Filmmaker and Drummer Ben Makinen Wins Awards for Documentary JazzTown

Ben Makinen won multiple awards for his documentary JazzTown.
Ben Makinen won multiple awards for his documentary JazzTown. Ben Makinen
Ben Makinen, a professional Denver jazz drummer since the ’80s, started working on his documentary JazzTown a dozen years ago to honor his musical mentors and local jazz veterans. He wanted to document their stories and learn more about the older players’ pasts while showcasing younger players who are keeping jazz alive.

Multiple Colorado musicians are featured in JazzTown: Freddy Rodriguez Sr., who died from coronavirus two years ago; Ed Battle, who died in 2019; Charles Burrell, who turned 101 last year; Dianne Reeves; Art Lande; Gene Bass; Billy Wallace; Ellyn Rucker; Ron Miles and others. Senator John Hickenlooper even makes an appearance, speaking about booking jazz acts like Joe Bonner at his Wynkoop Brewing Company in the early ’90s.

JazzTown has won about fifteen awards, including for best director at the San Diego Movie Awards, best picture at the Rome Movie Awards, best soundtrack at the New Orleans Second Line Film Festival, Award of Recognition at the IndieFEST Film Awards and the Critics’ Choice Award at the World Film Carnival in Singapore. Makinen says JazzTown has the distinction of being the only feature-length jazz documentary made entirely by one person.

But his journey to complete the documentary over the past two years has been replete with disaster, setbacks and tragedies.

“Ultimately, through the pain and fear, there has been a lot of love and joy and a lot of personal growth and lessons learned — and the strong conviction that the spirits of the musicians and the spirit of Colorado have been looking over this project from the beginning and have kept it from falling over the precipice,” Makinen reflects.

Makinen and his family were stuck in Bali from March to November 2020 during the initial COVID lockdown. His performance and teaching gigs were canceled, so he had to live off his savings and his wife’s income. She was working for an offshore company until it deserted its Bali office in July 2020, leaving her unemployed, as well.

“We benefited from the tragedy that impoverished many locals here in that we could rent rooms in former luxury hotels, now abandoned and left with skeletal staffs — with no room service or laundry — for about $8 a day," Makinen explains. "Life was cheap, as the tourism economy was killed by pandemic policy.”

For a good part of 2020, Makinen couldn’t work on the film because it was on hard drives at his Aurora home; he also didn't have access to editing gear. He flew back to Colorado in December 2020 for two months and began editing the film.
“It was a period of delightful madness, working obsessively until I passed out at my desk, waking to multiple pots of coffee and going until I passed out again,” he says. “I had been away from the project too long, and I was frantically determined to finish the film so that our legendary bassist, Charles Burrell, had a chance to see himself in it. Given that he'd turned 100 two months earlier, in October, I knew the clock was ticking.”

Makinen had to sell his percussion instruments and most of his recording gear that he’d collected over the previous four decades to pay bills and send money to his wife, who was still in Bali with their infant. He also sold his car and more personal items to raise the funds to fly back to his family, bringing along a rough cut of the film, his old laptop and necessary equipment to complete the documentary.

“My journey with JazzTown has been fraught with so many obstacles: going through two divorces, the loss of my father to cancer, watching my friends and mentors in the movie die, the attempted suicide of a family member, almost filing for bankruptcy...,” Makinen says. “Yet there was love, and a bright light  I remarried and had a beautiful boy  and the spirit of the musicians in JazzTown kept beaming out at me from the screen, as if telling me that they would help to see this through to the end. It had to be done at any cost. This was way bigger than me and my problems. I just had to stay alive and finish it.”

In May 2021, Makinen was nearly out of money. He sold his Aurora home, the last asset that he had.

“But I now had a small cushion to take care of my family, eat and pay rent here, send money to my daughter in college and re-equip myself with a very small studio rig here to continue editing the film,” he recollects. “I bought a new computer and some audio monitors, and again went frantically back to working.”

Last spring, he submitted JazzTown to the Boulder International Film Festival but was rejected. "They suggested that I try submitting a short film under half an hour long," he says. "I thought that was absolutely ridiculous: How can you take a two-hour motion picture and cut it into a half-hour short film?”
Makinen did, however, make the 22-minute short, Who Killed Jazz, with unseen footage from JazzTown. He saw it as an opportunity to focus on why jazz musicians struggle at the poverty level while others profit from their labor. That film went on to win awards, as well, and he says he has been offered a distribution deal with a British company.

While working on both JazzTown and Who Killed Jazz, Makinen endured more challenges. Heavy Bali rains were so intense that water leaked into the light fixtures on the ceiling and seeped through walls over electrical sockets. His movie file got damaged and his editing software crashed every time he tried opening the file. Through some internet research, he was able to get it up and running again about three weeks later, but he was still terrified that he might lose everything.

“I finally admitted to myself that it was too much to continue holding on to this project," he says. "The spirits of all of these musicians inside of myself — it was almost as if they were crying and pushing to be released.”

While earlier cuts of JazzTown were shown at festivals, Makinen says he finished a final cut of the version last month and is seeking someone to represent him and find distribution. He’s hoping to release a soundtrack from JazzTown and also make a director’s cut of his original two-hour version of the film that will include his commentary.

For more information, visit benmakinen.com.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon