Thanks to Joep Peeters for pointing out that this fascinating piece of cultural / musical anthropology is available on YouTube. 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.