Arts Listings

Film Series Screens Rare Jazz Performance Footage

By Galen Babb, Special to the Planet
Friday January 19, 2007

A treasure trove of rare European archival jazz footage has finally made its way to the United States and is being presented in the form of a film and discussion being hosted at 50 public libraries nationwide. 

Beginning Monday, Jan. 22, the Berkeley Public Library, one of only three California venues for the forum, will present the six-part series, running one session a month through June. The series, which the library is calling “Jazz on a Monday Afternoon,” is part of a the Looking at Jazz project, funded by National Video Resources, National Endowment for the Humanities, Jazz at the Lincoln Center and the American Library Association.  

The Berkeley Public Library was selected as one of 50 libraries in the country to receive a grant and access to the archival footage that will be shown throughout the series. 

“We have done a lot of jazz history programming here at the library,” says Art and Music Librarian Michelle McKenzie, “and so we were a natural choice for this opportunity.” 

The library’s lobby features an exhibit of photos and programs from past lectures on jazz held at the library over the past three decades. 

The Berkeley presentation, co-sponsored by the Jazzschool, will be hosted by San Francisco State University professor Dr. Dee Spencer. Spencer co-founded S.F. State’s jazz studies program and, in addition to teaching, she is a jazz pianist and vocalist who performs around the Bay Area. 

The series allows each venue’s host to tailor the materials to their particular preferences. Thus Spencer will eschew the official documentaries in favor of raw, unedited performance footage, most of it unseen in the United States, showing as many full performances as possible. Much of the footage comes from European television outlets, featuring music and musicians more often appreciated abroad than in their native land. Other segments are recent discoveries from private collections, neglected for years in long-forgotten vaults. 

“This is not a documentary; it’s a film series devoted to jazz musicians,” says Spencer. “There won’t be a lot of talking heads; we’re going to let the music speak for itself. 

“I am going to talk as little as possible about the performers because I don’t want to get in the way of the music, and I have so much music I want to present,” she explains. “We have a whole bunch of footage that has been sitting in a vault somewhere, a lot of it filmed in Europe and it has never been seen before in the United States.” 

Afterwards Spencer will take questions and demonstrate examples on the piano. “It is going to be very interactive,” she says. “We’re in a library, so if afterwards you want to do more research on an artist it will be right at hand, so you don’t need me to lecture. I see myself as guiding people, I don’t want to tell the people about it, I want to show them...I kind of think of myself as a jazz activist. I want to get people excited about jazz and out there supporting the music.” 

The footage includes early and exceedingly rare performances by Louis Armstrong and the Hot Fives and the Hot Sevens, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton, as well as Ella Fitzgerald performing with Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones performing with Dizzy Gillespie, and even contemporary artists like Regina Carter. 

The first installment in the series, entitled “New Orleans and the Origins of Jazz,” runs from 2-4 p.m. Monday and will feature rare footage of the musical stylings that would give birth to jazz, including street cries, marching bands and funeral parades from the early 20th century.  

Since most of what survives of early jazz are studio recordings, it can be difficult to fully comprehend the influence of pioneers like Armstrong. The technologies of the time limited recordings in both length and quality. The official recordings of Armstrong, for instance, are usually just two minutes long, whereas the same songs in a live performance could run much longer, the musicians improvising new arrangements every night.  

The fidelity of the recordings is uneven as well. Armstrong’s trumpet playing was so forceful that it would cause the phonograph needle to skip when cutting the wax masters. The solution was to move him further back from the device, behind the band even. Thus in many of his early recordings Armstrong is actually standing as far 15 feet behind the band, greatly altering the sound. Spencer’s footage should give a more accurate account of the dynamics of Armstrong and his band in this era.  

“There is nothing like seeing artists when they are young and vibrant with the modern sound and format. We will get to see a young Louis Armstrong leading what is basically the first jazz ensemble ever,” says Spencer. 

By presenting full performances along with discussion and demonstration, Spencer hopes the series will give participants a more accurate reflection of the influence and range of these musicians, giving a better sense of the talents that conspired in the invention of “America’s music.” 



Jan 22: New Orleans and the Origins of Jazz  

Feb. 26: The Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance  

March 26: Jazz Vocalists  

April 9: The Swing Era  

May 21: Jazz Innovators: From BeBop, to Hard Bop, to Cool and More  

June 25: Latin Jazz and Jazz as an  

International Music 

Admission to all presentations is free.  

For more information, call the Berkeley  

Public Library at 981-6100 or visit or 


Photograph: The King and Carter Jazzing Orchestra, 1921.