Reel Jazz

Sequestered among the more domineering buildings of Harper Court, Reel Jazz Films has done a lot with their modest accommodations in the Hyde Park Alliance for Arts and Culture (HyPa) gallery. Neon green walls lined with back-issue covers of lesser-known comic books and cardboard cutouts of Barack and Michelle Obama–swimming in oversized Reel Jazz T-shirts–greet the patrons upon entering. Centerstage is a jerry-rigged projector screen, flanked by two receding rows of plain white wooden folding chairs. An old EIKI 16-mm projector sits near the rear, waiting to putter to life.

Reel Jazz’s selection of rare films does much to rekindle the former energy of jazz and blues. Generously donated by music enthusiast Bob Koester, the films in the three-week series cover jazz, Dixieland, big band, and blues in the context of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. The beautiful 16 mm prints, although marred by the occasional burn markings, preserve the aural and visual dynamism of the movement in more ways than one. “Jammin’ the Blues,” the 1944 Oscar-nominated short, employs camera angles and cross cuts that emulate the aura of spontaneity and innovation that spurred the creativity of the early greats like Lester Young and Duke Ellington. In the jukebox films of Louis Jordan, Una Mae Carlisle, and Hilda Rogers, the vivacity of the music is presented in step with its contemporaneous dance movements: tap and swing. When paired together like this, the dancers and the musicians seem to burst out of frame.

Jazz and blues are still alive today. Chicago’s host of jazz and blues clubs have done much to sustain the legacy and keep it commercially viable. Upon approaching HyPa, one can’t help but notice the red and blue sign of the well-known Checkerboard Lounge opposite the gallery, which boasts the venue’s status as “Home of the Blues.” However, many modern-day performances seem to lack the atomic energy that defined the movement’s glory days, if only because the crowds have moved on. Jazz was an explosion. Perhaps it’s ironic that the shadows of the past, cast by a flickering projector, are the closest we can get to that original fire. (Todd Cooke)