© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
According to the obituary that appeared in the New York Times on April 14, 2004, Ernest R. Smith, was 79 years old at the time of his death and “an authority on jazz music and dance.”
Mr. Smith, who was known as Ernie, developed an interest in jazz during his teens in Pittsburgh.
An Art Director for a New York advertising agency, Smith had a long-standing interest in jazz and jazz dance that began during his youth in Pittsburgh, Pa. Early on, Smith discovered that jazz music was best appreciated while dancing. He became an accomplished Lindy Hopper, frequenting both white and African American ballrooms.
He worked at several advertising agencies in New York. Among them were Sudler & Hennessy and Lubalin, Smith & Carnase, where he developed a logo for PBS.
His job at the advertising agency supported Smith's two passions - painting and jazz dance and music. Smith was also a film enthusiast so, in 1954, after taking a jazz class at the New School taught by Marshall Stearns, a leading jazz scholar, who with Jean Stearns wrote Jazz Dance: The Story of Vernacular Dance.''
he began collecting examples of jazz and jazz dance on film. In the process of creating his film collection, Smith became one of the leading authorities on jazz and jazz dance films.
In the process of collecting films Mr. Smith became an authority on jazz music and jazz dance films, providing the film listing for the Stearns book. He also wrote the entry on jazz film for the 1988 edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. He contributed films to many documentaries and lectured at colleges and museums throughout the country.
Smith built his film collection by identifying films of potential interest and acquiring them through trade and purchase. He created lecture reels on specific topics -- the history of jazz, social dance, tap dance, Duke Ellington, Lindy Hop -- and presented lecture/screenings nationally and internationally. He also provided footage for numerous documentaries and maintained active relationships with filmmakers, other film collectors, jazz scholars, the swing dance community, and musicians.
Ernie Smith donated his film collection to the Archives Center at the Smithsonian Institution in 1993.
He continued to lecture and participate in swing dance activities, but devoted the majority of his time to painting and related artistic pursuits until his death in 2004.
Mr. Smith's collection at the Archive Center at the Smithsonian Institution includes an 1884 film and 352 reels.
Despite his monumental behest, Ernie Smith was not widely known in general Jazz circles, this despite an essay about him by Whitney Balliett, the distinguished Jazz author and Jazz critic that appeared in The New Yorker magazine. The essay was also included under the title Trove as one of The New Yorker pieces in Whitney’s Dinosaurs in the Morning .
“THERE'S NO gainsaying that Hollywood's cheerful desecration of the arts has been all but impartial. Literature, music, and the dance—let alone the film itself—have been sterilized with equal vigor and concentration. But jazz, which didn't reach Hollywood until the late twenties, is an exception. To be sure, countless full-length burlesques of the music exist, among them those oleaginous biographies in which Danny Kaye appears as Red Nichols and Kirk Douglas as Bix Beiderbecke. Nonetheless, while Hollywood's right hand was fashioning such vaudeville items, its left hand was turning out untold numbers of invaluable jazz shorts. Though almost invariably hoked up with dancers, Uncle Toms, precious photography, and costumes ranging from bellhops' uniforms to leopard-skin togas, these films often contain excellent jazz—some of it, in fact, by groups that were never recorded elsewhere.
One celebrated example is Elmer Snowden's 1932 Small's Paradise band. A disheartening number of these shorts have been lost or have simply disintegrated, but a good many others have been rescued by valiant collectors. Recently, one of these collectors, Ernest R. Smith, a fast-talking, thirty-seven-year-old advertising executive, exhibited, as the first of three programs, eleven jazz shorts (all but two from his collection) in a small auditorium in Freedom House.
The program was opened and closed by two extraordinary films—St. Louis Blues, a short made in 1929 with Bessie Smith, and Jammin' the Blues, photographed in 1944 by Gjon Mili. Miss Smith plays what appears to be a lady of the night who is knocked down and robbed by her man. (The story lines of these shorts were never more than transparent.) Most of her picture, which is an odd mixture of realism and soap opera, is given over to a scene in a night club, where Miss Smith, propped drunkenly but magisterially against the bar, sings a monumental version of the title song, accompanied by part of Fletcher Henderson's band and the Hall-Johnson choir—a combination that lends an operatic atmosphere to the number. (Joe Smith, Henderson's great, ruby-toned cornetist, is also visible and audible.)
Parts of Jammin' the Blues are arty, but the picture is largely a straightforward record of such men as Lester Young, Harry Edison, Jo Jones, and Sid Catlett playing a couple of blues and a standard. Included are superb shots of Young's lidded, moonlike face, a bassist's bony, concave fingers, and Catlett obliquely from the rear, his sequoia self swaying slowly from side to side, his left arm hanging limp, wire brush in hand.
In between these pictures, Smith ran off two Ellington shorts—Black and Tan Fantasy (1929) and Symphony in Black (1935)—that are, despite their theatrics, filled with commendable solos by Bubber Miley, Johnny Hodges, Tricky Sam Nanton, Cootie Williams, and Lawrence Brown. Moreover, in the second one, Billie Holiday, in perfect voice and looking as fresh as a butterball, sings a couple of choruses of the blues.
The Ellington shorts were almost matched by a Louis Armstrong film, Rhapsody in Black and Blue (1932), in which Armstrong, at the height of his powers and dressed in a leopard skin, gets off a fast "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You" and a fascinating "Shine,” sung and played in both middle and up-tempos.
The rest of the evening was more absorbing sociologically than musically. Armstrong reappeared, both live and animated, in a Betty Boop cartoon, also entitled I’ll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You, which is so tasteless it is funny. (At one point, Armstrong's huge, mugging, disembodied head chases a tiny animated missionary type across an endless plain.) The program was completed by five so-called "soundies," which were three-minute films made in the early forties for jukebox-like machines equipped with small screens. Two were by Gene Krupa's band (1941-42), with Roy Eldridge and Anita O'Day, and three by Fats Waller (1941 and 1942), who, surrounded by a gaggle of beauties, rubbers and jowls his way through "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Honeysuckle Rose," and "The Joint is Jumpin'."
All but two of the fifteen or so films in Smith's second showing, which included shorts, sequences from shorts and full-length pictures, and soundies, were from his collection. The best things were often the most tantalizing. In an excerpt from After Seven, a short done in 1928 with Chick Webb's band, there was a single, fleeting glimpse of Webb himself—peering, tiny and spidery, over the top of his drums—and a great deal of James Barton, singing and dancing in blackface.
A Count Basie short, made in 1939 by the greatest of the Basie bands, was centered on the Delta Rhythm Boys and on let's-get-it-over-with footage of the band doing three lightning numbers that included solos—and good shots—of Harry Edison, Buck Clayton, Jo Jones, Walter Page, Don Byas, and Basie, dressed in a Glen-plaid horse blanket. Bundle of Blues, a 1933 Ellington short, was less frustrating. Although most of the film was taken up with poetic shots of a rain-streaked window, an axe stuck in a wet stump, a slave cabin in the rain, rain on leaves, and rain on a pond, while an invisible Ivie Anderson sang "Stormy Weather" (what a good singer she was!), there were satisfying closeups and statements from Cootie Williams, Tricky Sam Nanton, Freddy Guy, and Sonny Greer.
Best of all was a 1940 short, filmed in the vanished Cafe Society Uptown. Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson buffaloed their way through "Boogie Woogie Dream," Lena Horne sang a blues, exhibiting the finest teeth ever owned by a human being, and Teddy Wilson's small band (Emmett Berry, Benny Morton, Jimmy Hamilton, and J. C. Heard) played an exemplary medium-tempo blues.
The rest of the evening was either square and funny or given over to maddening snippets. The squarest moments came during shorts by Artie Shaw (1939) and Stan Kenton (1945). In the first a commentator anatomized swing ("a pounding, ensenuating rhythm") while Shaw and Buddy Rich, looking barely hatched, did a duet, and in the second a leviathan Kenton ensemble (six trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, four rhythm) demonstrated how to play for the millennium. The snippets were sometimes dazzling: Cab Calloway shouting and shimmying "Minnie the Moodier" while Cozy Cole, Jonah Jones, Mousie Randolph, and Danny Barker graced the background; Jack Teagarden singing and playing "Basin Street Blues" in 1938 (shots of the Mississippi and the Mardi Gras); part of a 1946 "March of Time," showing the Art Tatum Trio on Fifty-second Street and an Eddie Condon group with Dave Tough, his face cavernous and haunted, his arms like thongs; and another Basie short, made by his sextet in 1950, that included two superb selections by Billie Holiday ("God Bless the Child" and a blues), and half a dozen boogie-woogie numbers by Sugar Chile Robinson, a ten-year-old prodigy whom Basie treated as if Sugar Chile were Charlie McCarthy and he were W. C. Fields.
The final showing numbered two dozen shorts, snippets from shorts, brief films done around 1950 for television, and soundies. Since Smith's collection, like all treasure-troves, has a bottom, the program was pretty raggle-taggle. There were lots of vocals by Louis Jordan, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan, June Christy, Billy Eckstine (with his 1946 big band, which had Gene Ammons and Art Blakey, both of them visible), and Fats Waller, as well as instrumental by the clean-cut, 4-H bands of Glen Gray, Buddy Rich, Larry Clinton, and Stan Kenton. But the scattered exceptions were wonderful. In a couple of 1942 Louis Armstrong soundies, done with the last of his big bands, Armstrong sang "Shine" and played a fine short solo, and the late Velma Middleton, straining the joists, sang and danced "Swingin' on Nothin’”
The high points of the Armstrong selections, though, were several fleeting shots of Sid Catlett, who was between jobs with Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson's Cafe Society Uptown band. A monument-like figure behind his drums, his eyes revealing the slightly malevolent expression they sometimes assumed when he was concentrating, he could be seen, in a last glimpse, casually spinning a drumstick through the air (a blurred-moon effect) with his right hand while his left descended like an enormous fly swatter on his hi-hat cymbals.
Of equal value were a number by Al Cooper and his Savoy Sultans, a semi-legendary and very hot Harlem band from the late thirties, and two short television films by Jack Teagarden (made in company with Ray Bauduc and Charlie Teagarden), who fashioned first-rate solos in "That's A-Plenty" and "The Jack Armstrong Blues." Three kick-the-can Lionel Hampton big-band numbers (1950-52) were saved by the spectacle of Milt Buckner, a round, bespectacled frog, who played the uptempo "Cobb's Idea" with such fervor that he cleared both the piano stool and the floor on each beat.
The usual Uncle Tom effects were visible during the evening (Armstrong's "Shine" opened with two Negroes shining a huge shoe—an unpardonable visual pun, since the title of the song is simply a pejorative term for a Negro) and reached an apogee in "Sophisticated Lady," a 1951 Duke Ellington short, in which the alto saxophonist Willie Smith, who is a nearly white Negro, was shown not in the band but as a soloist standing well in front of it, his chair in the saxophone section remaining resoundingly empty throughout the picture. This sort of discretion and thoughtfulness must make white-supremacists weak with gratitude.
Not long after Smith's film showings, I was invited to a preview of a taped one-hour television show called "Chicago and All That Jazz, “ a spirited attempt to re-create the jazz played in Chicago from the mid-teens until 1929, when the music moved its headquarters to New York.
About three-quarters of the program was given over to performances by Kid Ory, Red Allen, Jack Teagarden, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Johnny St. Cyr, Meade Lux Lewis, Blossom Seeley, Al Minns, and Leon James. The remaining quarter included an array of striking and often extremely rare film clips from old feature films, newsreels, shorts, and home movies, which offered glimpses of, among others, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone, and Bix Beiderbecke.
My host was Ernest Smith, who has spent all his spare time and cash during the past five years collecting jazz-and-film memorabilia, stills from films concerned with jazz, and the films themselves. As a result of this activity, Smith probably knows as much about the subject as anyone alive. Smith's collection of stills, about a thousand strong, is unmatched, while his collection of films, which includes seven or eight features and some eighty shorts, is surpassed only by that of John Baker, a Columbus, Ohio, collector who owns well over three hundred items. I learned these things shortly after the screening, when I had a talk with Smith at his apartment, at Lexington Avenue and Ninetieth Street.
Once I was settled in Smith's workroom, a small, immaculate box filled with reels of film, cardboard files, huge loose-leaf notebooks, and film reference books, I asked him how he had become involved with "Chicago and All That Jazz." Smith, who is a short, amiable, firmly built man with a soft aquiline nose and dark hair, told me that N.B.C. had approached him late in June, and that he had worked closely with an admirable woman named Helen Kiok, who was the show's film researcher.
"They asked me if I knew of anything on Eddie Lang or Bix Beiderbecke or Mamie Smith,” Smith said, putting out a cigarette and taking a brownie from a dish at his elbow. "I didn't, but things got started when Len Kunstadt, a jazz-collector friend of mine who lives in Brooklyn, told Helen that Tony Parenti, the clarinetist, had a home movie of Lang, with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, taken in a recording studio. Helen reached Parenti, but unfortunately the film wasn't used, even though it's great— Lang standing by a piano with the Dorseys off to one side.
More important, Parenti said that the twenties bandleader Boyd Senter—Boyd Senter and His Senterpedes he was known as—might have some film or stills. But where was Senter? As it happened, on my way to Kalamazoo by train early last summer I had got off in Detroit and bought an apple and all the local papers—a research habit I've gotten into. This was before I'd even heard of the television show. I found a tiny ad in one of the papers: Boyd Senter and His Orchestra. When the matter of Senter came up, I told Helen about this, and she called the place in the ad, and they said Senter had just closed and gone home to Mio, Michigan.
She left a message with the sheriff in Mio — Senter has no phone — and Senter called back. He didn't have anything, but suggested she contact Doc Cennardo, in California, who was a drummer with Jean Goldkette, and who had a home movie with Bix Beiderbecke on it. I flipped; I'd never heard of Bix on a film. Helen reached Cennardo, and he pooh-poohed the film, saying it was a bad print, made in 1927, in Massachusetts, and that Bix was only visible for seconds.
But we looked at it, and there's Bix, in a natty suit and white socks, his cornet in the side of his mouth, playing with a bunch of Goldkette musicians. All I had on Mamie Smith was a note that mentioned a 1929 short, Jail House Blues. Helen looked up the copyright material in the Library of Congress and discovered that Columbia Pictures had made the film. However, Columbia, it turned out, had sold TV rights to all its early shorts to a California distributor. Helen tracked down the distributor, and, miraculously, he still had a copy of the short. But there wasn't any sound track.
Before sound tracks were perfected, they sometimes used regular discs that were synced with the lip movements, and when John Baker heard about the film, he said he had an acetate disc that might fit it. And, astonishingly, it did. Baker mailed the record, a twelve-incher, to Helen. When she opened the package, Lord, there it was—in six perfect pie-shaped pieces! A technician at N.B.C. stuck them back together. Then they put the record onto tape, edited out the cracked sounds—over two hundred of them —and the awful surface noise, and matched the edited tape to Mamie's lip movements, with the help of the original continuity sheets, which Columbia provided in New York. The results are fantastically clear."
Smith picked up another brownie, and I asked him how he had started his collection.
"I've been both a jazz fan and a film fan for years," he said, chewing vigorously. "But the idea of collecting jazz films only occurred to me about five years ago, when I was helping Marshall Stearns, down at the Institute of Jazz Studies, on Waverly Place. How to start? I went to Irving Klaw's old-photographs place, on Fourteenth Street, and sifted through thousands of stills dealing with all aspects of show biz. Then I read every issue of Variety from 1926 on up. In the early days, Variety had a column, ‘Talking Shorts,’ in which each new short was reviewed in detail. When I came to a mention of, say, a 'darkie jazz band' or 'dancers hotfooting it,’ I had photostats made.
I went through Down Beat and Metronome. I also went through periodicals like Film Fun and Billboard, which were even more helpful than the music magazines. I began indexing all this material, and now I have three or four thousand pages of references.
I’ve discovered that there have been countless films made by all-Negro casts strictly for Negro audiences, and that a lot of them, terrible as they are, have jazz in them. Lena Home was in something called Bronze Venus long before anyone heard of her,and Ruby Dee was in Love and Syncopation. I bought my first film—a Fats Waller short—three years ago, and in the last year or two I've accelerated. I spent nearly two thousand dollars last year alone on films, stills, and the like. I've begun writing a history of jazz in films, but I have so much more research to do—the Negro newspapers, the Library of Congress, the Schomberg Collection, on West 135th Street.
I belong to all the film societies in New York, and every Saturday I tour all over the city, stopping at places like the Memory Shop, on Fourth Avenue, where they keep a file in my name. I look at all of the Late Late Shows on television, where things are always turning up, like Girl Without a Room, a Charles Ruggles picture, a while ago, in which there was a Paris night-club scene showing a Negro band dressed in Zouave uniforms. I'm positive one of the musicians was Lionel Hampton. I've been going without much sleep since I was sixteen, and it doesn't seem to bother me."
Smith told me that he was born in Los Angeles.
"My parents were on the Hungarian stage circuit that existed in this country until the depression almost knocked it out,” he went on, popping a last brownie into his mouth. "In fact, my father was a kind of Hungarian Orson Welles. I didn't go to college, but I studied art in Pittsburgh and on the Coast. I joined the advertising firm of Sudler & Hennessey, where I work, in 1951. I'm an art director and a vice-president. When I first came to New York, I still wanted to paint, and I used to hang around the Cedar Street Tavern, hoping to run into De Kooning and people like that. I don't paint too much any more. This jazz-film thing has become all-consuming. I wish it could be my whole life, but that would take more bread than I'm making now from a full-time job.""
If you are a Jazz fan, You should know about this man and his collection. It’s an incredible behest.
ERNIE SMITH JAZZ FILM COLLECTION, Archives Center, National Museum of American History
1894 - 1979 [Dates for the Film Collection]
(30 cubic feet: 352 reels of 16mm motion picture film)
by: Ben Pubols, Franklin A. Robinson, Jr., Wendy Shay, 2/2001
Scope and Content Note
The ERNIE SMITH JAZZ FILM COLLECTION, 1894-1979 consists of 352 reels of 16mm motion picture film. Most of the film is 16mm black and white and sound (composite optical track print), although a few titles are silent or in color. The collection is comprised of compilation reels created by Ernie Smith to accompany his lectures, topical compilation reels created by Ernie Smith, compilation reels created by the Archives Center, and single title reels. The Archives Center produced master and reference video copies using a wet-gate telecine film-to-tape transfer system. Titles were often combined to allow for increased ease of handling, storage, and duplication.
The ERNIE SMITH JAZZ FILM COLLECTION, 1894-1979 is strongest in the areas of jazz dance styles including Lindy Hop and tap, overviews of jazz musical performers and styles; specific jazz musicians and performers including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Bob Crosby, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Jack Teagarden as well as a wide range of female vocalists; and documentation of the New York jazz and club scene. The collection includes feature films and excerpts from feature films, Soundies and other film shorts, television kinescopes, and documentary films.
The collection is not arranged in accordance with standard archival procedures. The breadth of the collection and the existence of so many multiple topic and/or performer compilation reels made it impossible to impose traditional archival series order. Therefore, each reel is described at the item level in the container list.
The Archives Center acquired the collection from Ernie Smith in 1993. America's Jazz Heritage: A Partnership of the The Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and the Smithsonian Institution provided the funding to produce many of the video master and reference copies.