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Lost to history, Questlove documentary brings iconic 1969 concert back to life
Judy Woodruff: It was the summer of 1969, and video cameras in New York captured a series of concerts in Harlem featuring artists who would go on to become musical legends, the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, and Gladys Knight.
But, for decades, no one was interested in the footage. The musician known as Questlove took up the challenge in a documentary that brings history to life. It's part of his ongoing work in music, and also now in a new book.
Jeffrey Brown talked with Questlove recently for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Man: Ladies and gentlemen, Gladys Knight!
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
Jeffrey Brown: The musicians, some all-time greats. The music, lifting you to the sky. The setting, the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, all of it stunning and amazing to see in 2021.
But even more mind-blowing, how close it came to being lost forever.
The moment you saw what happened here, you knew you were on to something? This was something big?
Questlove, Director, "Summer of Soul": Absolutely, yes. And even to be here and to see the structure, like, I definitely remember this shot.
Jeffrey Brown: The renowned musician Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, made his directorial debut this year with the acclaimed documentary "Summer of Soul."
Woman: Are you ready, Black people? Are you ready?
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
Jeffrey Brown: But when we met recently in Marcus Garvey Park, the site of the original concerts 52 years ago, when it was still called Mount Morris Park, he told me he hesitated to take on the project when first shown the archival footage.
Questlove: I was just like, no, this is too much responsibility. This is not just putting a concert together. This is correcting history. And I didn't know if I was worthy enough to be in the position to be the person that leads the charge.
Jeffrey Brown: A very specific time and place in history. Through a series of concerts attracting some 300,000 over six weekends in the hot summer of 1969, the film documents a musical revolution as it was taking place.
It also captures expressions of Black pride and power and demands for social justice that offered Thompson another way in.
Questlove: It wasn't lost on us that, literally at the same time that we're in the editing process of the film, suddenly, there's a political charge in the air that was just like 50 years ago.
And then, once the knob started turning up a little bit more with the Black Lives Matter protests, then I was like, wow, like, the same exact things that we're editing right now is happening in real time.
Jeffrey Brown: Questlove, now 50, is a man who clearly loves to connect to different kinds of music, art forms, histories. He's been around music his whole life, joining his parents in soul and doo-wop bands even as a child.
He first came to fame as the drummer and co-founder of the Roots, the hip-hop band founded in Philadelphia in 1987. The Roots started as house band on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" in 2009, and have continued with "The Tonight Show."
He's a deejay, producer, songwriter, author. He even hosts a food program looking at love of cuisine and at equity issues.
Man: And we even made Questlove into a little (INAUDIBLE) here.
Questlove: I'm eating my own face.
Jeffrey Brown: And he's deep into a lifelong role as music educator and historian.
Questlove: I'm one of those people that, when I learn something, I get excited, and I feel special. And I feel, like, smarter.
People want to feel enlightened. So, my thing is, like, I want to be the guy that throws the alley-oop shot, and then you put the ball in the hoop, and then you feel like, I did that. I helped a little bit. But that, to me, is -- that's the important part.
Jeffrey Brown: His new book, "Music Is History," is a kind of playlist of songs that speak to events since 1971, the year he was born. But it's a Questlove-style playlist, lesser known songs matched with events in unexpected ways.
Questlove: I personally believe that music is a Polaroid shot of life.
And the way that I remember history, I frame it through music.
Jeffrey Brown: You're not picking the best known or most loved.
Questlove: Not even the best known. And, at that, I'm still trying to provide to -- like, I'm trying to plant seeds.
Jeffrey Brown: Early hip-hop, he says, offered him a kind of education, learning about music through sampling from earlier recordings, while connecting to contemporary issues in the lyrics.
Questlove: Hip-hop planted seeds. Between '88 and '92, I went to the library a lot to look up old articles that -- to do those scroll things that they do at libraries. I mean, we have the Internet now, but, back then, you had to stay at the library for eight hours. That was my Internet.
And I kind of wanted to do the same thing. This time, I'm using history to drop seeds on music that people should discover.
Jeffrey Brown: But even the classics can fall off the map. Thompson told me of teaching at NYU and realizing how few of his students knew of an album he and many consider a milestone of popular music, Michael Jackson's 1982 "Thriller."
Questlove: If there's a chance in time for people not to know, like Michael Jackson's "Thriller," was that a thing back in the day? Like, that's when I knew, oh, everything's up for grabs. Like, I can never take for granted that history will be remembered.
And it's not glamorous. Like, who gets in the rap game to want to be, like, your hall monitor teacher? OK, class, like that sort of thing.
Jeffrey Brown: Right. Time to remember history.
Questlove: But I guess you could say I'm music's hall monitor.
Jeffrey Brown: There's another connecting thread in his work, one embedded in the "Summer of Soul" film project. 1969, of course, was also the year of Woodstock.
And the film that came out the following year helped define and enshrine an era and its music. The Harlem Cultural Festival was shot by a director named Hal Tulchin, with hopes it too would become a film. But he never found a distributor, and the footage sat in a basement for decades.
Questlove: And I wondered, if this film were allotted the same path, like, would it have found me?
For a lot of not even African Americans, but just people in general that love music, I just thought like, instantly, this film could have changed lives.
Jeffrey Brown: It raises the question of sort of what gets remembered in American culture, what gets honored.
Jeffrey Brown: Woodstock did, . The Harlem Cultural Festival did not.
Jeffrey Brown: Right? Why has it been so hard to preserve this and other Black music?
Questlove: I'm so in love with music. And just the passion that I have for it, I want people to see the magic that I see.
And, oftentimes, because Black creators aren't seen as artists or in importance, like, their canon isn't held up the same way, it's often seen as disposable. Our history's disposable. And that -- to me, that's the true meaning of my definition of what Black Lives Matter means, is that even our creations, our art, our stories are just as important and life-changing.
Jeffrey Brown: Some very good news, Ahmir Thompson, Questlove, says, since the film came out, he's heard from archives all over the country telling him of other largely unknown treasures. That means there's more to come.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, New York.