LOS ANGELES, Calif., April 9, 2017 — In the early 1980s, the videocassette — VHS or Betamax, take your pick — was an emerging technology. DVDs, the Internet, You Tube and digital streaming were not even dreamt of by the American consumer.
If you wanted to revisit vintage audiovisual musical performance in the home, your only choice was limited to television or 16mm sound film.
Today, Mark Cantor’s Celluloid Improvisations Music Film Archive is probably the largest collection of 16mm jazz, blues, and pop music performance worldwide held in private hands.
By the 1990’s Celluloid Improvisations was still a growing, if substantial, collection, and it was not unusual for Cantor to hear from musicians who wanted to see themselves, or their musical peers, on film.
Because he had hosted many screening at his home, Cantor was not surprised to receive a call in 1995 from Jim Keltner, a Los Angeles-based studio drummer of some renown.
Would it be possible to drop by for a film night, along with a couple of guests? “Not a problem,” replied Cantor. “And who might the guests be?’
“Freddie Gruber and Charlie Watts,” replied Jim.
Freddie Gruber was a big band drummer and music teacher, perhaps best known to jazz fans as being present at the “Band That Never Was” rehearsal session of April 1950 that included Charlie Parker.
Charlie Watts was at another level altogether, the drummer with perhaps the finest rock bands of that or any other era: The Rolling Stones.
Anticipating an evening of wonderful viewing and conversation, Cantor picked up the crackers and brie and wine, and then pulled some of his gems of modern jazz, films that featured such master drummers as Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, and Art Blakey.
Charlie Watts was the first to arrive, even then looking old and frail, but with that proverbial “smile that lights up the room.”
Once he was comfortably settled, Watts set the tone for the evening: “You know, Mark, the Stones bought me my Mansion in London, but I am really a jazz drummer at heart, and you are under no compunction to show us any rock and roll.”
The other guests arrived soon after, and over light snacks, the four talked about jazz in general, and especially the incredible era of the big bands!
Mark Cantor then smiled, grabbed an armful of films from a back room, and announced the featured artists. No smiles, no ready acceptance, maybe a little surprise.
“No, no. no,” said Watts. “That’s not what we came to see.”
“Well, who would you like me to screen?” Mark asked.
“Well,” answered Watts, “Big Sid Catlett and George Wettling …. and we’ve just got to see Davey Tough.”
No dismay on Cantor’s part … he had all of these musicians on film …. but certainly some shock at the musicians’ choices.
Big Sid Catlett, one of the greatest of big band and combo drummers to come out of the Swing Era, was dead at 41 years of age in 1951.
Dave Tough, equally skilled with an Eddie Condon Chicago Dixieland group or the big band of Woody Herman, passed away in 1948.
Dixieland and big band drummer George Wettling had lived into the late 1960s, but had not progressed musically since the 1930s.
First up, an excerpt from a 1947 independent black cast feature titled SEPIA CINDERELLA, featuring the John Kirby Sextet, with drum solo by Sid Catlett.
The excerpt ran around 6 minutes, and there was not a sound from anyone. But when it was done, Watts turned to Cantor: “Again, please?”
This time the three started to play “air drums,” trying to figure out what Catlett was doing. “I think we need another screening,” said Jim after the second run through. And after the third, “One more time please?”
By the fourth screening, the three musicians were playing their air drums, all in sync with Sid Catlett.
During any given “film night” up to a dozen and a half films might be shared for the guests, but this evening only three, since the same pattern followed: a March of Time newsreel segment with Dave Tough, and a cinéma vérité short with George Wettling: each screened and re-screened, with the three drummers trying to figure out what these masters were doing on screen, and how.
Somewhere around 11:00, the evening ended, with a many thanks from the three guests. Cantor was left in somewhat of a state of shock, to the extent that he forgot to get Charlie Watts to autograph his copy of “Sticky Fingers,” or Jim Keltner to sign a George Harrison LP, or Freddie Gruber to sign a copy of “The Band That Never Was” LP.
No, not a single autograph, but certainly a terrific memory of a rather unusual evening with some of history’s greatest drummers, and the ghosts of those that influenced them.
Mark Cantor is a film and music historian and the curator of Celluloid Improvisations Music Film Archive, one of the largest private collections of jazz, blues, and American popular music on 16mm film worldwide.
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