Very recently, British Pathe released some 85,000 films to the world, through their channel on the popular site Youtube.com. It’s such a plethora of visual material, with, surprisingly, a large amount of footage of Jazz. The Jazz entries actually reach back to the 1910s (!) and continue into the 1960s. Mostly, it’s British Jazz, and Jazz related artists; but Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, are just a few of the many American artists captured by Pathe. As music, Jazz is at its heart an aural art form, but human beings are quite visual, and thus being the case, it is wonderful to behold sights of an otherwise abstract medium. What follows is merely a sampling – with notable rarities, historically significant figures, and a variety of styles. (The link to each clip will be posted at the close of each paragraph).
Perhaps the most historically important film recently unearthed is a short titled Music Hath Charms, featuring none-other-than The Original Dixieland Jazz Band! It was filmed at a zoo, with the band playing to the delight of audiences, and possibly animals as well. It is misdated, listed as 1931, all visual evidence and the fact that the ODJB were England from 1919-20, places it circa 1920. That 1919-1920 tour of England no doubt brought them to the attention of Pathe. Judging from the addition of a saxophonist, which the band often added their return to the United States after (Benny Krueger is at the times the sax man) the film was likely shot in the U.S. in the Fall of 1920. It is unfortunate and frustrating it is silent, but none-the-less stunning footage of the pioneering band.
A Minute With Duke Ellington and his Band, is just that – a roughly one minute clip with sound of The Ellington Orchestra playing at the Cotton Club circa the earliest 1930s. Billed as “ one of the leaders of hot Jazz” it showcases the band playing for dancers, with close-ups of Duke, Sonny Greer, and Cootie Williams, and several shots of the chorus line. The piece is not a familiar composition, but rather one specifically composed for a dance routine. The clip itself is a short excerpt from a longer overview titled Harlem. It’s short and sweet, but early and important in documenting Duke in the first major phase of his career.
The Pathe News series presented Benny Goodman playing in Holland in 1958 to very enthusiastic audiences. Dutch Dig Benny Goodman showcases the King of Swing performing in a fruit and vegetable auction hall to a gathering of more than 5,000 fans. Goodman toured Europe that year with a band including Zoot Sims, Vernon Brown, Taft Jordan, and Jimmy Rushing, and featured many new charts, giving him a much needed lift. It culminated with a week at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. The film bills him as “the grand old maestro of American music,” and, while that may have been true, Benny was close to his 49th birthday. Jazz, and popular music, had changed drastically since the 1930s, and Goodman very well known as the primary exponent of the Swing Era performs “Bugle Call Rag”. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaty65FprVg]
The Modern Jazz Quartet is featured in footage filmed in Prague, from their 1965 European tour. The classic line-up of John Lewis, Percy Heath, Milt Jackson, and Connie Kay, are seen in wide angle and close up shots, though frustratingly – it is after all 1965! – the clip is silent. It was shot in October ’65 at Lucerna Hall, and following the MJQ, the Kurt Edelhagen Orchestra performs. Upon viewing one can almost hear them playing “Django,” or “Orfeo Negro.”
This handful of clips really only scratches the surface of what this phenomenal archive has to offer. It unfortunate that many of the clips are silent, but still film – silent or sound – holds its own unique charm and appeal. It’s fascinating, though not surprising, that a British company would release its full archives with such fanfare (and for free, at that!), whereas one might be hard pressed to imagine an American counterpart doing the same. An antiquated U.S. copyright law system is the primary culprit. That aside even, sadly the interest in American culture, Jazz in this instance, remains stronger outside the United States, than it does here. Through the British Pathe archives, we’re presented with a variety of styles, and primary exponents of Jazz, some of which are familiar, some quite rare, and all a joy to watch.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]