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.
Ball of Fire (1941)
Gary Cooper is one of a group of professors living in an all-male commune, trying hard not to be distracted as he and his associates compile a definitive encyclopedia of all of the world’s knowledge. Cooper’s specialty is language, but after he discovers that he is not familiar with current slang, he goes out into the world to do some research. He encounters Barbara Stanwyck, a singer who is working with Gene Krupa’s band. The comedy, which finds Ms. Stanwyck (who is on the lam from the cops) shaking up the professors’ home and general lifestyle, mostly works well.
When Cooper first sees Stanwyck, she is performing “Drum Boogie” with Krupa, with her voice being ghosted by the band’s real singer, Martha Tilton. The number, which includes brief spots for trumpeter Roy Eldridge and clarinetist Sam Musiker, features the always colorful Krupa taking a drum solo, wandering offstage and finally playing rhythms on matchsticks, a somewhat bizarre ending. Krupa and his sidemen disappear after the one scene.
Ball of Fire was remade in 1948 as the musical A Song Is Born, which stars Danny Kaye and features Benny Goodman (who plays one of the professors), Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton and other jazz greats. Both versions are fun.
The Crimson Canary (1945)
This B movie is a murder mystery set in the jazz world. A singer is murdered, and the members of her band are prime suspects. One keeps on waiting for the actors to play some music, but the dialogue and plot dominate. Folk-blues singer Josh White gets to perform two numbers, including “One Meat Ball,” which has recently been part of Annie Ross’ repertoire.
There is one remarkable scene. A couple of the musicians go into a small nightclub and performing is a quintet comprised of tenor-saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, trumpeter Howard McGhee, pianist Sir Charles Thompson, bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Denzil Best. They play an original based on “Sweet Georgia Brown” called “Hollywood Stampede,” three minutes of swing-to-bop magic with strong solos from McGhee, Pettiford and Hawkins. The music ends as quickly as it started, but it makes sitting through this routine film worth it.
Jack Webb always loved jazz, particularly Dixieland. In 1955 he portrayed a Kansas City trumpeter in Pete Kelly’s Blues, giving acting roles and the musical spotlight to Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald. He also sponsored a recording group called Pete Kelly’s Seven that featured trumpeter Dick Cathcart, who in Pete Kelly’s Blues ghosted Webb’s solos.
The original Dragnet movie was a logical extension of the earlier radio shows and preceded the popular television series, all of which star Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday. His dry “just the facts” way of speaking set the tone for the stories that felt like documentaries.
In the 1954 movie, a murdered victim had a card on him with the phone number of the Red Spot Grill. As Webb and another detective enter the bar, they get to see Cathcart leading a hot combo that includes pianist Ray Sherman on three ensemble choruses of a Dixieland blues. Webb smiles at his partner’s confusion at hearing the music, clearly enjoying the jazz himself. The music is a fun and unexpected segment in an otherwise typical murder mystery. After the performance, Cathcart calls a break and is featured prominently in a scene, talking with the detectives and using some hip musician slang.
The Hustler (1961)
This famous film features Paul Newman as a young pool hustler who gets to challenge the legendary Minnesota Fats (played by Jackie Gleason). George C. Scott and a neurotic Piper Laurie also have memorable roles, though Gleason (who made his own pool shots) steals the show during the few times he’s onscreen.
A party scene during the latter part of the film has Laurie throwing a drunken tantrum, having been egged on by Scott. For a few moments one gets to see and hear a Dixieland-styled group playing an uptempo original. Look closely and you will notice clarinetist Kenny Davern and trombonist Roswell Rudd (who had otherwise largely given up trad jazz for the avant-garde by then), along with the lesser-known trumpeter Dan Terry.
Get Yourself a College Girl (1964)
The plot in this dated romantic comedy is barely coherent. Mary Ann Mobley, a student at a conservative all-female college, is a songwriter who gets in trouble for writing popular songs under a different name. The story, which eventually involves a ski resort, politics and a senator, is not worth following. Several musical acts, including the Dave Clark Five, the Animals and even organist Jimmy Smith are featured, but there is only one reason to sit through this film: Astrud Gilberto, Stan Getz and his group, with a prominent Gary Burton, perform a full-length and very charming version of “The Girl from Ipanema.” That song had been recorded by Gilberto, Getz and João Gilberto the previous year and was still on the pop charts. The number is tastefully filmed and stands alone from the rest of the nonsense.
Made in Paris (1966)
Ann-Margret has made many films in her career, some surprisingly good. Made in Paris is not one of them. In it, she plays a representative of a large American clothing store and is sent to Paris, where she juggles romances with three different men, including Chad Everett. Lightweight to an extreme, this movie is mostly just an excuse to see what Paris and some outlandish fashions looked like in 1966.
The jazz moment, fortunately, comes early in the film. While Ann-Margret is eating with Everett at a restaurant, suddenly Count Basie is onstage leading an octet during an uptempo blues. The band includes tenor-saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis (who gets a one-chorus solo), altoist Marshall Royal and rhythm guitarist Freddie Green. And then, just as quickly, when the song hits the two-minute mark, the scene abruptly ends. Later in the film, Mongo Santamaria’s band (which includes flutist Hubert Laws) plays in the background behind dialogue and Ann-Margret’s dancing, but you can cut out as soon as the Basie scene wraps.
Live and Let Die (1973)
Alvin Alcorn was one of the best trumpeters that trombonist Kid Ory ever had, and he is heard in his prime on Ory’s Good Time Jazz albums from the 1950s. Alcorn had a mellow tone and the knack for perfectly placing his notes so Ory’s band could build up ensemble after ensemble during the last part of their performances. But what does the New Orleans trumpeter have to do with this James Bond movie?
Live and Let Die, the first James Bond film with Roger Moore playing the secret agent, has a typically complicated plot and a cast filled with beautiful women. The storyline, which involves free heroin, voodoo and various murders, has a few scenes set in New Orleans, including two in which the Olympia Brass band plays at funerals, performing spirited if brief versions of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and “Joe Avery’s Blues.”
In one of those scenes, Alcorn is asked by one of the agents whose funeral it is. Alcorn says his single-word line, “Yours,” and stabs him. It is fair to say that few other New Orleans trumpeters ever had an opportunity to play an assassin in a film.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
One of Mel Brooks’ greatest movies (along with Young Frankenstein), Blazing Saddles is a frequently hilarious spoof on Westerns.
Blazing Saddles also has one of the most famous jazz cameos ever. In the desert during the time of the Old West, Count Basie and his Orchestra appear out of nowhere to play “April in Paris.” Basie is actually seen leading a studio orchestra rather than his band of the time. One can spot such notables as tenor-saxophonist Teddy Edwards, altoist Marshall Royal, trumpeters Al Aarons and Cat Anderson, guitarist John Collins and bassist Red Callender. The scene makes no sense at all, but it is one of the best-remembered moments in the film.
The Terminal (2004)
From more recent years, The Terminal has an offbeat story and, for jazz fans, a somewhat surprising twist in the plot. Tom Hanks plays a traveler from the fictional country of Krakozhia who is stuck at JFK Airport when his passport is invalidated due to a revolution in his country. Since he cannot be deported to a country that no longer exists, nor is he allowed to enter the United States, he lives at the airport for nine months, somehow surviving on his wits.
Near the end of the film, it is revealed that the reason he had traveled to the United States was that he had promised his father to get the final autograph needed from the 57 musicians in the famous “Great Day in Harlem” photograph, that of Benny Golson. Happily, he ultimately has an opportunity to meet Golson, he gets his autograph and the saxophonist has a few lines in addition to playing three choruses of “Killer Joe.”
A few other cameos that one should look for are Ethel Waters singing two numbers in On With the Show (1929), an unbilled Bing Crosby in Reaching For the Moon (1930), Jimmy Dorsey looking a bit ridiculous in the Abbott & Costello film Lost in a Harem (1944), drummer Jo Jones for less than 10 seconds in The Unsuspected (1947), guitarist Dave Barbour and tenor-saxophonist Vido Musso in The Secret Fury (1950), Hadda Brooks playing piano and singing in the Humphrey Bogart film In a Lonely Place (1950), Dexter Gordon in Unchained (1955), Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Gerry Mulligan and Art Farmer in the opening portion of I Want to Live (1958) and Duke Ellington playing four-handed piano with Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder (1959).