Billie Holiday got knocked down. But she got up again. Actually, she had to get knocked down and get up again several times, according to her own account, to satisfy one of the few plot points in the 10-minute 1935 short Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life, in which she costars with Duke Ellington. “You can see her dead-cat bounce off the studio floor,” Kevin Whitehead adds. She appeared in only four films (one of them as an extra), and seeing that we don’t wonder.
In real life, of course, Billie Holiday got knocked down—by forces so formidable and understood we need not specify—and didn’t get up again. But Whitehead, professor and longtime jazz critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, seems comfortable juxtaposing the cinematic with the biographic, throwing in the historical, and adding whimsy to taste. His “we” phrasing isn’t the royal invocation of that term, but an invitation to come look and see along with him.
So he starts in with The Jazz Singer (1927, the first full-length “talkie,” for those who’ve forgotten) and progresses over 340-odd pages to 2019’s Bolden biopic (“We end at the beginning”). He can’t cover everything, naturally. I’ll quibble with some of his choices; I couldn’t find anything on the 1950 short Sugar Chile Robinson, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and His Sextet, the last time Lady Day sang for the big screen. A picture as tangentially related to jazz as Jailhouse Rock gets his nod; The Gang’s All Here, Busby Berkeley’s phantasmagoric 1943 swingin’ musical, does not—despite Whitehead’s lengthy analysis of Benny Goodman on film and despite Gang marking, according to film historian Ed Dornbach, the only time Goodman sang for that movie camera.
But the book gives us much to explore, and many crucial considerations. YouTube allows us to call up many a long-forgotten title like, for example, Symphony in Black, and to watch them alongside Whitehead’s commentary, so that Holiday’s abused bounce takes its place alongside what Ellington wanted to do (a multi-segment suite covering a variety of moods) and how the flimsy story took root from reality (he rarely started a project until the last minute).
Yes, your favorite and least favorite jazz movies are probably in here, and yes, you’ll find out things you didn’t know. (A custom cut of Ballet Mécanique from its co-director Dudley Murphy, screened in 1926 with drums-only accompaniment up in Harlem?) Whitehead wrestles with black, white, blackface, whitewashing, actors miming instrumental parts (some heed their musical advisers, some don’t). I admire his depth plunges on popular titles; I admire his championing of obscurities even more. The Cry of Jazz, from 1959, finds a black man struggling to explain jazz to white folks. “The history of jazz is the story of the fantastic ingenuity of the Negro in America,” says one white woman, her overhead lightbulb suddenly glowing.
“Say what you will about The Cry of Jazz’s narrative creakiness,” Whitehead muses, “no one in Hollywood jazz movies makes that point.”