Mr. Dorsey, the music teacher at the center of the documentary Sweet Dillard, opens the film by saying something unexpected for a music teacher. “I don’t want them to leave saying they learned to play a mean saxophone,” he says to the camera. “If they can leave the program saying they learned about life, about relationships, I think that’s the biggest thing.”
The kids in the jazz band that Mr. Dorsey (we never hear his first name, Christopher, in the film) leads, at a storied magnet music program at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, learn all that and more. In the film, which follows the group during the 2013-2014 school year, as it prepares for the Essentially Ellington National Jazz Championships at Lincoln Center, we see how the discipline and awareness that Mr. Dorsey demands from his students lift their playing and their respect for others and for themselves. They also acquire a rich sense of joy.
“Music is like a Sunday morning going to a church you’ve never been to before but everyone welcomes you with open arms,” says Ulysses, the Dillard band’s pianist.
The hour-long film was a labor of love for director Jim Virga, a former staff photographer with the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel who now teaches cinema and interactive media at the University of Miami, and his partners and co-producers; cinematographers Mike and Sue Stocker, photographers at the Sun Sentinel; and editor Gia Kontaxis.
“We all love music, and we’d all done all sorts of stories in our careers,” says Virga, who says the filmmakers became interested in Dillard after the Stockers’ son Ben, who appears in the film as a saxophonist in Mr. Dorsey’s band, began attending Dillard. “We saw this as an opportunity to do a story about something important to us, arts in education. Mr. Dorsey is an incredibly inspirational character. For a lot of these kids at Dillard he makes a really big difference. Mr. Dorsey turns them into pros if they work hard, and they’re all held up to a certain standard. As a teacher myself I’m inspired by the way he does things.”
Whether leading the band in rehearsal, on trips to conferences, in local concerts and fundraisers, Mr. Dorsey, impeccable in suit and tie, alternates between relentless and encouraging. “C’mon guys, this is supposed to be our closer,” he berates them in one practice session. “You’re supposed to bring nothing but smoke.” In another rehearsal, he urges them past their limits. “Go for that upper register,” he tells them. “Range is built by trying to get there.”
But on a bus home from an event, he praises the group for putting on a first class show. “They know who you are now,” he says proudly, before urging the kids to go home and get better.
We see the results among the kids we meet. They include Chris, whose mother is addicted to painkillers and who admits to being a “bad kid” who stole cars and sold drugs before he found music; and Kim, who has Asperger’s but sells candy to raise money to go to New York. In a rehearsal they talk earnestly about needing to listen to each other more. After they play at a banquet for a mostly elderly audience, the boys politely cajole women old enough to be their grandmothers to dance.
“That’s how [Mr. Dorsey] expects them to conduct themselves,” Virga says. “It isn’t just about them being a musician, but being a responsible member of the community and representing the band onstage and off.”
The handsomely shot film is evidence of the skill of Virga and the Stockers as photographers. There is no voiceover narration and only a couple of interviews with people commenting on the band’s skill. We get the context from the content, as when a concert announcement on WDNA radio is juxtaposed with shots of a bleak South Florida neighborhood. Presumably it’s where Dillard is located — there are times when it’s unclear what is taking place or where, or where more information could have strengthened the portrayal. We don’t hear about the program’s funding shortages, for instance, or that it has produced famous musicians such as the violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, the duo Black Violin, or jazz saxophonist Patrick Bartley. (We do find out that many of the kids in the band get substantial scholarships to college.)
“Sweet Dillard is the story of that little engine that could,” says Dennis Scholl, a co-producer of the film who also helped fund the band when he was vice president of arts at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “It’s another example of Miami filmmakers starting to find great stories here.”
The compelling heart of that story is how Mr. Dorsey teaches these kids to play: with an avid, rich and sophisticated musicality that’s full of life. The band will play after Sweet Dillard’s premiere at O Cinema on Sunday afternoon.
“What turns everybody on is if you see them play live,” says Virga. “I’d be sitting at UM editing and people would walk by and say, ‘Those kids are in high school?’ Mr. Dorsey creates the magic.”