut across a vocal line. That was the genesis of the idea for an Abbey Road studio to be a great venue, because it has history and the room has great acoustics. The idea of using brushes and string bass meant that everyone had to listen and play quietly. And then the singers came in, and I just did my best to make sure that everything stayed tight and down in that way, so that the singers had all of the room to express themselves and were never having to fight, in terms of volume, with anyone else.

I brought saxophonist Peter King in because I think he's a phenomenal musician, a phenomenal blues player, and he can play anything. He's one of the most respected British jazz musicians alive. I'd been a fan for years and finally got to play with him and also just to feature him. I felt that bringing in someone from a jazz background but who is a blues player would temper Jeff Beck in a way that would make them both listen to each other because they weren't familiar with each other's styles. They'd never played together. I think Peter had played with Van Morrison once, but Van and Peter weren't particularly familiar with each other. I know Van has a very jazz ear, so he likes jazz blues, that sort of Jimmy Witherspoon, jump-and-shout-and-jive blues. When Van came in, everyone said, "Van is very eccentric. He could come in and decide he doesn't like this and leave." I said, "Well, that's entirely his prerogative. What I'm going to do is just rehearse the band for an hour." So we played the blues for an hour and got it down, and it's sounding gorgeous. Van walked in during the middle of one of the takes and said, "What key is this in? Is there a guitar?" He just wanted to get straight in and play. He was only there for a couple of hours. He went straight in, did those numbers, did the interview for the film, and left. He liked the vibe.

I personally have always loved listening to musicians working and discussing music together. The way to identify great musicians is if you put an album on, they'll all respond at the same moment to something that someone who doesn't understand won't even hear; it'll just be some little turnaround, and they all go, "Ahhh!" And they'll do it together, it will be an entirely collective move. And this was like putting those musicians together who would all make the same collective response. It was a joy.

I operated one camera during the jam session. I'm sometimes tough on other cameramen who don't have the nerve, or actually, really don't have the authority, to get that close to Van Morrison or Tom Jones. Because I'm in there and I'm directing it, I think they tolerate me more, so I can get right in their face. Sometimes the only way to film musicians is to get that close. I do feel that sometimes, cameramen or camerawomen are polite, and they want to stay back, and you get a polite wide shot. But sometimes you just want to get right in. I want to see exactly what their hands are doing and not necessarily with a telephoto lens. I want to get the sense of being somehow part of what's going on.

I make big-budget films, and I make very small independent films. I make documentaries, I take photographs, I make recordings, and I am obsessed with recording and documenting and capturing moments that I think are special. After all this time, I think that my eye has developed in a way that is individual enough for me to trust it now. If I see something, I don't need someone else to endorse it; I kind of go, "Let's get that." I follow my own instinct. When I first started, I often got talked out of certain things, and I regret many instances of that.

Doing this documentary made me realize that there is so much music out there. I wanted to go to New York and just sit with Elvin Jones for a weekend and watch him play the drums and talk about drumming and how he changed the world as a drummer. Years ago I made a list of people whom I wanted to interview — and it included people who have now departed, like Dizzy Gillespie, but there are still a lot of them on that list — and just have them play music in that kind of environment where you are not forcing it and it does not have to be an event; it's an intimate thing, pretty much like Wim Wenders did with Buena Vista Social Club.

It surprised me how touching this documentary turned out to be. Because I was in postproduction on one film and preproduction on another, and so I was running to these venues to film interviews without any notes — but the notes were already in my head. I knew what I wanted, so each time it was like a one- to two-hour conversation, in and out. I knew the questions I wanted to ask, and I knew — not the answers, because that would have been presumptuous — but I knew enough about the musicians and I felt enough of an intimate knowledge of them to lead them into the area where I thought they would be most interesting. In my head, I had this sort of sense of how this patchwork would cut together. What I was not prepared for was just how very incredibly proud I felt of this group of British guys who had a ball and loved what they were doing. It was summed up in a way by what Eric Clapton said: It was almost like his mission to respect this music, not to adulterate it, not to convert it into heavy metal or something like that, but to really play it in an original way, at the same time retaining a deep respect for where it came from, and also talking about where it came from and giving the credit straight back to the source, which was what we consider to be a sacred group of black musicians who we felt were unsung heroes. And there is a kind of unselfishness and a dedication about that, when I saw the whole thing cut together for the first time, I was actually deeply moved by it. And it was very gratifying having someone of iconic status, like B.B. King, saying, "Thank you, because if it hadn't been for you guys, I don't think I would have been here talking to you today," or words to that effect. I found that so moving. And therefore I think the film is very worthwhile. I am really proud of it. It was worth making. I think it was valid to make it, and I am glad I did it.

—Mike Figgis


 

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