Kansas City is home to the world’s largest collection of jazz films — the John H. Baker film collection, consisting of more than 1.5 million feet (700 viewing hours) of full-length features and 2,000 unduplicated soundies. Many are available to watch inside the American Jazz Museum. In 1984, the City of KCMO acquired the collection, entrusting AJM to preserve and exhibit the films.
Luke Harbur sat down with Rodney Thompson, an independent filmmaker born and raised in KC, who has been working with AJM to digitize the collection.
LH: How did you first get into filmmaking?
RT: At the time, I graduated from the University of Missouri in Columbia and got a sales job at Channel 5. As a part of my training, they sent me around to each of the departments. When I got to the news department, I ran into a photographer and at that time, they were still shooting film. Well, I took an interest in film and photography, and he took an interest in me. I decided I wanted to go back to school because my degree was in psychology. So I went to San Francisco State University for film.
LH: Let’s talk about the John H. Baker Film Collection.
RT: Well, they were the films I had studied in film school, so I was already familiar with the films. Soundies were the precursor to today’s music videos. This was between the late 1930s and the early 1950s. The music was jazz, which was America’s only Indigenous music, and it was played by African Americans. To me, it was African American history — it was a snapshot of what the people of my mother and father’s generation looked like — how they moved, how they talked. I was always fascinated by that.
LH: Why do you feel this is important?
RT: I believe we have a responsibility to tell our own stories. And that’s whatever culture you are a part of. It’s important because it’s our history, and if we don’t document it — and by “we” I mean whoever’s culture it is — if the people of that particular culture don’t document their own history, then someone else does, and it’s not really the same, because they have to tell the story from their perspective. So I just felt like the history was more valid if it was about Black folks and I was the one helping to tell it.
LH: What percentage of the collection is now preserved?
RT: Probably 30 percent of the collection has now been preserved. There have been efforts to start and stop over the years. Awhile back, there was a large grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Because film is very fragile, they didn’t know how long it was going to last, and because it was made of a flammable material, acetate, they decided to transfer from film to film. And at that time, the process for film preservation by moving film to digital files was not as advanced as it is now.
LH: Why do you think someone should come visit the film collection?
RT: Culture of music is constantly evolving. Just like the music of today is rock, country, rap, hip hop, back in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s the music of the day was jazz. And it was centered in Kansas City. So the whole world knew about Kansas City. If you want to know the full scope of American history and how its culture has evolved, you have to go back to the evolution of jazz — where it came from, how America took to it, and how the world took to it.
LH: So what’s your favorite film?
RT: There’s a 10-minute film called “Jammin the Blues,” and it is considered to be the greatest jazz film. It included Kansas City musician Lester Young — he was the star of the film. It was made in 1944, and I haven’t seen anything to date that tops that film in terms of filmmaking, the aesthetics, and the music and dancing. It was just an exceptional film, and it is a part of the collection.
LH: Anything else you’d like to add?
RT: The one thing I did not say is that the John H. Baker film collection is a tremendous asset for the museum. Right now, we are in the process of trying to complete all the inventory to examine any other soundies that we need to add to the collection. In the future, we want to think of innovative ways to use the collection.
Visit www.americanjazzmuseum.org to learn more about the collection and to plan your visit. Financial support is critically needed to continue preserving the film collection. To make a pledge or contribution, please email Lisa Alpert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
–Luke Harbur, all photos courtesy of American Jazz Museum