“We captured the lightning” – documenting jazz hero Roy Hargrove | Jazz
FFrom the start of their 28-year friendship, Eliane Henri knew that trumpeter Roy Hargrove was a genius. “I was 17 when I went to see his first show in Los Angeles and it was like nothing I had experienced before,” Henri says. “Jazz was this old music to me and listening to it was like eating your vegetables, but here is this 20 year old guy with a totally fresh, already formed sound. It was as if Miles Davis was walking among us.
In the years since that first show in the early 90s, Hargrove’s star has soared. Winning two Grammys in 1998 and 2002 – the latter with Davis collaborator Herbie Hancock – Hargrove has continued to apply her sound and ear for complex arrangements across the spectrum of black American music. He was a founding member of experimental music group The Soulquarians, alongside drummer Questlove, singer D’Angelo and rapper Common, while his band RH Factor blended R&B, funk and hip-hop with jazz improvisation, winning a Grammy nomination in 2004. His 2008 album Earfood displays the perfect synthesis of his sound, playing like a mix of big band swing and funk swagger across its 14 tracks and ultimately producing a heavily covered modern jazz standard in the piece Strasbourg/St Denis.
Her relationship with Henri also deepened. Whenever he came to Los Angeles for a show, he would stop by his family for lunch on Sundays, or they would take him to jams after his set was over. In the early 2000s, Henri was working in event management, hiring Hargrove to perform at exclusive gigs such as Stevie Wonder’s surprise birthday party. Yet he had also begun to suffer from kidney disease during this time. “He’s become one of my best friends,” Henri said in a video call from his home in Los Angeles. “We really connected through music and bonded once he got sick. Over the years I’ve seen with my own eyes how he transformed jazz from a form of purist art about breaking down barriers by embracing hip-hop. You can’t have black music history now without including Roy. He’s one of our greats.”
In 2016, Henri had decided to start making documentary films and Hargrove was his natural subject. “His story had to be told, but no one took it on,” she says. “Since I was so close to him, I felt more and more like I had to do it.” She asked Hargrove’s permission and received a tentative yes, before spending the next 18 months convincing him to allow her full access to his life of late-night jams and endless touring.
He relented, and in the summer of 2018 Henri traveled with him to Europe to film a series of dates across France and Italy. She shot stunning footage of Hargrove: sitting on the balcony of her hotel in Sète, serenading the empty night with ballads from her horn; or hanging out in the streets of Perugia, smoking and foraging for ice cream, before playing a sweaty and emotional set in a small club at midnight.
By late October of that year, the tour was over and Henri was planning a homecoming with Hargrove at his childhood home in Dallas, revisiting the high school where he had studied with singer Erykah Badu. But when he returns to New York, he falls into a coma. On November 2, he died.
“He was such a private man and even though he suffered from kidney disease for the last two decades of his life, he did so with quiet grace,” Henri says. “If I had asked him 10 years earlier to let me film it, he would never have allowed it, but he knew it was time to tell his story. We’ve captured the lightning in this last year – it was so real and unguarded.
The resulting film, Hargrove, is a beautiful and often heartbreaking meditation on the trumpeter’s creative genius and how artists are exploited by the music industry. Henri centers intimate, off-the-cuff conversations with Hargrove between impressionistic details of his performances. With filming cut short by his sudden death, this footage is supplemented with testimonials from his collaborators, such as Hancock, Questlove and saxophonist Sonny Rollins, to paint a detailed picture of his hectic lifestyle.
“Nothing was planned with Roy – everything was organic,” says Henri. “I didn’t want it to be a talking head, so it was all about following him. I had to ask other musicians where he would jam until 4am and when we shot it in Sète my team had to wait in the lobby for six hours before he finally arrived. But he let us in and what we got was raw.
Another unvarnished and unforeseen element of the shoot involved Roy’s longtime manager, Larry Clothier, whom Henry darkly captures in the background, denying the shooting of certain sets and exploding into arguments with her and Hargrove over the presence of the film crew. Ultimately, Clothier blocked any use of Hargrove’s original compositions in the final film.
“I had no idea Roy’s manager was going to be part of the story but he made a character for himself,” says Henri. “At one point I thought he might have the ability to stop me. It was only Roy who allowed us to film. Henri paints a complex picture of the relationship between Hargrove and Clothier. While collaborators such as trombonist Frank Lacy claim that Clothier exploited his charge, Hargrove calls his manager a “father figure.”
At the end of the tour, Hargove is clearly exhausted from juggling dates and kidney dialysis when Henri asks him why he hasn’t had a kidney transplant yet. Hargrove replies that he could not afford the six months off work to recuperate. “I’ll get to it,” he said softly.
What was it like seeing those footage again after Hargrove died? “Making this whole movie was a grieving process,” Henri says, tearing up and placing his head in his hands. “We are all still heartbroken. For so long I couldn’t watch the raw footage, and even now it’s hard for me to listen to Roy’s music.
And yet, Henri says she was prompted to finish the film, because it felt like Hargrove’s final position. “He’s telling his own story, in his own words.”
Despite the absence of his own compositions in the final cut, the film is filled with footage of Roy playing with fluidity and emotion, promising decades of music to come had his life not been cut short. “He talked about what he was going to do next – he wanted to break down barriers in music and be inclusive,” Henri says. “The next generation will have to continue this story now and he will be the bridge to them. He will not be a footnote – he will have his rightful place among the constellations.