The Ralph Ellison Project: filmmaker Avon Kirkland discusses the author of Invisible Man

February 15th, 2002

Filmmaker Avon Kirkland’s career as a chemist was cut short by his desire to create social change. The path he chose led to filmmaking, and along the way he has profiled great men, among them Booker T. Washington and Thurgood Marshall.

His latest film is on Ralph Ellison, the great American writer whose classic book of identity, Invisible Man, stands as a monument in literature. Ellison’s wide range of intellectual breadth and profundity surprised even Kirkland, and is documented in Ralph Ellison: An American Journey, the Sundance Film Festival nominated film that has found an audience via PBS.

In an interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Kirkland discusses his film and its visionary subject, Ralph Ellison…

JJM Who was your childhood hero?

AK As a very young child, no one, other than people I would see in the movies, which tended to be cowboys. Later on, Jackie Robinson became a hero, because I am old enough, at age 65, to remember when he broke into baseball. Joe Louis preceded him, whose fights I could hear in Jacksonville, Florida. His victories were a source of great pride.

JJM Was there a particular film you saw as a young man that inspired you to want to become a filmmaker?

AK No, not at all. In fact, I never thought of becoming a filmmaker. I had a career as a scientist, and then was a publishing executive. I was bored by both, frankly. I have a PhD in Chemistry, which I received when I was 25 years old. I worked as a research scientist long enough to pay off my student loan, and then got hired by an educational publisher. I worked there for 3 years or so and had trouble relating to the profit motive. I liked doing things that had a political edge or dealt with social change. I took a year off and watched television an entire year. Following this experience, I thought I could get involved with television, and wound up getting a job at a PBS station, where I worked in programming for a couple of years, then began to produce. I was particularly spurred on by my distaste for a lot of the black characters I saw on television at the time. J.J. from Good Times, for example, was a persona I didn’t care for – that of a black clown that really distorted the image of black men to the country at a time when whites had little contact with blacks. That was an impetus for my getting involved with filmmaking.

JJM When did you first read Invisible Man?

AKWhen I was a graduate student of Chemistry. I bought it to read for fun, but it turns out it took more work than I anticipated. It is a very compelling book. As someone who grew up in the south, I could relate to the problems of the protagonist. Then, I didn’t read it again for 25 more years.

JJM Did you read it again prior to your pursuit of this film?

AK I read it again in the late 1980’s. By that time, I was producing television programs. I called Ellison’s agent at the William Morris Agency in New York to see if an option on the book was available. When he said “yes,” I was dumbfounded that so great a book was available to be optioned. He told me that while it was available, Mr. Ellison would require script control. That is not desirable if you are producing a program based on a book, unless you have an especially close rapport with the author of the book and he knows that you can’t do the entire book, for example. A notorious problem is that most producers don’t give authors script control or approval. That is one of the main reasons it hadn’t been optioned, and I let it go. When Ellison died in 1994, collections of short stories and essays came out and this brought him back to my mind.

JJM So you dug deeper……

AK Yes. I learned a great deal more about what his life had been like than I knew before. I didn’t know, for example, that he had been attacked so strongly during the 60’s by black nationalists and especially by black students who were in the vanguard of the civil rights movement. They disliked some of his essays and particularly his novel where the protagonist goes down into a hole in rebuke and scorn, so to speak. The more I learned about Ellison, the more intriguing he became. I began asking myself questions. Why didn’t he finish the second novel? Someone who wrote a book as great as Invisible Mandoesn’t have a second novel in him? What happened to him during the last 15 – 20 years of his life when he virtually disappeared from the radar screen? So, I looked into that, and found what I thought was a really important story. The story is not only telling of his life as a writer, but also about questions concerning the role of an artist and society – which was something he worried about a lot – and what his legacy was, which turns out to be quite substantial. He was a visionary who saw, for example, that jazz was America’s classical music. He said this way back before anybody else. Jazz really had a great deal in common with democracy, a point that was made over and over again by quoting Ellison in Ken Burns’ series on jazz. So, he was a visionary. A lot of his key ideas and philosophies are now coming into vogue. In other words, he was more than a mere story teller, he also was a first class intellectual and social thinker.

JJM Is this visionary element part of what you want the world to know about Ellison?

AK Yes. It receives substantial treatment in the documentary.

JJM You said in a recent interview you gave the Oakland Tribune that you “came to appreciate Invisible Man as more than just entertainment – as a book of ideas which set forth a perspective of American reality that many people credit as helping along the movement to civil rights action.” On the other hand, Ellison was criticized by many black activists as not being involved enough, to the point where he was labeled an “Uncle Tom” by the most radical wing. In your view, how did Ellison’s work help along the civil rights movement?

AK As one of our experts in the documentary, Professor Clyde Taylor of New York University said, he could not believe that black fiction could be so great, that we were victims of a kind of “inferiorization” as a people, and Ellison showed us that black life could be made into some of the best literature ever written. It is complex, profound, and provocative. Taylor said that learning that was, for him, an awakening about the value and dignity of black life. Remember, we are talking about the early 1950’s. There were a lot of us who thought that maybe white people weren’t right in saying that we weren’t quite up to snuff. A large part of the United States felt that way anyway, so Ellison’s character was specifically drawn to expand the view of black people and what we are capable of and what our life is like in America. He differed with his mentor, Richard Wright, who wrote the great novel Native Son. Wright’s character is basically a victim, who can do nothing, who doesn’t understand the forces that operate on him, who can do nothing to change his fate, and who himself suffered a rather sad and violent fate. Ellison said black life is mostly not like that. Yes, we are victims, but we are more than victims. We are creating in a space that we have had to work with – our own culture, our own ways for dealing with oppression. In doing so creatively, our humanity has been confirmed. We deal with these ideas in the film in very concrete ways. He says, for example, that contributions of black people to American culture have been extremely important in defining what American culture is – jazz, the blues, gospel, so many social dances, language. I like to make the analogy that comes from Ellison in this particular way – if not for the presence of African Americans in America, the United States might very well look like Canada.

JJMHe was indeed a revolutionary figure. He may not be recognized as one because his revolutionary thinking was subtle.

AK Right. He didn’t accept any of the old justifications for racial inequality. He said we are right there with everybody else. What is it about this country that is distinctive and who invented it? We did. The noted scholar Louis Gates of Harvard University said that Ellison’s actual act was one of “introjection.” Ellison said that not only are we Americans, we are as American as anybody else. So, he was defining America not as “white America.”  During that time, if you thought of America, it was thought of mostly as being white. But, we have authored more of this culture than a lot of them. So, he is turning the whole reasoning upside down. He was indeed revolutionary. He gave us in Invisible Man a highly intelligent, articulate hero, instead of “down and out” types you would find in Native Son.

JJM In Ellison’s essay “Shadow and Act,” after seeing the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young in his hometown of Oklahoma City, Ellison describes him in the following way: “To us he was the future…that melodic line, so swinging, so sinuous, so unpredictable! A line so clearly – as you could hear – based on chords, but far out chords that could lift a blues or ballad out of sight!” How important was it to Ellison for him to be the “future” of literature in the way he perceived Young to be in music?

AK Well, that was exactly what he was trying to do when he wrote Invisible Man. First of all, he was a literary modernist who saw the world as being a lot more chaotic or unpredictable than the novelists of the late nineteenth century. He put forth a black character who, having been oppressed throughout most of the novel, and who retires to find out who he is, comes to define himself in terms of the black culture he came out of. Ellison was communicating that if you know your culture, your history, your struggle, your ancestors, thenyou are free. He played trumpet himself, and at one point he wanted to write a symphony based on the blues, so he looked to black cultural expression, jazz in particular, as evidence of our ability to transcend the confines of our social situation, and creatively move beyond it. So, like Lester Young, he took his work to another level.

JJM In an essay on jazz, he refers to bebop as “decadent intellectualism.” How is it that a writer of such intense creativity, who on the one hand demanded so much of his readers intellect, would on the other hand describe a musician’s abstract work as “decadent intellectualism?”

AK It is very surprising, isn’t it? I don’t know how it is, to answer your question, but I can tell you stories about Ellison and bebop. First of all, I am aware that he considered bebop overly intellectual. He liked jazz for dancing to. He had people inviting him to parties all over New York, not only because he was Ralph Ellison, but also because they liked to see him dance. Robert O’Meally makes a point in his book, Living With Music, that these Saturday night gatherings to listen and dance to blues and jazz, and on Sunday mornings to listen to gospel music, are rituals of self-affirmation by blacks during a time when the larger society was giving them a message to the contrary. So, he saw a socio-psychological dimension to the jazz he grew up with that he couldn’t find in bebop. A funny story I learned from one of Ellison’s good friends who also appreciated his shortcomings was his haberdasher, who runs a shop in Cambridge, Mass called the Andover Shop. He and Ellison used to go to the Newport Jazz Festival when it first started in the 1950’s. Among other things Ellison was an exquisite dresser and he said Ellison knew more about textiles than just about anybody in the business. They would meet at Newport in the top floor of a friend’s house and one year the haberdasher was a day or two late for the Festival. When he got there he asked Ellison how the music was so far. Ellison said, “Well, Charlie, the place is full of “Bird shit,” referring to Charlie Parker and bebop, of course…

JJM Is there any evidence indicating how the bebop musicians felt about his opinion of their music?

AK I don’t know. I suspect that those who read would have appreciated his literary artistry, but beyond that I don’t know. I doubt they read his work, and I doubt they would have let it stop them from playing what they wanted to play anyway. Like Ellison himself, they were continually experimenting.

JJM Did he have a particular noteworthy friendship with a jazz musician?

AKYes. One of his oldest friends was Jimmy Rushing. They grew up together in Oklahoma City. He wrote a wonderful essay on Rushing. I don’t think I ever saw any correspondence between he and Duke Ellington, but they knew each other and I believe had a very good relationship. He loved Louis Armstrong also. He grew up in Oklahoma City, where Charlie Christian was from, and one of his best friends was Christian’s brother.

JJM What was the most suprising thing you learned about Ellison during this project?

AK The wide range of his intellectual breadth and profundity. I didn’t know a lot of that before.

JJM Anything else you care to share?

AK Yes, I want to tell you a story that is not in the documentary. Ellison’s literary executor is John Callahan. He told me that when he heard that Ellison was dying, he went to New York to be with him and his wife, Fanny. He had been brought home and put in a hospital bed in his living room, which faced the Hudson River. By the time Callahan got there Ellison was basically on his last legs. He saw Ellison lying there, and knew Ellison liked music very much. Because he and Fanny were unable to operate Ellison’s intricate stereo, John went out and bought a boom box, and set it up next to Ellison in the living room. He asked Fanny what kind of discs to buy. She responded by saying that he loved Prokofiev, and he loved Louis Armstrong. So John bought the discs and put on some Prokofiev and Ralph nodded his head appreciatively. Then, after a time, he put on some Louis. Ellison raised his right hand as high as he could and made a circle with his connected thumb and middle finger, signifying “perfect.” Not long after that, he died.

JJM As you were telling me that story, it brought me back to an essay during which he wrote of his childhood, about how he would go to sleep at night with his window open, and he could hear Jimmy Rushing singing in a nearby Oklahoma City club…

AK Yes, and the way he described Rushing’s voice. I know exactly the lines you are thinking about.



Ralph Ellison products at


Interview took place on February 15, 2002


If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Tony Award winning playwright Warren Leight



Share this:

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In This Issue

"Nina" by Marsha Hammel
A Collection of Jazz Poetry — Winter, 2024 Edition...One-third of the Winter, 2024 collection of jazz poetry is made up of poets who have only come to my attention since the publication of the Summer, 2023 collection. What this says about jazz music and jazz poetry – and this community – is that the connection between the two art forms is inspirational and enduring, and that poets are finding a place for their voice within the pages of this website. (Featuring the art of Marsha Hammel)

The Sunday Poem

photo via RawPixel
“Crossing Over” by CJ Muchhala

Click here to read previous editions of The Sunday Poem


Proceeding From Behind: A collection of poems grounded in the rhythmic, relating to the remarkable, by Terrance Underwood...A relaxed, familiar comfort emerges from the poet Terrance Underwood’s language of intellectual acuity, wit, and space – a feeling similar to one gets while listening to Monk, or Jamal, or Miles. I have long wanted to share his gifts as a poet on an expanded platform, and this 33-poem collection – woven among his audio readings, music he considers significant to his story, and brief personal comments – fulfills my desire to do so.


The Marvelettes/via Wikimedia Commons
Interview with Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz, authors of But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?: An Oral History of the 60’s Girl Groups...Little is known of the lives and challenges many of the young Black women who made up the Girl Groups of the ‘60’s faced while performing during an era rife with racism, sexism, and music industry corruption. The authors discuss their book’s mission to provide the artists an opportunity to voice their experiences so crucial to the evolution of popular music.

Short Fiction
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #65 — “Ballad” by Lúcia Leão...The author’s award-winning story is about the power of connections – between father and child, music and art, and the past, present and future.

Click here to read more short fiction published on Jerry Jazz Musician


photo of Louis Jordan by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Interview with Tad Richards, author of Jazz With a Beat: Small Group Swing, 1940 – 1960...Richards makes the case that small group swing players like Illinois Jacquet, Louis Jordan (pictured) and Big Jay McNeely played a legitimate jazz that was a more pleasing listening experience to the Black community than the bebop of Parker, Dizzy, and Monk. It is a fascinating era, filled with major figures and events, and centered on a rigorous debate that continues to this day – is small group swing “real jazz?”


Sonny Rollins' 1957 pianoless trio recording "Way Out West"
“The Pianoless Tradition in Modern Jazz” – a playlist by Bob extensive playlist built around examples of prominent pianoless modern jazz.


The 1987 Mosaic Records collection of The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Herbie Nichols
“Thinking of Herbie” – a poem by Daniel W. Brown

Click here to read more poetry published on Jerry Jazz Musician


Excerpts from David Rife’s Jazz Fiction: Take Two – (Vol. 1)...A substantial number of novels and stories with jazz music as a component of the story have been published over the years, and the scholar David J. Rife has written short essay/reviews of them.  In this initial edition featuring his story essays/reviews, Rife writes about three novels that explore challenges of the mother/daughter relationship.

Trading Fours with Douglas Cole

The cover of Wayne Shorter's 2018 Blue Note album "Emanon"
Trading Fours, with Douglas Cole, No. 20: “Notes on Genius...This edition of the writer’s poetic interpretations of jazz recordings and film is written in response to the music of Wayne Shorter.

Click here to read previous editions of Trading Fours with Douglas Cole


Jason Innocent, on “3”, Abdullah Ibrahim’s latest album... Album reviews are rarely published on Jerry Jazz Musician, but Jason Innocent’s experience with the pianist Abdullah Ibrahim’s new recording captures the essence of this artist’s creative brilliance.

Book Excerpt

Book excerpt from Jazz with a Beat: Small Group Swing 1940 – 1960, by Tad Richards

Click here to read more book excerpts published on Jerry Jazz Musician


painting by Vaino Kunnas
Jazz…in eight poems...A myriad of styles and experiences displayed in eight thoughtful, provocative poems…

Jazz History Quiz #171

Dick Cavett/via Wikimedia Commons
In addition to being one of the greatest musicians of his generation, this Ohio native was an activist, leading “Jazz and People’s Movement,” a group formed in the late 1960’s who “adopted the tactic of interrupting tapings and broadcasts of television and radio programs (i.e. the shows of Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett [pictured] and Merv Griffin) in protest of the small number of Black musicians employed by networks and recording studios.” Who was he?

Click here to visit the Jazz History Quiz archive


photo via
.“Community Bookshelf, #2"...a twice-yearly space where writers who have been published on Jerry Jazz Musician can share news about their recently authored books. This edition includes information about books published within the last six months or so…

Contributing Writers

Click the image to view the writers, poets and artists whose work has been published on Jerry Jazz Musician, and find links to their work

Coming Soon

A new collection of jazz poetry; a collection of jazz haiku; a new Jazz History Quiz; short fiction; poetry; photography; interviews; playlists; and lots more in the works...

Interview Archive

Eubie Blake
Click to view the complete 22 year archive of Jerry Jazz Musician interviews, including those recently published with Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom on Eubie Blake (pictured); Richard Brent Turner on jazz and Islam; Alyn Shipton on the art of jazz; Shawn Levy on the original queens of standup comedy; Travis Atria on the expatriate trumpeter Arthur Briggs; Kitt Shapiro on her life with her mother, Eartha Kitt; Will Friedwald on Nat King Cole; Wayne Enstice on the drummer Dottie Dodgion; the drummer Joe La Barbera on Bill Evans; Philip Clark on Dave Brubeck; Nicholas Buccola on James Baldwin and William F. Buckley; Ricky Riccardi on Louis Armstrong; Dan Morgenstern and Christian Sands on Erroll Garner; Maria Golia on Ornette Coleman.

Site Archive