HOLD ON TIGHT: “JAZZ DANCE” (1954): A FILM BY ROGER TILTON and RICHARD BRUMMER

Thanks to Joep Peeters for pointing out that this fascinating piece of cultural / musical anthropology is available on YouTube. (It disappeared, but now it’s back.)  Without exaggeration, there is no film remotely like it:

This twenty-minute film documents what it was really like at New York City’s cavernous Central Plaza, with a band made up of Jimmy McPartland, cornet; Jimmy Archey, trombone; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; Willie “the Lion” Smith, piano; Pops Foster, string bass; George Wettling, drums — heroes! — as they proceed through a slow blues, a medium-tempo BALLIN’ THE JACK,  ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, and the SAINTS.

Here’s the fascinating commentary about how the film was shot:

Matrixx Entertainment is pleased to present the 1954 classic, JAZZ DANCE, produced and directed by Roger Tilton, edited by Richard Brummer.  Special appearance by Al Minns and Leon James.  Music by Jimmy McPartland (trumpet), Willie (the Lion) Smith (piano), Pops Foster (bass), Pee Wee Russell (clarinet), Jimmy Archey (trombone), George Wettling, (drums). Filmed at the Central Plaza Dance Hall in New York City.

This high quality version was digitized by John Fellers from Dick Brummer’s 3/4-inch video tape struck from the original 35mm black and white master, the only 35mm print in existence in San Diego with Pat Tilton, the wife of Roger Tilton who passed away in 2011.  Dick Brummer, mentor of James Jaeger and a stockholder of Matrixx Entertainment, granted permission to post JAZZ DANCE to this channel.  Below are some excerpts from letters and technical notes on how this pioneering film was made.

It might be of interest to note that Roger made many visits to the Central Plaza Dance Hall in the weeks before production and drew pictures of things he saw happen there.  These were given to the cameramen before the shoot with instructions to try to get these shots if they happened.  The two cameramen worked in such a way as to cover the same action from two angles when possible so that I could have the material I needed for synchronous action cuts when I edited the film.  JAZZ DANCE was shot with two 35mm hand-held WW 2-type cameras called Eyemos plus a 35mm Mitchell high up in a balcony. There were 2 cameramen with an assistant each.  When they ran out of their 100 foot loads (about 1 minute) the assistant ran out with another can of negative. Dupont 3 was used, the fastest film at the time.  Roger had been told that he would need arc lights and a generator in the street with big sound cameras to do the job but my associate at the time and I had a different idea.  We had arranged for the use of new lights just developed by GE that were the first PAR cans ever used on a film.  They plugged into the existing power.  The Eyemos were wild, but shot at 24 frames per second. My sound equipment also ran at 24 fps.  I did the sync later on a Movieola.  The crowd was told that, by signing a release that night, they would get in free.  I used 3 mics and a third hand-held when needed through a mixer.  The film is noted for being one of the first cinema verite films to take the audience into an event as participant.  The audience hardly noticed the cameras because they looked like amateur equipment.  The cameramen shot from behind shoulders and from the hip.  Ricky Leacock and Bob Campbell were the two cameramen.  For the JAZZ DANCE shoot, the cameramen used 100 foot loads and several cameras so that, when signaled, the assistants would give the cameramen a loaded camera and take away the camera with the exposed film to unload it and load a new 100 foot load.  This was done away from the crowd in black loading bags.  The cameras were spring-wound, but set by the cameramen to run at 24 fps, the same speed I was running my 17 and a half mag recorder (which was plugged in to the wall behind the band).  The entire dance was shot in about four hours.  Solving the logistics of the shoot, as I discussed above, was one thing, but documenting what actually went on at the Dance Hall every Saturday night on 35mm, with both sound AND picture, set a new standard for a “you are there,” cinema verite film.  The well-known documentarian, Mura Dehn, had shot footage of jazz dancers, including Minns and James, before, but such shoots were always staged and without sound (what we call MOS). This was true even when she shot at the Savoy Ballroom. You can see Dehn’s work on YouTube in the series is called “The Spirit Moves.” By the way, I worked with Mura on a documentary she made on modern jazz music where she DID record live music — but there was no dancing.  So JAZZ DANCE is the first to combine many techniques.


Almost sixty years later, this film captures an exuberant scene in exuberant ways.  I had not known of the one-minute film limitations, but now it explains the hectic energy of the finished product, cutting from one scene to another with restless rapidity.  The music speaks for itself: as I’ve been pointing out with advertising cards, bands such as this — at this level — assembled regularly in these huge downtown New York catering halls in the late Forties onward.  So JAZZ DANCE presents a wild audience responding without restraint to the music they hear.  It is also an amusing corrective to those who yearn for an imagined Golden Era when audiences sat silently, rapt, attentive . . . I suspect that hot jazz always provoked such energetic response.

May your happiness increase.

16 responses to “HOLD ON TIGHT: “JAZZ DANCE” (1954): A FILM BY ROGER TILTON and RICHARD BRUMMER

  1. jOhn p. cooper

    I used to dance a bit back in the day.

  2. Cool, thanks! I actually have a 10” LP of the soundtrack of this film…but never saw it, so it’s everything and more than I thought it would be!

  3. That’s a very rare record — on the Jaguar label, I think? — but it can’t convey the immense visual power (and clamor) of the film. Happy to oblige, but the credit goes to Tilton, Brummer, and Peeters first.

  4. Just way too cool for words. Love it!!

  5. It’s been buzzing around the swing dance world interwebs this week because of Al Minns and Leon James. And because of the great music. And because all of it together is just a blast.

  6. What an anthology ! Thank you for this post !
    Céline
    http://bestjazzclubs.wordpress.com

  7. I feel like I just finished a 3 hour gig in 20 minutes! I’m worn out, period! A great presentation even with the soundtrack off kilter from the film. Back in the day!

  8. Ricky Leacock told me that the great photographer, Hugh Bell was his assistant on this shoot. The two Eyemos they were using had loads held only one minute of film but more interesting is that it was a windup camera and each wind only lasted for 18 or 19 seconds, then you had to stop and rewind.

  9. Ian Cuthbert

    I saw this film in Edinburgh, Scotland, my home town when it was new in ’54. Haven’t seen it since though I’ve never forgotten it. What a kick, what sense of the joy of living. Stuff rock ‘n’ roll, it could never be a much sheer fun as this. Sad to think that most of the dancers are now about eighty but on this film they are forever twenty! Keep on swingin’

  10. THE DANCER MAKING FUNNY FACES IN A CLOSE UP IN FIRST SET IS MILT KAMEN

  11. Richard S. Brummer

    Thanks for this page about Jazz Dance. A correction: Pat Tilton is the late Roger Tilton’s wife, not his son. Also there are one or two other prints out there.
    Richard S. Brummer

  12. At Thanksgiving dinner today, Lucian’s step-grandad pulled out a record of Conrad Janis and started talking about going to see shows at Central Plaza in the early ’50’s. When I Googled Central Plaza I guess it was no surprise that your blog surfaced. 🙂 I’m sad that the video link no longer works, is there another way to view it online?

  13. Two excerpts exist on YouTube — one of Leon Mimms and the other McPartland and Co. doing ROYAL GARDEN BLUES. I found them by tying “JAZZ DANCE” “Central Plaza” in the search bar. I thought the film was on DVD, but this could be wishful thinking only.

  14. Thanks for clarifying that, I wasn’t sure since “jazz dance” is a pretty generic term. Happy watching to commence in 5, 4, 3…

  15. Bill Kehrer

    My best friend John Krasowski and I went to the Central Plaza on the weekends in ’54, ’55. You rode a creaky elevator up to the loft, with your bottle of Three Feathers, no corkage but you had to pay for a set up. There were pitchers of watered down beer also on offer. The place was filled with secretaries, stock boys, wall street runners and students. The music was great. Musicians would show up after finishing paying gigs. I remember Conrad Janis playing wonderful trombone solos. It was a special time.

  16. As I recall, the Central Plaza was open on Friday and Saturday nights from 8 until 1. It was on second avenue around 6th St. and closed in 1966 when the building was sold to NYU for its theater program. I went most weekends from 1953 to 1962 and occasionally afterwards. Conrad Janis, an actor who also played trombone had a great following but it was the real musicians, who changed from week to week,that kept me going back. The place was run by Jack Crystal (Billy Crystal’s father, I believe) and was always packed – mostly students (the drinking age in NY at that time was 18). Roger Tilton, who made the film, taught film at Columbia and cameraman Richard Leacock
    started a film program at MIT.
    If you enjoyed the Jazz Dance, you should also watch ‘Mamma Don’t Allow’
    filmed at the Wood Green Jazz Club 2 years later and featuring the best jazz band that England ever produced – The Chris Barber Band. It’s in two parts on YouTube.

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