And he scores! Professor Tyron Cooper pens music for Bobby ‘Slick’ Leonard documentary

Post by Karen Land of IU Communications, video by Milana Katic:

Not many documentaries stage a world premiere in an 18,000-seat arena. But when the subject is an Indiana basketball legend, you throw out the playbook.

On July 29, WFYI Public Television will screen “Bobby ‘Slick’ Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier” at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Beyond all of the hoopla is a new film that follows the accomplished life of a man who helped the Hoosiers win an NCAA banner in 1953. And behind the film is original music composed and performed by Indiana University’s Tyron Cooper.

Bobby "Slick" Leonard in 1953.

Bobby “Slick” Leonard in 1953. Filmmaker Ted Green said, “What piqued my interest in Bob was trying to figure out why he was so beloved — not only admired for his skill, like most great sports figures, but truly beloved. I found the answer to be in his heart: His heart as a competitor, certainly, but also as a family man, a mentor, a friend.

Cooper, an assistant professor in the Department of African American & African Diaspora Studies, previously worked with producer Ted Green on “Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story.”

“I can’t tell you how many comments I’ve gotten specifically about the score of that film,” Green said. “I was so happy with it, I approached Tyron about doing another for the Bob Leonard film before I’d written word one of the script.”

Cooper has been nominated for regional Emmy Awards for his musical contributions to “Undefeated,” as well as the WFYI documentaries “Musical Threads: Expressions of a People” and “Open Door: China in Indiana.”

“Each project thus far has been different,” Cooper said. “Every film score has been different in the kind of approach that you take.

“If you’re going to write film scores, you need to listen to a lot of music,” he said.

And the music Cooper makes also spans many genres. It’s an approach he learned at the Jacobs School of Music while earning a master’s degree in jazz studies. Cooper said he marveled at David Baker’s ability “to navigate so many dimensions of artistic expressions, from classical music to jazz to pop.”

The seeds of scoring

Cooper’s skill as a composer draws upon his broad musical upbringing and his extensive academic training.

He spent his Florida youth experimenting with drums, bass and a multitude of other instruments in his family’s touring gospel band before concentrating on the guitar.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in music education from Bethune-Cookman University, Cooper came to Indiana and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology.

It was these studies in ethnomusicology with IU professors Mellonee Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby that Cooper says most influenced his film score work. By learning to examine music within its cultural and historical context, he can create and adapt music that best suits a film’s subject matter.

Everything is connected

These days, Cooper wears many hats. He’s a performer, an educator and the director of IU Soul Revue, in addition to his work as a film composer.

“Everything that I do tends to inform each other,” he said. “Everything I do is really connected.”

“I’ve always felt like I had this thing in me to do some sort of film scoring,” Cooper said, though at first he couldn’t envision how the process might work.

On the Green documentaries for WFYI, the music begins with simple conversations about individuals in the film.

“By the time he and I get through discussing who these people are, I have a good visual as well as artistic sense of what forwards the story,” Cooper said. “So I walk out of the room already with music in my head.”

From there, the pair looks at spots in the film that call for music. And surprisingly, one of the most crucial elements in a film score isn’t sound at all.

“Silence oftentimes can speak louder than any sound you can make,” Cooper said.

“Of course, he has his ideas as a director and I have my ideas, so we just meld those together,” he said. “Usually, we’re always on the same page.”

“Sometimes it feels like he’s reading my mind, what I’m seeking,” Green said. “And the funny thing is, what he writes is always completely different from what I hear in my mind, and much better!

“His music has this almost sneaky way of sweeping the viewer along, almost like a guiding hand, and subtly amplifying whatever emotion we’re trying to get across,” Green said.

“I’ve had really great experiences with Ted Green. He’s just a masterful producer,” Cooper said. “We’ve formed this really great marriage of expression.”

He added, “It’s been a really great ride.”

The documentary premiere 

  • The world premiere of the 90-minute documentary “Bobby ‘Slick’ Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier” will be held July 29 at 7 p.m. in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Leonard will make an appearance, along with Pacers mascot Boomer and the Pacemates dancers. Free parking is available. For details and ticket information, see the Bankers Life Fieldhouse web site.
  • “Bobby ‘Slick’ Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier” will be broadcast in Bloomington at 8 p.m. Aug. 14 and at 7 p.m. Sept. 6 on WTIU. In the Indianapolis area, its TV debut will be at 9 p.m. Aug. 7 on WFYI. Check local listings for details.

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