When Mark Cantor was about 12, his uncle gave him an old collection of jazz records. The youngster was enthralled. "I grew up with all kinds of music around the house," he said, "but this was special; this music struck a chord in me."
Cantor spent his teen-age years listening to jazz on old 78 recordings. One day in a record store, when he was about 17, he found a film can labeled simply "Jazz Movie." Excited, Cantor brought the film home.
"Suddenly, there were the people I had been listening to all those years," he said. Jazz performers such as Lester Young, "Sweets" Edison, Illinois Jacquet and Jo Jones became real to him. For the first time, Cantor could see what he had been hearing. He was hooked.
"The sound and the image on that film were so compelling," said Cantor, 44, "that I was totally drawn in. I was mesmerized by the performances. I had to see more." Collecting old jazz films became a passion.
Eventually, "Jazz Movie," made in 1944, became the nucleus of an archive of jazz film collections that today contains about 2,500 films.
Most of the footage is made up of musical performances captured on film during radio, stage or studio appearances, Cantor said. Some films feature tap-dancing, "which is as much a part of jazz as the music--except the instrument is the feet," he said.
Cantor spent years "looking under rocks," he said, for more early jazz films. He studied collectors' magazines, and devoured everything libraries carried on the subject. He combed swap meets, garage sales and flea markets. "Sometimes people just gave me stuff," he said with a laugh.
The best sources were usually the artists themselves. "Studio records are often unavailable and even contradictory," Cantor said. "The musicians, having been there, give a perspective that no written record can provide."
Actually, Cantor spends most of his day, as he has for the past 20 years, teaching kindergarten at Willow Elementary School in Agoura Hills before heading home to Woodland Hills. Then, when he doesn't have a film screening scheduled or a lecture to prepare, he's usually answering questions of callers.
"Every day I get inquiries from researchers, documentary filmmakers and other jazz fans wanting to know some fact about an artist. I can usually help, but not always in as timely a manner as I would prefer," he said.
On the other hand, give Cantor simply the name of a film, for example, and he can quickly tell the year it was made, who played on the soundtrack and who appeared on screen.
Music publisher and historian Stephen LaVere of Glendale, who has often done research by means of Cantor's collection, said, "Mark's collection is one of the most important in the world." He added that the Chertok Collection, a private archive of jazz performance film owned by the Chertok family of New York City, "is older, but I don't think it's any better than Mark's. . . . He's just a treasure house of information and data."
Cantor's services have been in demand as far away as Italy and Brazil, where his films have been featured at major jazz festivals. Cantor has also taught classes at UCLA and USC on "Jazz Through Film." Fees for his services vary depending on the sponsoring group and its resources, but can range "from a spaghetti dinner to $1,000 for a two-hour screening," he said.
Jazz-performance films should be preserved, Cantor said, because not only are they often the only link to an era in American music that is now gone, but because they shed light on today's music.
"Look at the scope of American pop music," he said. "Rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues and rap are just modern expressions of early jazz. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were great jazz singers, but they grew out of Louis Armstrong. Without early jazz, music as we know it today would not exist."
In addition, he sees jazz films illuminating many other aspects of American life, such as racism. "Universal Studios was afraid to show an integrated band on screen," he said. "If there was a white musician on the soundtrack and the rest of the band was black, they would put a stand-in black performer in the film. RKO even darkened the faces of light-skinned blacks with burnt cork."
This practice eventually led to the production of "all-black" films, common in the late '30s and early '40s, he said. "Herb Jeffries, who sang with Duke Ellington in the 1940s, got his start in these pictures, as did many other black performers."
Cantor is preparing for the annual Playboy Jazz Festival on June 12 and 13. His film collection warms up festival-goers on the Friday night preceding the festival with a retrospective called "Jazz on Film" that often features early clips of festival performers.
His presentation this year will highlight such women performers as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Rita Rio and her Mistresses, and trumpet virtuoso Dolly Jones.
Darlene Chan, associate producer of the Playboy Jazz Festival, said this is Cantor's 10th year of launching the festivities. "Mark's presentation is one of our most popular events," she said.
WHERE AND WHEN
What: "Jazz on Film," featuring women in jazz, at the Center Green Theater at the Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles.
Hours: 8 p.m. June 11.
Call: (310) 449-4070.