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Jazz goes to the movies

Our film team have collaborated with Manchester Jazz Festival to programme a great season of jazz-inspired films for July 2016. Daniel Graham gives us a historic run-down of the uneasy relationship between jazz and cinema.

It’s often been observed that jazz and cinema were the two most significant and wide-reaching ‘new’ art forms of the twentieth century, developing at approximately the same time, the major difference being that jazz went through radical stylistic changes faster than cinema. Both were invented in America, one by wealthy European and Jewish businessmen/entertainers, the other by racially segregated African Americans – two vastly different beginnings to say the least.

Jazz and cinema both flourished in the 1920s when the giants of each discipline began to make their mark – D.W. Griffith and Irving Thalberg in Hollywood, and Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in New Orleans and Harlem. While cinema represented the truest essence of American culture – storytelling, the star system, escapism wrapped in an industrial-sized manufacturing industry (the studio system) – jazz was born from the collective genius of a handful of men, working with limited means and a relatively minuscule performance scale, despite the success of their record sales.

The two would cross paths during their heydays, with jazz often coming off as the poor cousin. Early on, for example, the financial juggernaut of the studio system relegated jazz to a virtual sideshow presence in cinema – consider Louis Armstrong dressed in ‘jungle attire’ in one of his early film appearances, A Rhapsody In Black And Blue (1932), grinning idiotically. But things did improve for jazz and by the 1950s and 1960s, prominent jazz musicians were appearing with more dignity in major Hollywood productions – such as the Chico Hamilton Quintet in Sweet Smell Of Success alongside Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, or Louis Armstrong sharing significant screen time with Bing Crosby (in a tuxedo this time) in High Society and, several years later, in Hello Dolly, still grinning, unfortunately. Luckily, the ebullience of Armstrong’s magisterial trumpet playing left the more enduring legacy here.

Outside the Hollywood mainstream, documentaries and film soundtracks captured some of the defining moments in the history of jazz and cinema – Bert Stern’s wonderful Jazz On A Summer’s Day and Miles Davis’ iconic soundtrack (mostly improvised) to Louis Malle’s classic Ascenseur pour l’echafaud. Duke Ellington’s pulsing soundtrack to Otto Preminger’s courtroom thriller Anatomy Of A Murder remains a classic of the genre, and by the late 1950s it seems that jazz was at last being recognised for the great American music that it was.

It wasn’t until the 1960s, though, that jazz and cinema began to speak the same language. The birth of American independent cinema found a natural empathy with avant-garde jazz and other progressive forms of the genre, and one dazzling example is John Cassavetes’ beat-era jazz riff of a film, Shadows, which features music from Charles Mingus and Shafi Hadi. Shirley Clarke made two brilliant contributions around this time, too: The Connection, with alto saxophone great Jackie McLean (in a film rather lamentably about junkies) and The Cool World, featuring music by piano maverick Mal Waldron and Bebop legend Dizzy Gillespie.

In the broadest sense, fiction films depicted the jazz musician as the brilliant genius who was also a hopeless addict. Try Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight, for example, distinguished in large part by a once in a lifetime performance by jazz legend Dexter Gordon, or Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker biopic Bird, and Spike Lee’s Mo Better Blues. Truth be told, Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker were addicts, but these films spent far too much time dwelling on this rather than their music.

It is perhaps in later documentary films that we find a more fitting homage to America’s greatest musical art form, with classics such as Bruce Weber’s love letter to Chet Baker, Let’s Get Lost, Charlotte Zwerin’s magisterial Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser and Shirley Clarke’s outstanding Ornette: Made In America. The day may yet come when Hollywood, or independent filmmakers with sufficient backing, produces a grown-up, intelligent, non-sensationalist jazz biopic that actually attempts to explain what it is that makes jazz so special. Until then, we’ll have to be content with the rare moments when jazz and cinema have struck a chord – as the Jazz on Film season aims to illustrate.

Jazz on Film comes to our screens in July 2016, to coincide with Manchester Jazz Festival. You can find out more about the season here.

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