Denis A. Charles: An Interrupted Conversation

Dir: Veronique N Doumbe 2001


This wonderful and illuminating film is a portrait of the late jazz drummer Denis A. Charles, who is perhaps best known for his early involvement with Free jazz pioneers Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp and many "new jazz" artists of the 1960's, and also through more recent releases of his work on labels such as Eremite, Wobbly Rail and CIMP.

Veronique N. Doumbe has produced a film that follows a chronological narrative through Denis A. Charles' music and life. From his earliest recollections of life in the West Indies to his homelessness and addiction in New York City, this film reveals a great deal not only of Denis A. Charles' life, but of the world that creates and destroys such music and lives.

Commentary is provided by Denis A. Charles and friends, family and musical associates including Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy, Frank Lowe, Wilber Morris, Joel Forrester and Evelyn Blakey. Their testimonies reveal much of Denis A. Charles the man and musician, and in many cases provide fascinating insights into their personal philosophy and their responses to the world they live in as musicians.

Live musical footage is mainly taken from a variety of club gigs around Manhattan in the 1990's. There are some wonderfully filmed excerpts from a Denis A. Charles / Susie Ibarra session that potently illustrate what a dynamic and skilled drummer Charles was. Other highlights include a high energy duet with Billy Bang (violin), a loft session with Borah Bergman (piano), footage of the BMC trio with Wilber Morris (bass) and Thomas Borgmann (tenor saxophone), and more intensity from pianist John Blum and William Parker (bass). All of the musical footage serves to illustrate Charles intense musicality and his exuberant feel in a variety of contexts, from concert rooms to Pizza shop openings to playing on the street. The obvious passion and joy that Denis A. Charles conveys when speaking about drumming and music is entirely apparent in the music he plays during this film.

"Denis A. Charles: An Interrupted Conversation" is an important jazz film, especially when viewed in the context of recent jazz documentaries that idolize and romanticize the lives of jazz musicians. Veronique N. Doumbe's research acknowledges the contribution of the women in her subject's life. The interviews with Denis A. Charles ' former partners, and the footage of him with his daughter, are vital to the film's story. So often in music documentaries we are given a picture of the solitary artist, alone with his craft or on the bandstand with his fellow musicians, creating something mystical that is presented as divorced from daily life. This film takes the important step to recognizing and presenting the side of the partner, the caregiver and the supporter in an artists life. Through the footage of interviews with Charles' friends and partners we are allowed a glimpse of the personal implications of this man's devotion to his art, the sacrifices he and his family have had to make. The artist here is not presented as a god, or a tortured genius misunderstood by the world. He is presented as he was, a passionate man trying to deal with the troubles and opportunities that came his way, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not.

It is the social and cultural dimension of this film that elevates it from being a simple homage to a great musician, to being of interest and importance historically. Through the life of Denis A. Charles, Veronique N. Doumbe paints a vivid picture not only of life as a creative black artist in America but of many of the problems confronting society in general, in particular for this film racism, drug addiction and homelessness. The archival footage and commentary on the police takeover of Tompkins Square Park, evicting hundreds of people with nowhere to go, is fascinating as a part of New York's history, and is made all the more pungent through the knowledge that Denis A. Charles was one of those people.

Saxophonists Archie Shepp and Frank Lowe provide some lucid political commentary which provide additional insight into the conditions faced by free jazz musicians in America. These aspects of the film are not sensationalist however, they are simply presented as an integral part of Denis A. Charles' story. This is not a film that tries to romanticize or rewrite jazz history, and the result is that we get a much deeper appreciation of the music and the people behind it.

Veronique N. Doumbe has produced a film that reveals more than Denis A. Charles music, it reveals the life behind the music. In doing so she has honoured Denis A. Charles and his associates. "Denis A. Charles: An Interrupted Conversation" is a vital document for anyone interested in jazz, contemporary music, ethnomusicology or the performing arts.

Jeff Henderson

December 2001