February 1, 2011

Blast From the Past: Mark Cantor’s Jazz Films

I had the pleasure of attending Mark Cantor’s “Jazz on Film” presentation on January 22nd here at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and it was a blast from the past. Cantor is a jazz film archivist who has collected over 4,000 reels (yes, actual film) of vintage jazz performances. He shares programs of these rare films at presentations all over the world, including The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, The International Association of Jazz Record Collectors, Monterey Jazz Festival, Academie du Dance (Paris, France), Festival de Popoli (Florence, Italy), and even the Playboy Mansion.

The San Francisco presentation included twenty-four jazz films from the 1920s up to the 1970s, all presented on the big screen with terrific sound. Sort of puts YouTube to shame. And these are films you’ll see nowhere else. Highlights included violinist Joe Venuti sawing out a swinging version of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” a prancing Lucky Millinder conducting his band in “The Hucklebuck,” and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers doing “Moanin’” and featuring the song’s composer, Bobby Timmons, on piano. Lowlights (but fun nevertheless) included stripper Ann Corio singing “Pistol Packin’ Mama” backed by the Red Norvo Orchestra and an odd animated Prudential Life Insurance commercial from the 1950s featuring music written by Duke Ellington specifically for the commercial and played by his orchestra. The program also featured a couple of “Soundies,” which were the first “music videos” - filmed in the 1940s, they were played on special film juke boxes.

Cantor has served as a consultant on a large number of music documentaries and feature films. His footage was included in A Great Day In Harlem and Ken Burns’s monumental Jazz. (Burns said that Cantor was an “invaluable asset” to his film.) If you get a chance to catch one of his film presentations, I highly recommend it. You’ll discover some hidden treasures of great jazz that you won’t be able to see or hear anywhere else.

(For those in San Francisco, Cantor will be giving two more presentations at the JCC. Visit their website for more information.)

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