Many types of movies have involved jazz, including concert and performance films, documentaries, Hollywood films with jazz in their soundtracks, fictional melodramas incorporating jazz as part of the plot, biopics on swing-era bandleaders, 1930s and ’40s musicals that feature jazz-influenced acts, and classic cartoons in which jazz personalities are depicted. This article has nothing to do with any of those.
In a different category altogether are Hollywood movies that include surprise cameo appearances by jazz musicians and singers. As I discovered while doing research for my book Jazz on Film (Backbeat), there are more of these cameos in film history than one might expect. Of the 10 films covered in this piece, only one (Get Yourself a College Girl) is a musical, and only a few have the key jazz musician playing a bit part. But in each case, the jazz performance makes a strong impression, sometimes even justifying the existence of the film.
Check and Double Check (1930)
Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll were white actors who depicted crude stereotypes of African-Americans in one of the first radio situation comedies. The series began as Sam ‘n’ Henry in 1926 before switching networks and names in 1928, and it lasted until 1960. A similar television series that aired during 1951-53, despite having the roles played by blacks, was widely protested and eventually pulled.
In 1930, Amos ‘n’ Andy were the stars of Check and Double Check, a film that was commercially successful but which both actors (who appeared in blackface) hated. Gosden later called it “just about the worst movie ever.” Whether that’s true or not, most of Check and Double Check is unwatchable today and the team of Amos ‘n’ Andy refused to film a sequel.
At one point in the film, there is a nightclub scene that features the Duke Ellington Orchestra romping on “Old Man Blues.” One of the great jazz moments on film, the memorable number is featured complete and uncut, without any overlapping dialogue. The soloists, who are well photographed, are baritonist Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges on soprano and the colorful trumpeter Freddie Jenkins, with Ellington looking happy and dignified throughout. A little later in the scene, three of Ellington’s sidemen appear to be singing “Three Little Words” but their parts are actually dubbed by the Rhythm Boys, a notable white vocal trio that included a young Bing Crosby.