JAZZIN' JAMMIN' & JIVIN'
The History of Jazz on Film
Jazz and the motion picture grew to maturity early in the 20th century, both children of the artistic and technological advances of the late 1880s. Experiments with sound motion pictures began soon after the birth of the art form. By the early years of the "Roaring Twenties" jazz was being presented to an eager, albeit limited, film going audience.
In 1927, the success of Warner Bros. The Jazz Singer, the first so-called "all-talkie feature," launched not only the "sound era," but also initiated a three decade period during which some of the greatest names in jazz music appeared on film. Jazz bands were frequently spotlighted in early short subjects. They were often major drawing cards in the feature films avidly promoted to the youth audience of the period. While many jazz figures were featured time and time again on screen (Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman are good examples), other important performers made solitary, often uncredited, film appearances.
Soon after the major film studios began exploiting the popularity of jazz and jazz-related music, independent film producers, some black and some white, began the production of black cast films. These productions were referred to as "race films" in the black and white press alike, and were intended for distribution to theaters catering to black audiences. The popularity of the music, coupled with the fact that music could be used at a relatively inexpensive cost, led to the inclusion of jazz in countless black cast films.
Distribution of motion pictures containing jazz content ranged from films produced by the major studios to independent productions. In the latter case feature films were often carried from town to town by the producer, exhibited nationwide via only one or two prints of the film. As a result the films themselves have often become lost over time (or at least await rediscovery), and in these cases the paper promotional materials are the only evidence we have of their production and release.
The vertical integration of the film industry meant that production, distribution and presentation was controlled and handled by the same companies. This often resulted in artistically stunning promotional materials for their feature film releases: the posters are works of art in themselves. It is surprising to note that the major studios often promoted short subjects with the same care and artistic concern. Of equal interest is the fact that the independent film producers, who often completed an entire feature film on a budget less than $35,000, created promotional materials that exhibited the same concern for detail and beauty.
The posters in this exhibit run the gamut from major feature film release to obscure independent production. Almost seventy years separate the earliest and the most recent posters in the collection. It is, without question, a reflection of a unique cultural achievement. If I were to point to one aspect of this exhibit that should be carefully considered, I would suggest that these posters be viewed as artistic achievements totally removed from the films they advertise. The concern for detail, often striking use of color, stylized presentation of the film's content, and use (or avoidance) of the racial and ethnic stereotype of the period make them worthy of our critical study, appraisal and appreciation.
JOSEPHINE BAKER - FOLLIES BERGERE
Filmbyran Tre Kronor, 1927
Born into poverty in St. Louis in 1906, Josephine Baker became one of the best known entertainers in the world. A self-taught dancer, Baker worked her way to New York and a place in the Broadway chorus line of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle's musical comedy Shuffle Along (1922) followed by Broadway's Chocolate Dandies (1924) and a floor show at the Plantation Club featuring Ethel Waters.
Still a teenager, Baker moved from Harlem to Paris where the wave of French enthusiasm for "Le Jazz Hot" quickly brought her international fame as an expatriate. It was after joining the Folies-Bergere that Baker's infamous erotic dancing with feathers and a G-string made of bananas made her a sensation.
In 1927, Baker made her first film, La Sirene des Tropiques , a romantic comedy that met with wide audience appreciation. Between founding a nightclub Chez Josephine, touring, and continual performances at the Casino de Paris, she made two other films. Zou Zou (1934), loosely based on her own life, and Princess Tam Tam (1935), a Pygmalion fantasy in which she plays an African beauty who is passed off on Parisian society as a Princess. Films, however, were only a temporary diversion for Baker whose real niche was the cabaret.
Baker was an early and outspoken advocate for equal rights, often criticizing the U.S. for its racial policies. Racism severely marred her many visits to America during the 1950s and 1960s and the outspoken Baker refused to perform in cities that treated blacks as second-class citizens. In 1963, at the peak of the civil rights movement, she proudly joined Martin Luther King for the infamous march on Washington.
The 1960s, however, were a difficult time for Baker. The expense of running her chateau, Les Milandes, in Dordogne, France, where she had raised twelve adopted children, proved too great of a burden and she faced eviction. Her close friend Princess Grace of Monaco arranged for them to move to a villa in the South of France. She continued to give concerts around the world although bookings became more difficult with age. On April 8,1975, Baker opened a revue in Paris to mark her 50th year in show business. Two days later, however, after slipping into a coma while she slept, she died.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Sack Amusements, 1929
Bessie Smith, who never played in a "white" club, was earning $800 a week performing and an additional $1,000 per recording in the 1920s. This sixteen-minute short film shot in Astoria, Queens, in New York City, is "the Empress of the Blues'" only screen role. She plays a long-suffering and wronged wife of an uncaring gambler. Co-produced by W.C. Handy, author of the title song, the film also features Isabel Washington (sister of Fredi Washington) who plays the "other woman." The music, provided by James P. Johnson and The Hall Johnson Choir, added to the overwhelming pathos of Smith's singing and makes this dramatized interpretation of the blues a true film classic. During the Depression, Columbia Records was forced to cancel her contract, effectively ending her career. A car accident claimed her life in Mississippi in 1937.
NOBLE SISSLE: ACE OF SYNCOPATION
Consolidated Radio, 1930
Bandleader, vocalist, composer, and Indianapolis native who in 1915 formed the vaudeville act 'The Dixie Duo,' with pianist Eubie Blake. Performing many classic ragtime hits, Sophie Tucker sang their first song, It's All Your Fault and made them an instant sensation. By 1921, they had written their first Broadway show, the famous all-black musical, Shuffle Along , with an all-star cast that featured the singing and dancing of Florence Mills. Both Josephine Baker and Ethel Waters appeared in the chorus line and Paul Robeson was briefly cast as a member of a barbershop quartet. A medley of songs included I'm Just Wild About Harry that won added fame many years later when Harry Truman's adopted it as his presidential campaign song.
By the 1930s, as the popularity of ragtime faded, Blake took a break from show business and Sissle continued leading successful bands in America and Europe. In 1936, nineteen-year old Lena Horne made her recording debut with the Sissle Band singing That's What Love Did to Me and I Take You Too.
Later in life, Sissle helped found and served as the first president of the Negro Actor's Guild, and in 1950 succeeded dancer Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson as honorary Mayor of Harlem.
HARLEM IS HEAVEN
Lincoln Productions, 1932
White producer Jack Golberg's first venture into black films came in 1929 when he secured the rights to distribute Josephine Baker's film Siren of the Tropics (1927). With that success, in the early 1930s he organized Lincoln Productions in New York City (no relation to the Lincoln Motion Picture Company.) The company's first release was Harlem is Heaven (also known as Harlem Rhapsody) featuring fifty-four year old Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Eubie Blake, Alvin Childress and James Baskett in his motion picture debut.
Well into his career as the world's most famous tap dancer, Robinson appeared in many Hollywood pictures and only this one independent film, a story that is woven around his own true-life experiences. In it, he also performs his famous "stair step" tap dance to the tune of "Swanee River" accompanied by Eubie Blake's solo piano.
RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT
Warner Brothers/Vitaphone, 1933
A 16-minute fantasy satire on politics in which a little boy dreams that he becomes President of the U.S. and his 'mammy' is Vice President. The film spotlights two now legendary performers much earlier in their careers: Ethel Waters and Sammy Davis Jr. In his first screen appearance, at the age of seven, pint-sized Davis sings, dances and clowns.
Nicknamed 'the beanpole' slim and slinky Waters looks far different from the heavier figure she displayed in Pinky (1949) and Member of the Wedding (1953). Statuesque in a long glamorous white gown, she sings her big hit "Am I Blue" and Underneath the Harlem Moon. Davis, in turn sings "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You."
International Roadshows, 1940
Clarence Muse starred in and co-wrote the screenplay for this independently made all-black drama. His role, as a dignified professional concert violinist injured in a car accident and left unable to play, is perhaps his finest and far from the porter, janitor or servant types for which he was cast in Hollywood.
Featured in this film, although not credited in the poster, is Matthew Beard, better known as Stymie from the popular "Our Gang" comedy series. Veteran actor and one of the founders of the Lincoln Motion Picture, Clarence Brooks, also appears, playing a doctor again, a role that won him an Academy Award Honorable Mention in Arrowsmith (1931).
Muse, who was not afraid to criticize the parts played by black actors in major films, openly objected to Gone With the Wind (1939) and set out to write a script that would refute its offensive stereotypes. He also recognized the importance of black films portraying the true history of the Negro. The Pittsburgh Courier quoted him as saying: "I simply wish to tell the truth about our race during the early days."
CABIN IN THE SKY
Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1943
Providing a much-needed escape for African-American movie audiences during World War II, this Vincente Minnelli film (his first for MGM), was an exceptional all-black, all-star, musical fantasy and morality tale about the eternal struggle of a man caught in a tug of war between heaven and hell.
The action transpires in a Wizard of Oz style dream of Little Joe Jackson (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson) who lies unconscious from a wound inflicted by a gambler. Good and evil take on human form and compete for Rochester's favor who is torn between the loyalty of his good Christian wife Petunia (Ethel Waters) and the temptations of the adulterous hussy Georgia Brown (Lena Horne.) Added to the cast are a treasure trove of talent including Rex Ingram, Mantan Morland, John 'Bubbles' Sublett, Willie Best, Kenneth Spencer, Oscar Polk, Ford Washington Lee, Butterfly McQueen, Ernest Whitman, Nick Stewart and Ruby Dandridge with featured musical numbers by the Hall Johnson Choir, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
Beginning her long-term contract with MGM, singer Horne made an auspicious film debut as the seductress Georgia Brown. In most of her other films however, her appearances were marginalized with an isolated song or two having nothing to do with the plotline. When it was felt that her scenes might offend southern audiences, her sequences were simply cut. Though she became the first black woman in film to be fully glamorized and publicized by her studio, a look at her short list of movie credits fails to define her success in Hollywood. She became a huge star based on only three or four pictures.
Renowned artist Al Hirschfeld, on staff at MGM early in his career, designed the poster.
20th Century Fox, 1943
On July 21,1943, only three months after MGM released the groundbreaking Cabin in the Sky , Fox premiered another all-black, all-star musical that again celebrated the best of African-American entertainment. Stormy Weather is a lavish musical revue based on the memories of dancer Bill Williamson (tap dancing icon Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson) who, using flashbacks, relates the story to a group of admiring neighborhood children of his climb up the showbiz ladder and on-off romance with Selina Rogers (Lena Horne). The film's thin plot, disguised as a love story, strings together the singing and dancing numbers that becomes a showpiece for all of the luminary entertainers including Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Ada Brown, the Nicholas Brothers, Dooley Wilson and Katherine Dunham, among many others.
The title song provided a professional signature for Horne's career and the film gave Robinson a welcomed opportunity to display his extraordinary terpsichorean skills without his usual sidekick Shirley Temple.
Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather marked the high point of Hollywood's all-black-cast musicals.
COOTIE WILLIAMS - FILM VODVIL
Columbia Pictures, 1944
Until the late 1950s, theater owners used the phrase "plus selected short subjects" to lure customers to the box office. All of the major Hollywood studios released one or two-reel shorts on many diverse themes including serials, news, cartoons, travelogues, comedy or jazz performances.
In the early 1940s, Columbia Pictures produced Film Vodvil a series of one-reel shorts that featured both variety and jazz acts. In this short, Cootie Williams, the prominent trumpeter of Duke Ellington's orchestra and later Benny Goodman's band, performs followed by segments with vocalist Laurel Watson and dancers The Douglas Brothers and the Lindy Hoppers.
Astor Pictures, 1945
Although jazz and rhythm-and-blues star Louis Jordan temporarily left the bandstand to make movies -Caldonia (1945), Beware (1946), Look-Out Sister (1946), and Reet Petite; and Gone (1947)- he always carried his music and a horn with him. Though short on plot, his films set him at the center of the action, making excellent use of his outgoing, charismatic, and mildly manic personality. Caldonia , an eighteen-minute extended short, with Jordan sporting a zoot suit with a "reet pleat and a drape shape," became enormously popular and his most famous.
Born in Arkansas in 1908, Jordan joined Chick Webb's orchestra in 1936, occasionally performing vocals with Ella Fitzgerald and recording duets with Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. By 1938, he fronted his own group, the Tympany Five, and in the 1940s had jukeboxes jumping with "Knock Me a Kiss," "Choo Choo Ch' Boogie," "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens," "Five Guys Named Moe," and "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?" With a massive following, both black and white, Jordan was a major influence on such 1950s stars as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, B.B. King, and Ray Charles. By the early 1960s, however, with declining record sales due to the fickle public, Jordan virtually retired from performing and recording, making a few rare appearances at festivals and clubs. He died in California in 1975.
INTERNATIONAL SWEETHEARTS OF RHYTHM
Wm.D. Alexander, 1946
Modeled on the 1934 success of Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears (an all-white female band), the International Sweethearts of Rhythm formed in 1937 at Piney Woods MS. Country Life School for black and disadvantaged children. A sixteen-member multiracial band that included a Chinese saxophonist and a Mexican trumpeter, they were out of school and on their own by 1940.
Although they were stars at theaters and clubs around the country, as a racially integrated band in the South, the Sweethearts traveled, ate and slept in a bus because segregation laws prevented them from using restaurants and hotels. The white and mulatto band members would have to disguise themselves by wearing dark makeup to avoid the bigotry and prejudice.
The Sweethearts gained their highest notoriety during the war years until the return of the male workforce in 1945, which subsequently limited many opportunities for women, especially female jazz musicians. In 1947, the band appeared in That Man of Mine, and all-black musical starring actress Ruby Dee at the start of her film career. Despite their notoriety and the label of a novelty act, the group soon disbanded.
LUCKY MILLINDER AND HIS ORCHESTRA
Astor Pictures, 1946
Lucius 'Lucky' Millinder was considered one of the great bandleaders of the '30s and '40s. Unable to read music or play an instrument, his early work as a master of ceremonies in clubs and ballrooms coupled with his natural flair and showmanship resulted in his appointment as leader the Irving Mills Blue Rhythm Band when they replaced Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club in 1934.
By 1940 after a stint fronting the Bill Doggett band, he formed a new band of his own, hiring an impressive range of top-notch instrumentalists and singers including, at various times, Dizzy Gillespie, Wynonie Harris, Bull Moose Jackson, Tab Smith, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Panama Francis and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
His band provided a vital link between the big band swing era and the early development of jump blues and he paved the way, along with other black bands led by Count Basie and Cab Calloway, for the Rhythm and Blues boom of the late 1940s.
Astor Pictures, 1946
The title of this film comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of eccentric vocalists and guitarist Slim Gaillard. His musical compositions with bassist Slam Stewart (Slim and Slam) were wildly original with lyrics conceived in Gaillard's personal version of the popular 'jive talk' language, a variation of hipster slang composed of imaginary nonsense words which he named 'Vout' or 'Vout Oreenie'. Song's like Flat Foot Floogie,Chili Beans Avoutie, and Cement Mixer Putti Putti, were comic, laid back but very cool and helped the duo achieve a number of genuine hits. Gaillard made a number of Hollywood features, such as Hellzapoppin ' (1941) and Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), Go Man Go (1954), Too Late Blues (1961) but this was his only all black-cast film.
SWING IN HARLEM
In the early1940s across the United States, in restaurants, bars, clubs, amusement centers, hotels and bus stations, there were 'Panorams' a kind of film jukebox housing a 16mm projector that played short musical movies called "Soundies" on a ground glass screen. Before television, this unique system, that was wildly popular and very profitable, formed a chapter in motion picture and music history. Unfortunately, America's entry in World War ll seriously affected the future of Soundies by limiting the manufacturing materials and diverting them to government use.
By 1946, after much success, most of the Soundies library of films had been sold off to 16mm distributors who compiled them into longer films for theaters here and abroad where the jazz phenomenon in Europe guaranteed a sure fire hit.
Swing in Harlem ultimately appeared in Sweden in 1946. Lena Horne, Louis Jordan, Mead Lux Lewis, Teddy Wilson, Albert Ammons, Joe Turner and a host of others perform.
Astor Pictures, 1947
In the years following World War II, the decreasing number of black theatres and the increased costs of processing and distribution threatened black film production profits. Some producers like William Crouch who completed Ebony Parade and Reet Petite and Gone (1947) for Astor Pictures used an assembly line technique to make up for his limited budget. Allowing only a few minutes for the dancers and bands to rehearse their routines permitted Crouch to churn out a film in a single day. All-star musical compilations were popular and easy to produce in this way.
Ebony Parade stars Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and the Mills Brothers performing their famous rendition of "Paper Doll" with the agile and graceful Dorothy Dandridge dancing her interpretation of the number. With a host of other stars, including Mantan Moreland as a magician used as a linking device between each act, the film presented the greatest parade of black talent the entertainment world had to offer.
HI DE HO
All American News, 1947
Cab Calloway's musical signature over the decades is a fitting title for this full-length musical feature. Hi De Ho is a love story intertwined with mostly club performances by Calloway, the Peters Sisters and the Miller Brothers and with co-stars Ida James and Jeni LeGon as his love interests. Veteran musicians Doc Cheatham, Ben Webster and Milt Hinton, among others, provided the music for Cab's "Don't Falter at the Alter," "Hi De Ho Man," and "I Got a Gal Named Nettie."
Calloway's genius and significance in the history of black entertainment gives this film significant documentary value. In the 1930s and early 1940s his band contained some of the finest up-and-coming jazz legends, including Dizzy Gillespie, Chu Berry, Eddie Barefield and Illinois Jacquet. When Calloway wasn't exploiting the idiom of scat singing and jive vocal novelties like "Minnie the Moocher," the band concentrated on jazz instrumentals that are still highly regarded today.
In 1971, going down a reception line at the White House during the Nixon Administration, the President shook hands with Calloway and said "Mr. Ellington, it's so good that you're here. Pat and I just love your music."
JIVIN' IN BE-BOP
Wm. D. Alexander, 1947
Consisting simply of music and dancing, this film gave trumpet icon Dizzy Gillespie a chance to introduce to movie audiences his new bebop jazz style that he had developed in after-hours experimental jam sessions in New York with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and others. The effort was not lacking in the talent department. In addition to Gillespie's singing, clowning, and trumpet showmanship, Helen Humes, James Moody, Milt Jackson and Ray Brown performed Salt Peanuts, "Oop Bop Sh'Bam," "Be Baba Leba," and "He Beeped When He Shoulda Bopped," among other tunes. Spencer Williams co-directed.
United Artists, 1947
Although this Hollywood pseudo-history is supposedly about jazz's rise to mainstream acceptance in the days of New Orleans Storyville, the real jazz innovators, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, are relegated to the sidelines while the plot follows the lives of the lead white characters. Nonetheless, when the two do appear, the film comes alive. Together, they perform "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans" and "The Blues Are Brewing."
While Holiday only starred in this one feature film, Armstrong appeared in dozens of American films and later television making him the most successful jazz musician ever to work in movies.
NO MR GHOST NOT NOW
Jenkins and Bourgeois, 1947
Singer and pianist Cecil Gant assembled a legacy of ballads, piano boogies, and urban blues numbers in the short eight years between the release of his first hit single "I Wonder" in 1944 and his death in 1952 at the premature age of 38.
On tour he dressed in Army khaki and was billed as Pvt. Cecil Gant the G.I. Sing-sation. His crooning ballads which had immense cross over appeal, attracting both black and white audiences, touched on the nerve of soldiers stationed overseas and loved ones back at home.
Gant, as well as others like Amos Milburn and Floyd Dixon, were important in the change in piano style, from the blues and boogie woogie of WWII to the rock and roll that soon followed.
RHYTHM IN A RIFF
Assoc. Producers of Negro Motion Pictures, 1947
"Mr. B," as Billy Eckstine was known, made this film, his debut, when the advent of bebop and modern jazz broke up his phenomenal big band that had included Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis, among other greats. MGM signed him to a solo recording contract in 1947 and he began his new guise as warm-voiced "balladeer." But they were unsuccessful in persuading him to become Lena Horne's leading man in their film musicals.
This 25-minute featurette is pure music and highlights his entire band, with singer Ann Baker, performing "I'm in the Mood For Love," "Rhythm in a Riff," "Prisoner of Love," "Lonesome Lover Blues," "I Cried For You," "What is This Thing Called Love," "Taps Miller," "Exactly Like You," and "Second Balcony Jump." A few years and twelve Top 30 hits later, Eckstine turned down the male lead in 20th Century Fox's Carmen Jones (1954) because he hated the demeaning "dems" and "dat" dialogue.
All American News, 1948
All-star production in which a slight plot and a series of black vaudeville acts feature popular entertainers Dusty 'Open the Door Richard' Fletcher, Jackie 'Moms' Mabley and Butterfly McQueen. Music throughout is supplied by Nat King Cole Trio and Andy Kirk and his Swing orchestra. Kirk's leadership style, while snapping his fingers to keep tempo during Basie Boogie and Apollo Groove prove that his band members were apostles of rhythm.
Cole was a fixture in the jazz clubs on New York's famed 52nd Street. In the 1940's, when wartime spawned sentimentality, singers like Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Peggy Lee reached their largest audiences. The ballad was born, and Cole was a natural. Tall, dark, and incredibly suave, Cole became a "crossover" artist whose classy style appealed to white audiences as well. In the film, Cole performs "Ain't Misbehavin," "Oh Kick a Rooney," "Breezy and the Bass," and "Don't Sit on My Bed" with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Johnny Miller.
THE NICHOLAS BROTHERS
With their flying splits and daredevil acrobatics, The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard (born 1914) and Harold (born 1921), vitalized tap dancing on stage and in films throughout their long careers. They were show-stoppers when they opened at Harlem's famous Cotton Club in 1932 (at ages 11 and 18) and were soon sharing top billing with other black show business legends such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters and Bill Robinson. The same year they made their film debut opposite Eubie Blake and Nina Mae McKinney in Pie Pie Blackbird.
They segued to the Broadway stage two years later, appearing in both the Ziegfeld Follies and Blackbirds of 1936 and enjoyed a very successful Hollywood film career appearing in over 60 musicals including Kid Millions , 1934; The Big Broadcast of 1936,1935 ; Down Argentine Way and Tin Pan Alley , 1940; The Great American Broadcast and Sun Valley Serenade , 1941; Orchestra Wives , 1942; and their most memorable film Stormy Weather , 1943, which became their signature dance performance. In it, the brothers elegantly dressed in white tie and tails, dance on, over, and around the Cab Calloway Orchestra bandstand, gracefully side-by-side up and then down a high white staircase, step by step jumping into splits over each other's heads.
The brothers went on to star in many theatre and television productions throughout the US and abroad over their six-decade long careers and continued to dazzle audiences everywhere.
SALUTE TO DUKE ELLINGTON
Universal International, 1950
A fifteen-minute short featuring band performances by the most important composer in the history of jazz; Duke Ellington and his orchestra. Numbers included "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," "Take the A-Train," "Violet Blue," "A History of Jazz in Three Minutes," and "She Wouldn't Be Moved".
As a bandleader, he held his large group together continuously for almost fifty years. Ellington used his band as a musical laboratory for his new compositions and shaped his writing specifically to showcase the talents of his band members, many of who remained with him for long periods. Ellington also wrote scores for film and stage, and several of his instrumental works were adapted into songs that became musical standards. In addition to touring year in and year out, he recorded extensively, resulting in a gigantic body of work that is still being assessed thirty years after his death.
SARAH VAUGHAN & HERB JEFFRIES
Universal International, 1950
Fifteen minute featurette film with Sarah Vaughan backed on camera by Herb Jeffries and His Band singing "Don't Blame Me" and "I Cried for You"; the later a hit from the historical Town Hall concert featuring her appearance with the Lester Young Sextet. Jeffries also sings "A Woman is a Worrisome Thing". Kid Ory and His Creole Jazz Band perform "Muskrat Ramble" and The Treniers "You're a Sweetheart".
Sarah Vaughan possessed one of the most versatile voices of the 20th century, and ranked with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday in the very top echelon of female jazz singers. In 1942 at age 18, she won her big break when she took a dare and sang "Body and Soul" at the Apollo Theater's amateur contest, She won first prize. Earl Hines hired her as a vocalist and second pianist with his orchestra and there met three performers she would be closely associated within the years to come; Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and her long-time friend, Billy Eckstine. It was after breaking away from Hines with the Eckstine band that Sarah learned about improvisation and be-bop phrasing that soon established her solo recording career and lasting reputation worldwide as a jazz singer. She earned the nickname "Sassy" for her salty tongue, but quickly became known as the "Divine One" for her awe-inspiring multi-octave range and ability to use her voice with an instrumental approach.
Herb Jeffries, though not really a jazz singer, is the last surviving member of the 1940 Duke Ellington Orchestra and a fine interpreter of swing songs. He performed with Erskine Tate, Earl Hines and Blanche Calloway in the early '30s, and gained his greatest fame while with Ellington, having a big hit with "Flamingo," before becoming the first black cowboy actor in a series of late '30s all-black-cast Westerns. He remained an active club singer with occasional recordings of ballads, standards and western songs into the mid 1990s.
SUGAR CHILE ROBINSON, BILLIE HOLIDAY & COUNT BASIE
Universal International, 1951
This fifteen-minute musical short is a virtual triptych of talent. In an extremely rare film appearance, Billie Holiday sings "God Bless the Child" and "Now, Baby, or Never", Count Basie swings out his all-time hit, "One O'Clock Jump", and "Sugar Chile" Robinson, a seven-year-old piano virtuoso, who had been thrust into the limelight with a role in the MGM Hollywood film No Leave, No Love (1946), plays and sings "Numbers Boogie" and "After School Boogie".
In the late 1950s, while "Sugar Chile" was still being passed off as a child star, an adoring fan caught him smoking a cigar in his dressing room one night after he headlined a show at Harlem's Apollo Theater. The following day, the story in a local black newspaper ended his career in scandalous controversy at the age of seventeen.
THE NAT KING COLE MUSICAL STORY
Universal International, 1955
The film traces Cole's rise to fame as a pianist. The son of a Chicago Protestant minister, he became a fixture in the jazz clubs on New York's 52nd Street. In the 1940's, when wartime spawned sentimentality, singers like Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Peggy Lee reached their largest audiences. The ballad was born, and Cole was a natural. Tall, dark, and incredibly suave, Cole became a "crossover" artist whose classy style appealed to white audiences as well. Cole's favorite tunes-"Pretend," "Route 66," "Sweet Lorraine," "Straighten Up and Fly Right," and "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup"-sold over a million copies each, making him the top black act in show business.
PETE KELLY'S BLUES
Warner Brothers, 1955
Jack Webb, producer and star of TV's Dragnet, was an aficionado of early jazz. This was his "pet project" set in 1920s Kansas City. Webb directs, produces, and gets the chance to play a trumpeter in this musical melodrama about jazz age musicians and their run-ins with some prohibition-era gangsters.
Concentrating on atmosphere rather than narrative. Webb's direction is craftsman-like and exciting, but his performance stiff and hardly different from his Joe Friday character on the TV series.
Ella Fitzgerald, one of the world's all-time greatest jazz singers and the queen of scat singing co-stars and makes the film's title song transcend the 'torch' genre. Other numbers performed include Hard Hearted Hannah and Ella Hums the Blues.
The 1959 television series, Pete Kelly's Blues , was based on this movie. Produced and directed by Webb, it ran 13 episodes and featured Count Basie alumnae singer Helen Humes.
RHYTHM & BLUES REVUE
Studio Films Inc., 1955
Onstage at Harlem's Apollo Theater, Willie Bryant hosts and the Paul Williams' Orchestra backs up a virtual smorgasbord of musical greats. The Count Basie and Lionel Hampton bands jam, Bill Bailey (Pearl's tap-dancer brother) does Bojangles imitations, Nipsey Russell and Mantan Moreland provide vaudeville humor, and Joe Turner shouts the blues. Also featured are the Delta Rhythm Boys, Nat "King" Cole, Ruth Brown, Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughan, Herb Jeffries, and Amos Milburn in a unique all-black all-star musical compilation film.
ROCK 'N ROLL REVUE
Studio Films, 1955
Another musical compilation of the world's finest musical and stage performers, this film was originally produced by Ben Frye for thirteen television episodes of Harlem Variety Review. It features Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train," Lionel Hampton and his drumstick juggling, the Nat "King" Cole Trio, Honi Coles and his high speed rhythm tap dancing, Ruth Brown, Dinah Washington's gutsy "Only a Moment Ago", and the Delta Rhythm Boys singing "When the Riffs That Trumpet Plays are Groovy, You Know You're in Harlem."
SATCHMO THE GREAT
United Artists, 1957
Louis Armstong is the first and still perhaps the brightest star of jazz, the most influential musician of the twentieth century and one of the best known, best loved entertainers in the world.
Originally recorded for an Edward R. Murrow's CBS See It Now broadcast, Satchmo the Great documents Armstrong's goodwill tour of Africa and Europe. It was later expanded as a feature film by bridging the various performance segments and interviews with the charcoal sketches of the great artist and photographer Ben Shahn.
The film was a far cry from the stereotypical antics Armstrong was required to act out in Hollywood motion pictures such as Pennies From Heaven (1936), Going Places (1938), and Cabin in the Sky (1943), and others. Among the songs performed were "Mack the Knife," "Indiana," and "Struttin' With Some Barbecue." Featured on the tour was W.C. Handy, who plays his all time classic, "St. Louis Blues." Altogether, Armstrong appeared in over fifty musical shorts and feature films.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Paramount Pictures, 1958
A fictionalized biography of 'the father of the blues,' W. C. Handy, highlights a lineup of some of the greatest blues and jazz singers of the 1950s including Nat 'King' Cole, Cab Calloway, Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald and Eartha Kitt. The ever-cool Cole, whose voice is at it's lyrical best, plays the famed composer. A very young Billy Preston portrays Handy as a child.
Songs include "Hesitating Blues," "Chantez Les Bas," "Beale Street Blues, "Careless Love" (based on folk music by Handy; lyrics by Spencer Williams, Martha Koenig), "Morning Star," "Way Down South Where the Blues Began," "Mr. Bayle," "Aunt Hagar's Blues," "They That Sow." and "Going to See My Sarah".
Born on November 16th, 1873 in Florence, AL, William Christopher Handy was educated in public schools and by his father and paternal grandfather, both of whom were clergymen. He left home at age fifteen to begin a career as a cornet player with a traveling minstrel show. In 1893, Handy formed a quartet that performed at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. After working as a music teacher at the Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, AL, Handy turned to composing in 1907, and his first published song was "Memphis Blues," which was based on a campaign song he had written for Edward "The Boss" Crup, the mayor of Memphis, TN. Most notable among his sixty-plus compositions are "St. Louis Blues" (1914), "Beale St. Blues" (1917) and "Loveless Love" (1921).
Although he lost his eyesight in 1903, Handy continued to conduct his own orchestra until 1921. His eyesight was partially restored for a time, but then was completely lost again after a fall from a New York City subway platform in 1943. During a Hollywood dinner given in his honor in Nov 1957, Handy proclaimed Nat King Cole's depiction of him as "forever a monument to my race," according to an April 1958 Daily Variety news item. Handy died in New York on May 29th, 1958, just a few days before the premiere of St. Louis Blues.
JAZZ ON A SUMMER'S DAY
Union Films, 1959
Training his cameras on the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, noted fashion and commercial photographer, Bert Stern, presents a beautiful documentary on the ability of jazz to infiltrate the unlikeliest of spaces, the genteel, seaside community of Newport, Rhode Island. By merging images of landscapes, water and sky, with performing musicians and audience members, Stern intimately creates an alluring incongruity; jazz in bright open spaces, as opposed to the dark bars and smoky clubs typically associate with it.
The roster of legendary jazz giants includes Thelonious Monk, Big Maybelle, Dinah Washington, Gerry Mulligan, Chico Hamilton, Jimmy Giuffre, Sonny Stitt, Anita O'Day, and Eric Dolphy. Among the highlights are Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden's celebrated "Rocking Chair" duet and Mahalia Jackson's all-mighty gospel climax of "The Lord's Prayer."
ALL NIGHT LONG
Rank Organization, 1961
A British produced drama that updates Shakespeare's Othello story with a modern interracial couple, a retired white singer and a black jazz pianist. Set in a converted warehouse in London's East End during the swinging sixties, the initial focus of this all-night celebration features the party's real-life jazz guests: Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Johnny Dankworth, Tubby Hayes and nearly a dozen other musicians. Numbers include "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," "The Chase," "Dedication to Johnny Hodges," "Frenzy," "I Never Knew," "In a Sentimental Mood," "Mood Indigo," "Muy Rapido," "Sax Reference," "Scott-Free," "Skin Fever," "Sweet Lorraine" and "Wingate's Spot."
BLUES FOR LOVERS
20th Century Fox, 1966
AKA "The Genius", Ray Charles was perhaps the most successful soul artist of all time. Born in the segregated South in 1930, and blinded by age six, Charles attended the St. Augustine School, where he learned piano, clarinet, alto sax and composition, as well as reading and writing music in Braille.
At age 15, after his parents had passed away, he set out on his own to perform in a variety of bands around Florida. The road was not kind to his struggle and after much hardship, and the desire to get out of the South, Charles took his savings and moved to the farthest point from Florida. Seattle, Washington became his professional turning point.
Bringing with him a wide range of material and influences (Nat King Cole and Charles Brown) he began to develop his own style soaked in Southern blues and gospel. While his first recordings were only imitations of his heroes, Charles's music soon became more innovative. It was at Atlantic Records in 1955 when he found his true voice with the R&B hit, "I Got a Woman" the song most frequently singled out as his pivotal performance.With his later release of "What I Say", he cracked to top pop charts and solidified his mainstream success and popularity with both black and white audiences alike.
During the '60s Charles became involved in films, appearing in the 1962 film Swinging Along , and the 1966 British film Ballad in Blue (Blues For Lovers) , and recorded the soundtracks for The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and In the Heat of the Night (1967).
A critically acclaimed, and eclectic hit-maker throughout the rest of his half-century long career, Charles was an American institution whose emotional singing and playing style left an immense lasting impact on his contemporaries as well as Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Pop, Country, R&B and Soul fans worldwide.
A MAN CALLED ADAM
Embassy Pictures, 1966
A member of the famed Rat Pack, Sammy Davis was among the very first African-American talents to find favor with audiences on both sides of the color barrier. In this downbeat drama directed by Leo Penn, Davis stars as successful jazz trumpeter, Adam Johnson, a man whose tormented past and inner anger threatens to destroy his career.
Giants of jazz and entertainment, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Kai Winding, and Benny Carter (who composed the score) lend their support with songs including "All That Jazz," "Whisper to One", "Muskrat Ramble", "I Want to Be Wanted," "Back O'Town Blues," and "Someday Sweetheart." Davis' trumpet playing in the film was dubbed by Nat Adderly.
IT WON'T RUB OFF, BABY
Film Three Productions, 1967
It Won't Rub Off, Baby , alternatively titled Sweet Love, Bitter , was based on the novel Night Song by contemporary black author John A. Williams. Loosely based on the life of Charlie Bird Parker, the film chronicled the struggles of Richie Eagle Stokes (Dick Gregory), a self-destructive jazz saxophone player, with addiction and the decline of his career and followed his friendship with down-and-out college professor David Hillary (Don Murray).
Directed by Herbert Danska, the film featured a bravura performance by Gregory; and it re-created the exhilaration of the New York jazz world with its strong musical score.
It Won't Rub Off, Baby was not the only one of Williams' works to be adapted to the screen: his novel The Junior Bachelor Society was reworked as Sophisticated Gents (1981), a television miniseries written by Melvin Van Peebles and directed by Harry Falk.
The miniseries centered on nine longtime friends who reunite after twenty-five years to honor the old coach who guided them through their turbulent youth. Each man has been dealt a different hand, yet all must confront the complexity of their lives, a marked contrast to the innocent joy they felt as members of their boyhood club.
Like It Won't Rub Off, Baby, the miniseries-which featured such fine actors as Paul Winfield, Raymond St. Jacques, Beah Richards, and Alfre Woodard-posed difficult questions about black identity in American society.
LADY SINGS THE BLUES
Paramount Pictures, 1972
Over the course of a thirty-five year career, Suzanne de Passe has been instrumental in the music industry with Motown Records and Berry Gordy as well as television and the silver screen. She received an Academy Award nod for co-writing the screenplay for Lady Sings the Blues : a melodramatic biopic of the troubled life and legendary career of singer Billie Holiday.
Diana Ross, in her screen debut, skillfully portrays the complicated "Lady Day" from her childhood poverty, stint as a prostitute, and early tours, through her marriages and drug addiction. Despite her tragic life, and early death at age 44, Holiday was an innovative jazz virtuoso with a haunting voice, who left behind more than three hundred recorded songs and indelibly influenced American music and countless singers from Frank Sinatra to Cassandra Wilson to Macy Gray. For her intense portrayal, Ross was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Universal Pictures, 1977
Billy Dee WIlliams stars as Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime, in this originally made for TV dramatization of the life of the legendary turn of the century pianist and composer. Though most audiences are familiar with "The Entertainer," Joplin's 1902 composition made famous in the 1973 film The Sting , his most famous composition is "The Maple Leaf Rag." That composition boosted Joplin into the national limelight in 1899 and moved ragtime into prominence as a new musical style.
Joplin never made an audio recording. In 1916, however, a year before his death, he did record seven piano rolls (a roll of paper with perforated holes punched in it to trigger the keys of a player piano.) In 1976, Joplin was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his special contribution to American music.
LAST OF THE BLUE DEVILS
Cinema 5 Theatre, 1980
A celebration of Kansas City jazz, shot over a period of five years, that brought together swing and blues giants Count Basie, Big Joe Turner and Jay McShann, as well as several performers and instrumentalists in the local jazz scene from the 1930s onwards.
The film incorporates concert footage, film clips, interviews and demonstration with Count Basie ("Basie Blues," "Basie Boogie," "Jumpin' at the Woodside," and "One O'Clock Jump"), Jay McShann ("After Hours," "Hootie's Blues," "Jumping the Blues," and "Roll `Em Pete"), Bennie Moten ("Moten Swing" and "South"), Charlie Parker ("Hot House"), Paul Quinichette ("Lester Leaps In"), "Big" Joe Turner ("Piney Brown Blues," and "Shake, Rattle and Roll") among others. Film clips also feature Dizzy Gillespie and Lester Young.
Warner Brothers, 1986
Named "Long Tall Dex" for his 6-foot 5-inch frame, Dexter Gordon was a pioneering ballad and be-bop tenor saxophonist whose rich, broad tone and infectious behind-the-beat phrasing combined the best of Coleman Hawkins' and Lester Young's playing styles. Charismatic and debonair, Gordon made a 40-year-plus career of expertly blending rhythm with romance on the bandstand.
French director Bertrand Tavernier's film 'Round Midnight, titled for Thelonious Monk's signature composition, might easily be called the be most authentic jazz film ever made. Casting Gordon, a real musician, as his lead actor, with support from Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, and Herbie Hancock (who supervised the Oscar-winning score), Tavernier takes us to Paris' Blue Note Club in the fifties, at a time when many jazz musicians flocked to France seeking better treatment and more appreciative audiences.
Gordon, with the dignity, wisdom and pain of a Shakespearean actor, gives a magnetic performance as the fictional jazz great, Dale Turner, a down-and-out alcoholic American exiled tenor player in a story based on the real life of pianist Bud Powell after arriving in Paris.
For his eloquent contribution to the silver screen, Gordon became the first musician ever to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Warner Brothers, 1988
Clint Eastwood directs his cinematic homage to the dark life and musical genius of saxophonist Charlie 'Yardbird' Parker. 'The' quintessential innovator of the bebop era, (which also included Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis), Parker is, without equal, responsible for the shift that with its distinctive improvised rhythms and solos created a new jazz vocabulary; a bridge between the swing era and the cool, modern jazz of the 1950s.
Through the nighttime world of jazz clubs and hotel rooms, Eastwood presents a romantic tribute in a collage of passages from Parker's remarkable life, from his childhood in Kansas City, through his tumultuous interracial relationship with Chan Richardson, to his tragic death at the age of 34. Forest Whitaker, who won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance, plays Bird, a man plagued by personal demons, racism, boozing and drug addiction.
Eastwood, in order to give a faithful presentation of the original music, went to great pains isolating Parker's solos from vintage recordings, scrubbing and re-recording them with accompanying contemporary musicians.
STRAIGHT NO CHASER
Warner Brothers, 1988
Thelonious Monk was the most innovative jazz pianists of the 1940s bebop era and influenced such contemporary greats as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. His musical vision was both ahead of its time and deeply rooted in tradition, spanning the entire history of the music from the "stride" masters of James P. Johnson and Willie "the Lion" Smith to the tonal freedom and kinetics of the "avant garde." His most famous songs include, "Round Midnight," "Pannonica" and "Straight, No Chaser." With some interspersed stills, interviews, and some equally priceless early 50s television scenes, this documentary is primarily footage of a recording date and tour from 1968 filmed by Christian Blackwood. Executive producer Clint Eastwood got the idea for the project while researching the life of Charlie Parker for his film Bird (1988).
LISTEN UP - THE LIVES OF QUINCY JONES
Warner Brothers, 1990
In the world of show business, few men are as talented and influential as the producer, musician, and composer Quincy Jones. Listen Up is an inspirational journey across four generations of American culture, through the collective memories of a changing nation, and into Jones' personal past to produce a multi-layered portrait of the entertainment industry's most respected behind-the-scenes talent.
The entire narrative of this documentary unfolds in a collage of interview snippets, backed by stock footage, offered by Jones and his illustrious contemporaries including Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Herbie Hancock, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan, among many others.
Composing for Sidney Lumet's drama The Pawnbroker (1964) was Jones's illustrious entry into cinema. He has gone on to write music for over forty feature films, including In The Heat of The Night , They Call Me Mister Tibbs and The Color Purple . Along with several TV themes for Sanford and Son , Ironside, and Roots, and his many record album productions, Jones had has accumulated more Grammy Awards (27) than any other pop-music artist.
Dedra Films / Gevest Australia, 1991
A relentlessly innovative musician with an incredibly diverse recorded legacy spanning nearly 50 years, Miles Davis has had a lasting influence on generations of musicians and fans that stretches far beyond the sphere of jazz itself. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Miles Davis in the history of music in the 20th century. His image, voice, and hip sense of fashion comprise many people's image of jazz and his pursuit of new sounds, styles, and challenges embody the spirit of jazz.
Dingo is a 1991 Australian film in which h Davis starred in his only leading role. Winner of Best Musical Score in the 1991 AFI Awards (and nominated for Best Film), It traces the pilgrimage of John Anderson (Colin Friels), an average guy with a passion for jazz, from his home in outback Western Australia to the jazz clubs of Paris, to meet his idol, jazz trumpeter Billy Cross (Davis).
The atmospheric jazz score that was co-written and arranged by Davis and Michel Legrand, is one of Davis' last recordings before his death in 1991.
A GREAT DAY IN HARLEM
Jean Bach Films, 1995
At the unlikely hour of 10 AM, on 126th Street in Harlem in August of 1958, an historic crowd of 57 of New York's jazz elite congregated around a brownstone stoop, in their best suits, for an unprecedented group portrait for Esquire Magazine taken by the then-unknown photographer Art Kane. Directed by long time jazz enthusiast Jean Bach, A Great Day in Harlem is a documentary, which celebrates that event. With additional footage shot by bassist Milt Hinton's wife, Mona, and snapshots by others present that morning, the film offers a wonderful mix of culture, anecdotes, and clips of classic performances including interviews with some of the jazz icons who participated in the photograph 37 years earlier.
(L - R) Hilton Jefferson, Benny Golson, Art Farmer, Wilbur Ware, Art Blakey, Chubby Jackson, Johnny Griffin, Dickie Wells, Buck Clayton, Taft Jordan, Zutty Singleton, Red Allen, Tyree Glenn, Miff Molo, Sonny Greer, Jay C. Higginbotham, Jimmy Jones, Charles Mingus, Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Max Kaminsky, George Wettling, Bud Freeman, Pee Wee Russell, Ernie Wilkins, Buster Bailey, Osie Johnson, Gigi Gryce, Hank Jones, Eddie Locke, Horace Silver, Lucky Roberts, Maxine Sullivan, Jimmy Rushing, Joe Thomas, Scoville Browne, Stuff Smith, Bill Crump, Coleman Hawkins, Rudy Powell, Oscar Pettiford, Sahib Shihab, Marian McPartland, Sonny Rollins, Lawrence Brown, Mary Lou Williams, Emmett Berry, Thelonious Monk, Vic Dickenson, Milt Hinton, Lester Young, Rex Stewart, J.C. Heard, Gerry Mulligan, Roy Eldgridge, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie curbside.