In filmography, the “primary source document” is, quite naturally, the film itself. In most cases of classic jazz performance, this will usually be either 35mm film, or a videotape, laserdisc, or DVD derived from this source. In the case of a television kinescope or jukebox short, that source will be 16mm film.
This is, of course, the place to begin when examining a film, and many of the errors in published resources result because the primary source document has not been consulted. Unfortunately, this is rarely mentioned by the author. For example, had the primary source document been screened, and the proper research been done, we would no longer have both books and online sources claiming that Lee Wiley appears in the released version of Woody Herman And His Orchestra; that Frankie Newton solos in Readin’ ‘Ritin’ And Rhythm; that Bud Powell appears in Cootie Williams And His Orchestra (which is actually a reissue title for Film Vodvil); or that the Coleman Hawkins Quintet merely sidelines in Crimson Canary. Other sources give “approval ratings” to such films as Ex-Flame, which has not been screened in decades. The above behavior is tantamount to reviewing a recording without listening to it.
Having said this, even a screening of the primary source material does not guarantee an accurate reportage. Films have been edited over the years for a variety of reasons, and one must try to be certain that the print one is viewing is, in fact, complete. For example, the 35mm nitrate print of Devil’s Holiday held by the U.C.L.A. Film and Television Archive, has an abrupt edit, leading to what appears to be a brief missing scene; the feature is also two or three minutes short of the reported running time. Could this missing scene have contained a rumored appearance by Luis Russell and his Orchestra?
Therefore, studio documents—scripts, cue sheets, film and recording contracts, etc.—become the second major source where documenting jazz on film is concerned. A film’s contents can also be determined by American Federation of Musicians recording contracts, censorship scripts and the like. Even here, however, we must remain wary since many documents are prepared in advance of production and do not reflect last minute changes. Others are produced after production is complete but are created with promotion, rather than accuracy, in mind. While many such documents are available, far more are either no longer extant, or buried in corporate archives and not available to researchers.
Another essential pair of sources is musicians and jazz experts themselves, although with the passage of time they have become less and less accessible. Much of the information in my database is the direct result of communication—shared descriptions, videotapes, and pictures—with the people who appear in the films, or who were on the scene at the times that the films were made. The evaluation of images many decades old, and perhaps the desire to see friends on screen can cause errors in identification. I recall one gentleman who spent considerable time on Central Avenue during the 1930s and 1940s, who was a fountainhead of knowledge, but who also seemed to see his buddy Leo Trammel, a lesser-known reedman, in every picture that I shared with him.
As always, we must trust our eyes and ears, but temper our desires with our knowledge. Unlike the collectors of old who heard Bix Beiderbecke or Joe Oliver on countless recordings with unknown persons, we should not accept an identification just because the shadowy figure looks like this musician, or sounds like that one. Verification and second opinions are always a necessary part of the research process.
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