Interview with Novelist, Filmmaker, Jazz Artist - JC Hopkins
Grammy nominated songwriter JC Hopkins was at the right place at the right time: New York City, 2000, where he first saw Norah Jones singing in a piano bar in Times Square. Soon after, she joined his new band, J.C. Hopkins Biggish Band, lending her vocals (and co-writing ‘Dreams Come True’ with him). In 2014, the legendary Minton’s Playhouse Jazz Club in Harlem reopened, and JC saw a another dream come true performing on the same stage as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Billie Holiday. His Minton’s experiences inspired the track “Meet Me at Minton’s” and the New York Moment album.
JC’s jazz hands don’t start and stop at composing and writing songs however, he’s also a prolific screenwriter, poet, and novelist, filled with a fervent desire to tell a story. He has a new jazz noir novel, The Perfect Fourth, as well as a recently produced screenplay, Poets Are the Destroyers. He’s currently working on the sequel to The Perfect Fourth along with another novel, All of This. And as if that weren’t enough he is working on a jazz musical, New York Moment.
You're a musician, screenwriter and novelist, does one of those art forms take precedence in your life?
Writing. Writing everyday as a discipline and as a fervent desire to tell a story, my story and by default our story collectively. The day starts with reading and writing poetry, with journaling, then to work on a novel in progress, and then some work on a screenplay in progress. On a good day I accomplish a modicum of all these things, on a great day I do even better than that. I would say that I am not so much a musician as a songwriter and a big band leader. Since the clubs are closed and the band is not working at this time, music has taken a back seat. But when the spirit moves me I still compose songs.
Do you feel the various art forms inform one another?
The art forms that I utilize, and these also include painting and photography, don't so much inform each other as they serve the same purpose; that which is telling the story. Of course the story that I tell draws quite literally from my own experiences, to varying gradations.
Can you tell us a bit about your new jazz novel, The Perfect Fourth, what’s the premise of the book?
The Perfect Fourth is a jazz-noir novel. It centers on a jazz pianist, Preston Gomez, who had to relearn to play the piano after having had his hands terribly injured by his jealous estranged wife Suzanne. When Suzanne turns up dead in Brooklyn, Preston is the lead suspect, even though he was in San Francisco at the time. He travels to NYC to clear his name and to find his girlfriend Mona, a beautiful jazz vocalist, who he suspects was the one responsible for the death of his wife. But he is also in pursuit of redemption. You've worked with Norah Jones, and your band J.C. Hopkins Biggish Band played at the legendary Minton’s Jazz Club in Harlem. Can you tell us a bit about what that was like?
I have had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time and have had the ability to recognize it happening. In the year 2000, I first saw Norah Jones, shortly after her arrival to NYC from Texas and mine from San Francisco. She was singing in a piano bar in Times Square. On her break I asked her to sing with my big band. She readily and giddily agreed. And then I just had to put said big band together and find a gig for it. Luckily, The Slipper Room, a burlesque on the Lower East Side had just opened and the owner James Habacker gave us a weekly gig solely based on my pitch. She was awesome singing with my band and if you ask me it was the most soulful I have ever heard her sing. That was the beginning of the J.C. Hopkins Biggish Band.
Playing at Minton's Playhouse had always been a dream. I had written the song “Meet Me at Minton's” back in San Francisco. Minton's had been shuttered since the 90's until 2014 when it was reopened, beautifully refurbished by Richard Parsons. I inquired about a gig and then got a weekly. Again, under the right circumstances, my pitching skills can be very effective. Playing at Minton's, on the same stage that Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday performed on, you can still feel their awesome presence. We had to cram all ten musicians on a small stage, plus the vocalists, which gave the band a feeling of intimacy which was shared with a raucous crowd composed of locals denizens of Harlem and NYC and people who came from all over the world to experience Minton's Playhouse first hand.
“Meet Me at Minton's” ended up being the title track of the J.C. Biggish Band's second album which features some of most legendary jazz vocalists including Jon Hendricks, in his last recorded performance, Andy Bey and young jazz superstars, Jazzmeia Horn and Brianna Thomas. On our second recording that came as a result of our time at Minton's the band produced what I consider our best album to date, New York Moment. This album features young, supremely talented musicians and singers.
How would you describe your music?
I come at my music as a composer and songwriter. The band's music is a cross between the American Songbook style songs and Bebop. The songs are inspired by composers such as George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael and the other great songwriters from that era. Most of those songs were written for the stage, as one person speaking, singing to another person, declaring love, infatuation or invoking a shared experience. My songs are from that same vantage point. I am literally writing to a specific person, often in a romantic vein. The resulting reaction has varied. The completed songs are arranged for a particular vocalist and for the signature sound of the band. Your screenplay, Poets Are the Destroyers was recently produced. How would you describe the film?
It is a film that deals with a young woman, a poet, who works in a book store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She becomes pregnant as a result of one night with another poet. The film deals with the week that she has given herself to decide what to do, taking into account that she was raised by a single artist mother and her own ambitions and priorities. It is a cinematic love story to Brooklyn and to young poets figuring who they are and how to stay true to their identity.
How has the pandemic made a difference in your writing process or in your subject matter?
Since I am no longer performing as a band leader I have more time to concentrate on the writing. And the social conditions have had a profound effect on my own self reflections, which has a direct effect on what I am writing about. The idea of social isolation is something that has had a profound impact not just on myself but also on my children. Being a single father in Brooklyn during this time and seeing how conditions have affected my children has caused me to reflect on my own childhood and feelings of social isolation. It has also brought us closer as a family unit. All of this has informed the subject matter of what I am writing about.
What are you currently working on?
I finished a draft of the sequel to The Perfect Fourth called Leaving Heaven, wherein jazz pianist Preston Gomez has gone into seclusion only to emerge to find that he has a newborn son for whom he has been given sole custody, and also to find that there is a pandemic that has been let loose on the world. There is a screenplay adaptation of The Perfect Fourth that I would like to see made into a film.
A screenplay for a jazz musical called New York Moment, which can be the basis for a feature film or a running series ala The Marvelous Mrs Maisel. It utilizes original songs from the recently released J.C. Hopkins Biggish Band album of the same title. It tells the stories of jazz musicians working in NYC and their struggle to stay true to their art and to each other. It centers on a single dad jazz big band leader and his effort to provide for his children, his exes and himself in a challenging profession. It also tells of the on again off again romance of the young lead singers of the band, his Frank Sinatra to her Ella Fitzgerald. They have incredible chemistry on the bandstand, but not so much off. They are working on it.
A novel called All of This, that centers on a man, a single dad in Brooklyn having a midlife crisis, navigating parenting, remote learning and dating in the midst of a pandemic, and in the run up to the most important and dire election in the history of America.
A screenplay entitled I Was a Teenage Communist. Set in 1981, Orange County California, this film tells the story of a Mexican- American teen boy who in the midst of divorce finds himself the sole support of his despondent mother. He is befriended by school mates, the Hardwick brothers, who are aspiring revolutionaries, this in the most conservative county in Ronald Reagan’s America.
What would you most like to impart to young writers in this challenging time?
Stay true to yourself. Don't let anyone, any trends, any conditions inform how or what you want say. Make art for art's sake and be willing to starve if you have to. Hopefully you won't have to.
For further information, go to: https://www.jchopkins.com/