THERE ARE JAZZ collectors and there are film collectors, and there are several hundred people who collect jazz film but, according to jazz/film collector David Chertok, there are only eight "serious" collectors in the world, the "ones who spend a good part of their lives amassing this material."
A jazz buff since the '30s, Chertok started collecting in the late '50s, as an outgrowth of his work as a film researcher and librarian; he's been making a living with his celluloid treasures since 1976 and currently has close to 800 pieces of film, translating into well over 300 hours of viewing time. "I'm in the process of cataloguing it all in an Apple computer," he says. "Then I'll be able to retrieve information from many areas. For instance, I'm about to do a show on women in jazz. Pressing F for female, I can get a print-out of all the women in jazz that I have on film; or I can bring it back by instrument--tenor saxophone--or by year--1945."
Among the recent treasures added to Chertok's massive collection is a concert film of the late Thelonious Monk. "There were only a couple of brief clips before," says the 60-year-old New Yorker. "But I just found a 40-minute solo piano concert he'd given in France about 12 years ago; it's quite remarkable, and wonderful. Here's a major innovator and suddenly, instead of three to five minutes, there's 40 minutes. That's very exciting."
A portion of the Monk film will be part of Chertok's free showing of jazz films tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 at Baird Auditorium, part of the Smithsonian's 10th anniversary celebration of its jazz programming.
Chertok's earliest clip is from the Library of Congress, 30 seconds of black dancers doing the cakewalk in 1902, but he points out that his collection really starts with the sound period. "When you talk about jazz on film, you must start around 1929. Nobody bothered to film silent music and with good reason--it didn't make much sense. So while you can't really do an entire history of jazz on film, you can do it through film.
"Almost everybody in the history of jazz appears on film a little bit at some time," Chertok adds. "But there are some big names that didn't: Jelly Roll Morton, one of the most important jazz figures, a man who made the transition between ragtime and jazz; Fletcher Henderson; Charlie Christian. And even some of the more modern figures, like Bud Powell and Albert Ayler. Which doesn't mean they won't show up someday." Which of course, is exactly the kind of hope that keeps serious collectors going.
Some artists are abundantly represented. Chertok's big three include Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. "I have some early Armstrong, when he was 32, which is still quite early in his career. And I have 25 to 30 hours of Ellington. He was tremendously prolific and of course he goes back to 1929 in one of the earliest jazz films made. Many musicals in the '30s liked to have black artists in them. They would stop the action and the hero or heroine would walk into a black nightclub for three or four minutes, the band would do their thing and then you'd never see them again for the rest of the movie. But those moments are very precious moments."
Benny Goodman arranged for a private screening not too long ago. "He brought his daughter up, who had never seen any of the old films, and he kept looking at her for approval. She just loved it. When he left he said 'I haven't had this much fun in 10 years.' " Others who have asked for special screenings: Mel Torme, Buddy Rich and Woody Allen, a solid traditional clarinetist who asked for as many Sidney Bechet clips as Chertok could come up with.
Chertok shows his jazz films around the world, doing upwards of 100 screenings a year. His audiences are mostly young, curious about the roots of jazz and excited about seeing, rather than just hearing, legendary performers like John Coltrane, Lester Young, Billie Holiday and Coleman Hawkins. Chertok also has rare footage of Bessie Smith, Miles Davis (only one 1959 clip exists), and Charlie Parker in a three-minute clip that was missing for more than 20 years. The Parker clip is perhaps Chertok's greatest find since it was thought that no film of the legendary bop saxophonist existed. Chertok uncovered it after following vague rumors and then increasingly solid leads to the home of the television producer of a locally produced "downbeat" magazine jazz award show from 1950 on which Parker had been honored and on which he performed his classic "Hot House." Parker died three years later, and young musicians who had grown up under Parker's profound influence were particularly happy to finally be able to visualize Bird's fingering and embouchure.
The Smithsonian celebration this weekend includes concerts by Max Roach on tonight, Old and New Dreams tomorrow night, a solo piano concert featuring John Lewis, Hank Jones and Jaki Byard Sunday afternoon and Sam Rivers on Sunday night.