Jazz, words and videotape

Published on: Author: Eva Moreda Rodriguez Leave a comment

Dr Björn Heile is Reader in Music since 1900 at the Music subject area. He has research interests in new music, music and modernism, cosmopolitanism, experimental music and the performance of experimental music and of jazz.

After more than five years of hard work by my co-editors Jenny Doctor, Peter Elsdon and myself, not to mention the contributing authors, Watching Jazz: Encounters with Jazz Performance on Screen, the first book that systematically studies jazz on film, TV and other audiovisual media, has finally seen the light of day. The occasion is therefore an excellent opportunity to reflect on the process and, moreover, on the technological change that is not only described in the book but that also affected its own making.

Jazz composer and University of Sussex alumnus John Altman
Jazz composer and University of Sussex alumnus John Altman

It all started in 2009, when the University of Sussex, where I was working at the time, was contacted by one of its alumni, the distinguished film and television composer and producer John Altman. Together with the late Eric Koss, John had amassed a collection of several thousand VHS tapes with jazz performances, which he was planning to donate to the University. He and Koss had established an international network of collectors, who had taped television programmes featuring jazz in their respective countries, and who had been sharing and exchanging those tapes. The collection, featuring everything from jazz films through documentaries and concert footage to TV shows, was a veritable treasure trove, showing many of the jazz greats up close. It was possible to study, for instance, the distinctive playing technique of the legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt, who had two partially paralysed fingers following severe burns, or that of Scott LaFaro, who revolutionised jazz double-bass playing, before dying in a car accident shortly after his 25th birthday. Many leading musicians, including Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans or Miles Davis left a videographic legacy that in some cases rivals their discographic output. By contrast, for instance, Charlie Parker was filmed on only two occasions, and in both instances he was miming, so the footage, interesting though it is, doesn’t tell us much about his playing.

Double bass player Scott LaFaro
Double bass player Scott LaFaro


I remember feeling excited but also overwhelmed by the sense of infinite possibilities. Open almost any book on jazz history, and what you see is essentially a history of audio recordings. Although the culture of jazz has always prioritised live performance, the moment of performance itself typically eludes the historiographer’s grasp, and audiovisual resources, such as films and television programmes were not as easily accessible as records (and in many cases denigrated by critics and scholars), so what we know about the different styles and the development of jazz is almost exclusively derived from records. For this reason, the Altman-Koss Collection represented an almost untapped resource – and one that could potentially reveal many insights into the music that audio recordings leave obscured: musicians’ specific playing techniques, the way they communicate with one another and with audiences and so forth.

With several thousand, only haphazardly indexed tapes at one’s disposal, the immediate question was: where do you even start? As it happened, at just this time, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, had issued a funding call under their ‘Beyond Text’ scheme, which ‘identified visual communication, sensory perception, orality and material culture as key concerns for 21st century scholarship and the wider community’, exactly the kind of material that had just fallen into our lap. At this point in time, I had one publication in Jazz Studies to my name (and in the margins of that field) and no experience in working with recording media, and there were only three weeks until the application deadline. So I got in touch with friends and colleagues with the requisite expertise: Peter Elsdon (University of Hull), a jazz scholar specialising on Keith Jarrett, and Jenny Doctor (then at the University of York, now at Syracuse University), who had conducted sterling research on the BBC, among other issues. (I also tried to engage scholars from the fields of media, film and television studies, but to no avail.) Together, we put together a funding application that set out the potential of this kind of research and pointed to the lack of existing work, while remaining quite open about the research questions and methodologies to be pursued. Amazingly, it was successful.The bulk of the funding paid for a research fellow, a job that went to the jazz musician and academic Paul McIntyre, who would work with the Collection itself – cataloguing, viewing and, in some cases, digitising it. The primary event of the project was a conference, at which scholars would discuss audiovisual recordings of jazz performances, and which would provide the basis for a collected volume. While the Collection was housed at Sussex, I had since moved to Glasgow, and this is where the conference was held in February 2011.

For all sorts of reasons, it took another five years for the book to materialise. During this time, our approach underwent subtle changes. While, originally, we tended to look at who and what was presented on the videos (studying the playing techniques of the jazz greats and how they communicate on the band stand and the like), we were increasingly drawn to the medium itself and how it presented the performers and their music. What were the media and contexts in which the musicians were appearing, who were the producers and audiences, what images of the music and its makers did they create and why? It quickly transpired that, in many if not most cases, what is shown on screen is not a transparent reproduction of the reality of music-making but an often carefully choreographed representation of it, something we wanted to highlight with our book cover. Put simply, what can be seen on screen cannot be adequately understood without an awareness of how it was made, by whom and for whose benefit.


As far as existing research is concerned, there was some work on jazz film, a genre that, although it doesn’t exactly boast many masterpieces, has a certain prestige, even if most of the books are of the coffee table rather than scholarly variety. Remarkably, despite its crucial impact on jazz, there was no academic research about jazz on television. Clearly, the low regard in which television was traditionally held among academics was still being felt, while a younger generation of TV historians tended to be more interested in more recent developments and current forms of popular music. For the latter reason, there is much more work to be found on pop music video and the rise and fall of MTV and the like than on, say, the role of jazz in American TV variety shows of the 1950s (although their audience share was rather higher). In many respects, we were on our own and had to establish our methodologies and working procedures ourselves.

Something else changed drastically in the course of our research. When I first saw some of the materials in the Altman-Koss Collection, they were something of a revelation. I had of course seen the occasional jazz documentary or concert on television, and there were also some commercial DVDs or VHS tapes with jazz performance available; meanwhile, YouTube had been founded in 2005, and by 2009 there were a number of interesting clips to be found, but coverage was patchy at best. Now, just a few years later, probably all the material in the Collection – which we had spent so much time and money on – and a whole lot more is just a mouse-click away on YouTube and other sharing sites and/or easily available on increasingly affordable DVD compilations. The physical collection that formed the project’s starting point had become increasingly redundant.

Whether our research itself will stand the test of time is another matter. In many ways, we were pioneers. If we opened up avenues for further work, and if future researchers learn from our mistakes as well as from our achievements, we will have been successful. In many ways, the sooner our work will be surpassed the better. This is only the beginning, not the last word.

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