Sunday, June 05, 2016

BFF ’16: Sweet Dillard

It is hard to believe it has been eight years since the bankruptcy of the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE). Frankly, the jazz community has yet to recover from the loss of its annual conference. For the hundreds of massively gifted high school jazz bands around the country, IAJE used to be a golden opportunity to showcase their talents and maybe jam with the legends. In the post-IAJE world, Jazz @ Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition is now the marquis event for high school big bands. Under the direction of the strict but charismatic Christopher Dorsey, the Dillard Center for the Arts has twice won the competition, but not in 2013. The following year, Mr. Dorsey challenges the band to do better, while giving them invaluable life lessons. Jim Virga documents their 2014 season in Sweet Dillard (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Brooklyn Film Festival.

Mr. Dorsey had previously taught in predominantly African-American and white schools, so he was well suited for a truly multi-racial, multi-ethnic campus such as Dillard. For any artistically or musically inclined student in Broward County, it is the place to be, in part because of the big band’s success. Mr. Dorsey is not afraid to unleash his inner drill sergeant, but he also knows how to build up his students’ confidence. He is a formative influence on many, including his son.

Rather amusingly, Mr. Dorsey’s son was initially afraid to reveal his plans to major in engineering instead of music, but of course that was just fine with his father. The scholarship probably did not hurt either. Yet, what really matters to Mr. Dorsey is the application of the lessons learned on the bandstand: team work, responsibility, self-expression. (In fact, the son’s desire to help jazz musicians as a successful professional echoes those of the teen protagonist in Nat Hentoff’s Jazz Country, which remains maddeningly out-of-print).

Seeing young, enthusiastic jazz talent is wonderfully uplifting. Virga and his co-producer-cinematographers Susan and Mike Stocker (who happen to be Dillard parents) capture a full sense of the band’s spirit and dedication. They swing mightily, especially by the time they get to the Essentially Ellington (jazz cineastes might also remember the Ellingtonpalooza from Bruce Broder’s CHOPS). It is amazing how fresh Duke still sounds, especially when hungry young players are attacking his charts.

Dillard boosters tastefully make their points about the importance of music education without ever sounding strident or interfering with the film’s flow. Of course, the kids are their best argument. Many come from mean circumstances or chaotic home lives, but most of them will continue onto college, many with scholarships. Although Sweet Dillard runs just short of an hour, Virga and editor-co-producer Konstantia Kontaxis nicely balance student backstories with Mr. Dorsey’s swingingly wise pedagogy. Highly recommended for jazz fans and general audiences, Sweet Dillard screens again tomorrow (6/6) at the Wythe Hotel, as part of this year’s Brooklyn Film Festival.