I am tempted to close this very unadorned exhibit of treasures with a sigh, “Ah, there were wonders in those days!” That sigh would be a valid emotional reaction to the glories of the preceding century. But — just a second — marvels are taking place all around us NOW, and those who lament at home will miss them.
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.
There was Chicago’s South Side in the mid-to-late Twenties. There was Fifty-Second Street in New York for a decade starting in 1935 or so. There was always Harlem and Kansas City . . . but these three advertisements speak to me of a Golden Age that was happening before I was born.
Let’s get prepared. We need some money, acetates for my Presto disc cutter, several cameras, rare Okehs and Paramounts for everyone’s autograph . . . and be sure to let your parents know we won’t be home early. All set?
October 8, 1948:
The Beloved has her back cushion. We’re all set!
December 3, 1948:
We’ll swing by Emily’s house to pick her up: Eric, Noya, Jon-Erik, Matt, and Kevin are meeting us there. If anyone tends to get carsick, they have to come by subway.
March 25, 1949:
Gordon, Veronica, Lena, and Tamar promised they’d come.
Enough fantasy, perhaps. All I know is that one of these evenings would have changed my life.
These postcards (being sold on eBay) have a certain poignancy for me — not only because I can’t get to these occasions by any means short of the paranormal — but because when I go down to Greenwich Village in New York to hear jazz at Smalls, for instance, I could walk to these fabled sites.
Read the postcard, close your eyes, and imagine the band!
I can hear Benny Morton and that rhythm section . . . and I’ll bet there were some serious blues played that night. Worth $1.25.
Three of the finest cornetists / trumpeters one could imagine — with Gowans and Marsala, James P., and that Bechet fellow. Have mercy.
Well, it is reassuring to know — even at this distance — that such things happened — not once but often.
*The Sidney Bechet Society. We haven’t been able to spend Tuesdays with Monsieur Bechet for a half-century, but time spent with his youthful heirs will be just as satisfying. Don’t be left out!
Wycliffe Gordon’s “History of Jazz Trombone”
Symphony Space, Broadway & 95th St., New York City Tuesday, September 29, 2009 2 shows: 6:15pm & 9:00pm
The Sidney Bechet Society presents trombone sensation Wycliffe Gordon leading a “History of Jazz Trombone.” Wycliffe & the band will remember the legends of this soulful instrument, jazz titans like Kid Ory, Jack Teagarden, Lawrence Brown, Tricky Sam Nanton, Juan Tizol, Tommy Dorsey, J.C. Higginbotham, Tyree Glenn, Al Grey and Buster Cooper. Joining Wycliffe will be Anat Cohen, reeds (Jazz Journalists’ Assoc. 2009 Clarinetist of the Year); Etienne Charles, trumpet (winner: 2006 National Trumpet Competition); Ehud Asherie, piano; Zaid Shukri, bass; Marion Felder, drums; Terry Wilson, vocals. Tickets are $25, available at the box office, by telephone and online at http://www.symphonyspace.org (use code “RAC102” when ordering online). Special 2 show discount: get our Sept. 29 & Oct. 27 shows for $44. This offer is good at box office & phone only—use code “SBS 01”
“Remembering Stuyvesant Casino & Central Plaza” with Vince Giordano
Symphony Space, Broadway & 95th St., New York City Tuesday, October 27, 2009 6:15pm & 9:00pm
The Sidney Bechet Society presents a tribute to two legendary jazz venues: Stuyvesant Casino & Central Plaza. Joining Vince will be Randy Reinhart, trumpet; Mark Lopeman, reeds; Jim Fryer, trombone; Ehud Asherie, piano; Kenny Salvo, banjo; Rob Garcia, drums, and Ricky Gordon on washboard. During the 1940s and 1950s, these were the hotbeds of traditional Jazz in NYC. All the greats played there. Vince Giordano will lead a hot band recreating the music one would hear at both establishments. Special guest stars are pianist Marty Napoleon & clarinetist Sol Yaged, who played at both venues. Marty & Sol are 88 and 87 years old, respectively, and still swinging hard! Tickets are $25, available at the box office, by telephone and online at http://www.symphonyspace.org (use code “RAC102” when ordering online). Special 2 show discount: get our Sept. 29 & Oct. 27 shows for $44. This offer is good at box office & phone only—use code “SBS 01”
I doubt that my readers have been kept awake by the mysteries contained in this photograph, but I decided to open the discussion to the members of a jazz research group that includes the most respected jazz scholars . . . and they added a few insights.
Michael McQuaid had suggested that the unknown baritonist might be Bill Miles — only on the basis of Miles’s apprearance on some Wild Bill Davison Commodores. Plausible, but neither of us had any idea of what Miles looked like.
Then Peter Vacher, someone who knows things first-hand (he’s written a fine book collecting his interviews of famous jazz players — SOLOISTS AND SIDEMEN — worth searching out) emailed me:
Your photo sent me scurrying to my photo collection. I’m pretty sure your man is Billy Miles. I have him in a photo that Joe Darensbourg gave me showing a jam session at the Blue Bird in LA in the early 1950s. It’s an interesting line-up with Joe, Chicago drummer Bill Winston (visiting from Honolulu) and Billy Miles, playing baritone, among others. My picture shows Miles as identical to your picture, same facial expression, parting and hair style. Case closed? Hope so.
That might have been the end of it if not for Dan Morgenstern, who not only knows things but has been a part of the New York jazz scene for more than half a century. Dan proposed that 1) he had been at Stuyvesant Casino and Central Plaza, both of which were large catering halls (Central Plaza is recognizable in photographs when musicians are posed against its multicolored venetian blinds) and that it might be Lou Terassi’s; 2) the microphone was for radio broadcast; 3) it wasn’t Sidney Catlett but Art Trappier. I had written here that the upholstered background seemed more a night club’s decor, but I was crestfallen to lose Big Sid, with all respects to Art. And there the matter might rest.
But what if it was taken at a “Doctor Jazz” broadcast? Doors shut, doors open.