Movie High Notes
"Once I started listening to jazz, it wasn't hard to realize it was very soulful, high-quality music that you could get totally engaged with. Good jazz doesn't get dated." Thus says Michael Chertok, who runs the Chertok Archives, one of the nation's most extensive collections of jazz performances. And Chertok should know. He claims to have footage of every jazz artist who has ever been filmed. (Only a precious few eluded the camera's unwavering gaze.) Topnotch jazz on film is the focus of the informative and enjoyable Jazz in Film Festival, sponsored by local radio station WDNA-FM (88.9) and commencing this Friday at the Absinthe House Cinematheque.
The festival has grown from a three- to seven-day affair this year and touts a diverse lineup of documentaries about outstanding jazz figures, such as trumpet virtuoso Louis Armstrong, ethereal songstress Sarah Vaughan, and stellar vocalists Joe Williams and Betty Carter (both of whom died within the past year). Cartoons will be screened and even prominent label Blue Note records will get its due. It won't be all jazz, though: Blues, bossa nova, and Latin music will be covered, too.
Directors Burrill Crohn and Robert Mugge will stop in to introduce their work. Chertok, who in 1986 took over the archive his father established in the Seventies, will attend as well, presenting a tribute in honor of the centenary of Duke Ellington's birth. The program of performance clips, which Chertok calls "a whole music-history lesson, a jazz-history lesson, and an Ellington lesson in one" will span from 1929 to 1970.
Pianist, band leader, composer, and personality, the prolific Ellington produced a slew of hit songs over the years, including "Satin Doll," "Sophisticated Lady," and "Take the 'A' Train." Besides being a superb musician, Ellington was a fine PR man. He was one of the first to exert strict control over his public image. "He was the greatest self-marketer, and I don't mean that in a bad way," Chertok comments. "It was very natural. People were riveted by him."
One devotee who helped enhance the compelling aura that emanated from Ellington was the often-ignored Billy Strayhorn, a stunning composer and musician in his own right and Ellington's long-time arranger and writing partner. "The alter ego, they call him," says Chertok. "He wrote very much in Ellington's style so that sometimes you don't know where one starts and the other one leaves off. And it doesn't matter in a way."
What is important to Chertok is communicating the profound effect Ellington had on music. "His career mirrored the development of jazz," says Chertok. "He was always contemporary, never considered out of fashion. He was always, even to his last days, willing to take chances, write new forms."
Being a fan of every other type of music but jazz while growing up meant Chertok missed out on hearing Ellington in person. "I never saw him play live. By the time I realized how much I adored him, he was dead," Chertok notes sadly. "But when you're done with this kind of a program, you almost feel like you've seen him. You feel as if you had this Ellington experience."
Aside from immersing the crowd in all things Ellington, Chertok will also host "Jazz Legends on Film," which includes snippets of famed jazzsters such as Erroll Garner and Thelonious Monk. "It's just my favorite clips," says the man who was studying to be a teacher until the unforgettable lessons of jazz took hold.
"I don't want to be pedantic about this," says Chertok about his lectures. "This is not school. I'm not educating anybody, although hopefully they'll come away with some extra knowledge. It's really just fun. You have to leave thinking, Oh that felt good! And then if you think, Oh that's important, or I have to follow up on that, that's great -- but that's extra."
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