New Raymond Myles Documentary Previewed At George & Joyce Wein Center

Photo credit: Danae Columbus

An enthusiastic crowd of almost 200 music lovers packed the George and Joyce Wein Jazz & Heritage Center Tuesday, May 3, for a long-awaited sneak preview of A Taste of Heaven, the new documentary about the life of the late New Orleans gospel music legend Raymond Anthony Myles. Myles struggled in two unforgiving worlds – the gospel music business and the Baptist Church. Before he could reach international stardom, Myles, then 41, was the victim of an October 1988 fatal carjacking in the St. Bernard Housing Project where he was born and raised. Myles’ body was unceremoniously dumped on Elysian Fields Avenue near Chartres Street.

Photo credit: Danae Columbus

The 100 minute film was written, produced and directed by Grammy award winner Leo Sacks who first became mesmerized by Myles artistry 40 years ago in 1982 while attending Jazz Fest as a reporter for Billboard Magazine. “Raymond gave people hope. His message of compassion and tolerance spoke to me in a way that other music never had,” said Sacks. Sacks produced Myles’ only full-length studio album of original material in 1992. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Sacks made the personal commitment to develop the documentary when he understood what Myles – already dead 7 years by that time – still meant to the community.

“Raymond’s all-too-short life was a complex and colorful journey,” said Sacks. “Some saw a prophet. Others saw a hopeless sinner. But everyone agreed that he was unforgettable.” Not only a maverick musician, Myles was also highly representative of a vital but scorned minority within the Black church – a queer man who still yearned for God’s love despite being told he would never be accepted.

Photo credit: Danae Columbus

Presented by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Foundation, the screening was a first look at archival footage of Myles’ thrilling performances at the Jazz Fest and in churches along with classroom footage featuring his beloved high school students. In addition there are more than a dozen interviews with music industry icons including Allen R. Toussaint, Big Freedia, Quint Davis, Wardell Quezergue, John Boutte, Dwight Fitch and Cyril and Gaynielle Neville. Toussaint said Myles was “ordained by the spirits of Heaven.” Freedia, who considered Myles among her role models, called him bold and outspoken.“He made me the performer that I am today,” said Freedia.

Others interviewed include members of Myles’ family, the Raymond Anthony Myles singers, retired music educator Veronica Downs-Dorsey, former U.S. District Court Judge Ginger Berrigan, Father Tony Ricard of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish, Pastor Lester Love of The City of Love, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church Music Director Alex Lewis III, and Joan Rhodes whose family’s business has been a Gospel Tent sponsor for decades. Lewis said there have always been gay people in the church but that they did not present themselves as gay. Love explained it was often easier for the church to label gay parishioners and ostracize them than try to understand them.

Photo credit: Danae Columbus

The film includes portions of an interview WWL’s Angela Hill conducted with Myles. Actor Harry Shearer, who is one of the film’s executive producers along with wife Judith Owen, was the evening’s host. John Caulkins, Cyril E. Vetter and Verdine White also serve as executive producers. Charnelle (Cha) Quallisedited the film.

Currently a professor of “Digital Storytelling” at Rutgers University’s School of Communication & Information in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Sacks has also worked for CNN, CBS News, NBC Nightly News and Reuters Television. His endeavors at Sony Music with Aretha Franklin, Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye, Earth, Wind & Fire, Luther Vandross, the IsleyBrothers and others helped preserve their legacies and also introduced them to a new generation.

Sacks is a recipient of a 2022 fellowship from the Better Angels Society, part of the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film. A Taste of Heaven has been funded in part by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Foundation’s Community Partnership Grant Program, the Threadhead Cultural Foundation and the Southern Documentary Fund. Sacks is seeking additional capitalization to finalize and distribute the documentary.

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