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An Introduction To Jazz Filmography

Mark Cantor

Introduction

The term “filmography” is a relatively new one, and there seems to be a lack of definition where printed and on-line sources are concerned. Filmography, where it relates to jazz performance, might best be defined as the accumulation, organization, presentation, and evaluation of facts regarding film where musical performance (instrumental, vocal, and dance) is concerned. An imprecise science at best, jazz filmography has been hampered in the past by incomplete and/or sloppy research, as well as gross errors of both omission and commission. The assumption, for example that a discographical listing in Rust (or almost any discography) implies a similar personnel in a given film, during a similar period of time, is tenuous at best. It is time to change both our attitude toward jazz film research and the manner in which we share information. As a starting point, I would like to suggest the following.

General filmography is concerned with all major aspects of film production—title, production dates, release dates, production personnel, cast, and the like—and these categories are, of course, essential to the jazz filmographer. However, the addition of musical performance brings to the forefront a series of questions that the filmographer must also consider:

  • When and where was the soundtrack recorded?
  • When and where was sideline photography undertaken, especially when recording and photography were not simultaneous? [1]
  • Whom do we see on screen?
  • Whom do we hear on the soundtrack?
  • What do we know about the musical performances where composer, lyricist, arranger, and soloists are concerned?

In filmography, the “primary source document” is, quite naturally, the film itself. In most cases of classic jazz performance, this will usually be either 35mm film, or a videotape, laserdisc, or DVD derived from this source. In the case of a television kinescope or juke box short (a Soundie, for example [2]), that source will be 16mm film.

This is, of course, the place to begin when examining a film, and many of the errors in published resources result because the primary source document has not been consulted. Unfortunately, this is rarely mentioned by the author. For example, had the primary source document been screened, and the proper research been done, we would no longer have both books and online sources claiming that Lee Wiley appears in the released version of Woody Herman And His Orchestra (Warner Bros., 1938); that Frankie Newton solos in Readin’ ‘Ritin’ And Rhythm (Skibo/Educational, 1937); that Bud Powell appears in Cootie Williams And His Orchestra (which is actually a reissue title for Film Vodvil) (Columbia, 1943); or that the Coleman Hawkins Quintet merely sidelines in Crimson Canary (Universal, 1945). Other sources give “approval ratings” to such films as Ex-Flame (Liberty/Tiffany, 1932), which has not been screened in decades. The above behavior is tantamount to reviewing a recording without listening to it.

Having said this, even a screening of the primary source material does not guarantee an accurate reportage. Films have been edited over the years for a variety of reasons, and one must try to be certain that the print one is viewing is complete. For example, the 35mm nitrate print of Devil’s Holiday (Paramount, 1930) held by the U.C.L.A. Film and Television Archive, has an abrupt edit, leading to what appears to be a brief missing scene; the feature is also two or three minutes short of the reported running time. Could this missing scene have contained a rumored appearance by Luis Russell and his Orchestra?

Even when films have been transferred from 35mm nitrate to 35mm safety or 16mm film, or to a more recent digital format, we cannot, at first glance, be sure that we are seeing the entire film as it was originally released. After Seben (Paramount, 1929) was recently released on DVD. What an exciting opportunity for researchers to view the entire short subject that includes an appearance by Chick Webb and his Orchestra! But closer examination reveals that the film was copyrighted at two reels (roughly 20 minutes). When it was released to television, the running time was reduced to 15 minutes. In this form the plot lacks continuity and makes little sense at all. So, it appears that today we are screening an edited version of the short. Unless the screening coincides with a comparison of the film and a shooting script and/or music cue sheet (a listing, shot-by- shot, of all music played in the film), one cannot be certain that he/she is screening the entire film as originally released.

Therefore, studio documents—scripts, cue sheets, film and recording contracts, etc.—become the second major source where documenting jazz on film is concerned. A film’s contents can also be determined by American Federation of Musicians recording contracts, censorship scripts and the like. Even here, however, we must remain wary since many documents are prepared in advance of production and do not reflect last minute changes. Others are produced after production is complete, but are created with promotion, rather than accuracy, in mind. While many such documents are available, far more are either no longer extant, or buried in corporate archives and not available to researchers.

One last example: For years, we had 35mm and 16mm prints of Check and Double Check (RKO, 1930) which were assumed to be complete, and which feature a number of performances by Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra. Over the years there were many rumors of an additional Ellington performance (“Ring Dem Bells”) by viewers who claimed to have seen the number when the film was originally released. That performance remains undiscovered and unconfirmed. But now, many years after the fact, we have confirmed that there is a completely different version of the feature, produced concurrently with the well-known release; it is an alternate take, as it were, with a completely different soundtrack and visual component.

Jazz on television presents an additional set of challenges, not the least of which is convincing researchers that just because a program was broadcast does not imply that it still exists today. From the earlier days of commercial broadcasting (1947-48) through the 1970s, programs were often photographed off a television monitor, a process called “kinescope.” A kinescope was not mandatory or automatic, and was produced only when a copy was needed for syndication or corporate/sponsor review, or when requested (and usually paid for) by a performer. The fact that The Eddie Condon Floor Show or Adventures In Jazz were not syndicated (that is, not distributed to markets other than the area receiving the broadcast live) means that there is little chance of copies turning up at this point in time.

Beginning in the 1950s, and used with greater frequency as the technology was improved, producers began videotaping television broadcasts. These videotapes, when saved, become the primary source document for a television broadcast.

The press, from general “trades” such as Variety to specific jazz-oriented magazines such as Down Beat (and we shouldn’t forget such marvelous compilations such as Franz Hoffmann’s Jazz Advertised) often provide important information. But since much of the input comes from studio publicists and press releases, we must be careful not to accept anything at face value. These releases are often prepared before production begins, or in the earliest stages of production, and, as noted above, do not reflect last minute changes and substitutions. Again, double-checking and verification is the name of the game.

Another essential pair of sources are musicians and jazz experts themselves, although with the passage of time they have become less and less accessible. Much of the information in my database is the direct result of communication—shared descriptions, videotapes and pictures—with the people who appear in the films, or who were on the scene at the times that the films were made. My list of resources is far too long to share in total, but we would know far less about jazz on film without the input of such musicians as Buddy Colette, Teddy Edwards, John Levy, Milt Hinton, Danny Bank, Benny Powell, Artie Shaw, Harvard Davis and Al McKibbon, as well as experts Dan Morgenstern, Ira Gitler, George Avakian, Peter Vacher, Theo Zwicky and Howard Rye...these among many more. Caveats? Of course! The evaluation of images many decades old, and perhaps the desire to see friends on screen, can cause errors in identification. I recall one gentleman who spent considerable time on Central Avenue during the 1930s and 1940s, who was a fountainhead of knowledge, but who also seemed to see his buddy Leo Trammel, a lesser-known reedman, in every picture that I shared with him.

As always, we must trust our eyes and ears, but temper our desires with our knowledge. Like the collectors of old who heard Bix Beiderbecke or Joe Oliver on countless recordings with unknown personnels, we should not accept an identification just because the shadowy figure looks like this musician, or sounds like that one. Verification and second opinions are always a necessary part of the research process.

The last set of resources (regrettably, they should be higher in terms of importance, but that is not the case) are the published materials in the field. Hippenmeyer, Meeker, Yanow, Klotman, Sampson, and Stratemann (all detailed below) are good places to start, but with the exception of the amazing Klaus Stratemann, all of the other sources have errors that should have been corrected years ago. As noted above, many of these errors are due to the fact that these annotators have not screened the films in question, do not have access to printed source documents, and have not double checked with the musicians on the scene. The immensity of the task at hand also leads to shallow research in a stream that certainly runs deep. I am not suggesting that these sources are not good places to start, only that information should be double checked before being passed along as fact.

All of the above is complicated by the fact that the availability of jazz performances on the Internet has increased tremendously in recent years. Not only have many previously unknown films come to light, but clips abound without correct attributions...or often without any information whatsoever. To say that this complicates the job of the jazz filmographer is an understatement at best!

Filmography, like discography, is an imprecise science, requiring considerable research, and then verification of suggested facts. This is not easy, but it is something that our music demands and deserves.

Bibliography

The following is offered as a preliminary list of resources for research on jazz film. With the exception of the two books by Klaus Stratemann covering the films of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, the information in the others works often demands double checking and verification. Not included are general surveys of major studio output when that information is noted in one of the works below. Also not included are general or name discographies that include film information as a part of a comprehensive consideration of an artist’s musical output.

  • Hippenmeyer, Jean-Roland. Jazz Sur Film - Eds. de la Thičle, Yverdon, 1973.
  • Frank, Rusty. Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their History 1900-1955 - William Morrow and Company, 1990.
  • Klotman, Phyllis. Frame By Frame - A Black Filmography - Indiana University Press, 1997.
  • Liebman, Roy. Vitaphone Films - McFarland and Company, 2003.
  • MacGillivray, Scott and Okuda, Ted. The Soundies Book - iUniverse Inc., 2007.
  • MacGillivray, Scott. Castle Films - A Hobbyists’s Guide - iUniverse Inc., 2004.
  • Meeker, David. Jazz In the Movies This resource was published by Arlington House in 1977, and reprinted by Talisman Books in 1981. However, the most current version of the book can be found online at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/html/jots/jazzscreen-home.html
  • Richards, Larry. African American Films Through 1959 - McFarland and Company, 1998.
  • Sampson, Henry T. Blacks In Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films - Scarecrow Press, 1995.
  • Stearns, Marshall and Jean. Jazz Dance - The Story of American Vernacular Dance - Schirmer Books, 1968.
  • Stratemann, Klaus. Negro Bands on Film - Big Bands 1928 - 1950 - Verlag Uhle & Kleimann, 1981.
  • Stratemann, Klaus. Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa - A Filmo-Discography - Verlag Uhle & Kleimann, 1980.
  • Stratemann, Klaus. The Films of Artie Shaw - Glenn Miller - Tony Pastor - Jazzfreund, 1981.
  • Stratemann, Klaus. Jazz Ball & Feather On Jazz - Jazzfreund, 1981.
  • Stratemann, Klaus. Duke Ellington: Day By Day and Film By Film - Jazz Media, 1992.
  • Stratemann, Klaus. Louis Armstrong On the Screen Jazz Media, 1996.
  • Vernon, Paul. African-American Blues, Rhythm and Blues, Gospel and Zydeco on Film and Video, 1926-1997 - Ashgate, 1997.
  • Yanow, Scott. Jazz On Film - Backbeat Books, 2004.

Notes

[1] Sideline photography refers to the miming of a musical presentation during the filming process, with the musicians “performing” to a previously-recorded soundtrack. This was standard practice after 1930-31, although exceptions (that is, live performances) do indeed occur. A soundtrack may have been recorded by the group that appears on screen, or by a totally unrelated performing unit—a studio orchestra, for example.

[2] A Soundie is a three-minute film, created by any number of different production companies, copyrighted and released by the Soundies Distributing Corporation of America specifically for use in the Mills Novelty Company presentation mechanism called the “Mills Panoram.” These films may have been produced specifically for the Mills Novelty Company, or may have been produced earlier for theatrical release, or release on competing jukebox presentation systems and later picked up for re-release as a Soundie.

Author Information: 
Mark Cantor has spent close to 40 years researching jazz on film. His collection of jazz film, the Celluloid Improvisation Music Film Archive, is one of the largest worldwide. He regularly shares films from the Archive in public clip presentations, and has contributed articles to IAJRC Journal and Names & Numbers. Mr. Cantor is currently working on the definitive filmography of Soundies and jukebox shorts of the 1940s.

Abstract: 
The author identifies aspects peculiar to researching and documenting jazz on film. A bibliography is included.

Keywords:
jazz, film, filmography, research

How to cite this article:

  • Chicago 15th ed.: Cantor, Mark. "An Introduction To Jazz Filmography." Current Research in Jazz 1, (2009).
  • MLA 6th ed.: Cantor, Mark. "An Introduction To Jazz Filmography." Current Research in Jazz 1 (2009).
  • APA 5th ed.: Cantor, M. (2009). An introduction to jazz filmography. Current Research in Jazz, 1

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