By Julie Pendray
IDYLLWILD, Calif. — You’re eating dinner in a mountain bistro, with sounds of a jazz trio in the corner.
The conversation around you is engaging, but your ears are gradually distracted by subtle musical surprises. Which instrument sounds like it’s morphing into something completely different? Which one sounds like it’s speaking a language, comically baiting the other performers? Which one is changing the rhythm so mischievously that you simply have to turn your head to see what’s going on?
It’s Marshall Hawkins on upright bass, tickling and tapping the strings, sliding along them as though he knows every sweet spot. His eyes are closed. He’s in his groove. The room goes into a hush. Then everyone laughs and erupts with applause.
It’s classic Hawkins — loving the mischief, loving surprising people, loving entertaining, loving inspiring and educating.
This week, at Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema, some of his former students from Idyllwild Arts Academy are returning the love, with the release of their documentary, “Hawkins.” It is a legacy piece, both educational and entertaining. There are tenderhearted moments that indicate the depth of the students’ gratitude. It’s very clearly a “call and response” song of appreciation between them and their instructor.
Hawkins created the Jazz Department at the private residential high school and co-founded Idyllwild’s annual festival, known as Jazz in the Pines. Alumni from the academy return to perform at the festival, along with accomplished musicians from all over Southern California. Among them, is alumnus and former American Idol finalist Casey Abrams.
When Hawkins, in his mid-70s, performs at venues “on the hill” (in mile-high Idyllwild), he can be found sharing what he learned over years of playing with Miles Davis, Roberta Flack and Shirley Horn. Sometimes the chat is part of the repartee with keyboardist Barnaby Finch or saxophonist Paul Carman over a glass of wine. Sometimes, it’s a teaching session at the academy.
Wherever Hawkins is, he seems the same. He doesn’t mince words. He values truth and he’ll tell it to you straight, as the feature-length documentary shows.
“You’re heading for a train wreck,” he tells his young students when they get out of synchronization, in one of the scenes. Another clip shows him walking over a stage and patting one student forcefully on the back during a public performance, in order to get him feeling the timing and back into the groove.
Keyboardist Barnaby Finch was in the audience when the “Hawkins” documentary had its first showing this week. He said he liked how much the film discussed time and rhythm.
“Time is so hard and so subtle,” he said. “It gets down to a thousandth of a second sometimes. It’s good to see it being instilled at a young age. Even those of us who have been playing for years, we still talk about it. That’s what everyone used to talk about on the tour buses all the time.”
Finch formerly performed for years with George Benson. He and Paul Carman, a former saxophonist for Frank Zappa, often perform with Hawkins on the hill. All three are music instructors.
Finch said he’s really glad that Hawkins has been honored with the movie’s release.
“He’s such a great musician, educator and human being,” he said.
Former academy students Devon Gilpatrick and Ashi Manoff together wrote, produced and directed the film, which they funded through the Kickstarter program. They said the idea came up when they were chatting with a friend, Brent Miller, last summer.
“Marshall had just won an award or something. That sparked the whole thing,” Manoff said.
From there, a sense of community grew around the project, he said.
“The purpose of the film was to bring credit and light to (Hawkins’) teachings. It was clear people were beginning to pay attention to what we were doing, even before production.”
Asked about the inevitable trials and tribulations as well as the joys of making the movie, Manoff said the challenges included “staying organized and keeping a clear head.”
“Devon and I had never taken on such a long shoot and many problems arose. Anything from stalled equipment, scheduling problems, confusion and debates on artistic direction, to just generally getting into heated situations with each other and the crew from the high levels of stress. But it was also a great experience. I benefited so much from it. We made Marshall happy and that made me happy. Meeting his family in Washington, D.C. was so cool. I love them all.”
For people who only know Hawkins from his time in California, the movie sheds nostalgic light on his early years on the East Coast, with scenes from his neighborhood and discussions of race and the whole jazz scene in the nation’s capital.
Hawkins deals with the issue of being a minority head on and proclaims that music can be a bridge between all people.
Manoff said this is an issue close to his own heart, since he was born in India and adopted at 5 months old by Jewish-American parents.
“Issues of race and identity have always been important to me and I’m sure these themes will appear in my future work,” he said. Manoff is currently studying at U.C.L.A. Film School.
It’s clear that Hawkins has an impact on his students that goes far beyond the classroom, as young people test their strengths and try to figure out how to navigate the rest of their lives.
“Marshall is both my music mentor and someone I can talk to about my personal life,” Manoff said. “If anything, we’ve grown closer as we shot the movie. I consider him a close friend and I look up to him. I’ve learned how to be a better person by watching him.”
He said Hawkins played a big role in making the film.
“He was essentially a producer and helped us get contacts and ideas about who to reach out to. We were always talking to him each step of the filmmaking process. We had some friends fill in on crew. And of course, our parents played a big role in supporting us.”
On the Kickstarter website, Gilpatrick commented, “We believe it is important to get a current view of Marshall’s teaching methods by intimately documenting students’ progress through the upcoming year in his class. This (movie) will show what it is like to study under Marshall for a year. We want to get real footage of Marshall as a teacher in the present while also going into the history of the department. “
Together, Gilpatrick and Manoff made this statement, “You do not have to be a musician to learn from Marshall. His teachings are universal. Marshall doesn’t just teach people how to play an instrument, he helps them form their own instruments for living life. Music is one form of connecting people but the craft itself can teach everyone what it means to be a good person and live a life of fulfillment. Marshall shows that we can learn and develop every day no matter how we choose to live our lives. Marshall’s teachings are important because they connect people globally and strongly engage the pursuit of a meaningful life.”
The “Hawkins” documentary will have its second showing at 6 p.m. tonight at Caine Learning Center in Idyllwild. Viewers will find it touching. It isn’t a perfect production. But as Marshall would say, any “undesirable notes” of production are overlooked by audiences if the timing is on. In other words, in life, as in music, people tend to hear and see the big picture. There are places in this documentary that made the audience laugh out loud this week and a few spots that engendered pathos, as students discussed what it’s like living in a foreign country or how they feel when they perform.
Idyllwild Arts Academy draws university-bound students from all over the world.
Martin Budde, who was an Idyllwild Arts student in the movie, had this to say after watching the film on the big screen this week.
“I like that the movie doesn’t have a lot of polish to it. Everything you see in those teaching sessions, that’s very real. It’s organic. That’s how Marshall teaches.”
Hawkins is expected to attend tonight’s screening.
Copyright to Julie Pendray and SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com