Herts Jazz FILM Festival 2016: John Akomfrah on Stan Tracey

This is the third in a series of posts about films being screened in the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival (HJFF), which takes place on 16-18 September and 2 October in Welwyn Garden City. The festival showcases compelling films that all have a distinctly jazz flavour. Timed to complement the Herts Jazz Club’s well-established and prestigious annual Herts Jazz Festival, the HJFF will bring you silent film with live jazz accompaniment, rarely-seen documentaries, and a performance by a superstar jazz quartet celebrating one of the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, Stan Tracey.

John Akomfrah is an enormously respected filmmaker and artist whose documentary films include critically acclaimed titles such as THE NINE MUSES and THE STUART HALL PROJECT. Born in Ghana, he was educated in London and Portsmouth and went on to co-found the Black Audio Film Collective, which BFI Screenonline describes as having the…

objectives of addressing issues of Black British identity and developing media forms appropriate to this subject matter.

One film on his CV which is sometimes overlooked is a beautifully crafted portrait of one the UK’s greatest jazz pianists, made for BBC Four in 2003. STAN TRACEY: THE GODFATHER OF BRITISH JAZZ is an affectionate and insightful exploration of Tracey’s long and prestigious career and receives a rare showing on the big screening as part of a Stan Tracey gala closing night event at the first ever Herts Jazz FILM Festival. As well as the screening itself, the evening will also feature a live performance by the Stan Tracey Legacy Quartet, led by Stan’s son, the leading British drummer Clark Tracey, and featuring player who all have a close association with the late pianist.

In an interview conducted via correspondence I asked John Akomfrah how he felt about this special screening of his film.

I’m absolutely over the moon that the film’s been chosen for the gala event of the first Herts Jazz FILM Festival . And especially thrilled that it will be followed by a live quartet performance led by Stan’s son Clark.

Stan was a great man, a formidable player and a fantastic composer. And any chance to honour him has my absolute support. I’m only sorry he’s not here to bask in the truly deserved limelight one more time.

I wondered how John had come to make a film on Stan.

Stan’s Under Milk Wood album was the first record I bought from the old Ray’s Jazz Shop, in the RARE AS HEN’S TEETH section I believe. So it cost me quite a bit! I had heard it months before at a friend’s and it blew me away: the lyricism, the unusual sonorities of the performers on the album, like Bobby Wellins. The whole album had this quintessentially British feel and that was my first exposure to that tone, that ‘local ambience’. After years of listening to jazz from all over the planet, it really spoke to me, spoke eloquently about this place (Britain ) and how we inhabit it.

That was in the 80’s and I decided pretty much there and then that I wanted to do something on him.

All of John’s films have a distinct visual style. How did he come to choose the particular look and structure of the Stan Tracey documentary?

Well, I had time to think about it! In a way, all the films are pretty much defined by the qualities one senses or gets from the subject itself.

Any one who knew Stan will tell you he was one of life’s gentle souls, really quiet, charming and very relaxed.But underneath that too, one sensed this steely determination, this overwhelming desire to do things his own way. So, I knew we had to find a form and a structure that spoke to those qualities. And an approach that will be unique for that film. Happily, all my instincts paid off.

I asked John what he is currently working on and was delighted to hear that he is returning to jazz, in the form of an important early jazz player.

I am in the middle of another long gestating piece on another hero, Buddy Bolden.

Now that will be worth looking out for!

The special Stan Tracey gala evening will take place on Sunday 2 October. Tickets are available here.


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