The JazzTimes interview with film director John Charles Jopson about his classic two hour feature film, One Night with Blue Note. (reprinted by permission)

JazzTimes - December 10, 2003

by Mike Sansoni

On the debut of the DVD re-release of One Night with Blue Note we caught up with the film’s director John Charles Jopson to get his thoughts on the new digitally remastered release, and what it was like to film one of the biggest nights in the history of jazz. Oh, and then there’s Willy DeVille.

John Charles Jopson’s numerous gold and platinum record awards demonstrate in no small way the part he played in the re-birth of the music industry two decades ago. Jopson was right there in New York City in the middle of it all when music video exploded onto the scene in the early ‘80s. As director and cinematographer he worked on concert films and pop clips with such legendary names as Michael Jackson, Elton John, Hall and Oates, John Waite, and Eric Clapton. He also helped put a few ‘80’s bands on the map with his iconic clips; The Hooters, The Outfield, Poison, and Icehouse to name a few. But Jopson also worked with some of the more eclectic acts of the day like Frank Zappa, Jean luc Ponty and Willy DeVille, which may have helped prepare him for that monumental task on February 22nd, 1985,,, One Night with Blue Note.

JT: How did you get started on the music video thing?

JCJ: We shot a lot of concerts when I was at Group W in the late ‘70’s. They weren’t big productions but I got to work with bands like Yes, Jethro Tull, The Beach Boys, Springsteen, Rod Stewart and so on. And then we did a show with Todd Rundgren and I became friends with some of his video people, including Bob Lampel. That was my impetus to leave Group W and I started doing projects at Rundgren’s studio - Utopia Video - up in Woodstock. Rundgren was way ahead of everyone else when it came to any sort of technology and Utopia was state-of-the-art. Then Bob and I started a music video production company in New York City called BLTv just as MTV was starting up in... it must have been 1980. Then it all just exploded into one giant money and cocaine bomb. MTV had an $80 million startup budget from Warner-AMEX. The execs were all doing blow. Bob found us an office with a private garage on West 55th street: No one had a private garage in Manhattan! We had a limo account charged to MTV. It all got very silly.

JT: So after doing all that rock n roll stuff, what was the main difference in doing a jazz film like this?

JCJ: Going from the cocaine scene to the heroin scene.

JT: Seriously?

JCJ: No. Well, half serious. Stereotypically we associated rockers with cocaine and jazz musicians with heroin. But as we all know lots of rockers did and do heroin. Willy DeVille did plenty of heroin.

JT: Was Willy on heroin when you worked with him?

JCJ: No. Actually, it was quite interesting because Willy was just coming out of detox and the label came to Bob Lampel and I and said here’s the money for the [Each Word’s a Beat of My Heart] clip, but you can’t shoot it in New York ‘cuz Willy’s gotta stay away from the junk. So I went over to this nondescript Hilton somewhere in Jersey and he and Lisa had covered all the lamp shades with shawls and transformed the hotel room into a homey brothely sort of space just to make it bearable. But it wasn’t bearable because you could see the Manhattan skyline from his window and it gave Willy the shakes, and he said to me, “Man we gotta go farther south. This is too close.” So we shot it down in Princeton.

JT: Was Willy difficult to work with?

JCJ: Oh my god no. We got on really well. He was a gem. He would come up with off-the-wall ideas like, “Hey let’s paint the grand piano lavender.” S.I.R. wasn’t too happy about that. And then we did another clip, “Italian Shoes” - which unfortunately is lost now, at least the original cut is lost. You’d think we made this shit during the silent era it’s all so ephemeral. And it’s a real shame because we shot some beautiful scenes. Willy was in Europe so (DP) Julio Macat and I went over to Rome to shoot it. He was still relatively straight, just smoking a bit of hash, and his performance was electrifying. We had a blast. I loved working with Willy. We stayed in touch for a while. I went to visit him right after he moved to New Orleans and he and Lisa were really happy, and then next time I saw him was in New York and he was back on the junk. I took the guys from Icehouse to see him at the Lone Star, and we went back stage and there he was shooting up. Really bummed the band out. But he was throwing out these really beautiful, cinematic ideas for a clip, like where he rises up out of a steamy manhole. But we digress.

JT: The difference between filming a rock concert and a jazz concert.

JCJ: Right. When you’re filming a rock concert it’s all about the show; the lights, the scope, the performance. With jazz it’s just the music – and the musicians. I used to go to jazz clubs down in the Village all the time and part of the pleasure of that is watching the musicians who aren’t playing, or at least aren’t soloing – the guys who are trading riffs or waiting for their solo, or just the bass player or drummer. Their expressions and their eye contact with the other musicians is unlike anything you’ll ever see anywhere else. So I wanted to capture that.

JT: Your close-ups of Freddie Hubbard when his cheeks blow up are mind blowing. It fills the screen! So how did you go about preparing?

JCJ: I studied the music as much as possible. Listened to live recordings. Prepared cue sheets. I worked with my DoP Martin Pitts to plot out the camera angles. The real challenge was planning the mag changes because in 16mm you have to change a magazine every 10 minutes or so, and you have to plan for that so as not to miss an important solo. On top of that the concert went for 3 or 4 hours. That’s a lot of fucking film.

JT: You had some great shooters.

JCJ: Yeah, The best. Ernest Dickerson. Don Lenser, Paul Goldsmith – all the cameramen were also cinematographers and so you could let them go and then just cue them when something’s going to happen. And Marty Pitts, who is not only a great cameraman but he’s great with lighting. It wasn’t like jumping in and shooting a rock tour where everything’s already lit and staged and all you have to do is color correct for film. This was a one-off show, so Marty had to light it from scratch.

JT: Did you know at the time that this was an historic event?

JCJ: Well, when you have 30 of the world’s greatest jazz musicians in one room you know it’s something special, but you don’t really think about those things when they’re happening. Probably the saddest part of it all was that Gregory Hines showed up at the stage door with his tap shoes wanting to dance, and the security guys thought he was just some homeless dude or a wino or something and wouldn’t let him in. I didn’t find out until later.

JT: What was the highlight of the show for you?

JCJ: Charles Lloyd and Michel Petrucciani. Lloyd had essentially gone into retirement – until he heard Petrucciani play, that is. I’ll never forget Charles carrying Michel out onto the stage - Michel had a genetic bone disease; he couldn’t walk and he was only a few feet tall. So Charles carries him out and sets him gently down onto the piano bench and we’re all sobbing, and I’m thinking this is going to be great in the film. But then Marty, who was on the dolly upstage, sets up this beautiful tracking shot where we’re at the far end of the grand piano as Michel starts to play, just slightly above it, and as we track forward along the piano all we see is the fedora. It takes about 30 seconds to track around and reveal this tiny, deformed virtuoso playing the piano. So I started the scene with that instead. And then “Tone Poem”: You’ll never hear anything as sublime as Charles Lloyd’s sax on that tune. Michael Cuscuna and Dave Hewitt did an outstanding job recording that concert.

JT: Have you had a chance to screen the DVD re-release?

JCJ: I have. Technically it’s a great achievement both in the digital transfer and the Dolby 5.1. It sounds incredible. Editorially it’s another story.

JT: How do you mean?

JCJ: Well they removed some great songs including some by Charles Lloyd and Michel Petrucciani that were just sensational, which makes no sense since there’s plenty of room on the DVD for them. But the real tragedy is that they cut this weird audience footage into the film.

JT: You mean audience footage not from that show?

JCJ: Not even from that era. It’s shot on video, so it doesn’t even match. And then, why did they have to do that? We didn’t film the audience because we had no budget for extra lights and extra cameras, and I wanted to put everything we had on the stage and the music. And I don’t recall anyone wondering why we’re not looking at the audience instead of Freddie Hubbard’s cheeks blowing up. But where the hell was that footage from anyway? I mean, someone‘s going to see themselves in the audience and say “What the fuck? I wasn’t there.”

JT: So, you weren’t consulted on the recut?

JCJ: No. But that’s not surprising given that they never paid me the residuals I was owed.

I should say however, it’s not a recut per se. From what I can see the songs themselves are the original edits I made back in ’85. They just added this video audience footage and some voice over between the songs. To see the original film now one has to view it on crap VHS. I have no idea what happened to the original theatrical prints or the neg. I do recall though that they released it on some sort of video disc, or laser disc, or kinetoscope, or whatever they had back in the mid eighties.

JT: And they also removed your opening title sequence.

JCJ: Yeah, that’s a real shame. Ostensibly it was to make room for the tribute to Blue Note album cover artwork designer Reid Miles, which is great but again, there was plenty of room for all of it.

JT: And what was the original opening title sequence?

JCJ: It was really simple. Marty Pitts and I wanted to create something that felt like the old album covers – which is another reason they should have left it in there with the tribute. We went out in to some back alleys of Manhattan and just filmed Joe Henderson in black and white playing his horn on the fire escapes. Real lonely sort of stuff.

JT: What are you most proud of about One Night with Blue Note?

JCJ: That it’s shot on film!


The JazzTimes Interview with John Charles Jopson