When we think of the origins and evolution of jazz, Los Angeles is not often given the big name significance it deserves. In Gregory Carouso’s feature film debut, Flock of Four follows four teenagers who travel to LA’s Central Avenue in search of a jazz great, Pope Davis.
I caught up with Caruso to discuss how his love for jazz and the history of jazz led to his first feature film.
When you think of jazz music, Los Angeles isn’t necessarily the first city that springs to mind as a hub. How did The Flock of Four happen?
I’ve loved jazz music since I was little. My dad was a big Frank Sinatra fan and I came through jazz via Count Basie who was Sinatra’s big band for a while and from there I looked for other artists like Basie. I also took a course about the history of jazz at USC when I was studying there. Our course followed the Ken Burns documentary and his book. I noticed while watching it that they mentioned LA for a small duration in comparison to the other places such as New Orleans. I was really curious because USC was really close to Central Avenue here in LA so I started doing some research on my own. I was amazed by the incredible history of Central Avenue and the culture down there. That’s how I came upon it.
Who did you speak to for the research? You mentioned the documentary, but where else did you go?
I was really influenced by the Ken Burns documentary and have probably seen it ten times. I started researching historians in LA. There was Steve Isoardi who has written several books on Central Avenue. In the ’80s and ’90s he influenced a handful of musicians who were in their later years to get an idea of what actually happened from the ’20s to the ’50s. He was the main guy that I went to. Through him, I met other people in the community.
What surprised you when speaking to people in the community?
We interviewed a trumpet player, Norman Bowden. He grew up on the Avenue in the ’30s and played there. In my mind, it seemed there was less prejudice in the earlier years than in the later years. He went to Jefferson High School and it is still there today, but it produced many artists that went on to be big in the community and nationwide. That school at the time had Japanese-American, Italian-Americans, and it seems like it was a totally different place to live than what it was in the ’50s and ’60s. I learned that a lot of people from the West Side or Hollywood would go down to Central because it had the best music and best bars.
This started off as a short and you revisited it. Talk about that journey.
It was a six-minute short and is the beginning of the feature. It’s about the four kids in the basement, a random weekend. These four kids talking about jazz and it was a natural jumping off point.
Your casting is great. Reg E. Cathey from House of Cards is in it. How was the process to find them?
It was a long process because to cast the four kids we were looking for young actors who had an old soul to them, actors who could embody that time period and bring it to life. We went through a lot of casting sessions. I think it paid off. One of my favorite experiences as a young director and working on my first feature was working with these actors and being around them and watching them do their craft.
I was a big fan of Reg E. Cathey, and he was incredible and couldn’t have been more supportive of me. He was so kind.
It would be criminal if I didn’t ask about finding Coco Jones to play Ava.
She was the only role that came into the audition room and right away, I turned to the producer and said, “She’s Ava.” She gave the audition and sang an Etta James song. She’s unbelievable just like you see in the film. She has this elegance and warmth to her that’s perfect for the role. Her voice is unbelievably powerful. It was great getting her in the room with these great musicians.
Did they know how to play the instruments beforehand?
They didn’t. We had the four in the weeks leading up, in practice sessions with the jazz musicians. We got them to a place where they looked natural enough.
You’ve done documentaries and shorts and this is your first feature. Talk about that experience for you.
I wanted to make things and get out there. Coming out of university, I thought documentaries was the easiest way to get out there and travel the country and get experience. It was good pushing myself in a different genre. Doing shorts helped with that. I’m such a fan of film and cinema and try watching a film every night. I took a lot of courses studying a different director each time.
Were there any influences in Flock of Four?
I think directors rubbed off on me in spirit. I love Billy Wilder movies for the fun and the pacing, but the composition of Hitchcock was influential on me. We used an anamorphic lens. We used 1960s lenses and that was important to us.
We did a lot of location scouts to find blocks we could transform into the 50’s. We were lucky to get B-series Canon lenses. Our cinematographer put a netting, which is a pantyhose lens to get that glow. There were some tricks like that we used.
What was the whole experience like for you combining your loves?
It was incredible and just so much fun to work on
Flock of Four is on release