An interview with silent-film accompanist David Drazin (part one)

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drazin-at-piano.jpg
  • Photo courtesy of David Drazin
David Drazin has been playing piano at silent-film screenings in Chicago for almost 30 years. If you've seen a silent movie in the city (outside of the Music Box, that is, where Dennis Scott is the house accompanist), chances are you've heard Drazin play. I can hardly estimate how many screenings I've attended where he was providing the soundtrack—at some point I began to take for granted that if I went to a silent-film revival he'd probably be there. Yet accompanying a film requires a lot more than just showing up, so I decided to sit down with Drazin to learn more about the nature of his work. We met a few weeks ago in Evanston, not far from the ballet school where he's accompanied classes for about as long as he's accompanied films. In the first part of our conversation, posted below, Drazin explains what led him to play for silent movies and what it's like to be an accompanist for a living. In the second part, which I'll post tomorrow, he provides a brief history lesson about music in silent cinema and reflects on how his knowledge of film history influences his craft.

Ben Sachs: Were you into silent movies before you started playing music? What came first?

David Drazin: I think the first thing was my dad teaching me how to play his 78 RPM records when I was four years old. Also my mother's a pianist, and my dad played a little guitar and trumpet. I was probably banging on the piano as a baby, but my mother started teaching me when I was five.

My parents were film buffs too, and they took my sister and me to the Cleveland Museum of Art to see all kinds of stuff. I saw the Buster Keaton silent comedies when they were first revived by Raymond Rohauer. The museum showed The Navigator, Go West, and [the short film] Daydreams. There was no accompaniment for the movies, but it didn't seem to matter, because it seemed like total art to me. I couldn't even laugh—I was just stunned by what he did.

When did you start accompanying silent films?

Well, as a kid, I started using records to accompany them [at home]. There was a company called Blackhawk Films, and they sold 8-millimeter prints—this was right before the video era. The first time I actually performed with a movie was as a senior in high school. They were showing The Mark of Zorro (1920) at a library. I was in a club called The Old-Time Radio Club—I was a total A/V geek, even then—and we went to see it. Right next to the screen was a piano, so I asked, "Does anybody care if I try to play during the movie?" And no one said anything.

It was awfully tough at first, because [Mark of Zorro] has a long exposition, which doesn't really have the kind of linkage to sustain any [melody]. But when it got to the action scenes, I was OK.

How long was it before you started playing to movies on a regular basis?

That took a while. When I was going to Ohio State, I saw a little ad for [the annual classic film marathon] Cinevent, which I still go to now. It happens every year over Memorial Day weekend. At the beginning, they would show stuff for as long as anyone would stay up to watch. One of the first times I was there, it was like 1:30 in the morning, and the pianist who was usually there—his name's Stu Oderman; he's in New York now—he tossed up his hands and said, "I've had it! I'm going to sleep." That's when I took a chance. I played for a western, but I don't remember which one it was.

When it really started was when I got myself a job playing at the School of the Art Institute Film Center [now the Gene Siskel Film Center] in 1985, back when it was at the corner of Columbus and Jackson.

So you've been involved with the Film Center for almost 30 years.

They used to show a lot more silent movies than they do now.

Where else have accompanied silent films?

I was a guest pianist three times at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy. I've played for the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh-Durham—I'm going there next month—and at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. I've got three of the [silent Alfred] Hitchcock restorations coming up [there]. I was supposed to play there last Saturday, but because of the nightmare weather, they decided to reschedule.

These sound like good gigs, though I'm a little surprised that these places in Detroit and Raleigh-Durham couldn't find pianists closer to home. Then again, I have no idea of how many active silent-film accompanists there are in the country. Do you?

I think there are four or five in New York, several in California—Judy Rosenberg, Frederick Hodges, Bruce Loeb, Phil Carly, Jon Marsalis, Donald Sosin. These folks are amazing.

The fact that you can name all these people off the top of your head makes it sound like silent-film accompanists occupy a fairly small community. I'd imagine that 50 years ago, there were still enough people doing this that not everyone was aware of each other. Is that true?

I think there were actually fewer [accompanists] 50 years ago, because there was not much happening in the way of silent-film revivals then. But there was William Perry, who recorded [music] for Blackhawk Films.

The 60s were a crossover period. Some of the old-timers, who were teenagers in the late-silent era, were still around, and they were the people who'd get called whenever a silent movie was shown, since they had actually been there. At the same time the films were starting to be rediscovered by a generation that had no real contact with the silents.

Douglas Fairbanks (left) in The Mark of Zorro
  • Douglas Fairbanks (left) in The Mark of Zorro

Did you ever meet any of the old-timers?

No. When I was younger, I was more of a jazz guy. Back then, I was more interested in trying to connect with jazz pioneers.

Tell me about your jazz background.

Like I said, I was raised on my dad's records, and he had been interested in the [jazz] pioneers when he was a kid. He bought the reissues of first-generation records, along with whatever was happening in the present. He was also into 20th-century composers and even a bit of rock 'n' roll. So my view of things was that I should try to get into whatever the popular music was, whatever was going on now. This was when jazz-rock, fusion, and funk were happening, so I started playing that.

In hindsight the 70s seem like the last decade when jazz had a wide mainstream appeal and was still evolving in accordance with popular taste.

Yeah, I feel like I was lucky that I got to do what I did. Songs would be coming out, and the bands I was in would learn to play them.

Where were you playing?

In Columbus, Ohio, I was playing in bars with jazz-rock groups. But when I moved to Chicago in '82, I had trouble finding bands that were doing the same kind of music. The first thing I did when I got here was go to a jam session at the El Matador, which was Von Freeman's session, and they were playing all bebop standards. I thought, "Yeah, this is great, but when are they going to start the funk?" [laughs] The answer was never.

The groups I ended up playing with would play mainstream jazz too, but not entirely. It was just one element of the repertoire.

Since you came up through bands, did you find it challenging to adjust to accompanying silent films?

Yes. I used to think I'd never be able to do this—I thought I'd always be in bands, because the few experiences I had doing it hadn't turned out very well. But now things have reversed, and most of the playing I do is solo, accompanying ballet classes and pictures.

Could you explain to me how you learned to accompany silent films? I imagine you rarely got musical scores that told you what to play.

Well, I guess I went from being a jazz-improv guy to being just an improv guy. And the first rule of improv is "go with." It's all about being in enough control of the piano to reflect what's happening onscreen. Sometimes movies lend themselves to particular songs. For instance, soon I'm going to accompany Hitchcock's Champagne (1928). That has extended scenes of people dancing, and the plot occurs in the context of bands playing. So I'm free to improvise over a tune like "Sweet Georgia Brown," or something else that would have been popular in the 20s. But when a dramatic moment comes up, I have to be able to shift the focus to the attention of the characters.

Alfred Hitchcocks Champagne
  • Alfred Hitchcock's Champagne

Do you often go into a film with particular songs in mind? Or is it more common for you to go in as a blank slate?

For the first ten years I did this for the Art Institute, I never saw anything ahead of time. It never even occurred to me that there was anything wrong with that. I was so glad to get some pay and be able to see the films. But after a decade, the [Film Center] did a program of silent Walt Disney cartoons, and they suggested that I come into the press screening. The idea was that if I played the piano for the person watching the films, he might write something about me. But instead I took out a clipboard and took notes on the cartoons. I was really glad I did, because the cartoons were loaded with moments I could prepare for.

In one of the cartoons, there was a scene where a character was ice-skating. I thought, "OK, I can bring in 'The Skater's Waltz' here." And there was another one where, for two or three minutes, these mice were doing a wild dance on a piano, and I realized I could put in a song there, some hot tune. I learned that day I could play a lot more if I knew what was coming.

So you'd never rehearsed with a movie before?

No. Nobody had ever offered to project a movie just for me, so I just assumed no one would do that. And I was an improv guy . . . the thing was, the movies they were showing were rarely regular American productions. These were international films, so I was always free to roam. I'd have to play to stuff like Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924).

The height of the Film Center's radicalism was when they showed the Giorgio Moroder version of Metropolis, with its new color tints and rock 'n' roll soundtrack. [This reissue was especially controversial since Metropolis had not circulated in any version for decades prior to this release —ed.] Jim Dempsey, who was the manager at the time, turned the sound off and let me play!

Read part two of this feature.

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