Knoxville jazz history is still in the making, in more ways than one, as producers of A Place for Me: Living Jazz in a Small Southern City head down the homestretch still looking to secure crucial funds to put the finishing touches on a documentary chronicling 90 years of jazz in Knoxville and its environs.
The doc is scheduled for premiere on Sept. 20 at the Square Room, and you can make donations online through PayPal at knoxjazzfest.org.
The project began two years ago, according to co-producer Nelda Hill of Lawson McGhee Library, because, "there had never been any comprehensive kind of history of jazz in Knoxville. People think of this as a country and bluegrass town, but there's evidence that jazz was recorded before either one of them here. The musicians in those early days would adapt what they hear on the radio—predominantly swing tunes—with banjos and fiddles. We've sort of dubbed it jazzabilly."
The years since those early 1920s string bands have seen the city host jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong as it has also forged its own fine tradition with players like Rocky Wynder, Bill Scarlett, Rusty Holloway, and Donald Brown.
The effort to capture that colorful history on film began as a $90,000 project, funded through the Friends of the Library, a grant from Humanities Tennessee, and a few generous individual gifts.
But most of those funds were gone in the first year. Hill says film director/co-producer/writer Chris Barrett [a Metro Pulse contributing writer] and co-producer/cinematographer Steve Anderson "have probably donated more than $30,000 in time alone. It's been a labor of love."
After several snags, the production is in its last phase, as the producers edit hours of footage into a final cut. But now, as they consider that footage, unanticipated new expenses have arisen, in the form of licensing fees for some of the musical material that would be included in the doc. Barrett has estimated about $7,000 in additional expense for the licensed songs, and perhaps, too, to pay out-of-town interview subjects who demanded hefty sums for their participation. (None of the Knoxville participants, it's worth noting, sought more than a pittance for their contributions.)
That leaves Hill and company in desperate straits as they try to meet the deadline, as there is much priceless footage and a good deal of vital soundtrack material that is reliant on receiving additional funds.
"To put it bluntly, we're scrambling right now," Hill says. "There's a lot of stuff we just so much want to include."
For instance, the final performance of late local saxophone virtuoso and longtime University of Tennessee jazz educator Bill Scarlett is included in the reels of material; but Scarlett's set was comprised entirely of songs by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Barrett has estimated it will cost $1,000 just to use a two-minute snippet of his reading of Coltrane's "A Love Supreme."
Another coup for the documentary is an oral history of Louis Armstrong's historic '50s-era concert at Chilhowee Park, notable first because a passing pro-segregation demonstrator threw a bomb in the direction of the mixed-race crowd, and then for the way Armstrong managed the startled but unhurt crowd with remarkable poise and aplomb. The incident made national news at the time.
The documentary will reconstruct events of the day through artifacts and eyewitness testimony from still-living concert attendees, and finally by playing the song Armstrong actually performed when the bomb was tossed. (Hill won't tell; it's a surprise, though she promises it isn't "What a Wonderful World.")
Again, however, including Armstrong's music on the soundtrack will cost, and its inclusion is a capstone of the story. Interview subjects may require reimbursement, too.
There are other pieces, too, such as fees to include Duke Ellington songs, to commemorate his presence in Knoxville, as well as vital examples of East Tennessee guitar great Chet Atkins' forays into jazz.
In any case, the doc producers believe they have a gem on their hands, a film that winds through the swing and string-band era, through big band, bebop, and post-bop, highlighting the universality of jazz in the era of segregation in Knoxville and all the way into the modern day. And it includes many of the city's still-living local giants, performers like Brown, Mark Boling, drummer Keith Brown, and the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra.
"For me, the parts that stand out are the stories of these musicians,—their narratives, and how they all ended up in Knoxville, and Knoxville being the small Southern city that it is," Anderson says. "Because usually we think of jazz as ‘big city music.' Yet the legacy here is incredible, due to these amazing musical personalities."