Production still from Netflix's "The Eddy"
Photo: Lou Faulon
Glen Ballard On How His Netflix Show "The Eddy" Puts Music, Jazz And Performance First
There's a pivotal scene in the second episode of "The Eddy," the new music-centric Netflix show about a once-celebrated jazz pianist named Elliot Udo (André Holland) and his struggling Parisian jazz club, the titular The Eddy. In the sequence, Elliot's 16-year-old daughter Julie (Amandla Stenberg) steals a vodka bottle from the club and attempts to seduce one of the venue's bartenders inside her dad's office.
As the scene turns solemn, the music shifts into a somber tone. The house band plays a series of dissonant notes—the piano burrows in the lower register, the trumpet blares muffled noise and the sax squeals nightmarish sounds—before launching into a dizzying jazz number. As the song spirals downward, so, too, does Julie, who soon gets mixed up with a bad crowd in the outskirts of Paris. It's a masterful pairing of music and image that largely defines the stylistically cool show.
For Glen Ballard, the six-time GRAMMY-winning songwriter/producer and executive producer of "The Eddy," both the drama of the music and the show itself are inherently interlaced. So much so, the show's writer, the BAFTA Award winner Jack Thorne, wrote the performance scenes and music sections as integral elements of "The Eddy."
"Jack was so clear about how he wanted the music and passion that [the band] had for that actual music to be expressed, because he felt like if you didn't get that, you would be missing an essential link with these characters," Ballard tells the Recording Academy. "Jack called out every song, where he wanted it and what song they would be playing, so it's an intimate part of his writing process—there's no question."
Set in the multicultural neighborhoods of modern-day Paris, "The Eddy" follows the life and drama of Elliot Udo as he juggles the everyday tribulations of his failing jazz club and struggling band, his broken relationship with his daughter and his battles with a group of thugs threatening his loved ones and his business.
The eight-episode limited series features two chapters directed by Academy Award winner Damien Chazelle, the former jazz-drummer-turned-director behind the jazz-centric films Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016). (The series is a collaboration between Alan Poul, who executive-produced the show and directed its final two episodes, Chazelle, Thorne and Ballard.)
"The Eddy" is just one of the latest music-driven projects for Ballard, who wrote and composed original songs and music for the series. (The show's official soundtrack features all original contemporary jazz songs written by Ballard and Randy Kerber, as well as covers by St. Vincent and Jorja Smith.) For his part, Ballard dug deep into his résumé, which includes songwriting, production and performance credits with Barbra Streisand, Katy Perry, Shakira, Chaka Khan and many others. Beyond music, he's also worked across stage ("GHOST the Musical," "Jagged Little Pill") and film (The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol, The Mummy Returns).
"I think I spent the first 25 years of my career working with singer-songwriters, helping them tell their story. I loved it; it was fun and exhilarating. But I think now I can use songwriting to tell other stories," Ballard says of his jump to the screen and stage. "As a songwriter, I just felt a little limited, especially with just writing a three-minute pop song. As difficult as that is, I'm looking for the next level of storytelling and songwriting, so obviously musical theater is one place you can do that."
The Recording Academy chatted with Glen Ballard to discuss the music-first approach of "The Eddy" and his mission to take jazz into the mainstream.
How did you first get involved with the show?
It's been this long-time dream of mine to have a jazz band in Paris and to write songs for it. Ever since I lived here in the '90s, it was obvious to me that Paris still hadn't given up on jazz. There were about 14 or 15 jazz clubs scattered out all around the city, and you could go in there any night and just hear people playing jazz. There's something about the intimacy of that. As we moved into the digital era, there was less intimacy in the presentation of music and certainly in the playing of music.
I've been quietly planning this for about 50 years. Growing up where I did, in Mississippi, near New Orleans, I was around a lot of jazz. But for me, it was always about looking forward and not looking back. I started writing songs for a project called "The Eddy" in 2008. I wrote the first iteration of the song "The Eddy." It was this sort of mythical club where a great band, great singer and an intimate audience find each other, and it becomes a kind of transcendent moment. I just feel like that's been missing a lot in music presentation, and it was just the desire to want to do that for real. That was the dream.
In 2013, I met with Alan Poul and I, at that point, had about 50 songs that we had done a demo [for]. He's a great TV producer [and] director, and he was [making] this whole thing happen because he loved the concept, loved the music, loved the idea of Paris [being] multicultural, but he didn't quite know who would be the person to execute that.
Then he called me a few months later and said, "I just met a young filmmaker named Damien Chazelle. I just saw a very short film called Whiplash; it's not even the complete film." But he said, "This guy gets jazz, he knows how to use the camera, he's a great director." Damien came down and listened to the music, he listened to the band that we had put together and he was in. That was almost six years ago. We planned on making the show in Paris … and that's how it got started … with me writing a bunch of songs.
So the first flickers of "The Eddy" started back in the late 2000s.
In 2008, I wrote the lyrics to it and I had some of the music. It was the concept of this place where you can be yourself, express yourself as a musician, find yourself as somewhat sitting in the audience and [listening] to a great singer. There's just something magical about that, something that I've always felt, even from when I was a child going into jazz clubs in New Orleans and hearing people that could really play. When the magic gets hit, it's a transcendent thing.
I think too much of that has been missing, and the idea of getting close to that really appealed to me. Once we got Damien Chazelle involved and we were lucky enough to get Jack Thorne, who's a wonderful British writer—I think we gave him 39 original "Eddy" songs and he wrote eight episodes and used those songs throughout each episode as subtext, as counterpoint, but as part of the whole story. For me as a songwriter, to have Jack Thorne do that is one of the great gifts I've ever been given—believe me.
The first major song I had recorded in 1980 was from a jazz artist named George Benson and the producer was Quincy Jones. I kind of got started in that world, even though it was kind of a pop-jazz thing ... But then we got sidetracked. I worked with Quincy, did a bunch of the Michael Jackson records with him, I produced for him. Then I went off on my own. I've had an exceedingly diverse career, there can be no doubt. At whatever point people think they know what I do, I do something else ... I wanted to be like a Billy Strayhorn who could write great lyrics, great music and have a great band to express it.
I finally got that with "The Eddy." It just took me a while to get there. But I do have a great band. We do have this club in Paris, which is closed at the moment, but we hope to reopen it. Every bit of the music in the show, these musicians are playing live, and that never happens on episodic TV. For that fact alone, I feel like we're giving the audience a slice of real music performed by real musicians, and musicians who can really play and who are doing it not to be famous—they're doing it because they have to do it. If you want to call it a romantic portrait of the artist, yeah, probably it is. But the other side of that romance is how much it costs to get there and to stay there. To run a jazz club in Paris, you don't do that for money—you do it for love.
The show dedicates a large amount of screen time just to the musicians and the performances. There are several extensive scenes showing only the musicians performing on their instruments—no dialogue, no drama, no anything in the background. Was that important to reflect in the show?
Personally, I'm deeply grateful for that, because so many times the music is treated in a perfunctory manner. But the way Jack wrote it, he wrote it in a jazz style. Like he said, "When the band's playing, I want to hear it. I want to take that journey with them." He felt like that was part of the narrative: how they interacted with each other and how they find and lose themselves when they're playing. I loved that we get to hear complete takes and they're playing a lot. But when they stop playing, there's not a lot of music. It's this great dichotomy between these long sequences of music, and then when they stop playing, there's no music.
In a lot of music-driven films or TV, the music itself is either secondary or the main focus. With "The Eddy," the music feels very much more in-synch with the story. It doesn't dominate the conversation, nor is it background fodder either. In your eyes and ears, what role did you see the music itself playing in "The Eddy"?
I just think, on every level, it is the juice that fuels [all these musicians]. I felt like the music and their passion for music and for playing it and for playing new songs together—that's their mission in life because they don't do anything else … You get people like the bass player, Damian Nueva Cortes ... he brings so much to the table, so just seeing someone like that perform, I think they deserve that screen time.
Jack was so clear about how he wanted the music and passion that they had for that actual music to be expressed, because he felt like if you didn't get that, you would be missing an essential link with these characters. But it's still character-driven because they all have their own distinct personalities, but we see how intimate they are with their instrument and how it's an extension of their personality. Jack called out every song, where he wanted it and what song they would be playing, so it's an intimate part of his writing process—there's no question.
The band in the show is made up of actual musicians and performers. Was that an important choice?
It was the only choice we could make. It was either we get people who can play this and play it beautifully, or we're just going to turn it into five actors who can't play and we're going to pretend like they can, and that was never interesting to any of us. But at the same time, it was a huge act of faith on the part of our producers, our network, our directors to take five musicians who had never acted, put them in a major Netflix drama and hope that they can do it. When we cast them, the first [question] was, "Can they play?" … It had to be real musicians.
If we were going to make this whole thing float, we had to show the audience people who were sweating it out onstage, a real drummer who can really play and [that] nobody's faking it. Jazz musicians are intrinsically interesting human beings. They had gone on their own journey from an early age, and if they're in jazz right now, they're doing it out of passion, they don't get famous from it. Just being able to show people who are that dedicated to something, and specifically this music, and that the music is good and they really can play it, that was an essential element. I'm just thrilled that we had the right team who always wanted it to be real. They didn't want anybody to be phoning it in. It was a challenge to all of us, but I'm really, really proud of the musicians because they all made their acting debuts, and I think they all held up beautifully.
How has the jazz community, whether the artists themselves or the fans and listeners, reacted to the show?
So far, it's been very, very positive … I expect the jazz community will like it, but it was intended to be new. As much as anything, I'm looking for a younger audience rather than an older audience. I think the older audience would appreciate this anyway because of the musicianship and the skill of writing, I think, is pretty obviously at a high level.
I'm just hoping that, as much as anything, we get a new audience, and I do believe that the traditional jazz audience will appreciate totally what we've done. It would thrill me to no end to get 20-year-olds involved through this and who are passionate about it and who actually want to go out and see some music, see real musicians play like "The Eddy."
That's what this is about for me. It's about reminding people of that intimate experience with a great jazz ensemble and a great singer. There's nothing like it: to be in a room with somebody great like that, to be that close to it—it's just a beautiful thing. It's a celebration of that, and hopefully it's an invitation, especially [for] younger people, to go out to hear some jazz. Certainly when The Eddy comes, come listen to them.
Left to right: Jowee Omicil, Ludovic Louis, Joanna Kulig, Glen Ballard, Randy Kerber, Lada Obradovic, Damian Nueva Cortes, associate producer and music supervisor Angela Vicari | Photo: Lou Faulon
It's a tough time to be a jazz artist right now, isn't it?
It's a tough time to be a performing artist of any kind, but especially jazz. Jazz fell into this category of, like, it's always looking back, it's black-and-white photographs from the '50s, Miles Davis in Paris. That's all music that I love; it's in my DNA.
But this is not about that; it can't be. This can't be a quiz about what you know about jazz. It should just be about, "Do you like the show? Do you feel the music?" And maybe you'll go get it and understand a little bit better that these are very talented people who kind of live in the shadow now of music. There's not one song on the radio where people are playing music together—not one. If you look at the top 100 songs, they're all driven by a computer, most of the vocals are auto-tuned.
I'm not putting it down, but I'm just saying that it's a different thing. It's different from having five people onstage who can shred, who can play anything backwards, and having a singer that can kill it and having chromatic music and lyrics that really go to the next level. I just believe that the quality of what we're doing is what we're selling. There's not a machine up there driving it: It's the real drummer and she can change the beat at the drop of a hat. It's just a different deal. It's about people making music.
Do you see shows like "The Eddy" or movies like Whiplash and La La Land as an invitation into the jazz community for your everyday person?
I'm trying to take it out of the very narrow confines of the jazz community and make it more mainstream. For me as a songwriter, I think that all these songs, I think every one of them has a hook, they're somewhat memorable and yet they're very densely musical. I think what's been missing from jazz is memorability. It's not about somebody taking a 15-minute solo; it's about having a melody that you can remember, and then maybe the solo is the variation of that melody. For me, it went back to the fundamentals of songwriting and using a jazz vocabulary, lyrically and musically, but still delivering songs that touch people.
For me, songwriting is the key to it all, and so I'm actually trying to expand the audience and not just knock on the door of the jazz audience because I expect that they will like it. They're a very tiny group. I love and respect them all, I'm part of that group. But I want a younger, broader audience. I think the show will help, if nothing else. It's probably the best way for people to feel it is to actually get to know these people, these characters ... The feedback I've been getting is people really loved the music, so, so far so good.
Your professional background is very heavy on music-driven projects across film, television and theater. How and why did you start crossing over into those art forms?
I think I spent the first 25 years of my career working with singer-songwriters, helping them tell their story. I loved it; it was fun and exhilarating. But I think now I can use songwriting to tell other stories. As a songwriter, I just felt a little limited, especially with just writing a three-minute pop song. As difficult as that is, I'm looking for the next level of storytelling and songwriting, so obviously musical theater is one place you can do that.
I'm just a storyteller and I've been using my company, [Augury], to develop music-driven projects. This is the best way for me to do it now. It's been really exciting. We're a tiny company, but we have a lot of big projects going, so I'm really, really proud of it.
When you're creating these music-driven projects for TV, film and theater, how do you go about choosing those ideas? What are some of the elements that need to exist or need to stand out in order for you to commit to them?
[For] "The Eddy," it was me wanting to have a jazz club in Paris, so that was the high concept there. In terms of "Back To The Future" [Editor's Note: His production company, Augury, is co-producing a stage adaptation of the 1985 film, Back To The Future], clearly the concept is already there, but it was trying to figure out how to take this iconic movie and put it onstage. It's a different process, but it's all part of what we do, of trying to be able to figure out how to tell the story in whatever medium it is and to use songs to do that.
With "Jagged Little Pill," that was just another lucky thing where [film and TV writer/producer/director] Diablo Cody took the album, Jagged Little Pill, and wrote a completely new story around all of the songs. Jack Thorne did the same thing with "The Eddy." He took all these songs and created a narrative. Sometimes I have the idea of a narrative, sometimes I just have the songs, or the high concept ... Every project has its own kind of magic to it, and if it has enough music and enough storytelling, I'm usually interested.