Meet the European filmmakers making a documentary about jazz icon Sun Ra in Birmingham

Sun Ra
Guillaume Maupin (left) and Pablo Guarise (right), the French filmmakers working on a documentary on Birmingham jazz icon Sun Ra. (Nathan Watson / Bham Now)

Since December, European filmmakers Guillaume Maupin and Pablo Guarise have been busy exploring The Magic City, interviewing people and filming scenes for their upcoming documentary on Sun Ra, an iconic jazz legend from Birmingham. We met with Guillaume and Pablo to learn about their interest in Sun Ra—keep reading to learn more.

Meet our European Guests

Hailing from the coast of France, Guillaume Maupin is a filmmaker, director, writer, musician and volunteer curator at the Nova Cinema in Brussels, Belgium. In the early 2000s, he moved to Brussels, Belgium to finish his education. While working at the Nova Cinema in Brussels, Guillaume met Pablo Guarise, a recent film school graduate in Brussels.

“I discovered Sun Ra when I was in high school or early college. Back in the late 1990s, it was very hip to listen to John Coltrane and 60s jazz. One of my friends had Space is the Place on CD, and I became very interested in Sun Ra and started to buy every album of his that came out. For 20 years, Sun Ra has been fascinating me—and that’s how I learned about Birmingham.”

Guillaume Maupin

For the uninitiated, Sun Ra was a whimsical, mysterious and influential figure in the modern jazz scene. Although he was born in Birmingham, Sun Ra claimed to be an alien from Saturn. Along with his band, the Arkestra, Sun Ra recorded dozens of singles and over one-hundred albums. Click here to learn more about Sun Ra.

While chatting over a cup of coffee, Guillaume introduced Pablo to the music of Birmingham jazz musician Sun Ra.

“We decided to focus on Sun Ra’s period in Birmingham for our documentary. During his life, he lived in four cities: Birmingham, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. And if you look at his music during these periods of his life, it’s almost like Pablo Picasso and his colors. To me, the only jazz musician that I would compare to Sun Ra in terms of importance is Duke Ellington.

I don’t know why, but there are not many documentary films about Sun Ra—and you can’t make a Sun-Ra film in two hours, there is too much to tell. So we decided to focus on Sun Ra’s time in Birmingham for our first documentary.”

Guillaume Maupin

So, what brings two European filmmakers to The Magic City?

Sun-Ra
Pablo and Guillaume inside the Linn-Henley Research Library, one of the sources they’ve utilized for their documentary. (Birmingham Public Library)

According to Guillaume, there is not much archival footage of Sun Ra available—although he made a live television appearance was on Saturday Night Live in 1978. So, Guillaume and Pablo decided to visit Birmingham to try and meet anyone who had known Sun Ra. Since December, the duo have visited places like Tuxedo Junction, the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge and A.H. Parker High School, where Sun Ra studied jazz under music teacher John T. “Fess” Whatley.

“Fess Whatley was the band director at Parker High School and the teacher of so many great jazz musicians like Erskine Hawkins and Avery Parrish. Those musicians went on to play with Duke Ellington and Cat Anderson and Count Basie. So Birmingham—and Parker High School—was very important and an incredible incubator for great jazz musicians.”

Guillaume Maupin

In addition, Guillaume and Pablo have consulted with many local Sun Ra experts in Birmingham. For example, the duo have worked closely with Jim Baggett at the BPL Department of Archives & Manuscripts as well as Jimmy Griffin, a Sun Ra aficionado who works at Renaissance Records in Five Points South.

What do Guillaume and Pablo think about Birmingham?

Sun Ra
Sun Ra’s earthly resting place in Elmwood Cemetery. (Nathan Watson / Bham Now)

Of course, I was curious to know what Guillaume and Pablo thought about Birmingham itself. While here, the European filmmakers have lived in Avondale, Five Points South and in Smithfield near the historic Arlington House.

“To us as Europeans, Birmingham looks like quite a modern city. But at the same time, when we talk to people we discover that there are so many layers of history to this city.”

Pablo Guiarise

Although the duo have dedicated most of their trip to studying Sun Ra, they’ve made time to experience some of the best that Birmingham has to offer.

“Jim Reed is the first person we met in Birmingham! We were walking to where Sun Ra used to live on Fourth Avenue North, but we wanted to eat at Fife’s because we heard that Fife’s was a good Southern restaurant. We passed Jim Reed Books and were amazed, so we had to visit.”

Guillaume Maupin

The duo have seen the Birmingham Squadron play five times and they attended the TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl. Guillaume went on to tell me that they’ve visited fun clubs like Plum, BluOnyx and The Garage—while Pablo noted that the duo have also been to church, too.

“And of course we’re often at The Nick which is really an institution in Birmingham. Sun Ra played at The Nick in 1988, so for us it was really important to see The Nick.”

Guillaume Maupin

You’re invited to take part in Pablo and Guillaume’s Sun-Ra Documentary

Sun Ra is on an Avondale mural with other Birmingham greats like Fred Shuttlesworth. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now
A mural in Avondale pays tribute to the late, great Sun Ra. (Pat Byington / Bham Now)

According to a Birmingham Public Library press release, Pablo and Guillaume are inviting people who want to discuss Sun Ra for the documentary to meet them at two places this weekend:

  • Saturday, January 29th at 7PM at East Village Arts: 7611 1st Avenue North, Birmingham AL
    • “Our friends at EVA (East Village Arts) invite us all for a ‘Get together around the Sun Ra film project’ gathering. We’ll do a short presentation of the project,” Pablo Guarise said. “It will be an opportunity for some of you to reunite, and meet other people interested in Sun Ra and Birmingham music history. Guillaume (who is a musician) will give a concert for the occasion.” 
  • Sunday, January 30th at 1PM at Sidewalk Film Cinema at the Pizitz Food Hall: 1821 2nd Avenue North, Birmingham AL

Although Pablo and Guillaume will be returning to Europe after Friday, February 4, the duo plan to return to Birmingham in October 2022 to finish up their research.

Pablo and Guillaume hope to release their Sun Ra documentary in 2024.

Excited to see Pablo and Guillaume’s Sun Ra documentary? Tag us @bhamnow to let us know!

Nathan Watson
Nathan Watson

Senior Content Producer with Bham Now | Originally from Tennessee, Nathan moved to The Magic City after graduating from Birmingham-Southern College. Nathan is passionate about recognizing Birmingham's history and is thrilled to learn more about the big things planned for The Magic City's future.

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