About the Altman-Koss Video Jazz Archive

The collection was donated to the University’s Music Department by an alumnus, the distinguished film and television composer and producer, John Altman. The collection comprised approximately 1600 VHS tapes of footage of jazz performances recorded off-air from television broadcasts. Altman, along with his colleague the late Eric Koss, established a network of collectors who had been exchanging and sharing the footage over a period of some years.

The School of Media, Film and Music has started to digitise this footage in order to enhance access to the collection for students, and for visiting scholars.

The Centre is highlighting this to improve knowledge and understanding of the collection. This will allow the collection a new lease of life, preserving footage that might otherwise have been lost from studio archives. Having the collection in one place provides the opportunity for researchers to look at it in a broader context and to readily compare material across a wide range of sources.

The physical collection also includes meticulously hand typed index cards which will be documented along with the footage, as well as a number of notes to and from various collectors, along with newspaper cuttings from some of the broadcasts. It also includes several revised catalogues with details of when and where the material was collected. Over time the carefully catalogued tapes have been subject to the slow shuffle of entropy, so it is hoped that the digitisation of the collection will preserve their order. As an artefact, the collection bears the marks of a community of avid collectors who put huge amounts of time and effort into an area of study that Heile notes had hitherto been overlooked. As the title of one of the catalogue attests, the collection is the extraordinary result of the dedicated efforts of a ‘video freak’. The collection will be made available through the School of Media Film & Music’s Resource Centre to current students and to visiting scholars.

– From the University of Sussex website

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Eye of the Hurricane: National Truths Revealed Through the Music and History of New Orleans

Update: This post was written in August, before Hurricanes Harvey and Irma devastated the Caribbean and Southeast United States. Finally published in late September, the content now seems even more pertinent international discussion than it did previously.

I’ve been wanting to write about New Orleans for a while. Well-known as the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans was and still is as important to jazz history as it is to American history and culture. Searching through the archive for videos that offer a comprehensive view of New Orleans through the lens of jazz (or maybe it’s better to say a view of jazz, through the lens of New Orleans), I ended up listening to an interview of NOLA musician Wynton Marsalis on the Charlie Rose show, recorded during the fallout of Hurricane Katrina. Poignant and philosophical, Marsalis’s answers touch on multiple facets of the city, its music, and how the tragedy there centered the surrounding debate on so many issues Americans have on a national level. So I thought, as the interviewer begins on Altman tape 141, “Who better to talk to us about New Orleans than Wynton Marsalis? He is a world-renowned trumpeter, the artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center, and a native of that great city [2:31:20].”

Asked about what family he had in the city at that time, while people were still trying to find shelter in the aftermath of the hurricane, Wynton replies, “I have my mother, my father, three of my brothers, cousins, uncles, I’ve got all kinds of various relatives. Everyone in our clan is accounted for. My brother’s people are scattered around in different places, but, everyone’s alive.” In that he includes Ellis Marsalis, his father and one of the greatest piano players in jazz history, and his brother, Branford Marsalis, who has been described as “arguably the most respected living U.S. jazz instrumentalist.” In addition to Delfeayo and Jason, these five form the Marsalis jazz dynasty, nicknamed “The First Family of Jazz,” and is probably the most influential family of musicians to come out of New Orleans and the United States. But they’re not the only one that New Orleans is home to: several of the most prominent and genre-pushing musicians active today can trace their family histories back to New Orleans. Trombone Shorty, brother to bandleader James Andrews and grandson of singer-songwriter Jessie Hill, played his first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival at the age of four, and has since been drawing young musicians with an in interest in rock and blues to his energetic type of jazz fusion. Even more relevant is Christian Scott Atunde, world-class trumpet player and grandson of the legendary Donald Harrison Jr., who is melding hip hop, Native American, and Creole music into a new genre of jazz he’s calling “Stretch Music.” All three musicians openly and frequently declare a love of their city and culture, as articulated by Wynton in the interview: “We’re a clannish kind of people… we have our traditions and our customs. We love being New Orleanians, wherever we go. Man, I been gone a long time, but I love being from New Orleans.”

Donald Harrison Jr.

Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah


Speaking on how music factors into the other facets of the city, Marsalis explains at 2:32:30, “We are really probably the only city in America that the economy and the politics kind of revolve around the culture. In most other places we don’t have as great a cultural base. Our ceremonies, our food, our music – we are known for those things internationally. We’re not as known nationally for them; nationally it’s known as a place where you can get a good meal and you can get drunk.” This is the first indication in the interview that something is bothering Wynton about the way New Orleans is portrayed within the United States, but he doesn’t delve deeper until the interviewer asks him whether or not the city will rebound from the current tragedy.

The Marsalis family in concert

“We’re gonna fix it. That’s not even really an issue. We’re Americans; we’re good in a crisis. We have a tradition of rising to a crisis. Now the problem we’re gonna have is after that… What we have a tendency to do is we rise in that moment, but when that moment is past, we fall back again. We need a reminder. Because the heroism of Americans, when we come together, for some reason it never becomes a part of our national mythology. And so that’s why we are doomed to repeat the same kind of mistakes, just like what happens in your personal life.”

So Wynton sees the resilience in New Orleans and the strength of spirit available to overcome the current tragedy, but he’s concerned about the long-term: how do Americans deal before and after a crisis? What is our identity as a nation in peacetime? Asked about which parts of Hurricane Katrina have been personally difficult for him, Wynton responds,

“I guess the hardest for me is the stupidity surrounding the deaths of the people. I mean a hurricane is a catastrophe, there’s nothing you can do about that, you’re overwhelmed by it… But I feel that the type of callousness that was shown toward the people when they were stranded,  by our government, by politicians, I just feel like that highlights the incompetence on every level – like taking money away from the levee project – I think the more we investigate, just on every level, you’ll see a level of incompetence born of lack of interest and caring. And it’s in all of our other cities, it just takes a catastrophe or something to bring it out. It exposes it – the underbelly. It exposes a lot of the basic truths of how far we’ve fallen from our fundamental principles. And for us we’ve always had to struggle with our fundamental principles, you know? In this case we’re talking about race and class [2:35:10].”
Jumping from the present, local case of Katrina and New Orleans, Wynton points to the greater American historical narrative:

“It’s the same thing that we discovered when the Constitutional Congress decided that black people would be three-fifths of a person. Not because of the Southerners, because of the Northerners. When we discovered with Hayes-Tilden that Reconstruction would be repealed, so that black people could go back to basic slavery. 1876, when we discovered with Plessy v. Ferguson before the turn of the century that – and Homer Plessy was from New Orleans – when we discovered that, Separate but Equal, but, Separate but Unequal…

When we discovered after World War I the Harlem Regiment was the most decorated in France, and World War II, that black soldiers could not fight. When we discovered after the Civil Rights Movement, with what is now called the Republican Reclamation…

We discover this same thing over and over again, which is basically, ‘Don’t lean on us, don’t trust us.’ Because when you need us to be there for you, what we are saying in our ideology, we are not really prepared to live up to that with the type of intensity that we would have to live up to it to make our nation be a reality, to make our nation be congruent with its foundational principles.”

These insights into what this current disaster says about the failings of America as a whole are broad and difficult to contend with. But Wynton brings the discussion back to the local level by explaining his personal commitment to support New Orleans as a musician:

“My primary function will be to embody our culture, and to say that, ‘Our way of life is valuable’ – I’m here, I represent that, and people at home know that. We’re all together, and our way of life is not something that’s going to perish because of a flood. Now, basically, we are born in hardship, and by that I mean all New Orleanians. Especially, of course, black people are resilient people, we’re blues people – and blues never lets tragedy have the last word, that’s the nature of the expression. And let’s not forget that the expression comes from an experience, and from a people. And not just black people – New Orleanians, Southern people, American people, people of soul – we’re not going to just fade away because of a crisis. That’s not in our nature, in our character, it’s also not in our history [2:38:50].”

By invoking America’s history of oppression and the blues, Wynton is tapping into the root of both the problem facing New Orleans at this time and the strength the city drew on to confront it: the history of the slave trade, which spawned both the institutional racism and systemic poverty alive today and the culture and spirit that drew some people together in this time to alleviate the worst of the tragedy. The racism and callousness in the American government allowed politicians to ignore the concerns of lower-class, predominantly black New Orleanians and withdraw money from the levee project; as a result, the 9th Ward was among the hardest hit neighborhoods during Hurricane Katrina. It allowed a dehumanizing attitude as, in the midst of dealing with a hurricane, four officers that were supposed to keep order in the situation instead added to the chaos by shooting six unarmed black citizens, killing two of them. It allowed for a blatant negligence as President George W. Bush delayed the federal emergency response for multiple days as people were left stranded in floodwater.

These events are reflected and recounted by musicians, particularly those directly from New Orleans and those culturally indebted to it. Wynton Marsalis played at both the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Concert at the Lincoln Center (tape 180) and the Hurricane Flood Relief Show (tape 141), the latter including celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kanye West. Though Altman’s tape catches a glimpse of Kanye, it cuts off right before it would have gone into the hip hop musician’s famous off-script speech of the tragedy and ensuing criticism of the sitting president, neatly summarized in one sentence: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Just a few months ago, at the last Christian Scott concert I attended, the NOLA native talked at length about the influence his city had on him before revealing that the Danziger Bridge shooting was the emotional context for a song he was about to play. This tragedy deeply affected these musicians, and their music expresses and communicates that tragedy to the rest of the world, drawing a different, more humane kind of attention back to it; and that’s a recurring theme in the history of New Orleans and the United States. This is not the first hurricane to hit Louisiana and become subject matter for the musicians living there; there have been many, such as in 1947, 1965, and 1969. There have been all the historical events that Wynton briefly touched on in his interview. There has been the slave trade in the South, where on plantations African-American rhythms and song mixed with gospel hymns to form the beginnings of soul, blues, and, eventually, jazz music.

Those beginnings, the musical mixture that in New Orleans distilled gospel spirituals, the African tresillo, blues form, and swing sensibilities into a unique cultural genre, were embodied by Louis Armstrong, who took it with him from New Orleans to Chicago, and from Chicago to the rest of the world under sponsorship of the U.S. State Department (earning him the nickname “Ambassador Satch”). His and other musician’s championship of New Orleanian culture have made it one of the strongest representations of America on the world stage, despite the many bouts of tragedy in its history. As Wynton says, “We need to lead the world from a soul standpoint. The blues swept around the world, it came from the United States; jazz swept around the world, it came from the United States.”

The interviewer mentions that George Bush wanted to export democracy to the rest of the world, too. Wynton has a response to that as well:

“Well, let’s deal with some democracy at home. And stop with all this polarization and not caring, not having just a feeling for people, man, just a basic feeling, and nuances of human life. We’re seeing it exhibited with such grace and elegance all over the screen by all kinds of people. ‘Cause this is not just a black issue. So I don’t like it when it’s put in those terms. What about all the people flying helicopters, all the doctors, all the people on the ground, people in those boats, they don’t count? Those people count, man. They’re not obligated to do those jobs. Those people are working day and night. They’re living and sweating and dying with those people out there. Those people count. They’re Americans, and we see the working of our country together, but we don’t have the leadership to put that into context. Everybody’s ready to spin. Now they’re trying to think, ‘What photo can we get?’ or ‘How can we focus more on the looting? How can we create more of a story?’ It’s all just bulls–t, man.”

The interviewer: “And the story you want to see told is what?”

Wynton: “I want to see the story that will help our nation the best. That’s the story I’m interested in.”

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60th Annual Monterey Jazz Fest

Last weekend Monterey hit a milestone: 60 years of hosting one of the most exciting musical events worldwide, known and hailed internationally as the Monterey Jazz Fest. And they didn’t hold back for this special anniversary: topping the lineup with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, all three days of the festival were jam-packed with acts such as the Roy Hargrove Quintet, Kenny Barron, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Common, Joshua Redman, Pedrito Martinez, all three of the Claytons (John, Jeff, and Gerald), Joe Lovano, Regina Carter, Branford Marsalis, and Jimmy Heath (to name a few). Not only was this year’s fest particularly star-studded, but it also included a diverse spread of genres while keeping the focus centered around jazz.

I was fortunate enough to perform at this year’s festival with the UCSC Jazz Combo, after spending the summer researching jazz for this archive! As a result I came to MJF with a much more critical ear and better-informed playing – read my experience of the event and our performance over on the Muse-Tripper blog.

The archive currently has two videos on previous years: tape #6, which contains footage from MJF 1970 (including an Ellington performance), and tape #91, the full documentary Monterey Jazz Festival: 40 Legendary Years, released in 2006. The latter is an in-depth film featuring interviews with the musicians and festival organizers, including performances by John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, Patrice Rushen, Joshua Redman, Clark Terry, Mundell Lowe, Dave Brubeck, John Hendricks, Jim Hall, Gerald Wilson. It can be found for sale on Amazon, although the full documentary is up on YouTube as well.

That documentary has a bit about MJF co-founder Ralph Gleeson that caught me: at 1:41:48, “By 1967, Ralph Gleeson wrote that rock music had more to say about what was happening in America than Jazz. And he convinced Myers to add rock to the Saturday Afternoon line-up.“ This led to an influx of Blues and rock to the festival, which in the 60s almost ruined the festival’s reputation as being a Mecca for jazz artists. But it returned to its roots in the 70s, and today is internationally recognized as one of the premier jazz spots in the world, while still incorporating branching genres into its line-up. Now, in 2017, the festival continues its reputation by featuring acts such as hip hop artist Common, bluegrass star Chris Thile (with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau), and experimental groups such as the Hammond organ/drum kit duo Amendola vs. Blades. Yet the festival remained thoroughly jazz-oriented; nobody could argue with the authority brought by Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman, and Branford Marsalis – and that’s only a handful of the high-profile names topping the line up this year. 

The open approach MJF takes to jazz really interests me, especially as someone who is just starting their musical career. So I really focused on that aspect of the festival in the post mentioned above. If you’re interested in finding out what Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Roy Hargrove, and Common all have in common (pun intended), go check it out!

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Roy Hargrove: Performer, Composer, and Jazz Educator

On July 15th I was lucky enough to catch Roy Hargrove at the famous New Morning jazz club in Paris, a venue he passes through almost every year. He’s one of my heroes when it comes to trumpet playing and music in general: not only has he worked across genres from jazz masters like Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis to hip hop legend D’Angelo, but he talks, thinks, and teaches about music in a way that’s almost philosophical. He’s also a very fun musician, balancing out his serious technical skills with dancing on stage, jokes in interviews, and experimenting with strange sounds and sound effects. So as a follow-up to the performance, I dug into the archive to see what I could find on him.

As someone who’s very good about allowing videos of his concert performances on YouTube, it was refreshing to find tapes on the maybe lesser-known aspects of Roy’s career, from his earlier days. The four tapes I could find portrayed him in four very different contexts: number 19 as a leader of his own big band in 1995; 112, as a guest and performer at what would have been Dizzy Gillespie’s 81st birthday party, where we see his interview right before he goes on stage; 119, showing a young Hargrove playing with an old Joe Henderson and talking a bit about the legend; and 325, the full concert of Roy when he appeared with The NHOP Quintet at Jazz Baltica in 1996. And across these tapes, especially the first three, you really begin to see Roy Hargrove’s importance to the jazz world not only as a performer and composer, but as an educator. Of course many other jazz musicians will preach the significance of passing on what they know, but for Roy the exchange in education emerges quite apparently as a principle he’s held onto his entire life.

Take, for example, tape 19. Roy is leading his big band at the Village Jazz Festival in 1995, when he would have been about 26 years old. He talks about his dream of putting on a full big band, and how he had mentioned it in an interview once. “James Brown noticed and made it happen for me (00:08:15).” The footage cuts to clips of him rehearsing the group, directing them and playing with his trumpet pointed towards them, while he talks about the differences between leading big band and quintet. “It’s an extreme task of leadership,” he explains. Watching his conducting in the rehearsals and hearing the reverence in his tone when he talks about leadership and Brown helping make his dream come true, you understand that for Roy this is about more than taking the stage with a group of his own. He actually wants to offer something of himself to the lineage of big band music in jazz, to future jazz musicians, and he approaches the whole thing with an admirable humility that not every musician has (looking at you, Benny Goodman and Charles Mingus).

Although tape 112 only shows Hargrove’s interview prior to playing at the NYC Blue Note in 1999 for Dizzy’s birthday, the interview itself is telling. The reporter and Roy banter a bit, easily exchanging jokes and talking about horoscopes. Then they move into talking about Dizzy, who would have been 81 years old. “He was definitely down to help a lot of the young musicians coming up, and he had a beautiful spirit. He was also a Libra! [fist pumps] (00:20:00).” The fact that the first thing he says in honor of Dizzy is that he was supportive of upcoming musicians says a lot about what Roy himself is passionate about; he sees bringing up the next generation as a valuable responsibility. And then, I guess, he’s also passionate about his astrological sign ;). He goes on to name his influences, among them Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Kenny Dorham, and, of course, Dizzy… “So many.” The reporter brings up Kenny Barron and asks for a story about him, and Roy talks about going to listen to him at Bradley’s. “Everytime I hear him I learn so much,” as the footage cuts to a clip of Barron’s trio playing. Worth mentioning that Roy Hargrove will be joining the Kenny Barron Trio this year at Monterey Jazz Festival, which I will be attending (looking forward to it!).

Finally, tape 325 features a full concert of Roy playing with The NHOP Quintet at Jazz Baltica in 1996. I mentioned it earlier, but Roy is really great about hosting full videos of his concerts on YouTube: the video that inspired me to go see him in Paris was his full performance at The New Morning in 2010, and the day after I saw him he already had some video clips of up (check them out on YouTube). These videos are actually so important to young jazz musicians, who watch them over and over trying to learn not just the songs and the sound, but the subtle techniques that can only be learned from a visual performance: which fingerings did they use to play that note? How did they communicate to the other musicians that their solo was ending right there? What were they wearing, how did they carry themselves on stage? Were they rigid, or did they free themselves up more? Roy, in particular, looks a lot more formal and rigid in his earlier performances, as opposed to a couple of weeks ago, where I got to see him dancing on stage in his now classic attire blending jazz and hip hop styles. It helps musicians to see and to know these things, because there is no real guidebook on how to find success in your art. That’s why it’s so valuable when people like Roy Hargrove release content of themselves playing and talking and giving advice, like in the beginning of one of his albums where he talks about the lessons he teaches his current students.

Going to see this trumpeter at this jazz club felt like a sort of pilgrimage to me as a musician, and watching these videos has only enriched my knowledge and added to it. For a longer post on this year’s New Morning concert, check out Muse-Tripper, the blog where I write about where music takes me when I travel. Maybe the full concert will end up in the archive someday!

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The Beatles and Jazz (and maybe even a new tape)

“Jazz is just a lot of old blokes drinking beer at the bar, smoking pipes and not listening to the music.” John Lennon allegedly declared his opinion at a press conference, disparaging the genre that held the title as the most popular alternative to classical prior to The Beatles taking pop music to its throne. Even though The Beatles didn’t particularly like jazz, the jazz world owes a lot to them, a fact that is reflected by the group’s representation in the Altman-Koss archives. Not only did their records and performances have such widespread influence on the music word as to have shaped the course of music in general, but many of the most commonly played jazz tunes are actually covers of old Beatles songs. Flashback to 8th grade big band in junior high school, when I was just dipping my toe in jazz performance and our director throws “Can’t Buy Me Love” into our set…

A few of the Beatles entries are duplicates of their full-length films, such as tape 207 (containing the full “Let It Be” 1970 album documentary), tape 258 (all of “A Hard Day’s Night”) and tape 307 (The Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965, the documentary). Honestly, I had expected all of the Beatles contributions to be media that could easily be found online or in other libraries – they were, of course, one of the most popular groups in recent history and extremely well-documented. So I was surprised when I came across tape 256 and found something that didn’t seem to come up anywhere.

The video, called “The Early Beatles,” is a compilation of their performances and interviews from 1962-1965. Released by Granada Television on IBA network as a Christmas special in 1984, director Johnny Hamp wanted to do a special on The Beatles focusing on this particular period, early on in their career. Searching through both Granada’s and IBA’s archives, I could find nothing on the video; only a reference on an unrelated site, along with this statement: “We understand that Granada executives are also toying with the idea of an official videocassette release, providing the usual plethora of legal obstacles can be surmounted.” It seems as though they never did overcome those legal obstacles.

The actual footage ranges in quality and content, from old recordings of their performances where the glare off the guitar actually creates a blind spot for the camera, to well-produced clips of them arriving at a concert and shoveling through screaming fans to get to the stage. And the fans really are screaming; a needle-drop anywhere in the video has a decent chance of giving you an earful of it.

Personally, I’ve seen loads of Beatles performance footage throughout my life, so what really interested me were the various interviews. There are a few and they all differ in structure; one, right around 1:02:05, isn’t even an interview, really, but a clip of The Beatles being told several jokes in quick succession. The one at 1:11:18 is much more of a formal interview, with close-ups of the members’ faces as they share their thoughts on their upcoming United States tour (and famous appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show).

I’m curious about how rare the material shown here actually is; I’ve started asking some professor’s and colleagues for their input, and will get back with any updates!

Update: I consulted Giacomo Fiore, an expert on The Beatles at UC Santa Cruz, and he quickly got back to me with this information:

” As I suspected, this is an old Granada TV special from the early 1980s, which has not been widely circulated due to copyright claims from Apple Corps (the Beatles’s company, not the computer one). It’s not impossibly rare, but it gets routinely pulled from YouTube, and much of the footage is exclusive to Granada TV (I’ve read somewhere that they have about 4 hours of unedited stuff from various sessions, including more Cavern Club recordings).

So, a good find, and one that may be worth archiving for your own purposes.”

Thanks, Giacomo!

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Artist Feature: Angles of Louis Armstrong

Of the digitised part of the collection we have currently, a whopping 21 videos ring up when you search for “Louis Armstrong.” That translates to something like 7.6% of the archive, which is actually enormous when you realize how many other musicians and performances are represented within it. But I don’t really need to hammer the point – Louis Armstrong is perhaps the most popular jazz musician, an icon and legend to both diehard jazz aficionados and laymen pop lovers alike. As far as famous personnel in the genre go, he is really only rivalled by Miles Davis (and they’re both trumpet players, I might point out 😉). Most of the videos we have on him are up on YouTube or elsewhere on the internet, but the problem is that they’re rarely organized in any meaningful way, and even when they are grouped together on some website the organization can be rather arbitrary. You almost need to have a large amount of the right knowledge prior to attempting to piece together the history behind the videos. So I thought Louis Armstrong would be a perfect case study for the use of an archive such as the Altman-Koss’s, where you can quickly and easily study, in the context of jazz, a musician, place, year, or event in remarkable depth, and in a larger sense explore the world of jazz according to your own criteria.

Looking for variety, I went through the listing of Armstrong’s tapes and checked the “Content” column. Eventually I settled on five tapes: 14, which contains an interview; 57 and 58, which feature Louis on two different types of TV shows; 75, an infamous and rather unfortunate film short starring Louis; 140, a full performance of the Louis Armstrong and his All Stars at a music festival. I selected these five because I thought they provided a holistic snapshot of Louis Armstrong’s career: more than a musician, he was an entertainer in the fullest sense, with a career spanning five decades.

To start, tape 14 showcases an interview with Armstrong on Jazz Casual in 1963, where the interviewer plays his old records and asks him questions about what they heard. They start with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, playing “Snake Rag.” This is early on in Louis’s career, where he’s playing 2nd cornet under King Oliver and growing from the latter’s mentorship. The camera closes in on Louis’s face, and you get to see his expression as he listens to this piece of his career from 40 years earlier. Afterwards, the interviewer asks, “Do these records do that band justice?” “It’s pretty good but we didn’t have drums [like in the recording], you know? And we didn’t have mics, we had one big horn. We stood in front of this horn and played, and any man who had a solo would get up or else they wouldn’t be heard, you know? So that’s the advantage we have today… No trouble at all, to make those records, ‘cause you’d make one after the other… it wasn’t as particular as it is today.” The interviewer replies, “Well you don’t think you made mistakes in there, do ya?” and laughs. This prompts Louis to go more into the process of recording back in the 1920s, including how much of an issue balancing was. He seems a little regretful when talking about how much of the lead trumpet got cut out of the final track, and how drums were sparingly used because they covered up other parts.

He goes on to talk about playing with Kid Ory in 1919, the Tuxedo Brass Band in 1922, and finally leaving his nest in New Orleans to join King Oliver in Chicago, where his career really began to blossom. He describes how big that was for him, making that particular leap. What the interview. As for actually writing the songs, he describes how King Oliver would crank out a song right before they recorded, and they would just “rehearse on the job [00:27:00].” Improv clearly defined Louis’s experience in King Oliver’s group, even though he seldom took a solo; instead of playing off written parts, he would listen to Oliver and make up a part that sounded good with him. “You could tell what that man was going to play when he was lead, I figured out my notes [00:28:30].”

As someone who has listened to hours of Louis’s playing just trying to absorb his sound, I’m fascinated to hear him actually speak about his music and give some background on his work and experiences. It’s insightful; how recording used to be, what challenges musicians confronted back them that are surprisingly similar to many situations today, what you can do on the spot with a good ear and skill in improvisation.

It’s equally interesting to watch him perform in contexts that would just never make sense in sound recording. A great example is Armstrong’s 1952 appearance on The Frank Sinatra Show on CBS, to be found on tape 57, where the whole episode is a skit of Sinatra throwing a New Year’s Eve party. But his servants and entertainers cancel last minute, so, in a bind, he has some of his “guests” help out. The Three Stooges, first to arrive, comically fill out the roles of butler and coat-taker, while Louis, an evening guest itching to play, shows up with trumpet in hand. Sinatra greets him and tells him they’d have noisemakers to celebrate the New Year at midnight, but Louis insists he’s not going to wait that long and takes his place by the piano. His performance at 1:47:00 is so good it almost breaks the skit; everything else about it is so silly, with the Sinatra getting progressively angrier at the Stooges as they trip over guests, but Louis’s performance (and later Rosemary Clooney’s) add substance to the whole show. It’s not that the performances themselves are serious (quite the opposite) – more that it’s impossible not to be caught and taken in by Louis’s sound, in any context. Luckily we have the cheesy commercial breaks and over-the-top product placement to bring us crashing back to Hollywood’s version of reality.

The very next tape, 58, also features Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Rosemary Clooney, but the context is different. Instead of comedy and acting, this 1957 recording of the Edsel Show contains a string of various singing and dancing performances. Bing Crosby introduces Armstrong (as “You Know Who”) at 1:40:00, and he takes a solo before joining Crosby in singing a duet. Excellent performance, not just in the actual music but in the showmanship involved. The shots are close up enough that you can see the little techniques in Louis’s playing: his fingerings and characteristic shakes, his clearly defined facial muscles as he leaps up and down his range. He’s back at 2:15:00, after some dancing and a Ford car commercial, to play again.

I have to include tape 75 because it’s so important historically and depicts some of the harsher realities of show business. Nevertheless, it’s an unpleasant reminder of the racism present in the history of this genre. “A Rhapsody in Black and Blue,” written by Phil Cohan, is an important early example of a music video, featuring Louis as both the actor and singer/instrumentalist in a fictional plot. In Cohan’s film, a lazy husband gets beaten by his wife when he listens to jazz instead of working. He falls asleep and dreams about becoming king of “Jazzmania,” where Louis Armstrong performs for him dressed in a leopard suit. The short is chock full of blatantly racist stereotypes, excruciatingly clear looking back from the 21st century. It was shockingly offensive to Black America at the time, and this film provides an example for Miles Davis’s criticism of the legendary trumpet master: “I loved Satchmo, but I couldn’t stand all that grinning he did.” He felt Louis participated in the harmful black minstrel trope in American show business that plagued black performers long after the practice was abandoned. But Krin Gabbard explains, “Joe Glaser [Armstrong’s trusted manager] seized any opportunity to find work for Armstrong, and if Glaser made no effort to ask if the movies were good for the Negro people, neither did Armstrong.” This leads to what I think is the most likely defence of Armstrong’s appearance in this film, which is that it was made in 1932; still early in Armstrong’s career, while he needed to establish himself and might not have been able to turn down any opportunity to showcase his talents. To be sure, the music in the video is the one redeeming part about it: Louis kills the performance and makes the music his own.

Finally, tape 140 gives us a performance of Louis Armstrong and his All Stars performing at the Stuttgart music festival in 1959. Here we see Louis late in his career, heading his own group with exemplary leadership, showmanship, and musicality. His backing musicians are truly All Stars, and one of the most exciting moments of the concert comes at 2:05:02, where Danny Barcelona, the drummer, features heavily on “Stompin’ At The Savoy. His solos and fills are sensational.

For anyone wanting more festival performances by this group: their full Belgium ‘59 and Berlin ‘65 performances are up on YouTube, in full and for free. I’m having trouble finding the Stuttgart concert online, but the full concert is stashed in the Altman-Koss archive.

This has been a longer post than usual, and I’ll have to cut it here – I could easily go on for a lot longer! We’re lucky to have so much footage of Louis’s playing, both in the archive and online, and hopefully what I’ve written serves as a bit of an introduction to the various (and sometimes surprising) contexts in which Louis made his mark on jazz history.

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Video on Video: Finding Old Films in the Archive

One class of treasures to be found in the jazz archive are the many films, either full of music or else somehow related to jazz, that have been included in full length and quality. Curious about why Altman and Koss chose to make sure the archive contains this footage, I looked into three tapes of the 275 we have currently documented: one containing a handful of Duke Ellington film shorts, one with two movies featuring The Glen Miller Orchestra, and one starring Marilyn Monroe. In particular, I wanted to find movies that were older than 1960: easy to do if searching the catalogue for the “film” tag and checking the dates. I found myself getting sucked into these films: despite their age, I felt each one held up to today’s entertainment standards because of the remarkable quality of music, dance, and plot. Moreover, as a musician, I really did find myself paying close attention to the scenes that depicted live performance.

The Duke Ellington film shorts feature Duke Ellington, both acting and playing piano, sometimes with other musicians coming over. Ellington is famous in part for bringing jazz onto the big stage, both in film, theatre, and even opera. Tape 31 conveniently features several of his film shorts in a single, chronological sequence: Black & Tan Fantasy (1929), Bundle of Blues (1933), Symphony in Black (1935), and Perfume Suite (1947). They’re all interesting, differing in music and plot and having the Duke take a role both as an actor as well as a musician, but Perfume Suite particularly catches me because in addition to live-action acting and piano playing, it adds some cartoon/stop-motion effects, which (in my limited general film knowledge) looks really advanced for the late 1940s.

Tape 156 is totally centered on The Glenn Miller Orchestra, containing two full-length feature films that portray fictional stories of big band jazz orchestra musicians. These two films are the first and last time this orchestra took a role in a film like this, which is unfortunate, because they’re fine Hollywood entertainers. Both Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942) are chock full of music, musicians (both actors and real musicians from the orchestra, including Glenn Miller himself). They’re both still fun films to watch, but I had a hard time tearing myself away from Orchestra Wives; not only is it a bit of a rom-com, but the music is incredible and the scenes actually show the band playing. Especially around 1:35:00 on the tape, where the orchestra is performing at a wedding. They begin to play the famous jazz standard “At Last,” and it may be the most captivating version of it I’ve ever heard. The scene cuts between depictions of the orchestra on a gazebo and the audience out on the grounds, and audience is full of beautifully-dressed people with open mouths and awed expressions. It’s wonderful acting, probably because they weren’t acting: with the singing duet alternating with the standing solo trumpet player (and dubbed over by the orchestra’s actual soloist, Johnny Best), the performers commanded total attention, and I’m sure the effect was even stronger on set. I couldn’t watch the entire thing because I had more videos to research, but I’m planning on sitting down with some fellow jazz musicians and watching it soon…

While investigating which artists deserve credit for a clip, I’m sometimes surprised to find names that I initially would not have associated with the jazz world. Marilyn Monroe is one of those finds, and she’s the central star on tape 236’s Some Like it Hot (1959).  Adolph Deutsch composed the amazing music here, and the synopsis is about two jazz musicians who have to disguise themselves as women to escape the mafia; they end up joining an all-women’s jazz big band, where they meet Marilyn Monroe’s character. Wildly successful at the time of its release, it is still considered one of the greatest film comedies of all time. Which is amazing considering it was filmed without permission from the Motion Production Code that major studios in the United States generally adhered to from 1930 to 1968. The producers decided they didn’t want to censor the film’s use of drag and suggestion of homosexuality, so they just didn’t bother with the rules; instead, they broke these codes and helped to end them. It’s still funny by today’s standards, interesting in its depiction of female musicians and suggestions of homosexuality, and the music and dance is seriously high quality stuff. So if you want an afternoon to absorb some jazz and jazz history in a highly entertaining way, I can’t recommend this tape or either of the other two enough.

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Ronnie Scott and Ronnie Scott’s

With the first 275 digitized videos of the collection catalogued, I now have the chance to take a breath, step back from the spreadsheet, and actually use it to explore the wealth of information contained in this fraction of the archive. Having recently seen Ambrose Akinmusire perform at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London, I realized I knew little about the actual tenor saxophone player for which the venue is named, and decided I might as well familiarize myself. A quick search pulled up three entries: one of a performance at the eponymous club, and two others of Ronnie himself. The first, tape 211, was a solid, high-quality video of George Adams; he and his group are ripping it up in the otherwise cool, cozy jazz club, and you get to see up close what all the players are doing during their solos, but clips of the performance are already on YouTube, so I didn’t linger long. The next video, number 215, was likewise available on the internet, although it was older and featured Ronnie playing with Ronnie (Stephenson) and Wes Montgomery for a workshop on NDR (Nordeutscher Rundfunk, a historic radio station in Hamburg, Germany).

The last video, however, caught my eye and my ear. Ronnie is a lot older in this one, and not only can I not find a version of it on YouTube, but I can’t seem to find any mention of it anywhere on the internet. Which is strange, because the recording is excellent in quality; clearly, it was meant to air on TV and had been directed and produced by Liam Miller. In any case, tape number 269 shows something about Ronnie that he is famous for but doesn’t come across in his audio recordings: his brilliant raconteuring, propelled by an unstoppable barrage of jokes. In fact, one of his jokes in the video actually popped up on his obituary:  “…A chap came by and asked if we played requests. Ted told him we would try and asked him what he would like to hear. `Oh, anything at all,’ said the Irishman”. The guy clearly indulged in being a showman. That being said, he didn’t hog the stage and often featured other members of his quintet. At one point he introduces the trumpet player, Dick Pearce, to lead the next song, and then actually walks offstage. Keep in mind, the group is called The Ronnie Scott Quintet. After the song’s over, he comes back and introduces Martin Drew, the drummer,  with more of his infamous jokes (something about Japanese herpes…?). Then the group lights into the coolest arrangement of “What Is This Thing Called Love” I’ve ever heard (starting at 2:43:44). It’s fast, bebop-y, and Ronnie and Dick split the head by having the former take the A section and the latter the B section. Compared to the Cole Porter original, it sounds as if the musicians chugged a pot of coffee each before picking up their instruments. Ronnie and Dick are great, but the drummer really is the star here – his solo, starting at 2:47:25, goes on for more than 4 minutes, never letting up.

Ronnie Scott

Ronnie worked with the likes of Maynard Ferguson, Clark Terry, and even The Beatles (he plays the solo on “Lady Madonna”), and opened his club with fellow tenor saxophonist Pete King in 1959. He was deeply inspired by New York’s jazz scene, which he made a point of visiting frequently. He loved the club culture that dominated there, and wanted to bring it back to London with him. He was definitely successful; the place has the same casual yet classy atmosphere as Yoshi’s in Oakland, except instead of specializing in sushi, they dish out high-end hamburgers and espresso martinis.

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Two Johns: Coltrane on his 50th Anniversary and Altman on the Archive

June 18th, 2017 marks 50 years since the death of John Coltrane, who passed away at the age of 40. This is yet another milestone reached this year, which sees the centennial anniversary of the first jazz recording (Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band’s “Dixie Jass Band One Step” and “Livery Stable Blues”).

To celebrate, I figured I’d highlight video 168 from the archive, which features a program that documents the discovery of Monk and Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, back in 1957. This is a clip that, like with some videos in the Altman-Koss collection, was an undiscovered gem hidden in a gigantic VHS archive that was only rediscovered years later by people digitising and maintaining the tapes. At 1:10:05, one commentator exclaims, “It’s the best music we have of these two people playing together, I think” The value of the discovery of this clip is reinforced when a few minutes later,  another says, “Thelonious Monk and The John Coltrane playing together, is of enormous historical importance, because this is a relationship that was relatively, in fact, greatly, undocumented.” The tape goes on to detail John Coltrane’s life while he was working with Monk, including commentary from Ravi Coltrane and other jazz greats. There’s a section describing Coltrane overcoming his drug addiction, a pivotal moment in the musician’s life, and the advice Monk gave to snap him back to sobriety: “‘If you take care of the music, the music will take care of you, and you’ll be alright.’ And that was Thelonious’s way to get through to Coltrane: immerse him in the music.” Shortly after that, Coltrane quit cold turkey, and claimed to have a spiritual experience that coupled with a vast improvement in his playing. This was such a critical moment in Coltrane’s life, yet that whole time period of when he was playing with Monk largely slipped into the past without making it into the annals of history. Finding this video, years after the actual performance, actually had a real impact on our collective record of jazz history and understanding of John Coltrane. Of course, the documentary inspires me with the prospect of finding our own treasures in the dusty pile of VHS tapes at University of Sussex.


That same tape also has Nnenna Frelon’s album Blueprint of a Lady, Herbie Hancock on Travis Smiley Show and The Tonight Show, Bill Ware and Vibes at the Knitting Factory in NYC, and Joshua Redman on EGG The Arts Show at Blues Alley in Washington D.C. In other words, it’s a packed spanning decades of jazz history.

The bonus celebration is that Professor Ed Hughes and I got to actually meet John Altman today, on the seafront in Hove. We asked him how the archive got started in the first place; apparently he had just bought a VHS player (this was in the early 1970s) and was traveling through Europe, but as the technology was still new, he couldn’t get anything to watch. He arrived in Germany to work on a commercial, and had just checked into his hotel. Everything in the town was closed: food, shops, music and entertainment venues. So he went back to his hotel room and started flipping channels, and all of a sudden he came across the Berlin Jazz Festival live. Immediately absorbed, he spent the night watching it, and the next day when the director asked him how his night was, John described how pleasantly surprised he was to catch live jazz on television. “Oh, we have jazz on TV all the time,” the director replied. “I’ll tape it and send it to you.” Meanwhile, Eric Koss, a European accountant and John’s friend, had been privately and meticulously amassing his own jazz VHS collection; John reached out to him and said, “If we could find someone everywhere you went who knew the music, we’d get some good tapes.” The first place they check was at a jazz club in Sweden. They arrived, asked if anyone around was into jazz on video, and were immediately pointed to a guy in the corner who had been responsible for every broadcast on Swedish TV since the 1950s. He had a personal archive and agreed to make the two some tapes. One of those tapes turned out to be an entire Charles Mingus concert with Eric Dolphy, unedited. Then Eric Koss went to Denmark, and quickly came across a man who Chet Baker stayed with when he was in the country. Quickly, the collectors began to build a tape-swap network that spanned the European continent.

This is the amazing thing about this collection: from the very beginning, it’s been about so much more than having a set of historical records (although that’s still a valuable aspect to the collection). It was something that the musicians, impresarios, and enthusiasts where making and sharing with each other because they love the music. To me, the swap-meet element of the archive adds a living aspect to it, where the goal wasn’t just to preserve, but to interact. I was more and more convinced of this as Altman described the reactions of some musicians watching videos of themselves that he and Eric had collected: Gil Evans, staying with Altman, watching his own performance and going crazy because he thought it hadn’t been recorded.  Stan Getz seeing a concert of him with Kenny Barron, and being so excited at the tape that he insisted they put it out on CD (and so they did). Sonny Rollins’s Stockholm set in 1959, which became the album Sonny Rollins in Stockholm 1959. And this is just what the collectors thought to share; with so many tapes in the collection, they couldn’t feasibly have gone through everything thoroughly. Hopefully the digitsation and publication of the archive will lead to a renewal on this kind of living interaction.

John mentioned that he remembered the day Coltrane died: the legend was supposed to perform with Miles Davis in Europe that year, but as a result paired the tour with Archie Shepp. Altman went to see them play in England, and Miles played first. After he finished, half the audience walked out! But of course John stayed, and as a sax player himself, was taken by Archie’s wild improvising.

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Welcome to the Altman-Koss Video Jazz Archive! We are currently in the process of digitising the archive and updating its information catalogue, which can be found here. Eventually, every video in the archive will be accessible at the University of Sussex. For now, please enjoy exploring the catalogue as it grows, and reading our posts as we publish articles on the archive.

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