Film Interview: “Ira Gitler Lives” — From Bret Primack, Jazz Documentarian Extraordinaire
By Steve Provizer
“The half-hearted support of jazz by American broadcast TV, be it commercial or PBS or cable, has been an insult not only to the artists, but to the public as well.”
Since the 1990’s, Bret Primack has probably been the most prolific video chronicler of jazz in the world. His most recent documentary, Ira Gitler Lives, focuses on jazz writer-record producer Ira Gitler, who died this year (on February 23) at the age of 90. Gitler was a big fan of Charlie Parker, so I presume the title is a play on a famous bit of graffiti — “Bird Lives.”
In the film, Primack uses footage amassed in person and via Skype, including interviews with Gitler, a number of other jazz journalists and authors, and contributions from trumpeter Randy Brecker. He also uses footage from other sources to show us important nightclubs, recording studios, and other venues which, from the ’40s on, played a part in jazz history. Drawing on footage of Lenny Bruce, Primack explores the New York Jewish–jazz-hipster scene with which several jazz critics, including Gitler, were associated.
Gitler had “big ears.” He was open to new sounds and immersed himself in jazz culture, moving easily between writing articles, publishing books, and running recording sessions. As for others in the pre-digital generation, album liner notes were my introduction to jazz education; those written by Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern, and especially Gitler provided the foundation. As this documentary shows, Gitler knew the music, inside and out.
I mentioned to Primack that I thought a few more musical samples in Gitler Lives would be helpful. He replied: “I was unable to secure the rights to the music discussed in the film because licensing fees exceeded [my] budget.” In any case, this documentary is compelling throughout. Jazz insiders will revel in the details; the less indoctrinated will find much that will fascinate them. I asked Primack a few questions about making jazz documentaries, mainstream media’s support of jazz, and his favorite jazz documentaries.
Arts Fuse: Ira Gitler Lives is an homage to a jazz writer. You’ve been a writer yourself. Writers and critics have played controversial roles in the evolution of jazz. In terms of your writing, how do you balance between supporting the music and critiquing it? Can you compare that with how you approach making videos?
Primack: All my efforts are about documenting musicians and letting them tell their own stories. I don’t cover people or music I don’t like. I try to focus on the artist’s process, how and why they create. The goal is that by giving readers/viewers an insider’s perspective, they can better comprehend artists and their work. My role is to tell their story in an entertaining, enlightening way.
AF: There is almost no jazz on commercial or Public TV. Is this a serious blow to the commercial viability of jazz? To what degree do you think the ubiquity of the music on digital media platforms like YouTube has compensated for that neglect? And what do you think of the problems raised by free downloading versus paying for music?
Primack: Two issues here, the availability of content, and compensation.
The half-hearted support of jazz by American broadcast TV, be it commercial or PBS or cable, has been an insult not only to the artists but to the public as well. So the decline of this medium is hardly something to mourn. Fuck those people. They dumbed down our culture and made stupidity socially acceptable.
Thankfully, YouTube saved jazz. Never before has there been unlimited free access to a video collection that includes nearly every moment of jazz ever documented in a visual medium, and a library of recorded music that provides a complete aural history of jazz. Students, teachers, aficionados, new listeners, distant fans, and musicians have a free pass to history, and their numbers are increasing.
As for compensation, and the lack there of, at this moment, I have nothing to add to the conversation.
I’ve been posting videos since 2006. The very comprehensive statistics provided by YouTube show no decline in viewership, only regular, slight increases. What they do show, however, is a decline in the attention span of viewers, but that’s a separate article unto itself.
I’m coming up on two thousand posted videos on YouTube, five hundred videos on Facebook, many clips on Twitter, and a few videos I host on Vimeo (but they are not really for public consumption). My overall view count is approaching thirty million. I average 10,000 viewers a day and that’s been pretty consistent.
With the inclusion of social media, what’s different now from when I started thirteen years ago is a more interactive community, evident when the videos are shown on Facebook and in comments on YouTube.
Regarding monetization of my content, my work is supported by my 501c3 non-profit Arcadian Arts, so I am able to raise some funding through grants and contributions. I get some money from YouTube each month for my share of the ads, for which I’m grateful.
Before the music industry tanked, I used to make a living producing promotional videos for labels and artists. Sadly, those funds no longer exist.
I survive as a filmmaker by teaching, working on projects that have nothing to with jazz, and my limited Jazz Video Guy activity at this time. It’s check to check, but I know my work is important and ultimately, my legacy.
AF: You’ve utilized crowd-funding to support your work. Tell us about that.
Primack: Thanks to social media, I’m in touch with a global community that supports my work. They have a way to reach me with their comments and suggestions, and I have a distribution network for the films and videos I produce.
For my full-length documentaries, I have used Kickstarter and GoFundMe to raise the money necessary to produce the films. Raising money this way is a very labor-intensive process, but since I have a direct connection to my audience, it is possible.
I have a reputation based on the quality of my work, and my social media profile. Many people respect that and want to help.
AF: In a 2009 interview, you talked about the potential of jazz “podcasts” (a word which now seems to only apply to audio) to promote CDs. Do you thing that has, in fact, come to pass? Do you see any new technologies that will change the way the music is captured and/or distributed?
Primack: Podcasts today are like radio programs before TV. The most successful podcasts, the ones most downloaded and listened to, are usually interview based, but with a distinctive host. At the moment, I don’t know of any jazz podcasts that do this. And I’m not sure that they would really draw an audience.
The next big change in content delivery won’t be superficial; it will be a complete overhaul of how we produce and share content, something as startling as the difference between the telegraph and the internet. In ten to fifteen years, artificial intelligence, the web, movies, video games. and virtual reality will merge into a super computer powered reality.
You’ll be at home and feel like you’re at the North Sea Jazz Festival, choosing between 13 different performance venues and the option of interacting in real time video with other fans and musicians.
AF: Do you think that there have been any feature films that have succeeded in successfully capturing the jazz milieu?
Primack: I have students who love LaLa Land. That’s a film that speaks to young people and that’s a good thing. Because of Spike Lee’s background, Mo Better Blues is authentic, but still too predictable. For an old school Hollywood movie, Young Man with a Horn had a certain poignancy that was touching. Sadly, there are many bad films. Don Cheatle’s Miles Davis biopic was an insult to Miles. Why would his family agree to that?
In most dramatic films about jazz, the lead character is a troubled musician. As soon as I see that, I run. That’s a recipe for disaster, which appears in the form of a cliche ridden, superficial soap opera drama with some jazz thrown in for flavoring.
AF: Which are your favorite documentaries about jazz and why?
At the top of my list, Mingus by Tom Reichman, a 1968 film that captures Mingus in performance and at a dramatic moment in his life when he is evicted from his loft. A truly larger-than-life character is captured in his reality — the essence of great documentary filmmaking.
I once asked Michael Brecker why he practiced so much. He told me, because you have to be there when it happens. It’s like that with documentaries as well — you have to show up.
AF: You’ve also been involved in theater, co-founding the Axial Theatre and Jazz Theatre Workshop and writing several plays. What inspired you to do that? What did you get from the experience?
Primack: When I was a teenager, my interests were, in addition to getting laid, a frequent obsession with teenagers, jazz and film. I went to NYU Film School and that led to writing, both dramatic and journalism. Alongside my career in music writing, I kept writing plays and worked on a very cool project where jazz musicians acted and told their stories. I wrote a play about Ben Hecht and his work as propagandist for the dying Jews of Europe, which led to a collaboration with director Howard Meyer. We co-founded a theater company that is still producing new work twenty years later.
AF: Do you see a “next generation” of people coming along that will document jazz in the future?
Primack: Many people are doing this now. When I started, fifteen years ago, there was very little jazz web video content. Now there is a lot of it because it’s much easier to produce now.
I think the difference now, as opposed to when this started, and what will be beneficial for jazz, is the fact that, like jazz, the web is a global medium. So look for videos from all over the world from people you have never heard of before.
Bret Primack grew up in West Hartford, CT. His first exposure to jazz on film was the Glenn Miller Story and The Five Pennies. These movies motivated him to begin playing trumpet at age 9. He also started making films as a teenager. He was 17 when he completed a short about a young guy dealing with female rejection. As a teenager, Primack met Francis Ford Coppola; he still has the letter of encouragement Coppola sent him.
He attended New York University Film School (with Martin Scorsese as a teacher) and, after college, he worked on industrial films and drove a cab. Through a fellow cabbie, he was able to hang out on a TV set and was invited to a party where he met jazz pianist Walter Bishop Jr. He wrote a profile of Bishop for Down Beat Magazine, published in March 1977, and in 1978 he became the magazine’s East Coast editor.
Primack was an early computer and then internet enthusiast. He bought an Apple in 1984 for word processing; in 1995 he wrote an article about the Internet for JazzTimes. He was then invited by Larry Rosen, the head of GRP Records, to work on the first large-scale jazz website called Jazz Central Station.
In 1999, GMN, a London-based company, hired Primack to tape live audio and video at the North Sea Jazz Festival and at Birdland in New York. The results were streamed on their website but — given the slowness of the 56K-modem era — the results were mixed. Throughout the ’90s, Primack took his camera out into the field and taped jazz musicians, including Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker, and many others.
In 2001, he moved to Arizona and started producing websites, eventually starting a company called Planet Bret. In 2006 he produced video podcasts for Concord Records and for a series of reissues on Riverside Records. That same year YouTube started up; since then, Primack has been posting video there and on Vimeo as the Jazz Video Guy. His videos have both preserved precious culture and brought a human face to jazz.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subject, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.
Well done-comprehensive and provocative.Thanks Vinnie Murphy