Jazz on Film

Jim Santella By

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Scott Yanow

Jazz on Film

Backbeat Books

320 pages, softcover

ISBN 0-87930-738-8


When Nnenna Freelon appeared in a cameo role as a nightclub singer in What Women Want (2000), with Mel Gibson; it reminded us that jazz remains as viable a subject on film as any. Today, nightclub jazz scenes appear in the movies on occasion, but much less frequently than during Hollywood's earlier periods. We're very fortunate to see a few of our favorite singers, such as Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Cassandra Wilson, in modern film scenes. Scott Yanow describes some of this in his reference book about jazz in the movies, on DVD, and that which is distributed on tapes that have grown out of television specials. Thanks to PBS, there is still a lot of good jazz on film, much of it current.

The cover shows Lena Horne in one of her many film appearances. What other jazz singers and instrumentalists have appeared in films?

Scott Yanow's reference book answers this question with over a thousand reviews that rate the music from a jazz perspective. The Hollywood films are rated twice each: for the film's content and for its music. Films that rated high in both categories include 'Round Midnight (1986), Young Man with a Horn (1949), Cabin in the Sky (1942), The Five Pennies (1959), Hey Boy! Hey Girl! (1959), A Song is Born (1948), and Stormy Weather (1943). Most of the films reviewed were produced in the decades before and after World War II.

An American in Paris (1951) rates high marks for the film, but a low score for its music, while The King of Jazz (1930) rates quite low for its screenplay content, but very high for its music.

After reading Yanow's Jazz on Film, my shopping list has grown considerably. We remember well the appearances of Lena Horne and Ethel Waters in Cabin in the Sky, Count Basie in Blazing Saddles, Miles Davis in Dingo, Ray Charles in the first Blues Brothers movie, and B.B. King in the second one. Yanow pans St. Louis Blues (1958) with Nat King Cole and Tune in Tomorrow (1990), which featured Wynton Marsalis and his orchestra. He offers the usual, uncomplimentary critical reviews about Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Robert Altman's Kansas City (1996) and Ken Burns' Jazz (2000). He offers mild praise for Mo' Better Blues (1990) and strong praise for 'Round Midnight (1986) with Dexter Gordon.

Which jazz artist appears on film more often than any other? From the looks of it, Louis Armstrong would be my guess, followed by Gene Krupa, Harry James and Benny Goodman.

The index that Yanow has supplied in his book serves as a valuable asset. For example, you can look up Rufus Harley and find out that he appeared in a 1966 film You're a Big Boy Now. Brief interviews with noted film collectors Mark Cantor, Ken Poston and John Altman lend insight into the vast world of jazz on film. But DVDs are coming out now by the dozens, and we're delighted to be able to enjoy today's jazz stars on film as well as our past favorites. We collectors will find that the joys never end. Yanow's second edition will have to grow significantly, however, to keep up with the deluge of great DVDs being produced. Let's hope that he will also include some ideas from television programming, such as The Bill Cosby Show, I Love Lucy and Night Court.

There are plenty of reference books about movies available, both as hardcopy and online. But none of them emphasize the jazz perspective on film. None except Scott Yanow's highly recommended guide to jazz artists and their music on the big and small screens.

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