For years Justin Freed curated classic and obscure films for discerning Boston audiences. He helped program the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge in the early ‘70s, then bought the Kenmore Square and Park Square Cinemas. In 1977 he took over the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, which he operated for more than a decade.
All the while, he was looking through the lenses of various cameras of his own. An avid photographer since his youth, Freed took countless pictures of the natural world and his other passion, the art of jazz.
“When I have a camera in front of me, something changes neurologically for me,” says Freed, a Boston native now in his 80s. “I get a jolt of energy. I take a lot of walks in nature, and I’m constantly shooting. I can’t stop.”
On Thursday, he’ll be back at his beloved Coolidge, onstage to host “An Evening of Jazz and Healing.” Freed will showcase his photographs and premiere his 40-minute “visual memoir,” “Jazz Saved My Life.” Pianist Donal Fox will open the show, and special guest Maria Schneider will round it out by discussing her own relationship with nature and her friendship with Freed. She’ll also present new arrangements for a quartet of members from her acclaimed big band.
“If I say jazz saved my life, what do I mean?” he says, explaining the task he created for himself. “What life needed saving?”
He has endured some tough times, including two difficult marriages and the death of his adult son in 2006. He’s also done social work — working to alleviate despair among older folks and bringing music and emotional health workshops into the prison system, for example.
Freed and Schneider began their long friendship after he first heard her 2004 release “Concert in the Garden.” He sent her a fan email, expressing his appreciation for her “healing” music.
“I think she’s an iconic figure in American culture,” Freed says of Schneider, a seven-time Grammy Award winner who was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her latest ambitious project, “Data Lords” (2021). “Concert in the Garden,” the recording that first connected Freed and Schneider, was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2019.
“I could safely say she’s the most unpretentious person I’ve ever met,” says Freed, sitting in a conference room upstairs at the Coolidge. In the adjacent offices, current staff members are discussing the theater’s latest round of renovations.
Over the years since their first correspondence, Freed and Schneider have bonded over their shared love of the environment, the artistic process, and jazz.
“He always has such sage advice,” says Schneider. “He’s just a joy.
“He’s wise and experienced, wise about the value of taking care of yourself while being compassionate. He’s sort of a Yoda figure.”
As a schoolboy, Freed spent many afternoons in a Boston movie theater while his mother shopped downtown. Amid the newsreels and the Laurel and Hardy shorts, he was bowled over by the aesthetic sensitivity of a few short films he caught. One featured the architectural photography of Eugene Atget; another, called “Jammin’ the Blues,” was an innovative 10-minute film based on songs performed by Lester Young and other jazz greats.
Years later, Freed began producing multimedia events like the one he’ll host this week. He has shown his photos at Galatea Fine Art in the SoWa Art + Design District. A few years ago he screened “The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith,” a feature-length documentary about a legendary after-hours rehearsal space in New York City told through the vast photo archive of a master. Freed’s own photos were projected onscreen during an opening performance by the pianist Kenny Werner.
Freed attended Harvard University, though he admits it with a sour look on his face. It wasn’t for him, he says: “All I wanted to do was listen to jazz, look at art, and read.” He eventually earned his diploma at Brandeis.
His early work history wasn’t exactly a great fit, either. As a young man he worked for Dun & Bradstreet, “checking credit scores for people. I mean, really!”
It wasn’t until the age of 30 or so that he broke out of the mold he’d voluntarily set himself in. He quit and began working in the movie business.
“It took me a while to dare to do this,” Freed says.
Email James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
JUSTIN FREED PRESENTS ‘AN EVENING OF JAZZ AND HEALING’
With Maria Schneider and Donal Fox. At the Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St., Brookline. Dec. 1 at 7 p.m. $35. coolidge.org