Who is the Jazz Video Guy? You know, the guy whose photo sits like a postage stamp next to many of the best jazz videos on YouTube. Perhaps you've heard his voice off-camera asking questions of Sonny Rollins, Joe Lovano, Orrin Keepnews and other jazz legends in video podcasts. Or maybe you've been to his video blog. But who exactly is the person behind the photo and voice? Where did he come from? And what does he want?
Bret Primack, it turns out, has had quite a past.
In Part 1 of my two-part interview with the self-styled Jazz Video Guy, Bret talks about his early love of jazz and film, being influenced by Francis Ford Coppola, studying with Martin Scorsese at NYU's Film School in the late 1960s, and why he chose to open each Orrin Keepnews video podcast for Concord Records with the legendary producer barking: "You do whatever you want. You're running that end of the show, sir. I'm just here to respond":
Bret Primack: West Hartford, CT. My first exposure to jazz was through two movies: The Glenn Miller Story and The Five Pennies, with Danny Kaye and Louis Armstrong. The joy that Louis brought to the music and how he played in that film overwhelmed me. So much so that at age 9 I started to play trumpet and continued on the horn through high school.
JW: When did you start making films?
BP: When I was 17 years old. The first was about a young guy dealing with female rejection. I used friends as the actors, and the film ran three minutes. Not long afterward, Francis Ford Coppola [pictured] came to Hartford to screen Is Paris Burning?—which he wrote with Gore Vidal. Coppola was so dynamic and exciting that I wrote him a letter about the film and what I wanted to do. He wrote me back a letter of encouragement. I still have that letter.
JW: Did you make any other films in high school?
BP: When I was a senior I made a film for Class Night, our annual talent show that gently mocked the teachers. That was June 1967, the week the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s was released. I used A Day in the Life as the soundtrack. When the school administration asked for a pre-event screening, they were horrified by the song’s lyrics. They told me to remove the music.
JW: Did you remove it?
BP: No. I locked myself in the projection booth and screened the film just as it was. The next day I was suspended. I always had a problem with authority [laughs].
JW: Where did you go to college?
BP: New York University Film School. As fate would have it, Martin Scorsese [pictured] was my teacher. My final project in 1971 was a 10-minute black-and-white film called Rough Ride. It was a neo-realism film shot inside a taxi featuring the eccentric passengers a New York City cab driver picks up in one night.
JW: What did Scorsese think?
BP: He loved it. He had just edited Woodstock, and Warner Brothers had given him money to start work on Mean Streets. He left NYU in 1971, just before I graduated.
JW: Deep down, do you think Rough Ride was an inspiration for Paul Schrader’s screenplay for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976?
BP: I have no idea. There are similarities, of course. But who knows?
JW: What did you do after college?
BP: I went to work for small company making industrial films and drove a cab. Making independent films was hard in New York then. It was very expensive, and the city’s economy wasn’t in great shape. During this period I met Richard Dubin [pictured], a trumpeter who also was driving a cab. He wound up working with a TV talk-show host and let me hang out on the set and attend some parties. That’s how I met jazz pianist Walter Bishop Jr. I decided to write a profile of Bishop for Down Beat. The magazine published the article in March 1977, which inspired me to write more about jazz, my first love. In 1978 I became the magazine’s East Coast editor.
JW: When did you start to combine jazz and computers?
BP: In the mid-1990s. But I had been computer savvy since 1984, when I first bought an Apple IIe for word processing. I soon discovered it had a modem and a bulletin board system (BBS), an early version of the Internet. The BBS let you leave messages for other computer users and engage in public discussions. In 1995, I wrote an article about the Internet for JazzTimes. Larry Rosen, the head of GRP Records at the time, read it and called, inviting me to work on the first large-scale jazz website called Jazz Central Station.
JW: When did video start to play a role in what you were doing?
BP: In 1999, GMN, a London-based company, hired me to tape live audio and video at the North Sea Jazz Festival and at Birdland in New York. The results were then streamed at their website. But this was still the 56K-modem era, so everything was sluggish. The idea, unfortunately, was ahead of the technology.
JW: Were you interviewing jazz musicians on camera on the side?
BP: Yes. Throughout the 1990s I would take my camera along to clubs or ask musicians if I could tape them in their hotel rooms. During this period I taped interviews with Maynard Ferguson [pictured], Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker and others.
JW: What was the big turning point for you?
BP: In 2004, Telarc Records asked me to interview saxophonists Dave Liebman, Michael Brecker and Joe Lovano [pictured]. Telarc did the editing, and the result was horrible. I knew I could do better. At this point, the price of video cameras and editing equipment for the computer had come down. So I invested in both. At the time, I was producing Joe Lovano’s website, so we decided to start documenting his work on video.
JW: What is Planet Bret?
BP: In 2001, I moved to Arizona and started producing websites. I was in Arizona by myself at the time and needed a name for my company. I came up with Planet Bret from the feeling I had there. It was like living on another planet.
JW: When did you start producing video podcasts for Concord Records?
BP: In 2006, Joe Vella, an audio podcaster, subcontracted a video project for Concord Records’ release of Fearless Leader, the label’s first box of John Coltrane’s Prestige recordings. Joe gave me an audio interview he did with Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter. I used it along with rare photos, music and my narration to produce a video that’s still popular on YouTube.
JW: What happened next?
BP: I heard that Concord was planning to release reissues of classic Riverside albums with updated liner notes by producer Orrin Keepnews, I thought a series of podcasts would be ideal. My vision was to create mini interviews with Orrin to support each CD’s release.
JW: Did you pitch it?
BP: I flew to California to meet with Dave Henson, Concord’s new-media marketing manager, and the idea was a go.
JW: Did you know Orrin?
BP: Yes. I had known him for years. In 1997, when I started BirdLives.com, an early jazz blog, Orrin would e-mail me corrections.
JW: Was he on board with what you wanted to do for the series?
BP: Orrin initially said no. He said he was writing an autobiography and didn’t want what he was writing to appear somewhere else first. He didn’t know much about the Internet at the time. So it took me about six months of phone calls to get him to agree.
JW: I find it interesting that each clip opens with Keepnews becoming annoyed at you. That took courage on your part.
BP: As a film school grad, I always look for the truth when I pick up a camera. I knew that Orrin’s edginess was a big part of his personality. I also knew that including those moments would create drama, even though they were aimed at me [laughs]. I felt that featuring one of his outbursts at the outset would give the viewer an unfiltered, up-close look at this legend’s personality and set the stage for the series.
JW: How did you run the taping of Orrin?
BP: We did them over two days—in two, four-hour interview sessions. Once we got started, Orrin rolled right along. Then I spent two days on each album, editing the tape down and packaging the images and narrative to create a mini story for each CD release. There were 19 podcasts in all.
JW: Orrin seemed to be very cooperative.
BP: He was. As someone who has interviewed more than 300 artists, I know that most people need about 10 minutes to relax in front of the camera. His gruffness was a defensive maneuver on his part. Once we got past his reluctance to engage, Orrin was a really nice guy. And he’s so dedicated to the music and the artists who made the music that he refused to compromise the music in any way. Those classic recordings are like his children.
JW: Did Orrin see the results?
JW: What was his reaction?
BP: As you know, Orrin isn’t one to heap praise. I think he said, “Oh, now I see I what you were trying to do.” I don’t think he originally conceptualized how they would turn out.
JW: The Keepnews podcasts have demonstrated that CD promotions can also be documentary art.
BP: I think the series set new standards and helped record companies realize that what these podcasts do is sell their catalogs indefinitely. This is the important distinction. They go up at YouTube and people keep watching them and are constantly reminded about the albums. The information is timeless.
JW: How often are the Keepnews podcasts viewed?
BP: So far there have been about 600,000 views. That’s 10,000 views a week. The most popular episodes are the ones on Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and Wes Montgomery.
Tomorrow, in Part 2, Bret talks about Sonny Rollins, how he became close to the tenor saxophonist, spending time with Sonny in his backyard rehearsal shed, building Sonny's website, documenting his concerts, and the video that made Sonny tear up.
JazzWax clip: Of the 19 Orrin Keepnews videos that Bret produced for Concord Records, this one for Cannonball at the Village Vanguard has had more than 80,000 views...