17 Oct Director Eugene Marlow Shares How Winning the 2022 Free Speech Award for Jazz in China Inspired His Future Projects
The value of Free Speech and freedom of expression has been woven into the fabric of director Eugene Marlow’s life since he was a child.
Marlow’s passion for the values of Free Speech led him on a journey that resulted in him being named the 2022 Free Speech Award Winner for his feature-length documentary, Jazz in China, which documents the 100-year history of jazz music in China and the freedom of expression it’s brought to young Chinese people.
Today, Marlow is an award-winning composer/arranger, producer, presenter, performer, author/journalist, and educator. But the foundational elements that led to his success were planted in him as a young boy and very-much influenced by his parents.
When his mother was 14 years old, she experienced Kristallnacht while living with her parents and three siblings in Germany. Kristallnacht was the name given to violent acts against Jewish people and Jewish establishments that Nazi leadership carried out in November 1938 in retaliation for the assassination of diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris by a 17-year-old Jewish boy named Herschel Grynszpan. Marlow said his mother “clearly experienced a suppression of free speech” during this time. He also recognized his father’s decision to move from England to the United States in 1954 as “the best decision he made for his family.”
To Marlow, Free Speech is all about individual expression. “Free Speech is probably one of the underlying threads of my life. To me, Free Speech means being in an environment to be able to be who I am. The United States is still a place where if you want it, you can go for it.”
During his SPEAK EZ interview with veteran journalist Karen Curry, the two discussed how people around the world – but particularly in a Communist country like China – use music as a way to express freedom of expression and how it’s thriving in an otherwise authoritarian country.
“Historically, music transcends the governmental organization. Music is a transcendent form of individual expression,” Marlow said. “Rock and roll has lyrics that are often anti-establishment so in China it’s looked at with some suspicion but jazz has flourished, which of course provides young people with a form of individual freedom of expression and that’s actually the theme that runs through the Jazz in China documentary.”
Marlow’s documentary film is based on his acclaimed 2018 book Jazz in China: From Dancehall Music to Individual Freedom of Expression but his journey to create both actually began in 2000. Early that year, he was asked by a colleague in the Department of English at Baruch College (City University of New York) if he would be interested in traveling to Shanghai, China, to deliver a series of lectures on American media and the Internet at the University of Shanghai School of Film and Television.
During this trip, Marlow, who is a composer and jazz pianist and a lover of jazz since childhood, was invited to a performance of the Peace Hotel Jazz Band in Downtown Shanghai. This performance sparked his curiosity to research the presence of jazz—an improvisational, democratic form of music—in a country with a 5,000-year history of adherence to a central authority.
In 2006, he returned to Shanghai and Beijing to begin filming jazz musicians for the documentary. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he eventually re-recorded all of the interviews over Zoom and began officially putting the film together.
Since August 2022, the documentary has been named an “official selection” in 11 domestic and international film festivals. In addition to the Free Speech Award, it received an “Award of Excellence” from the 2022 Depth of Field International Film Festival. In February 2023, Marlow participated in Zoom chats organized by the Northwest China Council of Portland, Oregon, about his book and the film.
As a direct result of winning the 2022 Free Speech Award, Marlow made the decision to expand the project from discovering the history of jazz in China and is now exploring the beginnings of jazz in countries around the world. He has developed a list of nine countries and is in the initial phases of doing research on a series of documentaries about jazz in many other countries, including authoritarian ones. Currently, he’s working on a documentary about jazz in Egypt and has plans to film ones on places like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Lebanon, Japan and Russia.
As he did with Jazz in China, he’s planning to film all the interviews via Zoom, which he said will save considerable time and money by eliminating the need to travel to each country.
To follow Marlow’s progress, visit http://eugenemarlow.com/.