Caught in the Act

One reason to attend this weekend's Denver Jazz on Film Festival is for the rarities screened there--brilliant glimpses of musicians at work, caught for eternity on film or video. Many of those artists--Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae, Clifford Brown and Cannonball Adderly--are gone now, and clips such as these provide us our only lasting images of them. Two festival exhibitors, Toby Gleason and Mark Cantor, will be in town to dish out some of the best existing examples.

Gleason, son of late jazz champion Ralph Gleason, will be here to introduce a small retrospective of Jazz Casuals, a television showcase his father produced throughout the Sixties. The elder Gleason, America's first nationally syndicated jazz columnist and a founder of Rolling Stone, was more than a critic; he was also a fan who understood music and musicians from a loving perspective. Jazz Casuals represents just one zenith of his career, but it's an enduring one, set for impending release on home video under his son's management.

Now in his forties, Toby Gleason, a backstage veteran of several Jazz Casuals shoots, was just a youngster when the shows were made and admits that he was less than impressed by their import. Never mind that few kids ever got to sit in on the kind of unprecedented improvisational sessions being videotaped for the show. "I just thought it was normal," Gleason says, bemused. By the time he figured out it wasn't, it was "too late... Although I didn't consciously see it that way growing up, this became the driving force of my life."

Much of that dedication is simply an appreciation for his father's work in creating the programs: "The series was his dream fulfilled. He got a chance to bring to national audiences the music and musicians he loved--who were his friends--doing the music they loved in a setting not like anything else offered on television at the time." Of the 31 episodes made, 28 survive. None have been available to the public in their entirety in years. Gleason anticipates releasing all of them on video over a stretch of time.

Unlike Gleason, lifelong jazz lover Mark Cantor didn't inherit his treasury of rare jazz footage--he's had to dig a little to accumulate an archive. Denver audiences will only get their feet wet with "Into the Vaults," a "best of" program patched together from more than 4,000 clips Cantor has collected over the last thirty years. The images shown will range from rare footage of Clifford Brown, Django Reinhardt and Ella Fitzgerald to jazz dance clips featuring Bunny Briggs, Bill Bailey and other lesser-known hoofers popular at the Cotton Club and Apollo Theatre in Harlem. "Even people who collect old clips or are into jazz film will see things they haven't seen before--things they didn't even know existed," he promises.

A record collector first, Cantor found his first reels while rummaging for old 78s in a secondhand store. There he bought a can of film labeled simply "Jazz Movies," and once he saw what was inside, he became a full-fledged collector--something Cantor, by day a kindergarten teacher, now considers his second job. He's not only traveled worldwide with the archive and shared its contents with documentarians and filmmakers, he also maintains it as a research facility. "That's the educator in me," he says. "Film sitting on a shelf somewhere doesn't benefit anyone. In order to help the music thrive, you have to interest people in it." To that end, the archives continue to grow. And Cantor gladly continues to share them: "There are just so many clips screaming to be seen."

--Froyd

Denver Jazz on Film Festival, February 12-15, Cameron Church, 1600 South Pearl Street, 303-592-1168, www.jazzfilmfestival.org.

 
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