Golden age of jazz comes to the silver screen

Reel Jazz brings films of the Jazz Age to Harper Court

By Megan Anderluh

It’s a skinny storefront much like any other in Harper Court. There are folding chairs set up in front of a projection screen, and announcements for various upcoming cultural events in Hyde Park plaster the store’s walls. But with the rhythmic clickity-clack of a film projector, the space turns into a time machine.

The room goes dark. “This is a jam session,” a smooth voice says with the ineffable, classic tone of those old-fashioned, crisp announcers. “These artists gather together and play ad-lib, hot music.” And for the next hour the small group of viewers in the skinny Harper storefront are treated to explosive jazz music played by the always smoking, always smiling, sunglasses wearing greats of the Jazz Age, recorded and shown in their original black and white.

This is Reel Jazz, an hour of vintage jazz films that runs for an hour starting at 3 p.m. every Sunday this month. It’s presented by the Hyde Park Alliance for Arts and Culture (HyPa) and the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival (CimmFest).

“The idea for Reel Jazz grew out of a presentation that CimmFest would give at the Bucktown Arts Fest after concerts,” said Michael Phillips, Jr., programming director for CimmFest. “Two years in a row we showed movies on Saturday nights at the Arts Fest, but I knew a lot of collectors who had 16-millimeter film you couldn’t show on a DVD player—and those films were mostly about jazz.”

Also a programmer for the Bank of America Theater, Phillips was able to obtain the rare jazz films because a regular customer of his happens to be Bob Koester, owner of Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart and the founder of Delmark Records, one of the oldest record companies in the nation.

“He’s been involved in the jazz scene for 50 years and is a collector of old music films, especially jazz,” Phillips said. “I asked him if he had enough material to support five hour-long screenings, and he said yes.

So for the last few Thursdays, Phillips has been poring through old movies in Koester’s basement, where he also has a screening room set up. From these perusals, they’ve found a different lineup for each Sunday, featuring artists like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, and Louis Armstrong—all on genuine 16-mm film.

Phillips originally hoped to show the films at the Hyde Park Jazz Fest, but when that didn’t work out, HyPa suggested the Sunday afternoon screenings instead. This is the first time HyPa—a group that allies various cultural organizations throughout Hyde Park—and CimmFest—an organization that hosts a film and music festival every April—have collaborated.

“We’ve spent the last summer trying to branch out,” Phillips said. “We’ve done events at Lincoln Hall and the Metro, just to tell new audiences CimmFest exists.”

There are only two more Sundays left in the program. Next Sunday features the entirety of a 1959 television program, “The Sound of Jazz,” with performances by Billie Holiday, Pee Wee Russel, Count Basie, and more. The following and final Sunday is titled “Jazz in Animation” and will feature classic cartoons.

“It’s really a meaningful program for the lineup it brought together,” Phillips said. “It’s a multi-generational bunch of artists, ones who had been around since the ’20s, and others like Thelonious Monk, who was playing music that people didn’t know what to make of at the time.”

Phillips said there is also an element of humor to “The Sound of Jazz,” as the announcer in the film, a New York media critic, seemed to know nothing about the artists he was introducing. “It’s almost like a molecular biologist is introducing each number,” Phillips said.

If you have time in your Sunday to be transported for an hour to another era, when resonant voices came from always smiling mouths, the rhythms were toe-tapping, and the dancing was mad, show up at the HyPa Gallery and bring a little donation to ensure this wonderful program can continue bringing the past into the future.