In elementary school, your best friend is probably someone you see all the time. As you get older, proximity isn’t essential. I never saw John L. Fell in person; I spoke to him only once on the phone and had one snapshot of him (holding his grandson on his shoulders). But he was a true friend.
I first saw John’s name on the back of an IAJRC record album devoted to Pee Wee Russell. John had written the liner notes and assembled wonderful rarities. The music held me, but I was delighted and a bit awed by John’s prose: he wrote the way I aspired to. His language crackled; he was precise, evocative, witty, sharp-tongued.
What also captured my attention was that he had included a few selections from a fabled 1960 television broadcast featuring Russell and Bobby Hackett. I found John’s address and wrote to him, asking if he would trade a cassette copy of that music, offering him whatever I had recorded on trips into New York City.
Thus began an intense and rewarding friendship with a hot jazz soundtrack. It had its own pattern, its own rhythm. About once a month we would exchange cassettes — four of them in a mailer with a letter enclosed. The letter was purportedly to list the personnel, but we both quickly delighted in conversing — what I had particularly liked in John’s last batch; what I was enclosing; the jazz he had recently seen; a gossipy story about some musician, living or dead, that we had seen. John had been part of a group of college students who, in 1947, brought a jazz band to Hamilton College: the band included Hodes, Miff Mole, Tony Parenti, Kaminsky, Danny Alvin, and had — playing intermission piano — James P. Johnson. John was an amateur clarinetist who had led his own band; I shared stories of seeing Braff and Hackett in the flesh. We shared common loves: the Condon crowd, obscure 78s, Lester Young, Billy Butterfield, Ed Hall, alternate takes, rarities.
As my collection of cassettes grew, I created a picture of John in my mind — just like his prose: perceptive, no-nonsense, enthusiastic. I found out (not from him) that he was a distinguished film scholar and bought several of his books: FILM AND THE NARRATIVE TRADITION is one I particularly admire, showing the connection between early silent film storytelling and comic strips.
John was generous, and even though I must have seemed voracious, he never complained. Many collectors hug their treasures to their figurative bosoms, as if to say, “This is mine and you can’t have it!” There was none of that in John’s largesse. He added to my library of jazz films and concerts on videotape. Through him, I saw Sidney Catlett on film (which I’d never imagined) as well as rare concert footage. I came to value his letters — which, sadly, I no longer have — as much as the music that accompanied them. Early on, John was still using a manual typewriter whose capital letter jumped at the beginning of the sentence; at some point, we both switched to rudimentary word-processing.
John also gave me a fine compliment. He took over the incomplete manuscript that his friend Terkild Vinding had written on stride piano, and fleshed it out into a book, STRIDE!, published by Scarecrow Press. I had volunteered to read the manuscript, and had offered comments and suggestions. In retrospect, probably most of them were superfluous, but John thanked me in the preface for my “sternly affectionate guidance,” which pleased me no end: the middle word, to be exact.
We traded music and conversation for perhaps five years — John went through several illnesses — until he wrote a brief, sad note that he was too ill continue. He thanked me for the music and the pleasure of our conversation, but I never heard from him again.
Whenever I met his friend James Lincoln Collier in New York, I asked for news of John, bot no one seemed to know. I don’t know when the obituary below appeared in the Hamilton College alumni bulletin, but I present it here as a measure of a generous, multi-talented, irreplaceable man.
I have only to move from my desk to pick up one of the cassettes John sent me to feel his presence.
I miss him.
John Louis Fell ’50, emeritus professor of film at San Francisco State University and a noted authority on early cinema history as well as a jazz aficionado, was born on September 19, 1927, in Westfield, NJ. The son of Shelby G., a business executive, and Frances Hildebrand Fell, he grew up in Westfield and was graduated in 1945 from Westfield High School. He entered Hamilton that fall but left the Hill after a semester in response to an irresistible call from Selective Service.
In 1947, following a year in the U.S. Army Air Force, John Fell returned to College Hill and resumed his studies with such success that he gained election to Phi Beta Kappa. He served on the staff of campus radio station WHC, played clarinet in the College Band, and also contributed his instrumental talent to the Fallacious Five jazz band. Called by The Hamiltonian the “perfect example of the rational mind in an irrational world,” he received his diploma with honors in anthropology in 1950.
After briefly taking courses in anthropology at Northwestern University, John Fell headed to New York City, where he pursued graduate studies in cinema and eked out a living as a magazine editor, free-lance writer, and jazz musician. Besides writing “pulp” for men’s magazines and numerous film scripts, he joined fellow jazz enthusiasts in Greenwich Village, including classmate and fellow Fallacious Five veteran James Lincoln Collier, in playing gigs with his clarinet. For a time he also taught in a private secondary school, where he “supervised a class of schizophrenic boys, which prepared me for academia.”
John Fell, who had acquired an M.A. in communications from New York University in 1954, stayed on at N.Y.U. to earn his Ph.D in that field in 1958. Upon obtaining his doctorate, he left the East Coast for Montana State College (now University) to take over its film and television department. He remained there in Bozeman for two years as an assistant professor, primarily supervising educational television. On December 5, 1958, while at Montana State, he was married to Suzanne Shillington in Idaho Falls, ID.
In 1960, John and Sue Fell moved to California when John was appointed to the faculty of San Francisco State College (also now University). As an assistant professor, he taught courses in motion picture history, theory, and esthetics in the department of radio-TV-film. His intellectual curiosity and wry sense of humor permeated his classroom presentations, which were drawn from his impressively wide reading in film. Appointed in 1964 to develop and administer a new film program, he supported student demands for a full-fledged cinema department, which was established under his chairmanship in 1967. He chaired the department until 1970 and again in 1975-76. A reluctant administrator who was happiest sharing his passion for cinema and jazz culture, and being a mentor and guide to his students, he led the department only long enough to get and keep it on its feet. He was promoted to full professor in 1970 and continued to teach at San Francisco State until his retirement in 1984.
In addition to contributing articles and reviews on film, music, books, theater, and photography to publications ranging from arts journals to Esquire and the Saturday Review, John Fell wrote album notes for jazz recordings. He also served on the editorial board of Film Quarterly, the advisory board of Film History, and as guest editor for Cinema Journal. A member of numerous professional organizations, including the Writers’ Guild of America and the American Federation of Musicians, he was a former president of the national academic film organization, the Society for Cinema Studies (1981-83).
However, John Fell’s enduring influence and lasting impact was through his shaping of the film department at San Francisco State and his scholarship as reflected in five books, most notably Film and the Narrative Tradition, published in 1974. He went on to write Film: An Introduction (1975), A History of Films (1979), and Film Before Griffith (1983). His last book, Stride! (1999), was an important contribution to jazz piano history.
In retirement, John Fell, residing in Larkspur in Marin County, north of San Francisco, continued to teach film and jazz courses at the College of Marin. He also continued to write and to “play very dated jazz with a group of old gentlemen on Friday afternoons.”
John L. Fell died on October 8, 2008, following a massive stroke. He is survived by his wife of almost 50 years. Also surviving are two daughters, Justine R. Fell and Eliza M. Durkin, and three grandchildren and a sister. His son, John S. Fell, the victim of a diving accident, died in 1989.