Interview with Joseph ‘Jazzbo’ Patel, producer of "Summer of Soul"

Joseph ‘Jazzbo’ Patel: “It’s finding your tribe, right?”

Joseph ‘Jazzbo’ Patel

Joseph ‘Jazzbo’ Patel is the producer of arguably (also, factually) the documentary of the year: the Sundance-winning, 99% on Rotten Tomatoes scoring, universally acclaimed “Summer of Soul”. Based on long-lost footage, the film portrays Harlem Cultural Festival 1969, a six weekends-long festival series that took place in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in Harlem, NYC. The bill featured everyone from Stevie Wonder to Nina Simone, 5th Dimension to Sly & The Family Stone, and audience numbers surpassed 300.000 visitors. The fact that not even certified music nerds like Joseph and Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson of The Roots, who directed the film, had heard about this Black music milestone that happened mere weeks before Woodstock raises important questions about collective myth building and cultural preservation. Since its premiere in January 2021, Summer of Soul has won more awards than we could list here, and was just pronounced the best film of the year by the New York Times.


In this edited and condensed conversation with Julian Brimmers, Joseph discusses his own path in music, first as one of the most trusted voices in hip-hop journalism and later as a visual storyteller for MTV and Vice, but also his time with Bay Area underground icons SoleSides and the death of his former crew partner Gift of Gab (Blackalicious).


I read this tweet the other week that went something like:

“So, you’re a writer?
That means you write, right?
‘Oh, I wouldn’t go THAT far!”

This seems to be the case for so many people who got into music writing. At some point it shifts into different forms of media, and the general storytelling aspect becomes more prevalent. You find some source material, and then you have to decide, what is this? A podcast, a documentary?
Well, for me, I started writing in 1990. A long-ass time ago. My first interview was with the drummer of Red Hot Chili Peppers, and my second interview was with Phife from A Tribe Called Quest. When I got to college at UC Davis in California, I met {hip-hop historian} Jeff Chang, who was writing for a number of new rap magazines that were coming out of California, the Bay Area, LA, Seattle… He mentored me to become a writer, and I started doing interviews for rap magazines like The Bomb, Flavor, Herb magazine, and a little bit later for Ego Trip, The Source, XXL, Vibe… that’s how I started becoming a music journalist.
But sometime around 2003 I was becoming very cynical about music writing. It never paid the bills, and there were people who were so much better at it than I was. So I sat there and looked at myself, like – what does this career look like when I’m 40? Will I be writing record reviews for Spin Magazine at the age of 40? That’s not cool. So I took a job at MTV. I’d only been freelancing to that point.

What did you learn at MTV that you didn’t get from freelance writing?
MTV introduced me to this world of visual storytelling. Six months after I got there, I produced my first own piece. Here I was: directing cameras, writing a story and a script, and going in the edit. The whole process excited different parts of my brain, got me curious again about how to make something look good visually. The idea of show-not-tell and finding the balance between the two. I loved it, it changed my life. I spent six years there working on everything from three-minute segments, to hour-long TV specials, to election coverage over the course of a few months in 2008.

But I think writing is a really good training ground for storytelling, period. My boss at MTV, this guy named Ocean MacAdams, said, “it’s easier for me to teach you the technical things than it is to teach someone who’s tech savvy how to write a story.” That’s advice I used later on in my career when I was at The Fader and VEVO, hiring my own teams. I hired writers, because I can teach you how to frame a thing, and how to shoot a thing. But it’s hard to teach someone about the actual telling of the story.

I recently watched one of the earlier MTV things you produced back then, the My Block: Houston episode. Sway {of Sway in the Morning, Sway & Tech} was hosting…
Yeah, it was a TV series called “My Block” and Houston was the first episode. We ended up doing eight episodes: Houston, Memphis, Atlanta, Miami, Puerto Rico, Virginia Beach, Chicago, The Bay. When I lived in the Bay, I listened to Sway & Tech on the radio every weekend, so working with him was cool. My Block was interesting because it was the first hip-hop doc tv series organized by geography. There hadn’t been anything like that before. I’m really proud of the fact that we did My Block Houston before Houston blew up. In fact, Paul Wall, Mike Jones, and Slim Thug will still tell you today that that show helped propel them.

In a way, the show formed the blueprint for how I tell stories, which is: hook you in the beginning with the most popular thing, but then, along the way, give the heads a couple of things to really latch on to. And at the end you always tease the thing that’s next.

This nicely segues into “Summer of Soul”, where you preface the intro of the film with a Stevie Wonder drumming sequence.
But I want to quickly address something else before we get to the film. You mentioned being mentored by Jeff Chang in the Bay Area. Jeff and you were both part of SoleSides, the crew that also spawned the careers of DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, and a few more. Do you ever sit down and wonder, like, how did we all end up in these places? You know, yourself winning Sundance, Jeff Chang being one of the foremost hip-hop intellectuals in America, DJ Shadow as the Godfather of the instrumental beat scene, Blackalicious becoming one of the quintessential West Coast underground groups…

Yeah, that’s an interesting question. When I do think about it, and it’s not very often, I kind of bug out. Especially when it comes to the SoleSides crew, I mean… Rest in peace to my man {Gift of} Gab {of Blackalicious}. What a force of nature he was. God bless his spirit. But Jeff Chang, Blackalicious, DJ Shadow, myself, Latif, Lyrics Born, we were in Davis, California, this small college town. It’s a suburb outside of Sacramento, which is itself just smack in the middle of California. There’s not a lot of cultural things going on there. Josh Davis {DJ Shadow} grew up there, but how we all ended up there is crazy to me. How that small collective of people came to do the things that we came to do, I think is a testament to authenticity. I mean, it’s finding your tribe, right? And Jeff is just a natural mentor, a mentor to so many. I guess I had enough curiosity and intellect for him to invite me in. And when you can tell someone is true to something, you will find your tribe, no matter where you’re from. That’s advice I still live to to this day.

Obviously, RIP Gift of Gab… to be honest, that one really hurt us over here in Europe as well. I just hope that he knew that he had such an impact everywhere.
I think he knew and… you know, I hadn’t talked to him in years. Latif connected us last summer, like, “it’s been too long, you guys need to talk.” And there was no beef, it just… we lived different lives. And so I talked to him on the phone for almost two hours, and he was the same positive spirit that I remember when we were in college doing SoleSides. Even though he was sick, he still had this buoyant optimism and this energy. It’s very kinetic, a glow. I think he knew how good he was, but that didn’t make him rest – he was always trying to get better. He was always thinking about how to connect with the people that supported him.

I’m just really glad I got to have that conversation with him last summer, because Gab was a guy that really supported me in ways that I don’t think even he realized. He gave me validity at a time when I was struggling and felt really insecure, still just getting my legs under me as a creative person. For that I’ll forever be grateful. He also gave me my first shout out ever on a song, on Blackalicious’s “Swan Lake”.

Thank you for sharing that. Now, “Summer of Soul”: From the first moment stumbling over this treasure trove of archival footage, to winning Sundance and ending the year as the New York Times’s best film of 2021, there must’ve been so many “how is this happening?” moments along the way.
The first moment was when I heard about the festival and the footage in the first place. I had just quit my job at VEVO, where I was Head of Content, specifically because I wanted to get back into film and television. I was then doing some development work at a production company in New York called Radical Media. The Entertainment Exec there was one of my old bosses at MTV. He asked me, “do you know Questlove?” “Yeah, we’ve known each other for 20+ years.”

So, he told me about the project: Apparently, there’s this music festival that happened in Harlem in 1969. Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, David Ruffin, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Max Roach… I’m just looking at him with the screw face, like, what? 300,000 people over six weekends, in Harlem, for free? There’s no way this happened. I’m a music junkie, I would have heard about it. Especially in 1969, the same time as Woodstock, the same time that man landed on the moon. And then he tells me there’s footage, someone shot the whole thing. I thought, sure, it’s one person with the camera, ten minutes of Super 8. But no, he says, four cameras, 40+ hours of footage. By now my jaw is on the floor. I called Ahmir {Questlove}, “did you know about this?”, and he said, “I didn’t know about this at all. That’s why I want to do it.” That’s how I got involved with the project.

What was your personal motivation to get involved, besides the untold story?
You know, I’ve done some really cool things in my career. But if we met on an airplane, and you asked me what I did for a living – not you, but a normal person, right, someone who’s not steeped in the culture – I wouldn’t be able to point to something that I could say, oh, I’ve done this thing you’ve heard of. And I always wanted something like that.

I asked Questlove, too, why he wanted to make this film. I know he doesn’t have a lot of time and I just wanted to get a sense of why he wanted to do it, and whether he would be committed to doing it even if the way we made it would be somewhat untraditional. He said: “Can you imagine if we had known about this and celebrated it the way we did Woodstock? You know why we didn’t.” I’m like yeah, it’s pretty obvious: It was in Harlem and nothing bad happened. That’s why they didn’t cover it. This piece of Black history had been forgotten for five decades. Everyone talks about the footage and the footage is incredible, the story is incredible. But the event itself is the focus. How can something like this happen and not really reverberate beyond ’69?

Joseph ‘Jazzbo’ Patel


And do you feel you’ve achieved your “This is what I do”-airplane moment by now?
You know, what’s funny when we talk about SoleSides… I realized that I’m a late bloomer. I had my first “hit” with this film, winning Sundance. It’s one of a handful of films that has ever won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. I have that now, you can’t ever take that away from me. I’m just really proud that we worked our asses off on this film. There’s a lot of creative choices we made to tell the story the right way. Yes, it was a lot of work to decipher how to tell it in a coherent way, plus all the technical things of making a movie… you know, picking your DP, how you shoot it, who you talk to and why, choices you make in the edit.

This very well could have been a music-nerd-out fest, right? But I give Ahmir a lot of credit. As someone who was learning on the fly, he sacrificed a lot of that music nerd talk for a bigger story. And that really helped the film resonate on a broader scale.

I have to say, though, it still feels like a film for music nerds in some aspects. For instance, the way that you present all these larger, sociopolitical themes around the festival is highly musical. The way you edit the whole story to the groove of the bands that perform on screen… I guess that is what makes it so energizing to watch.
Ahmir said that he wants the movie to feel like Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions.” We hired an editor named Joshua Pearson, who, when I met with him, told me he was a musician. He used to be in a group called EBN (Emergency Broadcast Network) in the early ’90s. They would do gigs where they video mixed, way before that technology properly existed. So, Josh understood rhythm and visual cutting but he didn’t know what Ahmir meant by “Takes a Nation of Millions.” I had to sort of translate, like, “it’s sample heavy, but not sampling for sampling sake. It’s all moving the narrative forward.” I basically explained the Bomb Squad to him. And he got it, you know! In a lot of ways, Summer of Soul is very representative of the style of My Block, which is: stay for the headliner, but the nerds will get their Weldon Irvine mention in there.

Or take the Ray Barretto song, “Abidjan” – Ahmir said, let’s put that song in there, that one is for the Dilla heads, because they will know he sampled it. There’s satisfying bits for the nerds but still a broader story for the people. Part of the fun is making those choices. I credit Ahmir and I credit the rest of the team for finding a balance, a sweet spot here.

The film premiered in January 2021, at a time when no one was dancing or going to festivals. People didn’t even go to cinemas like that. So seeing this amazingly preserved, unknown live footage of these superstars felt vibrant, truly life affirming. Partly, because it looks and sounds so great.
That’s kind of you to say. You know, the thing with the footage is that it was shot for television. So it’s pretty conservatively shot. But one thing that the original producer Hal Tulchin did, and which I thought was key, is that he had one camera dedicated to the audience. That’s something that Josh, Ahmir, and I picked up on very early. Firstly, it brought you into the audience. But it also showed the beauty and diversity of Harlem. That’s one of my favorite parts of the film, just seeing these faces and reactions. Every face you see in the film, you know, those are all chosen for a reason.

1969 might just be one of the most mythologized years of the last century, at least in terms of popular culture. The way that you weave in bits of context – whether about the political murders that occurred throughout the 1960s, or the moon landing that happened during the festival – is very interesting. It all seems to heighten the importance of the festival without overshadowing its own cultural importance.
Early on in the filmmaking process, we knew that this could just be a concert film – but it’ll be so much more if we can give it proper context. The political climate is even one of the reasons why the festival was created in the first place. Can you imagine if we just did the concert film and didn’t talk about the context, how much you would be robbed off, how little we would understand about what’s happening on stage? The moon landing was the key that unlocked everything.

We decided that we wanted to discuss the moon landing as this mythologized American event that seemingly everyone across the board was happy about and proud of.
Because what this festival tells you is that Black Americans did not think that way. For many, this was money that could have gone to the inner cities, to combat poverty and hunger and a lack of community resources that the government had largely ignored providing. It’s funny when you look at the parallels 50 years later. Billionaires going out to space, when Jeff Bezos could feed the world for the next four decades, four times over, but he wants to go to space because he’s got a small dick.

We found this clip of Bill Plante, the CBS reporter being thrown to by Walter Cronkite. He’s at the festival interviewing the people, and they’re like, “well, great for science, great for humanity, but it’s not any more important than this festival right now. That money could have gone to feed poor Black people in Harlem.” That clip was so important. Just to show that the Black perspective on a mainstream American event was very different from what the mythology says it was. To me, this connects with the idea that this festival could happen the same time as Woodstock, and not be remembered or talked about at all.

Another thing about 1969 is the stylistic shift that occurs at the advent of the 1970s. It’s the era when even soul music slowly starts to become more psychedelic, however, at least with Motown acts, performing still meant you’re on stage in a suit, you’re dressed up nicely. I mean, the poor Pips, dancing behind Gladys Knight, sweating through their suits. David Ruffin even performs in a full-on winter coat…

Yeah, it’s August in Harlem, and he’s wearing a fur collar suede jacket, a full body jacket, like… what? {laughs}

You actually feel a sense of relief when you see Ray Barretto in a half open shirt. And, of course, Sly and the Family Stone, who are putting on an incredibly forward-thinking show. Were they the only ones on the bill who also played Woodstock, by the way?
Yes, in fact, they played the Harlem Cultural Festival about a month before Woodstock. They made a surprise appearance as they toured the eastern seaboard, then came back up and ended their tour at Woodstock. But what’s interesting is that the day man lands on the moon, when Stevie Wonder is playing at Mount Morris Park, Sly and the Family Stone are playing the Apollo Theater in Harlem with Red Foxx. That’s where those lobby interviews at the Apollo come from, shot on the same night that Apollo 11 landed on the moon. It’s pretty cool how it all connects.

Absolutely. On that note, did you actually try to get Sly Stone for an interview for the film? I have no idea if that is even possible at this point, given that the last time we heard from him he was having a very rough time…
Hm, I can’t say anything.
I see.
Well, I can say this: Ahmir’s next project is a Sly and the Family Stone documentary. He’ll be directing, I’ll be producing, so that’s what we’re working on all of 2022. We’ve been talking a lot lately about how to tell that story in a very different way than most bio docs. It’s an unusual career, so that only seems right. And you know what, we almost called Summer of Soul after a Sly song, “Everyday People.” I don’t know if I’ve ever said that publicly before.
The two co-producers of mine had come into the project with the working title “Summer of Soul”. When Ahmir got signed on as director and I came on board as producer, we talked about how the title feels a little soft. We then called it “Black Woodstock,” because that’s what Hal Tulchin had called it at one point. But when we started talking to people from Harlem who were at the festival, they were like, “don’t call it Black Woodstock.” It would have centered the festival around a mostly white American event. And this happened in Harlem. It has nothing to do with Woodstock. Once we started to hear that several times, we were like, oh, of course. If we’re going to tell this story the right way, we can’t call it “Black Woodstock.” It just didn’t work out. So we ended up going through a brainstorming session of a bunch of different names. And obviously the first thing you do is you start out with song titles. So, you know, “Everyday People” at some point was a favorite. But eventually we went back to Summer of Soul, and… I think it worked out.

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