By Katie Chambers
NYWIFT member Sascha Just directed and produced Ellis, the first feature-length documentary about the late legendary New Orleans pianist and educator, Ellis Marsalis, Jr. Marsalis composed and performed major works of modern jazz infused with a uniquely New Orleans touch. Along with his own children Wynton and Branford Marsalis, he mentored a “who’s who” of jazz from Jon Batiste to Harry Connick, Jr., to hundreds of students who passed through his classes.
Just’s intimate documentary features interviews with many of those whose lives he touched, as well as Ellis himself before his 2020 passing, and includes rare archival footage from U.S. and New Orleans history, following various story threads and beats with an unconventional documentary structure that mimics jazz itself. All throughout, the film acknowledges the artist’s life and development in direct relation to the racial and cultural upheaval during which he worked, struggled, and thrived.
Born and raised in Berlin, Sascha Just absorbed the NYC downtown art and music scene when she studied film production at The City College of New York. She has been working as a film director and producer ever since. An educator herself, Just also studied acting, and eventually her doctoral research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York led her to New Orleans, where she wrote her dissertation about the role of the media and live performances in constructing New Orleans’ public image, followed by several essays and articles. At the same time, she filmed her documentary Heirs (short version Big Chief) about the heritage of the city’s performance cultures.
Just spoke to us about all the ways in which jazz has influenced her work, getting to know a creative legend, and her DOC NYC premiere.
Congratulations on your DOC NYC world premiere screening! What does inclusion in the festival mean to you?
To have the Ellis world premiere at DOC NYC in New York, my chosen hometown, means everything to me. I have worked on Ellis for almost six years, and each and every year I would attend DOC NYC. The great selection of films and the atmosphere were inspiring as I was going through the many different stages of completing the film. DOC NYC really embraces its filmmakers, and it shows that docs are great cinema. Both the premiere (sold out!) and the second screening were beautiful events. Ellis was received with so much joy, and the Q&A with Wynton Marsalis after the premiere created a real buzz.
You have had unique filmmaking career path in that so much of your work has specifically focused on documenting the art of jazz. What is it about jazz that speaks to you as a creative?
Music we generally call jazz has been an important part of my life since childhood. It has shaped me in ways that I’m aware of and ways I don’t even know. Jazz to me reflects life, the unfolding of events, feelings, and thoughts that leaves room for unexpected, spontaneous interactions. It moves me emotionally, and I appreciate the complexity, the freedom that I hear in the music, and the democratic nature that I hear expressed through improvisation. What could be more astonishing than one musician improvising a solo with the band supporting him/her? It’s an astounding feat!
For Ellis specifically, I was inspired by jazz – of course by Ellis’ music but also by the form of a jazz piece. It was challenging to emulate this type of structure to tell Ellis’ story but also very liberating because it freed me from strictly following a three-act structure that is common not only for fiction films but for documentaries.
Given that personal history, making a film about the legendary Ellis Marsalis must have been a dream come true! How did this project come about for you?
A dream come true indeed! It all happened very organically. A few years after Hurricane Katrina, I went to New Orleans to film interviews with musicians and other performers about how their lives had been affected by the storm and the flood caused by the federal levee breach. These interviews became the start of my ongoing project, the Freytag Collection, named after my late grandmother. The goal of the Freytag Collection is to document New Orleans performers and with these filmed documentations contribute to preserving the city’s performance traditions.
One day, my Tiny Team (rarely more than three people at a time worked on the film, so the title fits) and I were interviewing an older musician named Uncle Lionel (who has since passed) in front of a café on Frenchmen Street. The owner of the café, Kenneth Ferdinand, became interested in what we were doing and invited us to a party at the cafe. At the party, he and I talked about my project, and suddenly he asked, “Would you like to meet the Marsalises? They’re playing next door.” Of course, I said yes! He walked me over to Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, and on the way he turned to me with a proud smile and said, “By the way, I’m the uncle.”
This is how I met Ellis. We briefly talked that evening and from then on stayed in touch. His affable modesty, his subtle sense of humor, his overall presence, and of course his music impressed me immensely. Though Ellis was notoriously private, we easily formed a bond, and, over the next years, he entrusted me with bringing his story to the screen. Before our first interview, I told him that I was interested in how politics have shaped jazz and how jazz has shaped politics. “Funny,” Ellis responded. “I have been thinking about this all my life.” From then on, we worked in tandem.
This is an incredibly comprehensive portrait of Ellis – both as an artist and as the patriarch of a legendary musical family – with a tremendous collection of fresh interviews and archival footage. What kind of research did you do to prepare?
Research for Ellis was a multifaceted and fascinating experience. I’m a great believer in oral history, and so I spent a lot of time talking to New Orleanians about their city, their music, and the important role musicians play as cultural bearers. For the Freytag Collection and for my dissertation in theatre & performance studies I had already filmed several interviews with musicians, studied New Orleans history, and read many articles on Ellis Marsalis that helped me prepare for my first interview with Ellis. After that, I dug through the city’s archive and pretty much every commercial stock bank for letters, photos, and concert footage (especially Ellis’ early performances), and with the help of researcher Bonnie Rowan mined the National Archives for films of key moments in US history and of everyday life – anything to make the journey through time tangible.
But most important was the day Ellis and I spent together scanning every photo in the family photo album. Each photo had a story that Ellis shared with me, and so his voice not only tells the story of his life but guides the research.
How did your past work influence this one?
That’s actually rather difficult to assess but I think my short documentary Big Chief, about New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Chief Darryl Montana, laid the foundation for Ellis and reflects my growth as a filmmaker. In Big Chief I accompany Chief Montana as he prepares his famous suits and crown for his performance on Mardi Gras Day. Similar to Ellis, Big Chief is centered on one artist and engages with the political significance of the tradition he performs. Big Chief‘s soundtrack also drives the film’s rhythm, and like Ellis, Darryl Montana tells his story in his own words.
In contrast to Ellis, to move into focus the communal artistic process, Big Chief is primarily filmed in verité style. I was fortunate that the Montana family invited me to stay with them. As Chief Montana and his family were working night and day, we were filming night and day, and so I had the great experience of letting a person simply be in front of the camera for an extended period of time. Observing Montana’s intense preparations, I gained a deep first-hand understanding of the importance performance and community hold to New Orleanians which ultimately led me to making Ellis.
How do you as a director use your skills to capture the spirit, talent, and skills of another artist in another medium?
For Ellis one of my main tasks as a director was to listen. Listen to what Ellis was telling me, to the way he said it, to his music, ask questions in response, and this way grasp his view of the world and of what mattered to him. The questions I asked the other interviewees were based on topics Ellis had brought up, so that the interviewees were in a sense responding to him. In creating this indirect conversation between Ellis and the interviewees I was inspired by the way jazz musicians respond to each other.
Another key task was to translate what I heard into visuals that express Ellis’ personality, his feelings, and topics and nuances in his story. Archive footage played an extremely important role, and of course it was crucial to include current and archive concerts to show his brilliance in different stages of his life. But I also made a point of filming Ellis in activities like driving to his regular gig. We (cinematographer David White and I) filmed the city from Ellis’ point of view and then contrasted it with a bird’s eye perspective to convey a sense of his environment and daily life that shaped him.
Finally (together with editor Michelle Barbin), I devised a structure of the material that both follows the chronology of his life and takes frequent leaves from this chronological order to highlight a theme or an idea. Ellis’ music guided me through this process, as it opened up emotional worlds and very naturally found its places in the film. Because his music is so powerful, and Ellis speaks so immediately through it, I didn’t want to use it as a soundtrack but rather again follow the idea of a dialogue – the visuals and the music are responding to each other.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
The goal of the film is to contribute to disseminating Ellis’ legacy. Beyond the beauty of his music, I hope viewers will gain a deeper understanding of the historic and continuous part jazz and jazz musicians play in shaping US culture. Ellis lived through the very difficult era of segregation and then desegregation, and his day-to-day experiences were framed by struggle.
But despite the many limitations imposed on him by a deeply racist system he pursued his goals without compromising his values or lowering his standards. More so, he developed highest standards of excellence and made it his mission to pass them on to the next generation. Ellis’ pursuit of a self-determined life against all odds is a timeless story. But as so many people face existential struggles in our highly contested age his story is also very timely, and I hope viewers will feel inspired by the way Ellis led his life.
What’s next for you?
So shortly after the premiere I’m very involved with pursuing distribution and bringing Ellis to the world through festivals and community screenings. We will begin with community screenings in Ellis’ home New Orleans and from there take the film across the country. Many of those screenings will be paired with a concert of Ellis’ music by a band led by Jason Marsalis, Ellis’ youngest son.
In the meantime, I’m developing another music-driven documentary that will also take a deep dive into US history. I’m mildly superstitious… so I can’t give more details about it at this point.
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