BEHIND THE SCENES with Rikke Houd

Going into the production process, how did you envision this portrait? Did your ideas change after meeting Horace and beginning to record?

My idea was initially portraying the person rather than the musician, but there´s no way of making a story about Horace the person without portraying Horace the musician - it is one and the same.

What fascinated me was the way Horace survives and grows and transforms through music, how he has found a way of not being ground down by obstacles, even turning them into something that empowers him. His handicap gave him a unique sound as a pianist. It was that human aspect that I wanted to portray somehow.

I was also interested in portraying the time and society Horace grew up in - the depression and the extreme segregation and systematic repression and control of black people. Music seemed a powerful force that was hard to control and to some, like Horace, it was a way out of a locked situation. It led him to the 60´s vibrant jazz scene in New York and, when that scene eventually changed along with other changes in society, he and a lot of black American Jazz musicians went to Europe, but only very few stayed as long as Horace did.

I grew up with a jazz-loving and jazz-playing father, and he introduced me to Horace, but I have no specific knowledge about jazz. So initially the thought of portraying a prominent jazz musicianwas quite intimidating. I wanted to do him justice as a musician. I did not want my lack of special knowledge about jazz to weaken the piece - but nor did I want to pretend to know what I didn´t. So I spent some time finding that balance and working around the feeling of gatecrashing a club I didn´t belong to.

If anything changed throughout the process it was me becoming less intimidated by this. It was actually Horace who told me that there´s no right way in jazz. Just do it your way, he said. My way, I suppose, was to listen for Horace´s soul and temperament in the music and try to find a way of working with the music as an extra voice in the story about him.

At the 2015 Third Coast Conference you introduced the idea of the Radio Vertilikasator - the concept of a radio "time machine" that a producer adjusts before going into the field. Can you talk about your time machine settings for this piece?

The radio vertikalisator is basically a silly tool that helps visualize some of the not-so-silly decisions that I think are important to make before and during a production. It´s about working with the dynamics of closeness and distance in different aspects of a radio story- imagine that "distance" is on the left side of a knob and "closeness" on the right. One of the most important decisions in a documentary, I think, is to identify one's position as a storyteller: why am I telling this story, and from what perspective. That decision often determines the other decisions somehow. There are no rights and wrongs, it is more a question of being conscious of one's choices.

In this production, the “position of storyteller”-knob was a little to the right of the middle, towards a more personal approach, but not hyper-personal, I think this goes for the interviewing- and scene knobs too. I wanted some sort of subtle personal presence as the reporter/storyteller and I wanted glimpses into Horace´s personal space without it becoming too private. I wanted this feeling of being close, but not invading.

When it came to writing the narrative, I remember really wishing I could be clever and nerdy about jazz. I first tried out a style that let me quote clever articles praising Horace´s techniques as a piano player and describing his different collaborations with jazz stars. It sounded great and made sense, but it didn't work. It wasn´t true somehow to the proximity and presence I had as a storyteller, it was me faking something. So I opted for a narration and a delivery that I hoped would not puncture the intimate room I was trying to create and that would not promise big expertise on jazz from my side.

My role would be more just to guide the listener through Horace´s daily life and past, hopefully spilling some of the admiration and tenderness I feel for him. I didn´t want the text to take too much space, but at the same time I wanted the possibility of being a subjective filter, shining the light on things that fascinated me and hopefully thus make the listener see and feel some of this. So, the narration-knob is turned a bit to the right of the middle, toward closeness.

The music knob - it started out more to the left, a distanced approach, I wanted to try and cover Horace´s musical production evenly and talk about every musician he had played with and do his fantastic career justice. It didn´t work. What worked after trying different things out was listening for music that I felt expressed Horace´s personality and added to the feeling and the narrative somehow. So, that knob is quite a bit to the right.

How did you approach the musical scoring?

It is great being able to work with music as an integrated part of a radio story. Horace Parlan is his music, so it should be a voice, a layer, play a part. As mentioned, I tried out a few approaches before finding a way that I felt worked. A challenge was that a lot of jazz is well, very jazzy. Hard to edit with words. But I wanted some energetic and loud pieces in there too and tried different ways of incorporating these in the story, like fading hard up and down. I does´t always work, but I enjoyed trying out different ways.

I think the hardest part of the editing process was cutting the music. The piece had to be 26:30 minutes long, so I had to cut the music short many times in order to cover the story and make room for the scenes.

Considering that Horace is mostly room-bound, you depicted an impressive number of scenes and characters. Can you talk about the tools you used to do this, and why?

I remember involving Horace in this from the beginning - explaining that I wanted to record him in different situations, both daily routines and odd events. I wanted scenes portraying his “here and now” to contrast with the biographical interview, and to give the piece some movement. I wanted scenes that have a subtext of some sort, that bring something to the story and the portrait.

Horace suggested that I record his physiotherapy, and I thought that was a good idea, because it shows his will to keep moving and stay strong. He told me about things that would occasionally occur, like Archie Shep calling or friends stopping by, and I wanted to record that to show how he has built himself a family of music friends. Horace mentioned his friend Marvin, that he hadn´t talked to him in years because he couldn´t find his number due to his blindness. I told him I would like to have this in the piece somehow and suggested he would try and call Marvin with my help. He agreed - so I found the number and helped him call. So, these different scenes are a mix of things that happen daily, weekly, yearly or rarely, and maybe the call to Marvin wouldn´t have happened if I hadn´t suggested it.

I visited Horace twice and had to fit it all into 1-2 days of recording each time, so I tried to prepare some situations - I had brainstormed previously about possible situations that I´d like to record should they happen. It was mix of planned and spontaneous.

Has Horace heard the doc? What did he think?

Yes, Horace has heard the doc and he told me it moved him, he was happy with the result. And he was also especially happy with the response it created. Old colleagues getting in touch, fans sending me messages to read to him. He appreciated that a lot.