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After Hours: How a film captured the life of Van “Piano Man” Walls

In 1995, Steve Morris had the opportunity to interview a legend of popular music at the historical National Film Board Studio 2 in Montreal.

The subject, a weathered-looking, elderly African-American man clad in a suit with a Star of David chain draped around his neck, was seated in front of a grand piano under the glow of carefully-placed studio lights. When questioned where his musical inspiration comes from, the man answered in a graveled voice:

“It always comes from the heart. If it don’t come from there, you’re wasting your time.”

This mantra has been echoed by countless musicians throughout the years, but it didn’t take away from Morris’s sweet satisfaction in knowing that after five years of being brushed off, he finally had his first on-camera interview with rhythm and blues pioneer Vann “Piano Man” Walls.

Before leaving the studio that day, Vann glanced at the studio control room, and in a solemn admission, told Morris that he had one more album left in him. This turned out to be a defining moment in the development of the film Morris hoped to create.

Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R&B was released in late 2013 after much delay, and is the directorial debut of Morris, who has long been involved with the National Film Board of Canada. It debuted at the Montreal Film Festival last year, and has since played at the 2014 Sherbrooke and Memphis International Film Festivals.

It tells the decades-spanning story of American-born rhythm and blues pianist Vann Walls, who was regarded by peers and music fans as a dynamic innovator in popular music, rising to fame as a session musician for R&B kingpin Atlantic Records during the 1940s and 50s. It was during this time that Vann was credited as an essential musician on Atlantic’s first major hit records, including Joe Turner’s Chains of Love.

Morris highlights the essential points in the timeline, including his move from New York to Montreal in the late 50s, his decent into obscurity following the advent of rock n’ roll, and his timely resurgence in the waning years of his life. Morris carefully balances these stories as they branch out from the central plot of Walls recording his final studio album, 1997’s In The Evening with the tenured Stephen Barry Band.

In the film, Morris interviews an impressive cast of prominent figures in 20th-century popular music, including Atlantic Records Chairman/CEO Ahmet Ertugun, legendary producer Jerry Wexler and former R&B starlet Ruth Brown, all of whom have since passed away.

Morris says the significance of interviewing these musical greats while they were still alive is not lost on him.

“The film took a long time to make. Maybe it’s the pressure I put on myself, but every time I’d think about it, I’d get tense, thinking ‘My God, I gotta get them before they pass on.”

The success of the interviews hinged on two major struggles Morris encountered during the making of the film: Vann’s stubbornness to open up to him and Wexler’s notorious temper. Both delayed progress for a number of years.

Other featured interviews include some of Walls’s local peers, such as Blues guitarist and former understudy Dr. John, Montreal-based ethno-musicologist Craig Morrison, and Michael Jerome Brown, who contributed guitar and vocals to Vann’s final album.

Another roadblock that Morris encountered was production funding. After filming hours of footage, the project was left in limbo until Toronto-based businessman Peter Dowbiggin invested in the project. Morris insists the film would never have been finished without his help.

An interesting aspect of Morris’ directing style is how he lets the interviews tell the story of “Piano Man” Walls. Little voice-over narration is contributed on his part, and the choice of B-roll footage and soundtrack music to fill the gaps between sequences helps the film transition from one scene to the next.

Morris says he originally had no desire to place himself into the film but under the suggestion of senior editor Heidi Haines, he agreed to provide narration where the story needed a bridge.

“We kind of bartered a position where my narration would be scant. In an 83-minute film, there’s only three minutes of me speaking. But Heidi is a seasoned veteran in editing and I had to respect her decision.”

Another point worth considering is that the viewer only sees Vann as a man in the twilight of his life. While the creative energy is still very evident, Vann’s signature eccentric showmanship is long gone. However, the way he is described by everyone who knew and worked with him can convince even the most skeptical of viewers.

Vann “Piano Man” Walls is presented as more than the life story of a music icon. It is a testament to the rich music culture of Montreal, namely when it comes to jazz, blues and R&B. Vann was not only a part of that for 40 years, but he established himself as a disciple in that culture by the time he passed away in 2000.

Vann “Piano Man” Walls will play at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto as part of the North by Northeast Arts Festival on Sunday, June 15.

Chris Dowbiggin is a broadcast journalism student at Sheridan College. You can follow him on twitter @ChristopherPJD.


Prince Arthur Herald
Photo Credit: Steve Morris