A scene from Tradition Is a Temple

As anyone who has been there knows, the unique character of New Orleans arises largely from its long and storied musical tradition. Darren Hoffman's documentary Tradition Is a Temple explores this culture through fascinating interviews with the city's musical masters and dynamic filmed performances. We spoke with musician-turned-director Hoffman about his doc, which screens Thursday in our monthly Art of the Real series.

FilmLinc Daily: How did this project come about?

Darren Hoffman: During undergraduate film school in Tallahassee FL, I was compelled to study music formally after meeting the great pianist and educator Marcus Roberts. He introduced me to Jason Marsalis and Roland Guerin who worked in his band and resided in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, respectively. After first experiencing their music, I knew immediately that I would need to move to New Orleans and learn from these masters on a regular basis.

While studying music full time at the University of New Orleans, I no longer considered myself a filmmaker, but I was working to find ways to better document the techniques of all the master musicians I had the privilege to learn from. I was awarded a grant from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation to record and document them in a controlled environment with an array of cameras. Originally, I was just going to make a few short videos with Jason and Roland; by the time were done, we recorded over 30 pieces of music, with up to 20 cameras, by 9 different artists, in 9 days. The rest grew from there.

FD: One vocalist in the film says that New Orleans seems to her like an island in the United States, totally separate from the rest of the country (an idea supported by a recent, popular article about the 11 American nations). What was the greatest challenge in capturing New Orleans’ unique musical tradition?

DH: The biggest challenge was overcoming a history and stigma about outsiders coming to the city to document, record and publish works of New Orleans musicians. There is a deep history of unethical behavior when it comes to making a dollar with the music of a New Orleans performer. We took steps to make sure we weren’t repeating history. 

I was (and still am) a student of the music. And these are my teachers. I have no choice but to ensure their musical and financial integrity is maintained throughout the process. Therefore, Tradition is an artist-owned production, where the musicians collectively own the majority of the equity of the film. 

FD: You’re from Miami, another singular American city. Did that inform your approach at all?

DH: Miami prepared me to be as open to cultural differences as I possibly can be. Miami is similar to New Orleans in that they both have been destinations for mass immigration and possess an extreme dynamic of cultural prosperity and hardship. Still, there is a very different set of values and lifestyle patterns that each city possesses… And while I grew up in Miami, I learned how to be a person in New Orleans. I’m proud to call both places “home.”

Director Darren Hoffman

FD: You tell the history of the music of New Orleans through montages of street scenes, mostly shot while moving. Can you explain the importance of street life to the cultural heritage of New Orleans and why you chose this kinetic approach to filming?

DH: The Street is where this music was born and where it still lives today. The city is also constantly moving—it is, after all, built on a swamp—with the concrete buckling over the marsh lands below, slowly fighting to breathe.
In many ways one can’t separate the music and geography, so I decided to present the cityscape, as well as the soundscape of the city.

FD: The voiceover that tells the history of the city is very poetic and you also interviewed a poet in the documentary. Can you talk a little more about the link between poetry and New Orleans’ music?

DH: The New Orleans experience is not something that is easy to describe. It's a cliché, but the music itself is the poetry of the city. Along with the food, the architecture, it’s like an epic poem broken up into little pieces and written all over the walls, grounds and ceilings of the city… so everyone can have a taste.

Chuck Perkins is not just a poet; he is also a musician, band leader and historian. In many ways, I felt it would be impossible to “write” a script that tells the story we wanted. As soon as I became aware of his work, I knew he would be the perfect artist to help us paint this portrait.

FD: You largely used split screens in the editing, especially during musical moments. What inspired this choice?

DH: As a musician checking out performance videos of my favorite artists, I’ve often found myself frustrated that I can’t focus on the members of the band that interest me, rather than the ones that the editor decided that I should watch (typically the singer or band leader for 90% of the video).

By using this multi-view technique, we were able to achieve an environment that enables the audience to better choose what they want to focus on. This technique also lead to an interactive software called the Tutti Music Player that we developed primarily for iPhone and iPad and is now in use by Jazz at Lincoln Center and Berklee College of Music and nearly 400 high schools. Tutti takes this a few steps further, breaking things down part by part and enabling the audience to choose who to see or hear on the fly. The music from this film is available in this interactive format on the Tutti Music Player app.

A scene from Tradition Is a Temple

FD: You started shooting after Hurricane Katrina, but you never once mention it. Why did you make that decision?

DH: We took the long view in regards to the history of New Orleans music. The city has had over 20 major floods in its history, each seeming to be a real threat to all that makes up the city, but of course, the city continues to endure. There has been so much said and documented about Katrina and New Orleans that we felt not only did we not need to add to that that conversation, but that we would serve the subject better by focusing squarely on the artists and the music, rather than specific events. This film is for several audiences, but it's very much dedicated to the people of New Orleans. In a way, by making the movie “Katrina-free,” it may serve as a small step in realizing a truly “post-Katrina” New Orleans.

FD: You show both established jazz veterans and the new generation of musicians. In your experience shooting the film, how do these two groups interact within the context of the New Orleans music scene?

DH: It is this interaction of the generations that inspired so much of what we set out to create. I had the opportunity to sit five-feet from Shannon Powell every Sunday night at Donna’s Bar and Grill, absorbing, learning, “recording” all that I could. Many nights, after practicing with Shannon at his house on St. Philip and Tremé, we would hang on the front steps of his house. I remember vividly a time when he described all the different kinds of bass drummers that he saw marching by his house as a child (he must have seen a thousand parades by the time he was 10 years old). Shannon would tap the different rhythms on my knee so that I can truly feel the groove, rather than simply understanding it conceptually.

When we did our post-production finishing in Los Angeles, our colorist pointed out that if a group of 15 years old were out on their porch playing trumpets and bass drums, the cops would be called before the fourth measure was played.  Hearing a horn being played in the distance of any street in New Orleans is probably one of the most life-affirming experiences I can imagine. It communicates that we have hope for the future, and there is somewhere we can go dancing.

FD: One sequence of the film shows how the last live music venue on a famous New Orleans street closed down due to high maintenance prices. Do you see the live music tradition of the city being in jeopardy?

DH: Well, this is one of those questions that I typically defer to native New Orleanian musicians for more accurate perspective and articulation (after all, I’m just this kid from Miami trying to play some drums). But I would like to point out that economics remain the biggest deciding factor in how a musical tradition can take shape, remain strong or die out. New Orleans is unique in that no other American city (that I know of) values its own musical identity so much, but continues to struggle to provide a business environment for it to flourish on a world class, economic level. There are too many amazing musicians in New Orleans that no one has heard of. And the ones that they are aware of are often presented on a stage that is suitable for tourism marketing materials.

Tradition Is a Temple screens Thursday, November 14 at 6:30pm as part of our monthly Art of the Real documentary series with director Darren Hoffman, producer Kristen McEntyre, and co-writer Chuck Perkins in person for Q&A.