GOOD DOCS spoke with Cameron Washington, trumpeter, New Orleans descendent, and first-time filmmaker. His first documentary A MAN AND HIS TRUMPET documents the life and influence of prominent jazz musician Leroy Jones. He discusses the importance of Jones within the New Orleans jazz community and beyond. Interview conducted by Julia Schrader.
What inspired you to tell the story of Leroy Jones?
I am a filmmaker, but I also come from a family of jazz musicians and my Dad was a jazz trumpeter whose family was from Louisiana. I grew up in San Francisco playing trumpet with somewhat of a New Orleans traditional musical upbringing passed down from my family. I’ve always been obsessed with trumpet players, whether it was Louis Armstong, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown and other jazz trumpet legends. As a teenager years ago in SF I came across Harry Connick Jr.’s first big band album, and that was the first time I heard Leroy Jones. That changed my life. I wanted to know everything about this trumpet legend from New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA)!
What did you know about Leroy before starting this project?
Before starting the film, I had a peripheral view of Leroy from following his music and career, and I had done a bunch of research to start the movie pre-production. I knew Leroy had played on about 15 of Harry Connick Jr.’s albums and that he had probably played as a freelance trumpeter on over 50 albums from other New Orleans musicians and bands. One of the most fascinating parts of all the genius music in New Orleans is that a lot of this brilliant music stays within that southern bubble. But when filming commenced, that’s when the magic really revealed itself about Leroy’s life. When the interviews began, all of the different musicians, friends, and family pieced together the journey of Leroy’s life really, which revealed how much of an influence he had on New Orleans’ music history.
Can you discuss further the impact Leroy Jones’ music had and currently has on the jazz community of New Orleans?
As the film begins, we see Leroy was only a kid when he was instrumental in bringing back the sound of brass band music to New Orleans. In the 70s, brass band and second line parades, which NOLA is famous for, were kind of an old man’s music and on the decline. Musician Danny Barker who had played with Louis, Ella and more in New York, moved back to New Orleans and started the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band. His first recruit was Leroy Jones, and Leroy ended up being the band leader of that group at age 12. Now in this somewhat dying brass band music scene, all of the sudden there are a group of 30 teenagers playing New Orleans standard tunes with new vigor and life. Leroy was making that happen as a kid. Members of that band ended up in the more modern Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Rebirth Brass Bands. For about 5 decades, Leroy has been having an impact on the New Orleans musician community with his music.
As a musician yourself, how do you connect with Leroy Jones’ music and his influence as a jazz player?
As a musician – especially as a trumpet player – I was instantly drawn to Leroy’s brilliant trumpet playing. I have never heard anything like it in my life. Leroy can make you laugh, make you cry, or make you shout with his trumpet playing. It’s just incredible. Upon meeting many in Leroy’s circle, I heard many versions of “there are thousands of trumpet players in New Orleans, but you can instantly recognize Leroy Jones.” I think that says a lot about his trumpet playing, musicianship and influence in the NOLA and the worldwide musician community. Even to this day, if I am playing with a band or at a jazz gig, I have his sound in my head. Hopefully, since I filmed him for a couple years straight, I’ll pick up on a little of his genius via osmosis.
What is the overall goal of telling this story now, what can viewers and students take away from the film?
My overall goal with this film is to allow viewers and students learn about important New Orleans and American music history. I view this as if I was a filmmaker in the 1940’s and had met Charlie Parker: I would have wanted to document music history being made and make a film documenting his music. That also applies if I was around when Louis Armstrong or if Duke Ellington were alive. I would have wanted to film and document music history being made. Leroy Jones is that important to jazz music history, and I’m so happy to expose his life story and music to more people through this documentary film.
What kind of relationship did you create with Leroy during your two year process of making this film?
As the director and director of photography for the film, my relationship with Leroy definitely evolved throughout the process, spending so much time together. It was challenging for me being a trumpet player following my hero, but as a filmmaker I wanted to be a separate 3rd party view-point archiving history. I was totally nervous when I first talked in depth with Leroy about my visions for the film, especially since I had not done a documentary before. Leroy happened to be on tour with Harry Connick Jr. in northern California, and we met up for a wonderful dinner with lots of wine and laughs and talked about the film. From then on, everything just snowballed in a really positive way. While we filmed A Man and His Trumpet, I was just trying to be a good producer and director and have a tight shoot. We definitely bonded while filming occurred.
Once we wrapped shooting, Leroy and myself would call each other to say “I miss you!” We are really close now, we check in on each other, and I always see him when in New Orleans. It was so fun to go back to New Orleans to go receive the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities for Film award. The film was completed, we were winning big awards, and me and Leroy just got to hang and have fun. We even had a wonderful road trip to Lafayette, Louisiana to receive the historic award for the film.
As a new documentary filmmaker, what were some of the challenges of making this film? What did you learn in the process?
I think one of the biggest challenges of the film was to convince people to appear on camera to tell personal life stories. New Orleanians are so talkative and love to tell stories but they also do not want to be misrepresented or have NOLA culture misrepresented. It was funny because we would contact people about interviews and they would have all these questions about the shoot. But once we would chat, they met me, learned I was also a jazz trumpeter, my family was from Louisiana long ago, and I could reference every famous New Orleans jazz tune, I was instantly treated like family. The culture wall fell down as they knew I respected and understood NOLA culture. Once they saw my love for New Orleans, I was able to really film everywhere we needed to film and had access to everywhere we wanted to go.
The film highlights Leroy’s life as a musician and citizen during post-Katrina New Orleans, how does community play a factor in Leroy’s career as a jazz musician?
Community is really important to this film and Leroy. It is one of the subjects I wish I had more time to show and discuss in the film, but we just didn’t have the luxury of that much time. After so many interviews and just meeting the people in Leroy’s circle, it was really amazing to see how much of a community New Orleans musicians are. In spite of everything that is going on in America and our world, they live and appreciate every day with joy, which means supporting each other.
Pre-Katrina or post-Katrina even still to today, there are rent parties for musicians struggling to help pay their rent. Leroy and others in the community play concerts to raise money for musicians with medical bills. Some music venues have free food for musicians every week to support the arts community. There are so many examples of this kind of community spirit in NOLA. New Orleanians were always giving people in the African tradition, but became even more so post-Katrina.
What do you want people to take away from this film?
I really want people to learn about jazz, America, New Orleans and Leroy Jones. My goal was to make the movie accessible to people who don’t know anything about jazz or New Orleans, but also entertaining to jazz nerds who know a lot of the history of NOLA. I really wanted this movie to be enjoyable for everyone.
I’d also like people to take away that there are musical and artistic geniuses in our midst right now! No matter what city you live in, there are amazing local musicians, artists and filmmakers that are making art and people should go support them. I tell people Leroy is playing in New Orleans and worldwide all the time. Go check out this genius New Orleans music while you can! We are on this planet for a limited time.