German Director Gerrit Piechowski Talks Jazz, Skateboarding, NYC, and more.
From the Coltrane score in Mark Gonazales’ part in Video Days to Guy Mariano’s use of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” in his legendary Mouse part, Jazz and skateboarding have always been loosely related. Although there’s never been a large sect of the skate population repping for Jazz, like there has been for Hip Hop, Punk, and Rock, there has always been a relationship in style between the genre and the sport. It’s about improvisation — going out in the streets and wandering aimlessly with an effortless style.
A group of skaters from Germany came to NYC last summer with the intention of capturing that exact aesthetic as they skated for a month filming all that they could. The outcome is a film called NYC Street Jazz.We caught the trailer a few months back and were so curious we reached out to the director Gerrit Piechowski to learn more about the project and this take on the relationship between skating and Jazz. Check out our Q&A with Gerrit below, the trailer for NYC Street Jazz above, and be on the look out for the full length feature in the near future.
Mass Appeal: Since Gonz’s Video Days part which featured Coltrane as the score, skating and jazz have been rarely associated with each other. Do you feel that the two are more closely related then people may think?
Gerrit Piechowski- Of course! I guess most people forgot about that spirit skaters like Gonz, Ray Barbee, Brian Lotti and the likes had going for them back in the day. Skateboarding as I see it, has to be associated with improvisation just as much as jazz is. When I watch a Ray Barbee part, I always feel like he’s dancing with his board. The way he plays with his skills seems so natural – almost casual and effortless. Skateboarding underwent various changes, but I feel that momentarily, it‘s coming back to this simple approach, where powerslides, slappygrinds, shove-its and just tricks that feel good are what you’re free to do – as long as it comes to you naturally. Which brings us back to jazz music, which isn’t about a perfect technique, but about transporting a message by the feeling you put into your music.
The film focuses on the “daily grind” of the three skateboarders in NYC. How do you think the skaters idea of daily grind or simply going out skating aimlessly compares to the practice of improvisation in Jazz music?
The way I see it, it’s about everyday choices – when you’re leaving the house in the morning to go skate, do you turn right just like you always do, or do you maybe decide to take a left today? When you go out to skate a big city like New York, you’ll have to consider the immense amount of people coming together living on a rather small piece of land. It’s impossible to know what’s going to happen and what you’ll have to do is, on the one hand, go with the flow, sure. But you’ll have to make decisions, too. All day long and all of them in a split second. Skating NYC streets is something you do by gut feeling, it’s pure improvisation. In free jazz, musicians bounce ideas forth and back from one another, too. The decisions others make influence the decisions you as a musician have to take. Be it skating the streets or playing the piano, improvisation is both: Flow and the ability to just go for it and decide – and when everything falls into place, the turnout can be rather beautiful.
Do the actual styles of the three skaters featured in the film reflect the style of Jazz music? Loose, smooth, etc?
You can’t lump them all together just like that, really. Danny [Sommerfeld] has a very unique and playful style and just got that special kind of flick in his feet. To see him skate is like watching a small child play at times – and then, all of a sudden, he pulls a rabbit out of his hat. He also tends to let the circumstances decide, he’s a “let’s see what happens” kind-of-guy. Felix [Lensing], on the other hand, he knows exactly which trick to do when and where and he’s always aware of the exact position of his feet on his board, whereas Kaio [Kai Hillebrand] is just going fast and has a very refreshing “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. If he skates, he skates, if he doesn’t, he don’t. So it’s an interesting mix we have going in the movie.
Being that all three featured skaters are from Germany, did you intentionally capture the element of surprise of what the city had to offer. If so how?
Actually, I was the only one unaware of the city. Danny, Kaio and Felix had all been to NYC a couple of times before and already knew what to expect. So I was the only one who had that overwhelming and special feeling of “your very first NYC trip”. I always tried to capture every single moment that was new to me. Not because I was planning to do a documentary about the trip – I actually was supposed to just film another random skate tour. At the end of every day all of my SD cards were stuffed with loads of footage though, so I kind of knew this was going somewhere.
It’s mentioned that the film was shot in a month. How rigorous was the schedule of filming? Did you guys focus on going out to get clips everyday or did you let the clips come more naturally?
When we arrived in our apartment in Brooklyn, everyone had two or three tricks planned – and that was pretty much everything we had scheduled. So the first week we were busy checking out the spots the guys wanted to skate. But we learned pretty quickly that this wasn’t the way skateboarding in NYC works. We got the best footage at night, when we went out to skate the streets of lower Manhattan. We would abandon the idea of planing to go to a special spot, we just accepted the fact that the city would bring us somewhere in the end. That way, we were able to skate spots we never saw in a magazine before and we didn’t end up with the same old blown out locations all the time.
How important was it for you to capture the aesthetic of the NYC summer and how do you incorporate it within your film?
Actually, this kind of fell into my lap. We were blessed with good natural light for our whole visit and the footage has a completely different look than everything I ever filmed at home. I guess this is a main ingredient to make the documentary into something positive, both regarding skateboarding and life in general. We had the best time chilling on the roof of our apartment after a long day of skating and you kind of see this vibe in the footage everywhere. To be honest, this is what I miss the most.
Do your editing techniques in the film complement Jazz’s improvisation aspect? Or is the skating more fundamentally edited into individual parts like the majority of other skate video?
Right now, I’m in the middle of editing the full feature and to answer your question, I don’t have a script of sorts, nothing like that. Music is what motivates me in the process. I have this playlist called “NYC motivation” with songs I listened to during the trip and every single song gives me a special feeling. So I can’t really say what it’s going to be like yet, but the editing process definitely is influenced by music and has a freestyle approach to it.
Can you tell us a little more about yourself as a director?
Of course! I started filming skateboarding in 2002 in the western part of Germany. In 2005 I broke my left arm five times, so I decided to concentrate on doing skate-films. I worked for various different companies during school and kept doing that during my apprenticeship for a production company based in my hometown of Münster. I just now started out to freelance as a filmer and editor. I’m barely able to make a living, but I hope to keep up doing what I love as a job as long as possible!