On Saturday, I had the pleasure of sitting in a packed auditorium at the Jewish Center of San Francisco to watch a lovingly curated showing of vintage clips of jazz dance on film from the 1930s to the 1950s. Called the "Giants of Jazz on Film," this is a popular series of film clip showings curated by master jazz historian Mark Cantor.
Mark Cantor has amassed perhaps the definitive collection of jazz on film in the world, with more than 4,000 separate titles in his care. While Mark focuses on jazz, his collection spans a variety of musical genres from "blues, Swing, Western Swing, 'pop,' rhythm and blues, country-western, vernacular dance, vaudeville and variety arts."
Mark put on a fantastic showing of jazz dance film clips from his collection, for a rapt audience of several hundred audience members. While "jazz dance" might have many definitions and connections to other forms of dance, Mark mainly showed tap and lindy hop dancers. He included some of the greatest dancers of that era, including Shorty George Snowden, Harold Nicholas, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the Berry Brothers, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers , and Dean Collins. In addition he exposed us to many lesser known but also stellar dancers, including several "eccentric" stylists such as Bobby "Table" Davis, Slick and Slick (barefoot hoofers!), and "Rubberneck" Holmes.
Mark doesn't just show clip after clip after clip; he introduces sets of film snippets with detailed notes about who is performing and why it is notable. This is really the heart of the show, guiding the viewers to see these historic gems the way that this jazz expert sees them, perhaps noticing details a casual viewer might miss, or making connections across performances that are new and surprising.
All-in-all, an amazing and inspiring showcase of historic jazz on film. I feel so lucky to be involved in such a great tradition of dance that spans the generations up until today. In fact, several lindy hoppers in the audience rushed off from the showing to dance to the final hours of the "Bootleggers Ball" in the Mission. While we might lack the pizazz and showmanship of these legendary dancers of another era, we are in our own way keeping alive this awesome dance.
You can catch Mark Cantor's next "Giants of Jazz on Film" showing on May 5th at the Jewish Center of San Francisco. See the JCCSF website for details and tickets.
And if you aren't in SF, Mark has been slowly putting up some of his clips on his new YouTube channel. Not as good as seeing them curated live for you by Mark, but some wonderful and rare videos nonetheless. For example, check out this little seen clip of young hoofers Winnie and Bobby Johnson from 1936.