Vineyard visitors from all across the country came out to the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center (PAC) Saturday night to witness a sneak peek of filmmaker and actor Tyler Perry’s new drama — “A Jazzman’s Blues,” as part of the 20th Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival.
The enthralled audience, who flooded the PAC seats from top to bottom, got the chance to view a few clips of the new film that provided insight into the central commentary of this never-before-seen endeavor by Perry. Although it may seem like a significant departure from some prior Perry productions, the piece is actually 26 years in the making — Perry was just waiting for the perfect moment to tell the story.
In a one-on-one interview with The Times prior to the presentation, Perry said he doesn’t consider the film a new path of expression, “I think this is actually my original expression. But what I found was, in building a business and a brand, I needed to super-serve my niche, my audience. That’s what the focus was, so I could be in a position to one day be able to tell the story the way I wanted to tell it,” Perry said.
According to Perry, current initiatives around the United States to homogenize history and water down the ugliest elements of racism and racial inequity in America lead to his decision to actualize his vision in the form of “A Jazzman’s Blues.”
“I think now is the perfect time to tell this story. I think it lends itself to so many awful moments that we had to face as Black people, yet we found joy inside each one of those moments,” Perry said.
One overarching theme of the movie is the act of “passing,” in the Deep South following the end of World War II. Perry said some African Americans would attempt to pass themselves off as white in order to give themselves and their families a better life. “I think now is the time to put out this film because of this move in America to erase, eliminate, or rewrite the history of Black people,” he said.
Perry grew up on Bourbon Street in New Orleans — a setting that he says inspired many facets of his new film. While heading to work in the morning and home later in the day, Perry would walk down Bourbon Street in his late teens and early 20s and hear a medley of music, but the brassy swing notes of trumpets and improvisational melodies of New Orleans jazz resonated strongly with him.
While jazz music plays a central role in the movie, it’s apparent that the Spanish moss swinging from oak trees and the sprawling swamps of the Deep South also helped Perry paint the picture in as vivid a manner as he first envisioned it.
For Perry, music has always been ingrained in the human story, no matter what race a person is, or where they come from. “There is always a musical component — as I was writing these characters,” Perry said, “the sound that I heard was the music of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. All these people who had such amazing musical roots absolutely informed how the story came out.”
When asked why Perry decided to debut clips of “A Jazzman’s Blues” at the film festival, he said “Looking at the history of what this festival has meant and the who’s who that it brings out and the conversation that it starts, I feel tremendously honored to be here.”
At the PAC, Perry received a warm welcome from the audience, and Variety reporter and moderator Angelique Jackson got right into the discussion. “This is a big moment and a big movie for you,” Jackson began. “…You had been waiting and just biding your time until it was finally time to make this movie.” Perry said the drive to make the movie was sparked when he was feeling low about some of the plays he was writing and got the chance to sneak into the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, Ga. “I couldn’t afford to go in … I saw an August Wilson play. I think it was ‘Seven Guitars,’” Perry explained. “There was an after party in a little cafe and I got a chance to talk to [Wilson]. I said ‘I do these plays’ and he said ‘Don’t be ashamed of that. It’s all art, tell your stories.’”
Following that experience, “A Jazzman’s Blues” was born — Perry’s first ever movie script. The film spans the time period from 1937 to about 1987, and stars a talented young cast that Perry says fully give into their individual roles to make the movie even more powerful and convincing.
Joshua Boone plays Bayou and Solea Pfeiffer plays Leanne, two young African Americans growing up in the Deep South whose love for each other defies the constraints of racism and oppression.
Because Leanne has a light complexion, she tries to “pass” for white — a theme that stays at the forefront of the movie and reminds viewers of the true level of desperation of African Americans who gave up their very identity in hopes of avoiding racial persecution. Perry said he was inspired to focus on this element of racism when he found a picture of his grandmother while going through some old family photos. “My mother’s mother, she looked like a white woman, and her mother and grandmother had a town in Louisiana that was named after them,” Perry said. “The only way that could have happened was if they were ‘passing’ for white. So this story takes the turn where Black people then were faced with some of the awful choices of having to pretend to be something they weren’t just to have a better life.”
When Perry first wrote the movie script, he was considering playing Bayou himself, with Will Smith, Diana Ross, and Hallie Berry as the main cast. “I was broke at home, I had this dream cast, sitting there wondering if the lights are going to be on tomorrow … I was broke and dreaming big. It really paid off, though — you gotta dream big,” Perry said.
Although Perry said this is the first time he’s ever really enjoyed directing a film, he felt the sustained pressure of being an African American producer and director in the modern day. “I couldn’t take the chance of taking a risk that wasn’t going to be a hit, because as a Black person in the business you don’t get the opportunity to have many flops,” Perry said. “I know people who are not Black who have flops and make more and more and more, and I see very talented people have one flop and never get another shot.”
Despite naysayers and critics, Perry said, he has always had his attention laser-focused on his goal of celebrating Black culture and creativity, and elevating the African American community through his work. “I opened a studio, hiring as many Black and Brown people as I can, and giving us opportunities that we wouldn’t have. My payroll last year was $154 million, and most of that was Black and Brown people,” he said. “To be in this position by taking those steps and seeing all these lives change, and now getting an opportunity to do something that I really love, that was really powerful for me.”
“A Jazzman’s Blues” will debut on Netflix in September. Visit mvaaff.com for more information about presentations, the festival itinerary, and how to purchase tickets.