Inside Indie | Interview with Tom Surgal


Director of Free Jazz Documentary

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"Jazz is the only indigenous American art form and I am trying to advocate for more focus on an integral phase of it."

Fire Music, a documentary screened at this year's New York Film Festival, explores the important role that jazz has played in American culture. Emerging in the 1950s and inspired by Abstract Expressionists and the Beats, Free Jazz has always played by its own rules. Jazz was considered to be angry — like the Punk movement would be twenty-five years later — and was often misunderstood. This film, featuring a variety of notable jazz artists, works to untangle the music from the genre's image.

We spoke with director Tom Surgal about what inspired the film, the process of assembling it, and more. Read on for an inside look into the documentary's production.

How did you become interested in filmmaking?

I grew up on set, my father was a screenwriter and my mother was a producer. That being said, it was after viewing the Howard Hawks directed Only Angels Have Wings as a teenager, that I decided I wanted to make films.

Ornette ColemanDan Braun

Why were you compelled to tell a story about the free jazz revolution?

Avant Garde Jazz is one the most under respected and maligned art forms in contemporary culture. The disproportion between beauty and appreciation is staggering. It was time to set the record straight.

Why do you think free jazz had historically been ignored by mainstream media outlets?

It can be difficult music to get into, not easily digestible to the uninitiated. To paraphrase the great Cecil Taylor: "You have to understand this music in terms of the conditional jazz you've heard before. The musician prepares, the audience should prepare too." Most people aren't willing to make that kind of commitment. It's just easier to promote more easily palatable musical forms.

Sun RaBaron Wolman

Do you have any background in music yourself?

I've been a professional musician for many years. I've recorded extensively and performed all over the world.

There are a number of musical groups and collectives featured in the film. What was it like connecting with them?

It was most rewarding to meet so many of my musical idols and to absorb their respective life stories in their own words.

Tom SurgalLin Culbertson

A lot of archived footage and photography is also displayed. Can you tell us a little bit about the experience of collecting that material?

Basically my editor and I scoured the internet for relevant clips.

Do you hope that this film will help audiences to become inspired to learn more about and have a deeper appreciation for jazz music?

My intent is to generate more interest in Avant Garde Jazz. Jazz is the only indigenous American art form and I am trying to advocate for more focus on an integral phase of it.

Courtesy of EG PR

How do you feel following film festival coverage of the film?

I will forever be indebted to the NYFF. As a direct consequence of being accepted into the festival, some completion money came into place and I was able to put the film into a finished form.

What is coming up next for you?

There is still a lot of work to be done on this project in terms of securing licensing and finding a distributor. I would also like to add another 15 minutes to the film that I wasn't able to in time for the festival because of budgetary and time constraints.

Do you love a film you've seen recently or know of one coming out that we should check out? Shoot us an email and let us know!

Rachel A.G. Gilman is a writer, a former radio producer, and probably the girl wearing the Kinks shirt. She is the creator of The Rational Creature and suggests you check it out. Also visit her website for more.