September 2007 By Gary Giddins
It would be easier to grouse about the paucity of great—or good or tolerable or watchable—jazz-themed feature films if Hollywood had done any better by classical music or rock. It hasn’t. Most American musicals, from The Jazz Singer and The Broadway Melody to Moulin Rouge and Dreamgirls, are concerned with the backstage tribulations of show folk, and employ stock storylines on which to hang the songs. Of all the movie genres, the glossy musical has died the stoniest of deaths. People too young to be courted by AARP may find Busby Berkeley’s calculus of female body parts or Fred and Ginger’s between-dancing spats or the Technicolor trippiness of Fox and MGM burlesques to be a realm as foreign as Oz. Camp will take you only so far down the yellow brick road. Even I, a diehard fan of musicals, am dumbfounded by Esther Williams.
Yet jazz has long been an important part of the mix, and we must be grateful for what we have in the way of jazz footage on film and videotape. The twisted relationship between movies and jazz predated the sound era, when the latter was often invoked as an ominous indication of wayward flappers, dissolute roués and other lost souls. As decades went by, jazz continued to represent the underbelly of the human experience.
For me, three items sum up that attitude. First, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), in which Jimmy Stewart is obliged to imagine idyllic Bedford Falls as if he had never been born. The place has gone to hell, particularly the friendly neighborhood bar, which in his absence has been invaded by bullies, rummies, hookers and … Negro jazz! Second, the humid saxophone glissando that became ubiquitous in melodramas of the 1950s. Whenever a doll gets flirtatious or has too much to drink or wanders into a bad part of town, cue the alto—a sultry, ascending little lick, jazz’s putative contribution to moral unrest. Third, a quite good Peruvian movie by Armando Robles Godoy, called The Green Wall (1970), about an office drone who leaves the noisy congestion of Lima for the verdant purity of the forest. When he is exulting in nature, the music is imitation Bach; when he’s in the nerve-shattering city, the music is imitation MJQ.
On the other hand, there is also a long tradition of Hollywood using jazz to represent vitality and good times. As jazz musicians achieved national recognition, it was good business to banner them on movie marquees, and not just for intermission floor shows; a filmed cameo was the only way most people got to see them. When Duke Ellington appeared in the leaden blackface Amos ’n’ Andy vehicle, Check and Double Check (1930), for less than three minutes, black audiences lined up to see Duke. Significantly, Ellington wanted Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys to handle the vocal part, but as the producers would not allow white singers to share the stage with a black band, a mike was set up so that the trio could sing behind a curtain while three band members lip-synched their chorus. Crosby himself debuted as a leading man in Frank Tuttle’s ingeniously surreal The Big Broadcast (1932), which allowed the country its first peek at many radio stars, including Cab Calloway, the Mills Brothers and the Boswell Sisters.
Still, the racial issue remained toxic throughout the 1930s and ’40s, as jazz became a familiar element in big-budget musicals. Black specialty numbers were routinely isolated from the storyline so that they could be excised when the film was distributed in the South. In 1936, Crosby invited Louis Armstrong to appear in Pennies From Heaven, which established him as a “specialty” performer in movies, and in 1937, Berkeley ignored the color line to feature the Benny Goodman Quartet in Hollywood Hotel. As the swing era waxed, however, almost all the good gigs went to white bands—though who could have added more snap to a film than Jimmie Lunceford, Chick Webb or the 1930s Basie band? Basie wasn’t invited west until 1943 (Reveille with Beverly), and the others were relegated to shorts. Thank goodness for Vitaphone and other makers of musical one-reelers, even if there is only one “Jammin’ the Blues” as opposed to dozens of Mickey Mouse novelty acts.
The 1950s produced the biopics of dance-band leaders, and what a crew: Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Eddy Duchin, Red Nichols, each the subject of the same storyline: Arrogant rube arrives in city, is tamed by a woman, overcomes indifference or ridicule, triumphs, grows too big for his britches, dies or makes big comeback. The Glenn Miller Story (1953) has my all-time favorite line: Asked to describe his revolutionary approach to music, Jimmy Stewart’s Glenn explains, as if contemplating nuclear fission, “To me, music is more than just one instrument. It’s a whole orchestra playing together!” Sweet Love, Bitter (1967) originated the theme of the troubled black jazz genius, in this instance a saxophonist known as Eagle, whose travail is told from the vantage point of his enlightened white friend.
No room here to debate the pros and cons of ’Round Midnight, Bird and Kansas City, but let me tell you about three good films that audiences ignored in droves. Jazzman (1983), by Russian director Karen Shakhnazarov, who also made a remarkable film about terrorists, The Rider Named Death (2004), depicts musicians risking their freedom to play jazz in the Soviet Union of the 1920s. Frank D. Gilroy’s The Gig (1985), a melancholy comedy, captures the enthusiasm of amateur jazz players. Gary Winick and Polly Draper’s The Tic Code (1999), though concerned with Tourette syndrome, accurately conveys the love of jazz among grade schoolers. Interestingly, all three share the same two themes—male bonding and jazz as a reason for living—and go far beyond the dictates of biopics.
As I write, films about Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and other jazz musicians are in various stages of development. I haven’t even mentioned documentaries, which have proliferated over the past 40 years, or the countless hours of jazz preserved on international television, little of it seen here (consider the splendid Jazz Icons DVD series); there is enough archival material to fuel a 24-hour jazz TV station, if only someone had the interest and moxie to bring it off. The DVD offers many other possibilities, as witness the CD/DVD double-sets of the past few years. Jon Faddis and I were interviewed on camera for a featurette about Miles Davis’ score for Louis Malle’s 1958 film, Elevator to the Gallows, released as a Criterion DVD. Why don’t music producers get into that kind of thing? Using DVD technology to offer the kinds of supplements that helped to drive movie sales is one way to stay ahead of iTunes.
Originally published in September 2007