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See also: 10 key jazz films
In Young Man with a Horn (1949), Kirk Douglas impersonated a jazz trumpeter whose running battle against the straitjacket of commercialised music was modelled on the life story of Bix Beiderbecke. When his mentor in jazz, an old-time Black musician, was finally claimed by tuberculosis, he was required to improvise a funeral elegy in appropriate tribute.
The result was unbelievably vulgar. Since the secret was proudly proclaimed at the time that this solo was in fact dubbed by Harry James, the rigidly raucous James trumpet has justly had to shoulder the blame for adding one more to the film’s many grievous offences against New Orleans.
What, though, of the off-screen drummer who lent unique dramatic conviction to a fondly remembered scene in Phantom Lady (1944) without ever receiving due screen credit? Hoping to trick a reluctant murder witness into talking, Ella Raines disguises herself as a cheap floozie and, at the theatre where Elisha Cook Jr is the drummer in a band all too obviously played by actors, gives him a blatant come on. At an after the show assignation furtively concluded across the footlights, he takes her along to a cellar jam session prior to more private pastimes, and Cook is soon flying in a frenetic drum routine. His mime in handling the sticks (unlike Sal Mineo’s in 1959’s The Gene Krupa Story) is ludicrously perfunctory; but no matter, the tale of ecstatic anticipation, soaring to a promise of orgiastic climax, is all there on the soundtrack.
Look up Phantom Lady in David Meeker’s fascinating compendium Jazz in the Movies, and you will fail to find the name of this unsung drummer, but only because, after years of fruitless search, the answer finally emerged too late for inclusion. So here, by way of a stop-press news flash pending its appearance in the next edition of Jazz in the Movies, is the relevant information, culled from a contemporary issue of Downbeat magazine. Music for the session was provided by members of Freddie Slack’s band, with Slack himself at the piano, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Bob Bain on guitar. The drummer was Dave Coleman.
Intriguingly, since the scene is translated intact from Cornell Woolrich’s novel, the Downbeat article – after celebrating the film as a musical milestone for Hollywood in that “it marks the first time jazz music is used sensibly to emphasise a psychological element” – goes on to note: “Credit for this achievement goes to leggy Joan Harrison, former Girl Friday to Alfred Hitchcock. The jam session sequence was added to the original story after a conference between Miss Harrison and the scriptwriters.”
That single sequence in Phantom Lady may not seem to constitute much of a milestone, but the cinema’s wary mistrust of jazz (no doubt because its greatest exponents were predominantly Black) was such that for years Hollywood could accommodate jazz musicians only within a showbiz/minstrel show format, while jazz itself came to be more or less synonymous with dank and degenerate doings in darkened rooms. Even the film noir cycle of the 40s, tailor-made for the moods of jazz in its exposition of plangent paranoia, merely dabbled as marginally as Phantom Lady, usually in title sequences laying out nocturnal cityscapes. Incredibly enough, the first serious jazz-oriented accompaniment to a feature was probably Alex North’s score for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951. During the 50s, of course, the floodgates began to open, to be forced even wider by the advent of the New York school with films like Shadows (1959) and The Connection (1961) where the use of jazz was a whole new ball game.
David Meeker’s attempt to document the field began partly out of personal interest, partly because no source existed offering reliable information as to the footage available even of star names like Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday, but chiefly because Hollywood practice was rarely, if ever, to acknowledge the names of soundtrack performers.
Even now that the situation has changed since Quincy Jones insisted on having the jazzmen who interpreted his score for The Hot Rock receive full screen credit (this as recently as 1971), the old indifference still lingers on. Look at the credits for The Gauntlet, made in 1977, and you will find no mention, either on screen or on the sleeve of the original soundtrack album, of the personnel responsible for the tones of Jerry Fielding’s score.
Anyone who has ever tried to compile a filmography, only to be frustrated by the lacunae left yawning by years of neglect, will appreciate the even more daunting task faced by Meeker in attempting to provide a reference guide to jazz musicians and their contribution to cinema. Apart from the problem of non-existent credits – Meeker contrives to include a list of the major jazz musicians who contributed to The Gauntlet, obtained through private correspondence with the late Jerry Fielding – there is the further hazard that the Dream Factory is frequently to be found exercising a now-you-hear-it-now-you-see-it brand of illusionism.
You may think, for instance, that you are seeing the Count Basie band when it makes its appearance blithely playing April in Paris from a bandstand parked in the middle of the desert in Blazing Saddles (1974), but you are not. You are listening to studio musicians playing on the soundtrack, while the band supposedly playing on screen is yet another scratch assembly of musicians (who were, significantly, paid more as actors than those actually providing the music).
More seriously, if you were struck by what Meeker describes as “the haunting urban blues refrain” for alto sax in Taxi Driver (1976), you may have rushed to the original soundtrack album as a source of information as to the identity of the brilliant soloist, named there as Tom Scott. True of the soundtrack album, but not of the film soundtrack, where the haunting quality is the exclusive property of sax-player Ronny Lang (who was apparently not available when the soundtrack was re-recorded for the ‘original’ soundtrack album).
Equally confusing and distasteful, if less damaging musically, was the earlier practice common to all the major Hollywood studios right up until the 50s of segregating Black and white musicians on screen. To cite only one example, in one of the Will Cowan shorts made for Universal over a period of 20 years (a remarkable series, some 250 in number, many of big band interest), Charlie Mingus can be heard playing with the Red Norvo Trio, but is replaced by a stand-in on screen. Conversely, in a 1930 Amos ’n’ Andy vehicle called Check and Double Check, Barney Bigard and Juan Tizol were blacked up to match other members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Despite the long history of contemptuous neglect which means that there is now no known footage extant of such key figures as Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, Beiderbecke or King Oliver – and pitifully little even of the magnificent Billie Holiday, favoured by Hollywood with only one wretched feature film role – Jazz in the Movies amasses close on 4,000 titles, including shorts, animated cartoons, foreign films and television programmes (if available on film). Where else, having fallen in love with the volcanic vocal genius of Big Joe Turner, as revealed in Bruce Ricker’s splendid tribute to the olden times of Kansas City jazz, The Last of the Blue Devils (1979), would I learn that Turner can also be seen, inter alia, in an Edward L. Cahn cheapie of 1956 called Shake, Rattle and Rock!, and in a French vehicle for Brigitte Bardot called Boulevard du rhum (1971) in which he has a featured role as a bartender/pianist/singer? My only complaint, given the background information Meeker draws on and the pithy pertinence of his comments, is that these could – space and publisher permitting – be profitably extended.
But Jazz in the Movies has an importance of a different sort, in that it has become something of a focus for all sorts of hitherto uncoordinated activities. Difficult to know, in the perennial problem of the chicken or the egg, which came first. The fact remains that the years since Meeker first began collecting information for the original edition of his book, thereby creating a network of contacts among musicians and enthusiasts, have seen a remarkable proliferation of films seriously committed to jazz.
In 1960, Jazz on a Summer’s Day jumped into a virtually empty ocean that is now beginning to teem with feature-length records of live performances; and the first steps towards an oral history on film have been made, in interviews which are blessed with the advantage that, as an accompaniment to reminiscences, live or recorded music off-screen offers a good deal more flexibility than the film clips which necessarily interrupt interviews with filmmakers in the interests of ‘entertainment’.
Television has helped, of course, with its voracious appetite for interest programmes of any kind. But then so has the existence of TCB Releasing Ltd, a British distribution company founded in 1972 by film-makers John Jeremy and Angus Trowbridge, and still the only film distributor anywhere in the world to deal exclusively in jazz movies. Meeker’s connections in the jazz world, allied to his position as print researcher for the National Film Archive, ensure that new work in the field comes to the National Film Theatre (where the London Film Festival has made itself something of a specialist corner in jazz films) and simultaneously into distribution with TCB. It’s a vicious circle of the nicest kind, and one which has gone a long way to taking jazz out of the ghetto as far as the cinema is concerned.
Even now, as is perhaps to be expected given that they tend to be the product of devotion first with skill coming a distant second, too many jazz movies are primarily (even exclusively) of interest to the specialist.
A case in point is the delightfully quaint Maxwell Street Blues, premiered at last year’s LFF. Faced with this film, a cineaste might be struck by the picturesquely sleazy charm of the last, crumbling Jewish remnants that survive of Chicago’s thriving Maxwell Street market. He would probably be astonished by Carrie Robinson, a wrinkled, toothless ancient cavorting grotesquely on the sidewalk but magically transformed into a matchless gospel singer by the vitality of her performance. But he would almost certainly be left cold by the aimless fumbling which passes for direction and which muffs all the trump cards presented to the film by its veteran performers.
Not surprisingly, since John Jeremy had already proven himself a born filmmaker with an uncanny instinct for the rhythmic interplay between sound and image in Blues Like Showers of Rain (1970), Jazz Is Our Religion (1972) and Born to Swing (1973), TCB (the initials are borrowed from the jazz parlance of Taking Care of Business) threw down the gauntlet when, after long years of hard times, it turned the tide sufficiently also to turn producer and make To The Count of Basie in 1979.
Directed by both Jeremy and Trowbridge, less explorative than Jeremy’s earlier work, this 75th birthday tribute to Basie is nevertheless exemplary – and as sleek as the best of the Fox musicals in its lovingly impressionistic amalgam of film and music.
Encouragingly, the challenge has been taken up over the last year or two by a number of new filmmakers, most notably Bruce Ricker with The Last of the Blue Devils, Gary Keys with Memories of the Duke (1980), and Lorenzo DeStefano with Talmage Farlow (1981), all of which come off the screen equally excitingly as either film or music.
Jazz movies have unquestionably come of age. Unfortunately, since this has happened with the accent on jazz rather than on movie, critics and even audiences have been left open to the prejudice of assuming a specialist orientation, which means that they can push these films back unseen into the ghetto only recently vacated. They have thereby missed much cinephile joy.
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