By Krin Gabbard
Ever since spring 2007 I’ve been showing clips from great movies and performance films at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. At first I participated in a program funded by the National Endowment for the Arts to bring jazz on film to communities throughout the US. There were at least 300 jazz-savvy speakers bringing jazz to life even in the small towns of Nebraska and Oklahoma, but I got to share my beloved video collection with the jazz aficionados of Manhattan. I am pleased to say that I was never booed.
Several years earlier I had published a book, Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema (University of Chicago Press), so I had a pretty good idea of where to find the best footage of jazz artists. I had done most of my research at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, where I worked my way through stacks of cans full of 16mm film. I watched the films on a small monitor attached to a machine that was designed for film editors. Threading the old film through a projection device, I felt more like a Hollywood professional than an obscure writer hoping to say something clever about jazz in the movies.
In the several programs I presented at the Tribeca PAC that first season, I assembled the greatest hits from my video treasures. I showed film of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, the Nicholas Brothers, and lots of great performances in otherwise forgettable films. Remember the incredible jazz sequence in Phantom Lady (1943)? Neither does anyone else. In the first season (2007-2008), I showed about ten clips each evening, contributing a few words of jazz trivia between clips.
The NEA grant money ran out after the first year, but I was delighted when the staff at Tribeca PAC brought me back for a second season and then every year after that. I begin my eighth season this month.
More often than not, I show footage of jazz singers, big bands, the best soloists, and jazz dancers. Recently, however, I have been featuring scenes from great old movies, with or without music. Last year I showed just about every scene from the films of Alfred Hitchcock in which he himself appears. You can learn a lot about Hitchcock just from his cameos. I’ve also done programs on great comedy teams, spectacular dance scenes from Hollywood musicals, and one of my favorites, “Our Favorite Monsters.”
In the new season I began with a program of memorable scenes from the films of Orson Welles, who would have turned 100 this year. The year 2015 is also a centennial for Frank Sinatra, and I’ll celebrate his appearances on film in a program scheduled for December 15.
The season continues with jazz singers (April 5) as well as a program on what I call “mutant musicals” (March 15). Think of the dance sequence in a bowling alley in The Big Lebowski. Well, that’s a mutant musical. And there are plenty more fascinating musical moments in films where you least expect them.
But you can expect to see some fascinating bits of film footage this season, all of which looks much better on the screen at Tribeca PAC than it looks on YouTube.
Krin Gabbard currently teaches in the Jazz Studies program at Columbia University. His biography of jazz artist Charles Mingus will be published in January by the University of California Press.