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  • Ernie Smith,
  • Josh Ferko,
  • Howard Rye,
  • Barry Kernfeld
  •  and Krin Gabbard

Motion pictures and jazz both evolved as art forms during the early years of the 20th century. Throughout the period between the end of World War I and the arrival of the sound era with The Jazz Singer (1927), jazz and other syncopated music played a persuasive and influential role in the social upheaval that shook American culture. Its home ground was speakeasies, nightclubs owned and frequented by gangsters, gambling dens, honky-tonks, bordellos, and cheap dance halls, and it was perceived as lowdown and erotic, vulgar and aggressive, cheap and unesthetic, new, freeing, and uninhibited. It was also seen as central to the new spirit, and it became a perfect accompaniment to the 1920s, soon known as the “jazz age.” It was therefore natural that the cinema should draw on jazz in order to appeal to the new public mood.

Hollywood immediately saw the commercial potential in producing “jazz spirit” motion pictures, and between 1917 and 1929 there appeared some 30 films with such titles as The Jazbo Sheriff (1918), The Jazz Monkey (1919), Jazz and Jailbirds (1919), A Jazzed Honeymoon (1919), The Jazz Bandits (1920), and The Girl with the Jazz Heart (1920), not only attesting to the popularity of the music but also proving that jazz was making enough of an impression to lend excitement and box-office allure to all kinds of subjects. By 1924, when speed, money, materialism, and fun dominated the American national appetite, Sinners in Silk was being advertised as a story of a new generation “whose hymn is jazz and whose slogan is speed.” Children of Jazz (1923) and The Fast Set (1924) were also films whose stories showed aspects of the so-called jazz life in which the characters usually lived in a wild, reckless manner, their only goal seeming to be the pursuit of pleasure. These screen stereotypes became well established during the silent era.

I. Film dramas

  • Ernie Smith, Josh Ferko, Howard Rye and Barry Kernfeld

1. The arrival of the sound era.

The success of The Jazz Singer (1927, Warner Bros., dir. Alan Crosland), a film with synchronized musical accompaniment, proved the catalyst for Hollywood studios to convert to sound, and by 1929 more than 1300 movie theaters in the USA were equipped to show sound films. In that same year the first two films to make genuine use of jazz and its artists as a source of narrative and performance were produced, both directed by Dudley Murphy. For the first of these, St. Louis Blues, Murphy collaborated with W. C. Handy in developing a story around the mood of the latter’s composition. He engaged Bessie Smith for the starring role (her only film appearance) and found the rest of his all-black cast in Harlem nightclubs: James P. Johnson was the leader of a band made up principally of members of Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, notably Joe Smith and Kaiser Marshall. While St. Louis Blues recounts the story suggested by Handy’s lyrics and is not without some of the usual black stereotypes, Bessie Smith’s majestic style and presence enhance the film immeasurably. Murphy’s second film, Black and Tan, was built around Duke Ellington’s orchestra, and also featured Fredi Washington, the Five Hotshots (a leading team of tap-dancers), and a line of chorus girls from the Cotton Club. The plot is centered on Ellington’s composition Black and Tan Fantasy, supposedly written for Washington to dance to; the début performance is cut short when the character she plays suffers a heart attack, and her deathbed scene becomes the setting for a superb rendition of the piece. Murphy fills the screen with rich shadow play combined with avant-garde prismatic lens effects.

An all-black cast was not unique to these films. Segregationist requirements were box-office reality, particularly in the South, and Hollywood did not wish to offend the sensitivities of white audiences. One option was to produce all-black motion pictures; the other was to structure films so that scenes with black performers could easily be excised. Thus, although they were frequently relegated to stereotyped roles, many African-Americans found employment in films, and most established jazz musicians, as a byproduct of other intentions of the industry, found their work immortalized.

2. Jazz scenes within feature films.

Jazz was used frequently in early feature films, either to provide incidental music or to lend atmosphere to nightclub, dance-hall, and other “jazz life” scenes. Again, to satisfy audiences offended by seeing black entertainers or musicians on the screen, these portions could be neatly excised without harming the continuity of the plot. Musicals were also used to hang a series of jazz performances around a lightweight story. The orchestras led by Speed Webb, Mutt Carey, Les Hite, and the drummer Curtis Mosby, all based in California, were kept busy with casting calls. Webb’s groups appeared in His Captive Woman (1929, First National-Warner Bros., dir. George Fitzmaurice), Sins of the Fathers (1928, Paramount, dir. Ludwig Berger), and Riley the Cop (1928, Fox, dir. John Ford). Mosby’s band provided music for the performance by the singer Theresa Harris of Daddy won’t you please come home in Thunderbolt (1929, Paramount, dir. Josef von Sternberg). Hite claimed his orchestra appeared in more than 60 films, which included Taxi (1932, Warner Bros., dir. Roy del Ruth), Cabin in the Cotton (1932, Warner Bros., dir. Michael Curtiz), Sing, Sinner, Sing (1933, Majestic, dir. Howard Christy), and Girl Without a Room (1933, Paramount, dir. Ralph Murphy).

Universal’s King of Jazz (1930, dir. John Murray Anderson) capitalized on the enormous popularity of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra and the attendant publicity that had enabled Whiteman to call himself the “King of Jazz.” An extravagant technicolor revue, the film presents, among others, the Rhythm Boys (the singers Al Rinker, Harry Barris, and Bing Crosby) in one lavishly mounted production number after another. However, when it tackles a visual explanation of the creation of jazz in a finale entitled the “Melting Pot of Jazz,” the African-Americans are the one group among the representatives of many different nationalities conspicuous by their absence.

Paramount’s “Big Broadcast” series typifies the use of jazz to lend spice to a story. The aim of the first production, The Big Broadcast (1932, dir. Frank Tuttle), was to profit from the popularity of such contemporary radio personalities as Kate Smith, Arthur Tracy, the Boswell Sisters, George Burns and Gracie Allen, the Mills Brothers, and Vincent Lopez. It starred Bing Crosby, who in his brief rendition of Please is accompanied by Eddie Lang, and presented Cab Calloway and his orchestra (billed as “Cab Calloway and his Harlem-o-Maniacs in a heated Harlemania”) performing Minnie the Moocher and Benny Carter’s Hot Toddy. The second film in the series, The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935, dir. Norman Taurog), featured Ray Noble’s orchestra, Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears, and the Nicholas Brothers, who share the dancing with Bill Robinson. The Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936, dir. Mitchell Leisen) marked the film début of Benny Goodman’s orchestra; Goodman consolidated his growing reputation from the radio show “Camel Caravan” with a rousing swing version of Bugle Call Rag.

Meanwhile Republic Pictures produced a number of musical films, modeled on the “Big Broadcast” series, under the title “Hit Parade.” The first, Hit Parade of 1937 (1937, dir. Gus Meins), includes a performance by Ellington’s orchestra of I’ve got to be a rugcutter; Ivie Anderson is accompanied by Hayes Alvis, Rex Stewart, and Harry Carney. The bands led by Ray McKinley and Count Basie appeared in Hit Parade of 1943 (1943, dir. Albert S. Rogell), Basie being central to an elaborate production number entitled Harlem Sandman, and Hit Parade of 1947 (1947, dir. Frank McDonald) featured Woody Herman’s First Herd.

Fats Waller gives a boisterous performance of Gotta snap my fingers in Hooray for Love! (1935, RKO, dir. Walter Lang), which also provides a cameo role for Bill Robinson (the two sing a delightful duet version of the piece). In the same year Waller was cast as a piano-playing elevator operator in King of Burlesque (20th Century-Fox, dir. Sydney Lanfield), where, dressed in a white tail coat, he performs I’ve got my fingers crossed on a revolving stage.

Benny Goodman’s orchestra made another appearance in Hollywood Hotel (1937, Warner Bros., dir. Busby Berkeley). There are prominent solos by Harry James and Gene Krupa on Sing, sing, sing. During the big-band numbers Johnny “Scat” Davis (who introduced the Hollywood anthem Hooray for Hollywood) appears to be a member of the trumpet section, but at Goodman’s insistence he does not play. Despite the strict segregationist policy in force in the studios at the time, a swinging rendition of an interpretation of I got rhythm (called I’ve got a heartful of music) is given by the original – and racially integrated – Benny Goodman Quartet (Goodman, Krupa, Teddy Wilson, and Lionel Hampton).

Mae West starred in a number of films that make use of jazz as a musical backdrop: Belle of the Nineties (1934, Paramount, dir. Leo McCarey) provided Duke Ellington with some effective moments in When a St. Louis woman goes down to New Orleans, My Old Flame, and Memphis Blues; Louis Armstrong performed Jubilee as a trumpet-playing street cleaner leading a parade in a political rally in Every Day’s a Holiday (1938, Paramount, dir. A. Edward Sutherland); and in The Heat’s On (1943, Columbia, dir. Gregory Ratoff) Hazel Scott plays two pianos at once – one white and one black – as she sings When the white keys join the black.

In the decade from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, the heyday of the big band, bandleaders, singers, and star instrumentalists were idolized, and brief appearances by such artists in a major feature film, or even a modest “B” film, could ensure box-office success. A typical portrayal was that of Johnny “Scat” Davis in Mr. Chump (1938, Warner Bros., dir. William Clemons), where he is characterized as a kind of swing-hero trumpeter – a wholesome, optimistic, clean-living individual whom the public could admire and emulate.

Glenn Miller’s orchestra, one of the most popular bands of the swing era, was featured in two films. In Sun Valley Serenade (1941, 20th Century-Fox, dir. H. Bruce Humberstone) it plays a number of the hits that brought it to fame, among them I know why, The Kiss Polka, and In the Mood; the most notable production number, Chattanooga Choo Choo, provided the music for a dance sequence by the Nicholas Brothers and Dorothy Dandridge. In Orchestra Wives (1942, 20th Century-Fox, dir. Archie Mayo) Miller plays At Last, Serenade in Blue, and I’ve got a girl in Kalamazoo.

Birth of the Blues (1941, Paramount, dir. Victor Schertzinger) was supposed to depict the authentic origins of the blues, “the musical idiom that paved the way for ‘jazz’ and ‘swing’.” The cast included Bing Crosby and Jack Teagarden’s orchestra, but the plot of the film was riddled with errors and distortions; only Teagarden’s solos on Melancholy Baby and Memphis Blues stand out as true jazz performances. Syncopation (1942, RKO, dir. William Dieterle) traced the rise of jazz from New Orleans, but, similarly, its plot bore little resemblance to reality. However, Rex Stewart and Bunny Berigan recorded the trumpet solos for Jackie Cooper and Todd Duncan, who played the characters based on Armstrong and Oliver, and much was made of a jam session by the All-American Dance Band composed of Goodman, Krupa, Harry James, Jack Jenney, Alvino Rey, Charlie Barnet, and Joe Venuti.

1943 was an excellent year for jazz in films. Cabin in the Sky (MGM, dir. Vincente Minnelli) was again full of stereotyped roles for the black musicians, but its score boasted such songs as Happiness is a thing called Joe, performed by Ethel Waters; Ellington’s orchestra provided the soundtrack. In Stormy Weather (20th Century-Fox, dir. Andrew Stone) an all-black cast (including Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, the singer Ada Brown, the Nicholas Brothers and Katherine Dunham and her dancers) presented an endless stream of song and dance, the high point of which was Calloway’s distinctive and characteristically exuberant rendition of Jumpin’ Jive.

3. Films produced by independent companies.

In the years between 1910 and 1950, owing to growing political awareness among African-Americans and the realization that there was a waiting market in black communities throughout the USA, some 150 independent film companies, often with white management, were formed to produce films with all-black casts. Because of their inadequate financing and lack of experienced technicians, however, the quality of their films varied significantly, and many resorted to the use of musical interludes to prop up weak scripts and poor production.

Harlem is Heaven (1932, Lincoln, dir. Irwin C. Franklyn) starred Bill Robinson with Eubie Blake’s orchestra, and Bargain with Bullets (1937, Million Dollar) featured Les Hite’s band and a trio led by Eddie Barefield. Clarence Williams and his band may be seen in Murder in Harlem (1935, Micheaux Film Corp., dir. Oscar Micheaux). Sidney Bechet plays an unaccompanied blues and Save some of those kisses for me, accompanied by Chris Columbus and his Swing Crew, in Moon over Harlem (1939, Meteor, dir. Edgar Ulmer), and Cee Pee Johnson and his orchestra perform in Mystery in Swing (1940, International Road Shows). Mamie Smith appeared in Paradise in Harlem (1940, Jubilee, dir. Joseph Seiden), in which she sang Harlem Blues accompanied by Lucky Millinder’s orchestra, and in Sunday Sinners (1940, International Roadshow Release, dir. Arthur Dreifuss). The popularity of Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five was such that the group starred in a number of films, among them Caldonia (1945, Astor, dir. William Forest Crouch), Beware (1946, Astor, dir. Bud Pollard), and Reet, Petite and Gone (1947, Astor, dir. Crouch). The cast of Killer Diller (1947, All-American, dir. Josh Binney) included Andy Kirk’s orchestra and Nat “King” Cole’s trio.

Jivin’ in Bebop (1946, Alexander, dir. Leonard Anderson) featured Dizzy Gillespie’s big band playing arrangements of tunes closely associated with the bop idiom, notably Things to Come, Ornithology, A Night in Tunisia, and Salt Peanuts; Helen Humes performed My Man Blues. This film provides a rare visual record of Gillespie’s contribution to the bop revolution.

Other jazz musicians who appeared in independent productions included Walter Fuller, John Kirby, Una Mae Carlisle, Sid Catlett, Andy Kirk, Noble Sissle, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

4. Recurring themes in feature films.

(i) World War II.

During the years of World War II film makers strove to devise escapist plots that were also laced with a strong dash of patriotic sentiment; many suggested that going to war was fun, and involved dancing and cavorting to big bands. Unsophisticated as they were, these plots allowed the same big bands with which audiences were familiar to be presented, and the films raised the morale of men in the services by reassuring them that everything at home – the way of life they were fighting to preserve – was just as they remembered it.

The war theme was best expressed by swing versions of such numbers as When Johnny comes marching home, I’ll be seeing you, and Don’t sit under the apple tree (with anyone else but me). The last named is sung by the Andrews Sisters in Private Buckaroo (1942, Universal, dir. Edward F. Cline), which also featured Harry James and his Music Makers. Ship Ahoy! (1942, MGM, dir. Edward Buzzell) incorporated appearances by Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra (including Buddy Rich), and Seven Days Leave (1942, RKO, dir. Tim Whelan) placed Les Brown and his Band of Renown in the spotlight. In Follow the Boys (1944, Universal, dir. A. Edward Sutherland), Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five travel the USO circuit and play Shoo Shoo Baby in an impromptu performance on the back of an army truck. Stage Door Canteen (1943, United Artists, dir. Frank Borzage) brought together two powerful swing bands: Benny Goodman’s orchestra, with Peggy Lee, played Bugle Call Rag and Why don’t you do right?, and Count Basie’s band, with Ethel Waters, performed Quicksand.

Another musical contribution to the war effort was Thousands Cheer (1943, MGM, dir. George Sidney), which featured Lena Horne singing Honeysuckle Rose and the orchestras of Kay Kyser, Bob Crosby, and Benny Carter. One of the highlights of Top Man (1943, Universal, dir. Charles Lamont) was the performance by Basie’s orchestra of Basie Boogie. Reveille with Beverly (1943, Columbia, dir. Charles Barton) offers a plot set around a disc jockey (played by the dancer Ann Miller), who substitutes swing for classical music on her early morning program and dedicates the show to servicemen within the radio station’s orbit. She is dismissed by the station manager, but rehired when fan mail from her devoted audience begins to pour in. Bands and artists are introduced with predictable regularity via camera dissolves through record labels on her turntable: Basie’s orchestra plays One o’Clock Jump; Bob Crosby’s performs Big Noise from Winnetka; Betty Roche, with Ellington’s band, sings Take the “A” Train; and Ella Mae Morse sings Cow Cow Boogie accompanied by Freddie Slack’s orchestra. There is also an appearance by Frank Sinatra performing Night and Day, and the final patriotic production number, Thumbs up and V for Victory, allows Miller’s talents as a tap-dancer to be displayed.

(ii) Jazz music versus classical music.

A favorite theme from the earliest days of sound films was the struggle to gain for syncopated music the kind of respect that classical music enjoyed. Although this became a rather overworked cliché, Hollywood capitalized on such successful concert performances as those in 1924 by Paul Whiteman at Aeolian Hall and Vincent Lopez at the Metropolitan Opera House, and the production in 1932 of James P. Johnson’s Harlem Symphony at Carnegie Hall and the Brooklyn Academy of Music by resolving the conflict between the two genres in a concert hall finale.

In Is Everybody Happy? (1929, Warner Bros., dir. Archie L. Mayo) Ted Lewis portrays the son of a jazz-hating father whose lifelong hope that he has produced a concert violinist evaporates when he discovers that the boy has pawned his violin and is playing jazz clarinet in a Hungarian restaurant. After a chain of misunderstandings Lewis redeems himself with his father and furthers the cause of jazz by leading a band at Carnegie Hall. In Jazz Preferred (1930, Vitaphone, dir. Boris Petroff) Red Nichols and his Five Pennies are matched against an operatic opponent and win. However, in a lavish production number in Murder at the Vanities (1934, Paramount, dir. Mitchell Leisen) an outraged classical conductor takes a submachine gun and mows down the entire Duke Ellington Orchestra (dressed initially in 18th-century wigs and costumes) because it insisted on swinging Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody in a hot version entitled Ebony Rhapsody.

Jazz history was the main source of the narrative for New Orleans (1947, United Artists, dir. Arthur Lubin), but the film also incorporates a concert hall finale. A generous amount of footage is devoted to some first-rate jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Mutt Carey, Zutty Singleton, Barney Bigard, Bud Scott, Lucky Thompson, Meade “Lux” Lewis, Red Callender, Woody Herman, and Billie Holiday, who played the maid to an opera singer (Dorothy Patrick). The latter is fascinated with the new rhythmic music called jazz, and, with Holiday’s help, visits a club in Storyville to experience it first hand – only to find her opera coach there listening to Armstrong. At first her newly acquired taste in music angers her shocked parents, who all but disown her, but there is a happy ending as she sings Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? in a New York hall to everyone’s approval.

Public acceptance of jazz is also achieved in the finale of St. Louis Blues (1958, Paramount, dir. Allen Reisner), when Eartha Kitt performs Handy’s famous blues in a concert hall setting.

(iii) Swing as a theme.

The word “swing,” like the word “jazz,” was also used by Hollywood to draw audiences, and between 1936 and 1949 more than 50 films with the word “swing” in the title were issued. Among these were Swing it (1936), Swing Banditry (1937), Swing School (1938), Swing Hotel (1939), Swing Fever (1943), Synco-smooth Swing (1945), and Symphony in Swing (1949). Towards the end of the 1940s the swing era was coming to an end, but it continued to inspire screenplays.

Sweet and Low-down (1944, 20th Century-Fox, dir. Archie Mayo) revolves loosely around the fortunes of Benny Goodman’s orchestra on tour and includes one of Goodman’s most exquisite and swinging solos when his quartet (Jess Stacy, Sid Weiss, and Morey Feld) performs The World is waiting for the sunrise during a jam session. Goodman also appeared in A Song is Born (1948, Samuel Goldwyn, dir. Howard Hawks), alongside such musicians as Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, and Charlie Barnet.

(iv) Associations of jazz with crime and other sordid themes.

Jazz has been identified from the silent era with film crime, murder, and mayhem. It was also used to suggest a close, mutual relationship with various forms of aberrant behavior, and associated with the mad, the deranged, the psychopathic, and the just plain eccentric. There was some truth in at least part of this screen image, since gangsters had played a dominant role in establishing the nightclubs, gambling rooms, and dance halls in which jazz had flourished. Most gangster films set in the Prohibition or Depression era contained scenes that employed jazz bands for atmosphere.

Young Man with a Horn (1949, Warner Bros., dir. Michael Curtiz), inspired by Dorothy Baker’s novel on the life of Bix Beiderbecke, casts Kirk Douglas as the trumpeter who slips down into alcoholism, only to be saved by his long-suffering and patient sweetheart (Doris Day). Harry James recorded the soundtrack for Douglas, whose loyal piano-playing friend was portrayed by Hoagy Carmichael. Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955, Warner Bros., dir. Jack Webb) depicts a trumpeter who comes into conflict with a group of gangsters. Webb assembled an exceptional group of musicians to appear as his band and enhance the narrative value of the story. In The Man with the Golden Arm (1955, United Artists, dir. Otto Preminger) Frank Sinatra gives an impressive performance as a professional card dealer and drummer with a drug problem. Original jazz-flavored music composed by Elmer Bernstein and some telling jazz arrangements by Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne enhance the story of this dark melodrama.

In The Crimson Canary (1945, Universal, dir. John Hoffman) the singer of a jazz band is found murdered in a nightclub, and the bandleader becomes the prime suspect when he is seen leaving the scene of the crime with a dented trumpet, which turns out to have been the murder instrument. The detective on the case is a jazz fan, and his clue is a phonograph record that is a test pressing of the band’s rendition of China Boy. The audience is treated to several numbers by the band (consisting of Coleman Hawkins, Howard McGhee, Sir Charles Thompson, Oscar Pettiford, and Denzil Best) before it is revealed that the club’s owner is the murderer. The Dark Corner (1946, 20th Century-Fox, dir. Henry Hathaway) is a dark, moody mystery thriller that revolves around the efforts of a private detective to extricate himself from a false murder charge. It has some superb music by Eddie Heywood and his group, including Heywood’s Blues and Coquette. The Strip (1951, MGM, dir. Leslie Kardos), in which a jazz drummer (Mickey Rooney, playing his own drums) gets involved with racketeers and murder, is laced with performances of such numbers as Basin Street Blues, Shadrack, That’s a Plenty, and A Kiss to Build a Dream on by a band including Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, and Barney Bigard.

Nightmare (1956, United Artists, dir. Maxwell Shane) tells the story of a New Orleans jazz musician who is hypnotized into believing he has stabbed a man to death. The film is full of distorted visuals and jazz backgrounds to underscore the psychological state of the innocent musician; it incorporates performances by Billy May and Meade “Lux” Lewis. The Wild Party (1956, United Artists, dir. Harry Horner), a melodrama full of sex, violence, and jazz clubs, with Nehemiah Persoff portraying a homicidal jazz pianist, has appearances by Buddy DeFranco’s quartet, including Pete Jolly, and also a group led by Teddy Buckner. Chico Hamilton’s quintet is featured in a number of club scenes in The Sweet Smell of Success (1957, United Artists, dir. Alexander Mackendrick), and Red Norvo has a speaking role and leads a jazz quartet throughout the bizarre psychological thriller Screaming Mimi (1958, Columbia, dir. Gerd Oswald).

A new character was added to these various themes with films such as The Beat Generation (1959, MGM, dir. Charles Haas), a psychological melodrama about a vicious rapist and a group of beatniks, in which Louis Armstrong, rather out of place, leads a band that includes Peanuts Hucko, Trummy Young, and Billy Kyle; and The Subterraneans (1960, MGM, dir. Ranald McDougall), concerning the eccentric bohemian behavior of beatniks, where Carmen McRae, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Art Farmer, Shelly Manne, and Chico Hamilton are among those who provide the music.

Years later, films continued to explore this popular association of jazz with crime and other sordid themes. Short Cuts (1993, dir. Robert Altman) is a marginally jazz-oriented film with one of its many profoundly unhappy characters played by Annie Ross, who portrays a nightclub owner and who sings in the film; the score, by Mark Isham, adds considerably to the film’s dark mood. Altman’s Kansas City (1996) presents a fictionalized account of Kansas City in the 1930s, focusing on the interrelationships of racketeering, political machines, and jazz, and with a nightclub as part of the locale. There are only brief moments of musical performers on camera, and this is a shame, because the performances are excellent. Indeed, from the perspective of jazz as fine music (and stripped of depressing associations), Altman’s effort is much better represented by the resulting video, Robert Altman’s Jazz ’34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing. Made at the same time as the feature film, this video evokes the sound and spirit of a Kansas City jam session. There are relaxed, swinging, and (notable in the context of jazz and film) uninterrupted versions of classic pieces of Kansas City jazz re-created and interpreted by such musicians as Don Byron, David “Fathead” Newman, Joshua Redman, Cyrus Chestnut, Russell Malone, Ron Carter, and many more; the version of Fletcher Henderson’s Queer Notions is absolutely stunning.

(v) Fictional and semifictional biography.

With the production of The Fabulous Dorseys (1947, United Artists, dir. Alfred E. Green) and The Glenn Miller Story (1953, Universal-International, dir. Anthony Mann), the studios acknowledged the importance of swing musicians as suitable subjects for film biographies. Steve Allen’s portrayal of Goodman in The Benny Goodman Story (1955, Universal-International, dir. Valentine Davies) was sometimes inaccurate, but the film included some really fine re-creations of Goodman’s famous hits and arrangements. Among the jazz personalities who appeared on the screen were Ben Pollack, Kid Ory, Buck Clayton, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, and Harry James.

Jazz-based biographies continued to be issued throughout the 1950s. Nat “King” Cole was cast as W. C. Handy in St. Louis Blues (1958); The Five Pennies (1959, Paramount, dir. Melville Shavelson) recounted the life of Red Nichols; and Krupa’s career was chronicled in The Gene Krupa Story (1959, Columbia, dir. Don Weis). Later Billie Holiday’s autobiography was transferred to the screen as a vehicle for the singer Diana Ross, but liberties taken with events and career details result in Lady Sings the Blues (1972, Motown/Weston/Furie/Paramount, dir. Sidney Furie) being more fiction than fact. The film offered many songs associated with Holiday, among them Lover Man, God Bless the Child, Them There Eyes, Don’t Explain, and the wrenching Strange Fruit.

During the 1960s a number of studios made films about the lives of fictional jazz musicians. These included The Rat Race (1960, Paramount/Perlberg-Seaton, dir. Robert Mulligan), with music performed by Gerry Mulligan, Joe Bushkin, and Paul Horn; Too Late Blues (1961, Paramount, dir. John Cassavetes), with Slim Gaillard and a soundtrack played by Benny Carter, Jimmie Rowles, Red Mitchell, and Shelly Manne; and Paris Blues (1961, United Artists, dir. Martin Ritt). The score for the last named was written by Duke Ellington and provides a lively jam session sequence for Louis Armstrong and others; Murray McEachern and Paul Gonsalves dubbed trombone and tenor saxophone parts for the lead characters portrayed by Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier. Sweet Love, Bitter (1961, Film 2–Peppercorn Wormser–UM, dir. Herbert Danska) cast the comedian Dick Gregory in a role inspired by Charlie Parker; its score was by Mal Waldron.

Later fictional biographies are represented by New York, New York (1977, United Artists, dir. Martin Scorsese), for which Georgie Auld provided the saxophone solos and also coached the actor Robert DeNiro, who gave an unusually sharp and believable portrait of a swing musician, and The Cotton Club (1984, Orion, dir. Francis Coppola). The latter vividly recalls the jazz age and the Depression era with a mixture of real and created characters; with the Cotton Club in Harlem as a backdrop, there are marvelous moments of period music (arranged by Bob Wilber) and dance that do much to give the film an authentic jazz flavor.

Clint Eastwood’s Bird (1988), an account of Charlie Parker’s life, represented a huge step backwards into the most heavy-handed clichés associating jazz with sordid themes (as discussed above). The film is obsessed with Parker’s narcotics addiction, alcoholism, and sexual hungers, and conveys almost no sense whatsoever that he was one of the foremost musical geniuses of the twentieth century. This already extreme imbalance was tilted even further by the director’s decision to have Parker’s recorded solos overdubbed onto tracks re-created by a modern rhythm section (a process virtually guaranteed to destroy the magic of ensemble interaction), rather than allowing the original recordings to stand on their own. The following year brought the part fictional and part documentary film Let’s Get Lost (1989, dir. Bruce Weber), an account of Chet Baker’s life. Shot in black and white, it is a downbeat, harrowing, and yet lovingly made film which captures the bleakness of Baker’s life; it incorporates footage of Baker and his groups in performance.

Having been involved in jazz as a performer for many decades, and having used period pieces on soundtracks in some of his films of the late 1970s and early 1980s (see below, §III, 1), the actor and director Woody Allen later made the film Sweet and Lowdown (1999), a fictional account of a legendary but little-known swing guitarist (ghosted by Howard Alden) during the years of the Depression; the soundtrack is fine, and the performance sequences in nightclubs and at house parties are evocative of the era.

5. Developments in Europe.

In 1934 Louis Armstrong appeared in his first film that did not concede to the values of the entertainment industry when three numbers by his band were included in the Danish musical København, Kalundborg og? (dir. Holger Madsen). The Soviet film season for 1934–5 advertised Jazz Comedy (dir. G. Alexandrov) as “Soviet Russia’s first musical comedy featuring Leonid Utyosov, the Soviet Jazz King with his Band.” Generally, though, jazz in European feature films of the 1930s and 1940s relied on nightclub or dance-hall cameos. L’alibi (1936, France, dir. Pierre Chenal), a murder melodrama, involved a sequence by the band of the African-American expatriate Bobby Martin. Valaida Snow may be seen in Pièges (1939, France, dir. Robert Siodmak) and Una Mae Carlisle with Garland Wilson in Carrefour (1938, France, dir. Kurt Bernhardt). Sidney Bechet took roles in a number of European films, beginning with the comedy Einbrecher (1930, Germany, dir. Hanns Schwarz); near the end of his career he appeared with his protégé Claude Luter in the melodrama L’inspecteur connaît la musique (1955, France, dir. Jean Josipovici) and in the gangster film Série noire (1955, France, dir. Pierre Foucard). Rex Stewart appeared at length with Claude Luter’s band in Rendez-vous de juillet (1949, France, dir. Jacques Becker), performing in a studio reconstruction of the Caveau des Lorientais; jazz is central to the activities of the group of contemporary young people portrayed in this film. Hazel Scott was cast in Le désordre et la nuit (1958, France, dir. Gilles Grangier), a film about murder and nightclub life.

The use of jazz in French feature films continued into the 1950s. Bill Coleman may be seen in La P… respectueuse (1952, dir. Marcel Pagliero and Charles Brabant). La route du bonheur/Saluti e baci (France/Italy, 1953, dir. Maurice Labro and Georgio Simonelli) reverted to an older format of musical interludes in an insignificant story, but the interludes include appearances by Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Django Reinhardt; however, while the African-American participants are shown respect, Reinhardt is very ill-served by a racist cameo in which he is presented as the leader of a band of thieving gypsies working a train. The French director Louis Malle makes considerable use of jazz in his films, culminating in Pretty Baby (1977), which was made in the USA in English and which revolves around life in a New Orleans brothel; there are appearances by the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra.

Among the films produced by British studios were Sing as You Swing (1937, dir. Redd Davis), in which Nat Gonella and his Georgians shared the musical spotlight with the Mills Brothers, and the comedy A Date with a Dream (1948, dir. Dicky Leeman), featuring Vic Lewis and his band.

Virtually 50 years after The Jazz Singer a film was produced that drew upon jazz experience as a source of dramatic structure but avoided all the usual musical and narrative pitfalls. The plot of Round Midnight (1986, Warner’s, dir. Bertrand Tavernier) is patterned after the relationship between Bud Powell and the Frenchman who worshiped him. Dexter Gordon – tall, majestic, mellow, and melancholic – plays the character of Dale Turner, a legendary alcoholic bop saxophonist who is attempting a comeback in Paris, with rare believability (Gordon was nominated for an Academy Award). The film offers other telling performances from Sandra Reaves-Phillips as the singer who is Gordon’s guardian and companion and Lonette McKee in a role reminiscent of Billie Holiday. The camera rarely leaves the musicians when they are playing, and successfully captures the look and sound of jazz life in the late 1950s. Herbie Hancock composed and arranged the music and appears as the leader of bands that include Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Pierre Michelot, and Billy Higgins, among others. Round Midnight was the first fiction feature film about jazz musicians that rang true and did not slight the music.

Four years later another highly successful (albeit comparatively little-known) fictional feature film, Bix: an Interpretation of a Legend (1990), was created by a joint Italian and American crew under the dirction of Pupi Avati. Unlike Eastwood’s Bird, which wallows in depravity, Avati’s re-creation of Bix Beiderbecke’s life manages to convey a keen sense of the cornetist’s tragic life while still celebrating his genius as an improviser; the story is reasonably accurate in conveying the outline of Beiderbecke’s character and career, and the music is wonderful, with Bob Wilber having assembled a Beiderbecke repertory band that is not merely faithful to the letter of the original recordings but also captures their spark.

6. Cartoons.

Sound had a profound impact on cartoon films, and jazz seemed particularly well suited to the art of animation. The early sound years yielded Jungle Jazz (1930), Congo Jazz (1930), Blue Rhythm (1931), Ragtime Romeo (1931), Blues (1931), and The Birth of Jazz (1932). Swing seemed especially appropriate for the soundtrack of cartoon films. Universal produced a “Swing Symphony” series around the boogie-woogie piano style: Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B (1941, dir. Walter Lantz), Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat (1941, dir. Walter Lantz), Boogie Woogie Sioux (1942, dir. Alex Lovy), and Boogie Woogie Man (1943, dir. James Culhane). “Puppetoons” utilized a combination of animated puppetry and live performance in Date with Duke (1947, Paramount), which featured Ellington at the piano playing selections from his Perfume Suite, and for Rhapsody in Wood (1947, Paramount), which tells the story of Woody Herman’s clarinet from the time it was part of a tree until it becomes a fully fledged instrument.

Roy Eldridge may be heard on the soundtrack of The Early Bird Dood It (1942, MGM, dir. Ted Avery), while Bob Zurke plays on that for Jungle Jive (1944, Universal, dir. James Culhane) and Jack Teagarden on that for Sliphorn King of Polaroo (1945, Universal, dir. Dick Lundy). Walt Disney’s feature-length musical pastiche Make Mine Music (1945, RKO) contains an animated sequence of hands, clarinets, and undulating piano keyboards to the accompaniment of After you’ve gone played by the Benny Goodman Quartet.

Some extremely imaginative avant-garde animations are evident in Boogie Doodle (1948, National Film Board of Canada, dir. Norman McLaren), in which the designs are scratched or painted directly onto each film frame; Albert Ammons provided the soundtrack. The Oompahs (1952, dir. John Hubley) employs the music of Ben Pollack’s orchestra in telling a tale of a father (a tuba) who refuses to permit his son (a trumpet) to play jazz, but a jam session finale has them playing together. Adventures of an Asterisk (1957, dir. John Hubley) made use of abstract shapes animated to the music of Lionel Hampton and Benny Carter. But perhaps one of the funniest cartoons to draw on jazz imagery was The Interview (1960, dir. Ernest Pintoff), in which a fictitious and very hip jazz musician named Shorty Petterstein is questioned by a rather square interviewer against background music provided by Stan Getz’s quartet.

II. Documentaries and other filmed performances

  • Ernie Smith, Josh Ferko, Howard Rye and Barry Kernfeld

1. Short subjects.

The first short subjects incorporating popular music and jazz were well received, and during the period from 1928 to 1934 there was an explosion of such productions. In these experimental years, as sound and camera techniques improved, studios rushed to enlist talent from every available source – vaudeville, the Broadway stage, concert halls, nightclubs, and burlesque – at the same time competing for these entertainers with the rapidly developing radio industry. New York therefore became central in the production of such films as Roger Wolfe Kahn and his Orchestra Assisted by the Mound City Blue Blowers (1927, Vitaphone), Carolynne Snowden and Company (1927, Vitaphone), Red Nichols and his Five Pennies (1929, Vitaphone), and Alice Boulden and her Orchestra (1929, Paramount), which included Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey among the personnel. Ben Pollack and his Park Central Orchestra (1929, Vitaphone) gives a brief glimpse of early performances by Jimmy McPartland, Jack Teagarden, and Benny Goodman.

The musical short subject was also an ideal medium in which to present African-American talent, since, if objections were raised, the short could be eliminated from the program. A wide range of black entertainers appeared in these films, but under the most trying of racial conditions. After Seben (1929, Paramount, dir. S. Jay Kaufman) used a racist plot about the adventures of a lazy janitor to present music and dance by Chick Webb’s orchestra and some of the Savoy Ballroom’s most famed lindy hoppers, including George “Shorty” Snowden. Louis Armstrong appeared in Rhapsody in Black and Blue (1932, Paramount, dir. Aubrey Scotto) dressed in leopard-skin robes and living in a dream-induced kingdom called “Jazzmania”; amid billowing soap bubbles passing for heavenly clouds he plays Shine and I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you in a superbly virile manner. Although Symphony in Black (1934, Paramount, dir. Fred Waller) presented the members of Duke Ellington’s orchestra in stereotyped roles, the film was notable for the first screen appearance of Billie Holiday, singing Saddest Tale. The high-water mark for bizarre plot and setting was probably achieved by Pie, Pie, Blackbird (1932, Vitaphone, dir. Roy Mack), in which a freshly baked pie turns into an enormous pastry whose wedges open to reveal Eubie Blake’s orchestra dressed in chef’s outfits playing Memories of You and I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you; the film’s finale has the heated dancing of the Nicholas Brothers to China Boy literally igniting the set and props in a flash of flame, and the band and dancers turn into smoking skeletons.

An outstanding short film was made by Warner Brothers in 1944. Jammin’ the Blues, directed by Gjon Mili, had Norman Granz as music adviser and some of the finest instrumentalists in jazz: Lester Young headed a list of personnel that included Harry Edison, Illinois Jacquet, Sid Catlett, Jo Jones, John Simmons, Red Callender, Marlowe Morris, and Barney Kessel. Mili’s special talent with lighting created a marvelous mood around the combinations drawn from this superlative assembly, staging and framing each shot with an eye for dramatic composition. Although it is sometimes criticized as contrived and pretentious, Jammin’ the Blues remains a landmark effort in jazz film making; it received a nomination for an Academy Award.

Louis de Rochemont’s series The March of Time (Time/RKO Radio), which began in 1935, was a form of motion-picture journalism that combined archival film, fresh news footage, and re-enacted scenes. The Birth of Swing (1937, Vol.3, Issue 7) touched on the making of a record by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and showed performances in the Onyx Club, New York, by the orchestras of Glen Gray and Chick Webb and a group led by Stuff Smith. Upbeat in Music (1943, Vol.10, Issue 5), concerned with wartime music, contained performances by Glenn Miller’s Army Band as well as by Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. Music in America (1944, Vol.10, Issue 12) surveyed the state of music across the country, the jazz segment concentrating on Goodman, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Eddie Condon’s All Stars, and Art Tatum. Other issues of The March of Time devoted footage to Jimmy Dorsey and Paul Whiteman.

Whereas swing had captured the imagination of nearly the entire country, bop appealed to a much smaller audience and was therefore not a profitable prospect for film makers. By the 1950s there was also a marked decline in the production of short subjects as an added attraction to movie theater programming. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that bop was played principally by small groups, some big bands performing bop arrangements did appear in shorts. Rhythm in a Riff (1946, dir. Leonard Anderson) featured Billy Eckstine’s orchestra with Gene Ammons and Frank Wess, and was followed by Boyd Raeburn and his Orchestra (1947), Claude Thornhill and his Orchestra (1947, 1950), and Herman’s Herd (1949). Small bop ensembles also made short subjects. Cool and Groovy (1956, Universal-International, dir. Will Cowan) presented the Chico Hamilton Quintet and Buddy DeFranco’s quartet with Anita O’Day, while A Date with Dizzy (1956, Storyboard, dir. John Hubley) introduced Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet.

2. Soundies.

Another reflection of the popularity and commercial potential of swing was the formation of the RCM Corporation, which produced short (three-minute) entertainment films known as soundies. Soundies were rear projected internally against a series of mirrors which reflected the image onto a small screen mounted on top of a coin-operated unit like a jukebox. These machines were found in bars, restaurants, and roadhouses across the USA and offered a variety of selections of everything from bands and singers to star instrumentalists and dancers. An imposing catalogue of soundies was produced between 1940 and 1946, featuring many of the well-known musicians of the time.

Despite their poor production, inferior sets, bad synchronization, and, for the most part, unimaginative camera work, soundies provided not only an important source of work for a great many jazz artists but also an invaluable library of film documentaries. When the RCM Corporation went out of business around 1947 the films were sold to television interests; by the 1980s compilations were appearing on video cassette.

3. Television.

In the late 1940s several new developments significantly affected the film industry in the USA, among them rising production costs, the US court rulings against block booking and studio-owned movie theater chains, the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and the Hollywood blacklist, the postwar shift from urban to suburban living, the boom in the sales of high-fidelity and stereo music systems, and, the most important factor, television. This new medium immediately became very successful, with vaudeville and variety programs proving the most popular; whereas one million television sets were sold in 1949, the figure by 1952 had risen to ten million. As a result of this competition, film studios found it more difficult to realize profits, and by the mid-1950s film programming began to change. Short subjects, newsreels, and other types of short film were gradually dropped from the repertory; without the musical short subject a major film format was lost to jazz, for which television provided only a poor substitute.

“Eddie Condon’s Floor Show,” a pioneering 30-minute weekly jam session that was televised on NBC and CBS from January 1949 to June 1950, presented Condon as host and Wild Bill Davison, Cutty Cutshall, Sidney Bechet, Joe Bushkin, Billy Butterfield, and Pee Wee Russell as regular participants; among the guests were Armstrong, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa, and Ella Fitzgerald. Similar shows were “Chicago Jazz” (NBC, November–December 1949), “Adventures in Jazz” (CBS, January 1949), and “Cavalcade of Bands” (Dumont, January 1950 – September 1951). Hazel Scott became the first black woman to have her own network series, “Hazel Scott” (Dumont, July–September 1950), a 15-minute show broadcast three times a week. The “Billy Daniels Show” (ABC, October–December 1952) featured Benny Payne as the leader of a group which accompanied such guests as the jazz tap-dancer Jimmy Slyde. Two short-lived shows that attempted to capture the sound of the 1940s were “America’s Greatest Bands” (CBS, June–September 1955), in which Paul Whiteman introduced the bands of Ellington, Basie, Bob Crosby, and Les Brown, among others, and “Bandstand” (NBC, July–August, 1956), built around Tex Beneke’s band.

In 1950 the Snader Telescriptions Corporation introduced their three-minute film musicals, each one consisting of a straight performance by a singer or group. These films differed both in style and purpose from the earlier shorts. They were offered to independent television stations across the USA as a way to create local jazz programming, since a number could be strung together (allowing space for inserting commercials) and given a catchy title. Among the artists listed in the Snader catalogue were Charlie Barnet, Count Basie’s sextet, Cab Calloway, Nat “King” Cole, Pete Daily, Firehouse Five Plus Two, Red Nichols, Tony Pastor, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Helen Humes, Les Brown, June Christy, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, and Sarah Vaughan. As happened with the soundies, compilation films began to appear in later years under such titles as Showtime at the Apollo and Rock and Roll Revue.

A few of the performance programs made especially for television were outstanding. Unlike Hollywood films, which employed set backdrops and offered rehearsed and predictable camera work (including close-ups of riffing brass sections waving their instruments from side to side or the trumpeters fanning their instrument bells with derby mutes in unison), television programs brought a number of new dimensions to the presentation of jazz. One was informality: the musicians often dressed casually, as though they were at a jam session, and moved about freely – smoking, laughing, and obviously enjoying themselves. Another was immediacy, as the performances were presented in an unrehearsed and spontaneous manner. But probably the most significant factor was intimacy: cameras explored and poked about, picking out off-guard reactions and expressions, catching meaningful interplay between musicians, and moving in for extreme close-ups of facial expressions, hands, and instruments. This intimacy not only emphasized the spontaneous, improvisational aspect of jazz, it also permitted the personality of the artist to emerge. Hollywood films had never captured the extemporaneous, the physical effects, the obvious joy and excitement of jazz performance; television films very often allowed the viewer to feel a part of the musical event.

A landmark in the making of television programs was reached with Robert Herridge’s The Sound of Jazz (1957, CBS, dir. Jack Smight), for which the musical advisers, Nat Hentoff and Whitney Balliett, put together an astonishing group of artists to create one of the most outstanding and memorable hours in television jazz history. Dressed in casual attire, they were assembled, with invited spectators, in an informal studio setting. The cameras seemed to have roamed freely among the participants, catching Billie Holiday smiling and nodding with satisfaction at a saxophone solo; Count Basie obviously enthused and delighted with a phrase played by Thelonious Monk; or Rex Stewart pleased with himself at a squeezed note he has produced. The skillful and sensitive direction set new standards for the visual presentation of jazz. Among the other musicians who took part were Henry “Red” Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Coleman Hawkins, Jo Jones, Milt Hinton, Vic Dickenson, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Danny Barker, Jimmy Giuffre, Doc Cheatham, Freddie Green, Jim Hall, Mal Waldron, and Jimmy Rushing.

Other exemplary television programs produced by Herridge were The Sound of Miles Davis (1959, dir. Jack Smight) and Jazz from Studio 61 (1959, CBS, dir. Carl Genns). In the former John Coltrane appeared with Miles Davis’s quintet playing So What, and Davis performed three numbers with Gil Evans’s orchestra – The Duke, Blues for Pablo, and New Rhumba; the latter program featured Ahmad Jamal’s trio and a group led by Ben Webster. The Stars of Jazz (1956, KABC-TV, dir. Norman Abbott), with Bobby Troup as host, won an Emmy Award as the best local television show of the year.

A number of jazz series were produced in the 1950s, including the excellent “The Subject is Jazz” (1958, USTV, 13 weeks) and “Art Ford’s Jazz Party” (1958, WNTA-TV, 13 weeks, but it was during the 1960s that series flourished, with such programs as the “Goodyear Concert Series” (1961), “Frankly Jazz” (1962), “Jazz Scene – USA” (1962, Steve Allen’s Meadowlane Productions, dir. Steve Binder), and Ralph J. Gleason’s “Jazz Casual” (1963–4, KQED, National Educational Television).

British television also produced some notable series. The superlative “Jazz 625” (1964–6, BBC) presented such artists as Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dicky Wells, Henry “Red” Allen, Ben Webster, Buck Clayton, Oscar Peterson, Bud Freeman, Erroll Garner, and Wingy Manone, and bands led by Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, Bruce Turner, Alex Welsh, Graeme Bell, and Kenny Baker. “Jazz Goes to College” (1966–7, BBC) presented the Horace Silver Quintet, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and such instrumentalists as Darnell Howard, Earl Hines, Rex Stewart, Max Roach, and Stan Getz. “Jazz Scene at Ronnie Scott’s” (1969–70, BBC) included performances by Thelonious Monk’s quartet, Oscar Peterson’s trio, Buddy Rich’s orchestra, and Red Norvo’s quartet.

Duke Ellington was the subject of a number of special films, among them Duke Ellington Swings through Japan (1964, CBS, dir. Peter Poor), with narration by Walter Cronkite; Duke Ellington at the White House (1969, prod. Sidney J. Stiber), in which President Nixon honors Ellington on his 70th birthday with the nation’s Freedom Medal; Duke Ellington – We Love you Madly (1973), which was a celebration organized by Quincy Jones; and On the Road with Duke Ellington (1974), a first-rate film document of Ellington reminiscing, composing, receiving honors, and traveling with the band.

Television has always offered endless opportunities for musical interludes in variety, comedy, and talk shows, but jazz has figured in only a tiny percentage of these. In 1970 Roland Kirk and others led the Jazz and People’s Movement in a militant attempt to disrupt popular television shows in order to lobby for the employment of a greater proportion of jazz (and particularly African-American jazz) musicians on American network television, but not surprisingly this effort was paid lip service and then quickly ignored, with musical policies reverting to business as usual. Even at the beginning of the 21st century it remains a rare event – perhaps as infrequent as two or three times per year – for any jazz musician to perform for a general audience on a major network show. Perhaps the most memorable exception occurred when Sun Ra’s Arkestra appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in 1976. This show presented other jazz musicians from time to time, including Wynton Marsalis in 1987. Miles Davis was on the “The Arsenio Hall Show” (1989), and jazz musicians and groups appeared occasionally on “The Tonight Show” (including V.S.O.P. (i) and Joe Henderson, both 1992, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, 1993), “Late Night with David Letterman” (Marsalis, 1994), and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” (Cassandra Wilson, 1994; the Jazz Passengers, 1995; McCoy Tyner, 1996; and the Lounge Lizards, 1999). “CBS Sunday Morning” sometimes offers jazz profiles, and on rare occasions a jazz performer has been featured on the annual Grammy Award broadcast (for example, V.S.O.P. (i) in 1987, Cab Calloway in 1988, and Davis in 1990).

Despite the rather bleak situation with regard to opportunities on general television shows, jazz has in other respects come to be regarded as something of a national treasure in America and a subject for celebration on television; opportunities for viewing jazz have magnified greatly, particularly from the mid-1980s on the PBS network and from the late 1990s with the establishment of BET Jazz, a cable channel devoted entirely to jazz and closely related genres. PBS series have included annual broadcasts from the Newport and Jacksonville festivals; approximately ten shows devoted to jazz within the general music series “Great Performances,” centered mainly on famous individuals but also including a broadcast from Verve’s 50th- (sic: actually 48th-) anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall in 1994; a series of performances broadcast from Lincoln Center; a series of documentaries entitled “American Masters,” with individual shows devoted to Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, John Hammond, Ella Fitzgerald, and Miles Davis; one-off shows devoted to an “All-Star Swing Reunion” (1986, including Clark Terry, Zoot Sims, Teddy Wilson, Red Norvo, and Milt Hinton), Thelonious Monk (1986), Dizzy Gillespie (1988, from his 70th birthday party in 1986), Davis (1993, from his performance with Quincy Jones’s orchestra at the Montreux International Jazz Festival in 1991), Alberta Hunter, Abbey Lincoln, Shirley Horn, and the Nicholas brothers; live broadcasts on New Year’s Eve (with, for example, performances by McCoy Tyner, Stephane Grappelli, and Marsalis in 1987); “Club Date,” a short-lived series which presented live studio performances by, among others, Mundell Lowe and Bob Cooper, Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins, Frank Morgan, and Hank Jones’s trio; “Sessions at West 54th Street” (1997–9), a series hosted by David Byrne and John Hiatt and involving such artists and groups as Branford Marsalis, Marc Ribot, the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, and the Lounge Lizards; and “Mississippi River of Song” (1999), with one of its four parts on New Orleans and brass bands. In January 2001 PBS presented “Jazz,” a history in ten episodes, directed by Ken Burns. It explores in depth the personal and professional stories of the giants of jazz during the music’s first half century, roughly 1910 to 1960 (i.e., Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Charlie Parker, among others), with an emphasis on racial issues and on the idea of jazz as an expression of freedom.

The cable channel BET Jazz broadcasts films on jazz subjects and various sorts of jazz and jazz-related programming. It has presented such series as “Live from the Knitting Factory,” “Jazz Alley,” “Masters of American Music,” “The Latin Beat,” and “Montreal Jazz,” as well as a series on Duke Ellington.

In 1989 the video cable channel VH-1 presented “Jazz Vision,” an excellent short-lived series in which Ben Sidran hosted live studio performances by Carla Bley and Steve Swallow, the World Saxophone Quartet, Sun Ra, Don Cherry, Red Rodney, The Leaders, the trio of Geri Allen, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian, the Lounge Lizards, and others. Equally notable, and more remarkable in light of the earlier and inconsequential Jazz and People’s Movement, during this same period one of the major networks, NBC, presented the outstanding television series “Night Music” (1989–90), hosted by David Sanborn and Jools Holland; “Night Music” prepared biographical sketches of some of the famous jazz musicians and provided a forum for concert performances by Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra, Bley and Swallow, the World Saxophone Quartet, Betty Carter, Branford Marsalis, David “Fathead” Newman, Stanley Turrentine, John Zorn, Phil Woods, Slim Gaillard, Lincoln, Hank Crawford, Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, Pharoah Sanders, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Wayne Shorter. The A&E (Arts and Entertainment) cable channel offered a series on women in jazz, and the Knowledge TV cable channel presented “World Jazz” (1998), a series hosted by Rabih Abou-Khalil, with shows on the intersection of jazz with blues, klezmer, Latin music, New Orleans, South Africa, the accordion, and various other subjects or geographic locations; Don Byron, Don Cherry and Multikulti, Cassandra Wilson, John McLaughlin, Eddie Palmieri, and the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth brass bands are among those who appeared.

4. Documentary films.

Between 1950 and 1960 documentary films using jazz-related subject matter were produced both in the USA and in Europe. One of the earliest was Jazz Dance (1954, Contemporary, dir. Roger Tilton), made at the Central Plaza Dance Hall in New York, which captured a spontaneous jazz session: Willie “the Lion” Smith, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy McPartland, Jimmy Archey, Pops Foster, and George Wettling play such staples as Royal Garden Blues and Ballin’ the Jack, and Leon James and Albert Minns perform a variety of period dance steps. Satchmo the Great (1957, United Artists, prod. Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly) follows Louis Armstrong and his All Stars (Edmond Hall, Trummy Young, Billy Kyle, Arvell Shaw, Jack Lesberg, Barrett Deems, and Velma Middleton) on a tour of Europe and Africa. A beautiful, straightforward tribute to Armstrong, the film has a number of moving moments, among them the scene in which W. C. Handy, 80 years old and blind, is seen in the audience, smiling in response to Armstrong’s performance of St. Louis Blues with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. A controversial and outspoken semidocumentary that presents the idea that jazz is dead is Edward Bland’s Cry of Jazz (1959), a visual essay on jazz and the African-American condition in the USA. Filmed mainly on Chicago’s South Side, it is a passionate and angry film that emphasizes the black experience and the contribution it made to jazz.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1960, Union Films, dir. Bert Stern) is a personal record of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Although flawed, this rare and fascinating work was far ahead of the average effort to document jazz performance. It failed in the contrived excursions into beer parties, sailboat racing, and shots of Newport scenery, but it succeeded in the many intense close-ups of the artists, leaving an exciting first record, in color, of one of the most important and successful American jazz events. Armstrong is seen playing and singing Lazy River and performing a duet on Rockin’ Chair with Jack Teagarden; Anita O’Day offers interpretations of Sweet Georgia Brown and Tea for Two; and Jimmy Giuffre’s trio gives a rendition of Train and the River. Other musicians include Dinah Washington, Gerry Mulligan, Sonny Stitt, George Shearing, Chico Hamilton, and Thelonious Monk. Later the Monterey jazz festivals were captured on film in Monterey Jazz Festival (1967, dir. Lane Slate), Monterey Jazz (1968, prod. Ralph J. Gleason and Richard Moore), and Monterey Jazz (1973, dir. Norman Abbott).

Mingus (1968, dir. Thomas Reichman) is an extremely candid look at Charles Mingus during the period when he was being evicted from his apartment in New York; there is some fascinating footage of Mingus composing at the piano, philosophizing, reciting poetry, and playing with groups that involved Dannie Richmond and Charles McPherson. Journey Within (1968, dir. Eric Sherman) is a sensitive documentary that traced the life of Charles Lloyd and presented concert performances that featured Jack DeJohnette and Keith Jarrett. ’Til the Butcher Cuts Him Down (1971, dir. Philip Spalding) shows the last days of Punch Miller, while Salute to Louis Armstrong (1972) is a 70th-birthday tribute to the trumpeter at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival. A priceless treasure is Jazz Hoofer: Baby Laurence (1973, dir. Bill Hancock), including rare footage of Laurence in action.

A classic documentary which captures the spirit of the music that flourished in Kansas City during the 1920s and 1930s is The Last of the Blue Devils (1974–9, dir. Bruce Ricker). It shows a number of veterans along with some younger local musicians, reminiscing, joking, and performing, and celebrates the contributions to Kansas City jazz made by Count Basie, Jay McShann, Joe Turner (ii), Jo Jones, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Bennie Moten, and others.

Jazz in Exile (1978, dir. Chuck France) combines performance and interview to explore the lives and experiences of expatriate jazz musicians in Europe, notably Richard Davis, Phil Woods, Dexter Gordon, Carla Bley, and Steve Lacy. The life and music of modern jazz drummers is the focus of Different Drummer: Elvin Jones (1979, dir. Edward Gray) and Max Roach: Drummer’s Drummer (1980, prod. Axis Video). Jackie McLean contributes a look at the stresses of his career as a teacher and performer in Jackie McLean on Mars (1980, dir. Ken Levis), and Joe Albany: a Jazz Life (1980, dir. Carole Langer) shows the pianist performing and being interviewed. A Night in Tunisia (1980, dir. Bryan Elson) preserves a rehearsal and performance of the title number by Dizzy Gillespie, along with interviews with Leonard Feather and Jon Faddis.

Europe was also an important source of jazz documentary and performance films. One of the first was Momma Don’t Allow (1955, UK, dir. Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz), which showed Chris Barber’s band playing in an English jazz club. Tailgate Man from New Orleans (1956, France, dir. Thomas L. Rowe) featured Kid Ory, Django Reinhardt (1958, France, dir. Paul Paviot) was a documentary on the life of the guitarist narrated by Yves Montand, and Ben Webster was the subject of the film Big Ben (1967, Netherlands, dir. Johann van der Keuken). Max Roach (1967, France, dir. Francis Leduc) also introduced Abbey Lincoln, Johnny Griffin, Maurice Vander, and Gilbert Rovère. International Jazz Festival (1962, Belgium, dir. Patrick Ledoux) recorded a jazz festival in the Ardennes which featured Cannonball Adderley’s group.

The British director John Jeremy was responsible for two exceptional documentaries. Jazz is our Religion (1972) combined photographs by Valerie Wilmer and live performance footage with jazz poetry and a jazz soundtrack. Born to Swing (1973) took a loving look at some of the greatest jazz artists of the swing era through archival film interviews and contemporary performance sequences; among the musicians were Jo Jones, Earle Warren, Dicky Wells, Eddie Durham, Andy Kirk, and Buddy Tate.

L’aventure du jazz (versions 1970 and 1972, France, dir. Louis and Claudine Panassié) is reputedly a major documentation of those styles which Louis Panassié’s father, Hugues Panassié, regarded as “real jazz,” with performances by Buddy Tate, Eddie Barefield, Dick Vance, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Cliff Jackson, Jo Jones, Milt Buckner, and Duke Ellington, among others. Unfortunately general distribution was not sought, and the film has rarely been seen outside the francophone countries – and not often there. Swingmen in Europe (1977, France, dir. Jean Mazeas) shows recording sessions by, among others, Jo Jones, J. C. Heard, Doc Cheatham, Teddy Buckner, Sammy Price, and Illinois Jacquet.

Three of the finest American jazz documentaries from later decades are devoted to the lives of Thelonious Monk, Illinois Jacquet, and Charles Mingus. Straight No Chaser (1989, dir. Charlotte Zwerin) features Michael and Christian Blackwood’s incredible footage from 1963 of Monk in the studio with Teo Macero, and on and off stage while on tour. Texas Tenor: the Illinois Jacquet Story (1990, dir. Arthur Elgort) is – remarkably in the context of jazz – a persistently happy film; it captures Jacquet’s magnetic personality and musical talent, and a good sense of the routine of a non-routine life, as it follows him in performance (and en route to performance), in conversation with fellow jazz players, and at the Selmer saxophone factory in France. Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog (1997, dir. Don McGlynn) presents a comprehensive view of Mingus’s turbulent life and incorporates rare footage of a number of his performances from the 1960s and 1970s.

A Great Day in Harlem (1995, dir. Jean Bach) is a lovingly made documentary about a gathering of jazz musicians organized by the photographer Art Kane for Esquire magazine in 1958. Many of the surviving participants are interviewed (among them Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Hinton, and Gerry Mulligan), and the resulting narrative is a warm and wonderful recollection of the era; there is a particularly amusing account of Thelonious Monk’s eccentric brilliance. By contrast, Blue Note: a Story of Modern Jazz (1997) misses its opportunity to document one of the icons of jazz recording. The director, Julian Benedikt, wastes time on interviews of only marginal relevance to the subject, and the interviewees endlessly speak over the music while doing nothing to explain it; disappointingly, there is only brief, even fleeting, footage of the performers.

5. Videos.

Music on video was developed in the late 1970s as a method of promoting popular and rock stars. MTV, founded in 1980, was devoted to rock, and BET, founded c1984, to soul music, though both offered occasional performances of jazz – mainly of a rather bland variety. Notable exceptions were videos by the rock singer and electric bass guitarist Sting, whose sidemen included Kenny Kersey and Branford Marsalis (1985–6), and Marsalis’s own bop rendition of Royal Garden Blues (1987). As the production and distribution of pre-recorded videotapes tailored to home consumption became a profitable business, many films that had originally been made for theatrical release or for television, as well as soundie and telescription compilations, became available. From the late 1980s there was a great proliferation of jazz on video, not only as increasing numbers of classic films of every sort came to be reissued in this format, but also as video cameras became commonplace, allowing jazz performances to be captured in countless settings. A second stage in this process got underway in the late 1990s with the introduction of the DVD (digital video disc). In terms of the quality of both image and sound, digital technology offers an enormous improvement over videotape (which is routinely wobbly). In the early years of the 21st century, as DVDs begin to outnumber videos in the general marketplace, it seems certain that the world of jazz will soon follow suit, with existing items being transferred to this medium and new ones utilizing it in lieu of videotape.

III. Jazz film scores

  • Ernie Smith, Josh Ferko, Howard Rye and Barry Kernfeld

1. Commercial recordings introduced into film soundtracks.

At the beginning of the sound era Hollywood studios realized that a popular song could help promote a film, and a number of their early productions had such associations, notably Ramona (1928), Coquette (1929), Glad Rag Doll (1929), and I Cover the Waterfront (1933). W. C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues was used in countless films and became a leitmotif for screen characters of questionable morality. Examples may be found in Safe in Hell (1931, First National-Warner Bros., dir. William Wellman), during a scene in which a brothel madam makes a telephone call to a prostitute, while the camera slowly travels up the length of her leg to the strains of the tune; Dancers in the Dark (1932, Paramount, dir. David Burton), where a gangster with an interest in a dance-hall hostess requests St. Louis Blues every time he visits her in a sleazy taxi-dance hall; and The Way of All Flesh (1940, Paramount, dir. Louis King), where the slide into disgrace and degradation of a respectable bank employee is emphasized in a scene in a speakeasy, as a black jazz band plays background blues to the popping of champagne corks.

The practice of using jazz in soundtracks to enhance screen drama and help establish the appropriate time period of the narrative came into its own in the 1950s. Panic in the Streets (1950, 20th Century-Fox, dir. Elia Kazan) was filmed on location in New Orleans and concerns the desperate search by a physician for a fleeing criminal who is suspected of being a carrier of bubonic plague. Much of the music was especially produced by such jazzmen as Ziggy Elman, Eddie Miller, Teddy Buckner, and Benny Carter, and each piece catches the flavor of the environment in which the action takes place; effective use is made of the blues, boogie-woogie, and dixieland as logical source music from jukeboxes, the radio, and a group playing in a restaurant.

Later films that make use of commercial jazz recordings as source music are Carnal Knowledge (1971, Avco Embassy/Icarus, dir. Mike Nichols), in which Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade, Tuxedo Junction, and String of Pearls evoke the college days of the two leading characters; Save the Tiger (1972, Paramount, dir. John G. Avildsen), with such period pieces as Air Mail Special, Stompin’ at the Savoy, and I can’t get started; and Paper Moon (1973, Paramount, dir. Peter Bogdanovich), where Nat Gonella’s The music goes ’round and around, Paul Whiteman’s Mississippi Mud, Hoagy Carmichael’s Georgia on my Mind, and Tommy Dorsey’s After you’ve gone do much to establish the era in which the story is set. Raging Bull (1980, Universal-International, dir. Martin Scorsese) employs an incredible array of nostalgic source music to give the film its flavor, including Drumboogie (Gene Krupa), Jersey Bounce (Benny Goodman), Frenesi (Artie Shaw), Big Noise from Winnetka (Bob Crosby), I ain’t got nobody (Louis Prima), and Stone Cold Dead in the Market (Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald). Woody Allen consistently drew on period recordings as a method of placing his stories in the proper time frame; such films as Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978), and Stardust Memories (1980) make generous and effective use of the hit recordings of big bands and such star instrumentalists as Tommy Dorsey, Isham Jones, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Chick Webb, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Django Reinhardt, and Lester Young.

2. Original jazz scores.

From 1930 to World War II scoring of motion pictures was stylistically dominated by classical and operatic composers whose European backgrounds brought a romantic symphonic approach to the films of the period. When a film had to evoke imagery associated with crowded urban life or the sophistication of metropolitan living, nothing worked quite so well as a Gershwinesque concert piece with a soaring clarinet glissando. The closer the narrative came to street level and the pavements of crowded working-class tenements, the more jazz-oriented the music seemed to become; the bottom of the cinematic scale was generally reserved for the blues.

During the 1950s and 1960s the Hollywood studios tended to concentrate more and more on themes that had to do with crime, violence, loneliness, alienation, drug addiction, racial and generational conflict, juvenile delinquency, and the brittle antagonisms that were the result of a crowded and stressed existence. At the same time jazz-flavored scores and soundtracks became synonymous with these themes and with film noir productions, and a cadre of film composers, arrangers, and orchestrators emerged to provide many of the original compositions and jazz-influenced music. Some found work in the studios and in television, and others began to write for television commercials as well. They were experimenting and making radical departures from traditional approaches to underscoring by moving away from jazz-tinged symphonic scores and utilizing the instrumentation of typical jazz groups – often relying on the improvisational aspect of jazz. The break up of the studio system and the emergence of independent producers encouraged the use of fresh ideas, not only in the selection of dramatic themes but also in the scoring of the films.

In the early 1950s, with the innovative work of Benny Carter, Leith Stevens, Alex North, Elmer Bernstein, David Raksin, Ray Heindorf, Buddy Bregman, Pete Rugolo, Duke Ellington, and Shorty Rogers, jazz-textured scores became dominant. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, music North), The Glass Wall (1953, music Stevens), On the Waterfront (1954, music Leonard Bernstein), The Wild One (1954, music Stevens), and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955, music Bernstein) were social and psychological problem dramas; jazz-flavored underscoring seemed to suit best the mood of their dramatic content. The effectiveness of these film scores was influential in setting a pattern for the ensuing years. By the late 1950s the trend was further reflected in the music of such films as The Wild Party (1956, music Bregman), Anatomy of a Murder (1959, music Ellington), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959, music John Lewis), and Shadows (1959, music Charles Mingus). Lewis wrote the score for Sait-on jamais (1957, dir. Roger Vadim) and performed on the soundtrack with the other members of the Modern Jazz Quartet; Miles Davis improvised that for Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1957, dir. Louis Malle).

In 1958 Henry Mancini wrote the music for a highly successful television crime series produced by Blake Edwards, “Peter Gunn.” A jazz club called Mothers served as the base of operations for the private detective who was the central character. The score, a seminal work, was entirely oriented towards jazz, with plenty of big-band sounds, lots of brass and saxophones, the blues, and cool jazz. Its background theme, which was nominated for an Emmy Award, created an overall mood for the series, which in turn became identified with a host of similar dramas that followed, and the commercial success of the soundtrack album prompted other producers to scout for jazz composers who would create comparable scores. Subsequent series, for which the musical hallmark became the sounds of screaming brass heard over the beat of drums (or bongos) and a steady walking bass, included “Richard Diamond, Private Detective” (1957–60, music Rugolo), “Johnny Midnight” (1960, music Joe Bushkin), “Johnny Staccato” (1959–60, music Elmer Bernstein), and “Mr. Lucky” (1959, music Mancini). The original musical theme for “M Squad” (1957–60) was discarded in the series’ second season in favor of a jazz theme composed by Count Basie.

The “discovery” of jazz by the producers of motion pictures and television programs in the 1950s soon led to its overuse, and there were complaints from critics, fans, and even musicians about the increasing association of jazz with vice, violence, and all things sordid. At the same time, making a living as a jazz performer was not easy, and musicians frequently set aside their personal objections for more practical considerations in order to accept assignments to work on soundtracks.

The trend thus continued in the late 1950s with such films as I Want to Live (1958, United Artists, dir. Robert Wise, music Johnny Mandel), a film noir melodrama based on the story of Barbara Graham, whose criminal way of life eventually led to her execution in San Quentin. Mandel’s jazz score helped to establish a mood suitable for vice, drugs, and crime, and was performed by such prominent jazz musicians as Gerry Mulligan, Bud Shank, Art Farmer, Pete Jolly, Frank Rosolino, Red Mitchell, and Shelly Manne – who also appear in the nightclub scene which opens the film. Mancini’s Afro-Cuban jazz-tinged score for Touch of Evil (1958, Universal-International, dir. Orson Welles) reinforces effectively the sleazy, decadent atmosphere of the drama.

Two British films of the period were Look Back in Anger (1959, ABP/Woodfall, dir. Tony Richardson, music Chris Barber, which starred Richard Burton as a trumpet-playing malcontent (dubbed by Pat Halcox) with a dixieland band (played by Barber’s group), and Sapphire (1959, Artna/Universal, dir. Basil Dearden, music Philip Green), for which the soundtrack was provided by John Dankworth.

Violence, alienation, sex, drugs, and rebellion were strong components of films produced in the 1960s and 1970s. The jazz-filled score fit such themes rather well, and the list of composers and arrangers who wrote appropriate soundtracks grew to include Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, Billy May, Frank DeVol, David Amram, Calvin Jackson, André Previn, Oliver Nelson, Nelson Riddle, Eddie Sauter, Gil Melle, Don Ellis, Jimmy Giuffre, Gerry Mulligan, Neal Hefti, Ralph Burns, Gary McFarland, Jerry Goldsmith, Chuck Mangione, Bob James, Fred Katz, and Herbie Hancock.

One of the most successful of these composers is Jones. From such early works as Pojken i trädet (Boy in the tree; 1961), The Pawnbroker (1965), and The Slender Thread (1966), he went on to create memorable scores for such films as In the Heat of the Night (1967), In Cold Blood (1967), for which he won an Oscar for Best Original Score, Cactus Flower (1969), The Anderson Tapes (1971), The Getaway (1972), and The Wiz (1978). Among his contributions to television are the theme music for NBC’s “Ironside” (1967–75), “The Bill Cosby Show” (1969–71), and “Sanford and Son” (1972–7).

Schifrin has scored more than 70 successful films, some of the most notable being The Cincinnati Kid (1965), The Fox (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967), and Charley Varrick (1973).

Among the composers in Europe who made important contributions to jazz-inspired motion-picture scores were John Dankworth, Allyn Ferguson, and Johnny Hawksworth in the UK; Claude Bolling, André Hodeir, and Hubert Rostaing in France; and Svend Asmussen in Denmark. Dankworth’s work includes outstanding scores for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Servant (1963), Darling (1965), and 10 Rillington Place (1970), while Bolling has scored dozens of films, notably Pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse (1957), L’homme à femmes (1960), Le solitaire (1973), Il faut vivre dangereusement (1975), and Le gitan (1975).

Towards the 1980s the themes in many motion pictures began to reflect a number of changes. Although films concerning crime, sex, and violence were still popular, so were others with light, escapist plots – for example the many science-fiction adventures of the late 1970s; themes relating to social statements and the Vietnam War were also explored. The soundtracks for many of these films, made by performers who had established their reputations on television or in comedy clubs, were little more than commercially successful rock-and-roll or popular hit recordings.

The director Spike Lee has made a number of films utilizing jazz soundtracks (mainly in collaboration with Terence Blanchard), and one of these, Mo’ Better Blues (1990), is also on a jazz subject. The performance, an account of the lives of two fictional rural musicians, seems flawed, but the soundtrack is strong, featuring Branford Marsalis’s quartet with Blanchard and a score by Lee’s father, Bill Lee (i). More successful than Lee’s various efforts is the romantic comedy Love Jones (1997, dir. Theodore Witcher), which draws together a number of possibilities for using jazz in films. Brief passages of jazz serve throughout to establish moods and to bridge transitions – most strikingly, late in the film, when the African-American writer (played by Larenz Tate) rushes to and through a Chicago train station supported by an undercurrent of frenetic hard-bop playing. Some moments of background music in Love Jones are drawn from recordings, including a famous track by Charlie Parker and another by Duke Ellington in a small-group session with John Coltrane, but the majority are from a stylistically varied score newly written by Darryl Jones and featuring a romantic ballad sung by Cassandra Wilson. Furthermore, moments of live jazz performance are convincingly integrated into the story, with Tate reciting poetry to the accompaniment of Teodross Avery and Jones (on double bass), and the quartet of Avery, the guitarist Jeff Parker, the double bass player Mark Shelby, and Carl Allen playing at a nightclub.

IV. Cultural meanings of jazz in films

  • Krin Gabbard

1. African-american music in the white cinema.

With very few exceptions, images of jazz in American films reflect a small group of stereotypes much more than the realities of jazz history. Jazz is almost always made to serve the dominant ideologies of American culture, especially the well-established myths of race, gender, and the artist’s life. As these ideologies have changed, and as public attitudes towards jazz have shifted, the music has consistently been called upon to signify something other than itself.

In the early years of the American cinema “jazz” referred primarily to fast living and night life as much as to music. When sound arrived in films in 1927 the breakthrough film was The Jazz Singer, in which Al Jolson played the eponymous hero in blackface. Although Michael Rogin has argued that there is no jazz in The Jazz Singer, the film at least associated “jazz” with African Americans – maudlin and infantile as they may have been in Jolson’s representation.

Jolson continued performing in blackface for several years after the success of The Jazz Singer, but jazz musicians of color soon began appearing regularly in full-length films. In the early 1930s Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Fats Waller took part in, respectively, Ex-Flame (1931), Check and Double Check (1932), The Big Broadcast (1932), and King of Burlesque (1935), usually in short scenes that could be easily excised for white audiences offended by the sight of African Americans. Although black artists rose to the occasion in their brief moments of cinematic exposure, they were usually presented as grotesque and/or exotic. Consider Calloway wildly waving his arms and his hair or Fats Waller exercising his eyebrows and lips.

Even when a performer such as Louis Armstrong was entrusted with featured roles in Pennies from Heaven (1936), Every Day’s a Holiday (1938), and Going Places (1938), he tended to play servile, even buffoonish characters. But, as many have argued, Armstrong found ways of “signifying” on or subtly undermining Hollywood’s constructions of race, and all efforts to emasculate or contain him were consistently frustrated by his powerful trumpet playing. In the “Public Melody Number One” sequence in Artists and Models (1937), for example, Armstrong’s phallic trumpet is even compared to a machine gun.

The case of Duke Ellington is even more exceptional. Early in his career Ellington was depicted as a creative artist in Black and Tan, directed by Dudley Murphy in 1929. This 18-minute film even portrays Ellington as a man of courage and conviction, entirely capable of refusing to allow his band to play for a ruthless clubowner. In 1935 Ellington was even more prominently featured as a dedicated professional and an elegant performer when he was shown composing at the piano and then leading an expanded version of his orchestra in another short film, Symphony in Black. No other African-American entertainer was given so much dignity in the films of the 1920s and 1930s. This phenomenon may be attributed in part to the efforts of Ellington’s manager, Irving Mills, and to a series of white film makers who were fascinated by Ellington’s music and charisma, but Ellington himself deserves the lion’s share of credit for creating and maintaining his unique image. Indeed, he must be considered an anomaly in an otherwise bleak history of racial misrepresentation in the early years of the American sound cinema.

2. African-american music and the white artist.

When swing became the dominant popular music of American culture in the mid-1930s, American films regularly associated the music with white artists. For people distressed by the African-American roots of swing or by the suggestive dancing of black and even white Lindy Hoppers, films offered the dignified Benny Goodman (Hollywood Hotel, 1937) and the sexually unthreatening Kay Kyser (That’s Right You’re Wrong, 1939).

The institutionalization of swing as America’s favorite music gave birth to a major film genre, the jazz “biopic,” a highly idealized recounting of a popular musician’s life. The basic elements of the jazz biopic were already in place in The Jazz Singer, which was in many ways the life story of Al Jolson. When Hollywood made a film about the life of Ted Lewis in 1943 (Is Everybody Happy?) and of Jolson himself in 1946 (The Jolson Story), many of the elements of The Jazz Singer were restated, including intergenerational conflict between father and son, the romance of mother love, and the initial stigmatization of jazz before its vindication through the achievements of the hero.

A more important theme that emerges in almost all of the biopics is the ascendance of white artists over African-American performers. The pattern had already been established as early as 1941 in Birth of the Blues. Inspired by the rise of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in New Orleans in the early years of the century, Birth of the Blues includes a scene in which a white child improvises on clarinet more expertly than the African-American folk artists who provide music for cakewalking blacks on the levee at the end of Basin Street. When the child says that he just “picked up a few things hanging around Basin Street,” a black clarinetist with bug eyes and a plantation accent says, “White boy, come set beside me. There’s a few things I want to pick up.”

In The Jolson Story the hero (played by Larry Parks, although an elderly Jolson lobbied to play the part himself) stumbles into a gathering of African-Americans while on tour with a minstrel show in New Orleans. Hearing the music known as jazz, created by the musicians “out of the air,” as he puts it, Jolson decides to build a career out of this music. The film suggests that jazz can reach an appreciative audience only when it is presented by a talented, imaginative, and white performer such as Jolson. By contrast, in the same year as the release of The Jolson Story, Frank Capra let the sound of jazz spilling out onto the street and the presence of a stout African-American pianist in a bar signify the decadence of “Pottersville,” the nightmare alternative to the idealized (and lily white) Bedford Falls of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

Although African-American artists were not initially the subject of biopics, they were almost always called upon to fill the special needs of white jazz films. The white biopics could not deny the place of blacks in jazz history, but they could bring in African-Americans to validate the superiority of white jazz artists. Thus, in The Benny Goodman Story (1955), Kid Ory (playing himself) tells Benny (Steve Allen) that he has “the best band I ever heard anyplace”; the white trumpeter/hero (Kirk Douglas) of Young Man with a Horn (1950), based loosely on Bix Beiderbecke, is sanctified when his black mentor (Juano Hernandez) tells an appreciative audience, “I taught him how to hold that trumpet he just played for you, but I didn’t teach him how to play it – not the way he does”; and in The Five Pennies Armstrong (as himself) taunts the young Red Nichols (Danny Kaye) before hearing him play a stirring solo and exclaiming, “Yeah! Get that boy’s license number. He caught the nightingale.”

The biopics found other ways to marginalize African-American performers. Consider the dark, cramped spaces occupied by Art Tatum in The Fabulous Dorseys (1947) compared with the high-art concert stage where the Dorseys perform at the film’s finale. Consider also the black and white film of African-American dancers projected on a screen off to a corner while the all-white Miller band records Tuxedo Junction in The Glenn Miller Story (1954).

African-American artists also enter jazz biopics in order to lend sexual power to white heroes. The acquisition of jazz prowess is frequently sexualized, as when Benny Goodman (Steve Allen) begins seriously romancing Alice Hammond (Donna Reed) immediately after Kid Ory bestows praise on his band or as when Kirk Douglas first gets close to Lauren Bacall after his African-American mentor declares the white trumpeter’s superiority in Young Man with a Horn. In both The Five Pennies and The Glenn Miller Story a young white protagonist journeys up to Harlem to hear Louis Armstrong and then consummates a romantic relationship with a woman immediately after performing with the trumpeter and drinking bootleg liquor from a teacup.

The cycle of white jazz biopics played itself out in the late 1950s. The conventions of the genre had become so rigidly codified that Nat “King” Cole effectively functioned as a white hero when he played W. C. Handy in St. Louis Blues (1958). As in The Jazz Singer, Handy must overcome his clergyman father’s opposition to jazz while benefiting from the attentions of an adoring maternal figure (Pearl Bailey playing Handy’s Aunt Hagar). Like the young Jolson and Goodman in their biopics, Handy commodifies and “improves” upon African-American music – in this case the work songs of the laborers he passes on his way to church.

In most of these biopics the jazz musician functions as a composer rather than as a musician. Miller, Goodman, and Handy, for example, play out the dramas of their lives while spending a great deal of time searching for the right sound or the right lyric. Audiences within the films eventually come to appreciate the innovations of the musicians. Thus Hollywood can associate these protagonists with “serious” composers such as Johann Strauss (The Great Waltz, 1938), Chopin (A Song to Remember, 1945), and George Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue, 1945), all of whom suffer and/or flourish with lovers, friends, and mentors as they produce great art. The stories of the white jazz artists were usually made to fit the same narrative patterns.

3. After the rise of rock.

There were no more white jazz biopics after The Gene Krupa Story and The Five Pennies, both released in 1959. By this time rock-and-roll had replaced jazz as America’s popular music and nostalgia for the swing era had waned, at least temporarily. New forms of jazz, such as bop and soul jazz, had failed to find a significant audience in the 1950s, and the prominence of African-American artists on the cutting edge of these new forms did not lead Hollywood producers to think the music had a future in a cinema directed almost exclusively at white Americans. The music was consistently consigned to a marginal role and often stigmatized.

The most memorable films to feature modern jazz were independently produced. Shadows (1958) and The Connection (1961), for example, both responded to America’s fascination with the bohemian subculture inhabited by jazz musicians and those who follow the music. In more mainstream films jazz of the post-swing era was stigmatized as cacophonous and even capable of producing psychosis: in The Big Combo (1955) gangsters torture a victim by forcing him to listen to a jazz drum solo through a hearing aid, and in Bell, Book, and Candle (1958) Pete and Conte Candoli (aided by Jack Lemmon as a bongo-beating beatnik warlock) drive Janice Rule to hysterics by improvising trumpet solos on both sides of her head. At best, jazz in the films of the 1950s simply provided a romantic atmosphere, as when Benny Carter elegantly serenaded Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner with Love is Cynthia in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952).

Although musicians associated with swing regularly appeared as guest stars in films of the 1940s and 1950s, bop was virtually nonexistent. Only the exotic trappings of bop actually made their way into films, as when, for example, in The Song of the Thin Man (1947) a clarinetist (Keenan Wynn) speaks the argot of bop but plays in a style somewhere between swing and the dixieland revival. In the 1950s various types of modernist jazz could be heard in mainstream films, even if by the standards of the 1990s the music seems inapposite or fanciful. In The Wild One (1954), for example, the gang of motorcyclists in black leather regalia listen not to rock-and-roll but to Kentonesque big-band music provided for the film by Leith Stevens and Shorty Rogers. In The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953) dancers with a bizarre hookah/saxophone populate a highly stylized dungeon (designed for the film by Dr. Seuss) dreamed up by a child imagining a world dominated by his demonic piano teacher. While vaguely dissonant jazz fills the soundtrack, the movements of the dancers around the instrument simultaneously suggest an opium den and a gay bar.

On a few occasions jazz was called upon to connote something other than corruption and exoticism. A jazz musician was even held up as a principled artist in The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), otherwise one of the most unrelentingly negative portraits of American culture in the 1950s. The film is set in motion by the desire of J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), an egomaniacal gossip columnist based on Walter Winchell, to keep his sister away from a white jazz guitarist (Martin Milner). Unlike virtually everyone else in the film, the jazz musician cannot be bought or corrupted, and at one point he even articulates the film’s critique of the hypocrisy and destructiveness of Hunsecker and his minions, especially the unctuous and scheming Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). In what may be the most idealized view of jazz ever in an American film, Gerry Mulligan appears in The Subterraneans (1960) as a saxophone-playing cleric without denomination who selflessly provides shelter and advice for the troubled bohemians of San Francisco. In endowing jazz musicians with great virtue, these two films stand as dramatic exceptions to the cinema’s rules. Furthermore, it would be impossible to imagine these films appearing when they did if the jazz musicians were not white.

The arrival of the black jazz biopic a few years later could scarcely be called auspicious. Sweet Love Bitter, based on the life of Charlie Parker, and A Man Called Adam, loosely inspired by the career of Miles Davis, were both released in 1966. The films were made outside the Hollywood studio system with small budgets and limited distribution. In an effort to squeeze a few additional dollars out of a doomed project, Sweet Love Bitter was re-released and exhibited at drive-ins and “grind houses” with the prurient title It Won’t Rub off, Baby. The artist heroes in the two films are self-destructive and inscrutable, and both men are kept alive by level-headed white acolytes. In fact, both films end first with the death of the black jazz artist but ultimately with the emotional reactions of the attractive white male (Don Murray in Sweet Love Bitter and Frank Sinatra, Jr., in A Man Called Adam) who was devoted to the deceased jazzman.

The same narrative of a doomed black artist with an articulate white protector resurfaced in the 1980s in both Round Midnight (1986) and Bird (1988). In Round Midnight Dexter Gordon plays an expatriate saxophonist (modeled on both Lester Young and Bud Powell) who is harbored and supported by a young Frenchman (based on Francis Paudras). The French idolater tries to protect the saxophonist from drug dealers, a greedy wife, and a heartless clubowner, even borrowing money so that he can follow the Gordon character to the United States. In Bird Chan Richardson (Diane Venora), the white common-law wife of Charlie Parker, provides explanations for the otherwise incomprehensible behavior of the protagonist (Forest Whitaker). At one point she explains that Parker’s unprovoked attack upon a white inmate in an institution is the result of his need to feel something, even the pain that comes with a fight, after he has been deprived of drugs and alcohol. Unlike the composer/musicians of the white jazz biopics, the protagonists of these films live on a downward trajectory in spite of their abilities as artists. Audiences for the black jazz biopics were invited to condemn the philistinism of the American people at the same time that white liberal spectators could identify with their surrogates in the films who understood the music, often better than the black artists themselves.

Lady Sings the Blues (1972) dramatically departs from the traditions of the genre by focusing for the first time on a female jazz performer, Billie Holiday, and by casting an African-American actor as her interpreter; Billy Dee Williams plays an idealized version of Louis McKay, Holiday’s husband at the end of her life. Like Chan in Bird, the Williams character helps the audience make sense of Holiday’s behavior. Spectators may not suspect, for example, that Billie (Diana Ross) is newly under the influence of heroin when McKay arrives after she has been away on tour, but McKay understands the situation perfectly. Although Lady Sings the Blues was unique as the biopic of a woman, it stayed close to the familiar conventions for telling the story of a black artist.

4. A new elegance.

At the end of the twentieth century jazz had moved into the domain of the Lincoln Center and high art, but it was still outside the mainstreams of popular entertainment and the American film industry. The music’s new cultural capital did, however, help to find it a small role in American film in the 1980s and 1990s. Classic jazz recordings could be heard adding romance and elegance to soundtracks, even when they were inappropriate or anachronistic. The Ellington orchestra’s 1967 recording of Lotus Blossom, with a solo by Harry Carney, plays in a small-town, working-class bar in Field of Dreams (1989); John Coltrane solos on a 1963 recording of In a Sentimental Mood in a 1950s beatnik café in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994); and in The Bridges of Madison County (1995) the 1980 recordings of Johnny Hartman play on a radio in a flashback set in 1964.

In several films jazz connoted elegance and refinement in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier. In an early example of this convention, Woody Allen’s September (1987), Sam Waterston and Mia Farrow reveal highly cultivated sensibilities as they listen admiringly to the Art Tatum–Ben Webster collaboration of 1955; they are interrupted by the boorish Elaine Stritch, who asks if they have any Glenn Miller records. The music was even made to signify affluence in Indecent Proposal (1993), when the urbane millionaire played by Robert Redford throws a party with Herbie Hancock in a tuxedo entertaining his guests at the piano. In Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) a production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is staged in the faded glory of New York’s old New Amsterdam Theater near Times Square. When the performance ends and the credits roll, the audience hears the music of Joshua Redman’s quartet. The director, Louis Malle, purposefully linked the jazz of Redman with the austere art of Chekhov.

Two films directed by Robert Altman in the 1990s made intriguing use of jazz musicians. In Short Cuts (1993), a film based on several unrelated short stories by Raymond Carver, the jazz singer Tess (Annie Ross) and her cellist daughter Zoe (Lori Singer) provide a key to understanding how the many narratives of Short Cuts might fit together. On the one hand Tess and Zoe represent, respectively, characters who wear their emotions on their sleeves and those who repress their feelings until they explode or, like Zoe, commit suicide. On the other hand some characters in Short Cuts are improvisers, like Tess, while others seem to need a script, such as Zoe reads when she performs. Throughout Short Cuts the music of Zoe or Tess is often the “glue” that holds together disparate scenes involving unrelated characters. Significantly, Tess and her daughter are the only two characters in the film who do not grow directly out of stories by Carver.

Altman’s Kansas City (1996) is ostensibly about a kidnapping on election day in 1934, but Kansas City jazz pervades the film from beginning to end. The film is especially inspired in its use of music when a group of African-American gangsters repeatedly stab a turncoat member of their group at the same time that Lester Young (Joshua Redman) and Coleman Hawkins (Craig Handy) are engaging in a cutting contest. When the musical combatants finally put down their weapons, they shake hands as a sign of mutual respect. The saxophone contest and the killing of the gangster are “cut” together so that the African-American men in the alley are killing one of their own at the same time that the musicians are engaging in the richest kind of cooperation. In fact, the plot of Kansas City is dominated by various schemes that never come to fruition. Only the jazz artists work together with consistently positive results. Altman’s love letter to the jazz of his childhood (he grew up in Kansas City in the 1930s) stands as an especially thoughtful appropriation of jazz after several decades when the music was almost always made to serve a narrow set of stereotypes.


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