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Jazz on the Screen: A Jazz and Blues Filmography


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'A Streetcar Named Desire' (1951), It has become a well-deserved landmark in the history of film music and paved the way for numerous movie jazz scores.
—David Meeker
This article appears courtesy of David Meeker and the Library of Congress. Learn more about Jazz on Screen.

Overview of Jazz on the Screen

By David Meeker

The cultural, sociological and technical histories of jazz and motion pictures have run in parallel, sometimes intersecting, lines ever since both forms emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. Neither found it easy to be accepted as a legitimate form of personal or artistic expression. The early days, spent at the very fringes of respectable society, were difficult in each case. Film grew up in vaudeville houses, traveling fairgrounds, and penny arcades, jazz in the lower depths of New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. Few supposedly respectable people dared to be seen at screenings and performances in those first years. In the 1920s jazz and film both faced the tremendous challenge of the electric recording revolution. They slowly and painfully adapted themselves, eventually growing to freedom, maturity and respectability until finally they were acknowledged to be two of the most important and influential cultural forces in our civilization.

It could be thought ill advised for any one person to state quite categorically exactly where and when the history of "Jazz on the Screen" should begin for the sands shift as our knowledge of history unfolds. There were certainly plenty of appearances by jazz groups and individuals in silent pictures. The golden days of silent films were the 1920s; not for nothing were those days also known as The Jazz Age for, although the word Jazz in that context covered a much wider area than that of the music that we know today, it was a period when the music started to achieve the popularity that was to become so huge later on, when pre-electric jazz recordings became standard display items on record shop counters, when jazz bands became the centre of the evening's entertainment at dances and social occasions.

The cinema was, as always, quick to catch on to this new phenomenon, portraying an endless stream of flappers and their beaus gyrating madly to a succession of jazz or dance bands in literally dozens of movies. Few of these bands and the individual musicians in them have ever been identified or ever will be. In the silent days the bands would actually have been playing for the dancers on set, so they were comprised of genuine performing musicians, whereas in all but very early sound films the musicians, more often than not actor-musicians or sideliners, as they were later to become known, would be miming to pre-recorded tracks. A few name personnel working at this time can, however, be identified. Mutt Carey's Liberty Syncopators, for instance, are clearly playing for the dancers in LEGION OF THE CONDEMNED (1928). Speed Webb and his Orchestra were active at the Fox Studios and can be seen in several features including RILEY THE COP (1928).

Throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century much of the groundwork was laid down by both the film and the recording industries for the eventual marriage of sound with film as a commercial proposition. Using Bell Laboratory's sound-on-disc system, the specially recorded music soundtrack to Warner Bros.' feature, DON JUAN, premiered on 6th August 1926, together with a full program of all-talking shorts. It alerted the general public to the possibility of what was to come. However, it was more than a year later, on 6th October 1927, that the part-talkie, THE JAZZ SINGER, was eventually shown to ecstatic New York City audiences—though still with its sound played on 16" discs. It is, of course, ironic that this seminal presentation was so-titled for Al Jolson is hardly anyone's idea of a jazz singer in today's terms. Yet, the jazz/movie relationship was now set to change forever as wiring for sound became an urgent priority for motion picture exhibitors across the world. It was a slow process for which the film industry compensated by continuing to produce silent versions of their product for some time to come. (Bizarrely, a silent version of THE JAZZ SINGER, with the standard intertitles, was released in many countries in Europe and elsewhere so audiences must have wondered what all the fuss was about. The sound version of THE JAZZ SINGER wasn't shown in Paris, for instance, until as late as 1929). But by 1930 most studios and, once again, the theater chains, had re-equipped. Now their soundtracks could be recorded and played back on optical film.

With sound an integral component of the moving image, and with music of all kinds in constant demand by the film studios, the jazz musician had an opportunity to extend himself and to earn new money through both performance and composition. Perhaps the earliest evidence of this being done is to be found in the two short films made by the pioneer sound engineer Lee DeForest in 1922, which featured performances by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. They were soon followed by the numerous one-reel shorts produced by Warner's Vitaphone Corporation in which many of the comedians, dancers, singers, bands and sundry entertainers of the time appeared. It is now clear that the short film units attached to the major Hollywood studios—Universal, Columbia, Warner Bros., MGM, Twentieth Century-Fox, and Paramount—did a great service to the history of jazz. On account of their work we can still see and hear the wealth of jazz talent active during those halcyon years immediately after Warner Bros. created the Vitaphone Corp. in 1926.

Among the films are ARTIE SHAW'S CLASS IN SWING (1939), Duke Ellington in BUNDLE OF BLUES (1933), BOB CROSBY AND HIS ORCHESTRA (1938), Louis Prima in SWING CAT'S JAMBOREE (1938), Ethel Waters in RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT (1933), MILLS BLUE RHYTHM BAND (1933), Claude Hopkins in BY REQUEST (1935), Eubie Blake in PIE, PIE, BLACKBIRD (1932), GENE KRUPA, AMERICA'S ACE DRUMMER MAN AND HIS ORCHESTRA (1941), Nina Mae McKinney in PASSING THE BUCK (1932), The Mound City Blue Blowers in NINE O'CLOCK FOLKS (1929), Billie Holiday in SYMPHONY IN BLACK—A RHAPSODY OF NEGRO LIFE (1935), Red Nichols in MILLION DOLLAR NOTES (1935), CAB CALLOWAY'S HI-DE-HO (1934) and Ina Ray Hutton in ACCENT ON GIRLS (1936).

In the early 1930s, once the cinema had learnt to talk properly, producers began to use the talents of jazz men and women to provide lively musical interludes in their feature films, many of which were backstage musicals or show business melodramas. During the decade it became quite routine for audiences to see the popular bands of the period such as the ones led by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Lunceford, Les Hite, Louis Prima, Paul Whiteman, Cab Calloway, Ted Lewis and Benny Goodman. But often the appearances by black bands were carefully designed to be in self-contained sequences. This made them easy to delete should exhibitors in the southern United States decree. (In the 1940s the singer Lena Horne suffered this indignity quite regularly.)

It was not long, however, before the cinema was promoting many of its jazz entertainers as movie stars in their own right. During World War II, with audiences desperate for escapist musical entertainment, Hollywood began to build pictures around their new-found musical artists much to the benefit of the likes of Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, Hoagy Carmichael, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Harry James, Woody Herman, Les Brown and Stan Kenton.

Jazz biopics (though mostly more fiction than fact) started to appear with ORCHESTRA WIVES (1942), IS EVERYBODY HAPPY? (1943), THE FABULOUS DORSEYS (1947) and YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (1949), followed in later years by THE GLENN MILLER STORY (1953), THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY (1955), ST. LOUIS BLUES (1958), THE FIVE PENNIES (1959), THE GENE KRUPA STORY (1959), A MAN CALLED ADAM (1966), SWEET LOVE, BITTER (1966), LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972), LOUIS ARMSTRONG—CHICAGO STYLE (1975), SCOTT JOPLIN (1976), SVEN KLANGS KVINTETT (1976), BIRD (1988), BIX UN'IPOTESI LEGGENDARIA (1991), FOR LOVE OR COUNTRY (2000) and RAY (2004).

Even the jazz life itself, at least as it was perceived by movie people, had soon became an exploitable product with fanciful pictures like SYNCOPATION (1942,) NEW ORLEANS (1947), PETE KELLY'S BLUES (1955) and ALL NIGHT LONG (1961) but, happily, real elements of a working musician's life began to be written into movies like THE CONNECTION and TOO LATE BLUES (both 1961), THE COOL WORLD (1963), BYL JAZZ (1981), MY IZ DZHAZA/WE FROM JAZZ (1983), THE GIG (1984), AUTOUR DE MINUIT (1986), LUSH LIFE (1993), KANSAS CITY (1995) and SWEET AND LOWDOWN (1999).


One of the short-lived but quite fascinating phenomena of the 1940s was the RCM Soundie (the initials stood for Roosevelt, Coslow, Mills) which were 3-minute films produced during the years of World War II for use in a kind of visual juke box. Eight of them were spooled together and then projected one at a time, via a complicated system of reflectors, on to the rear of a glass screen (one major flaw in the technology was that in order to play, say, selection number eight, you had to sit through numbers one to seven first!). The Mills Panoram Soundies machines were rented to thousands of locations across America—bars, hotel lobbies, bus stations, restaurants and so on. The customer would insert a dime for each 3-minute selection—whichever one was next in line.

The Soundies were churned out cheaply and fast but they featured many of the popular entertainers of the time, usually performing their current, though now long-forgotten record hits. However, during the nationwide American Federation of Musicians' ban on new recordings in 1942/3 anxious producers were forced to call upon all their ingenuity to maintain the Soundies production schedule—some 50 titles per month were required —by contracting all kinds of non-musician performers such as dancers, jugglers, comics, acrobats and other vaudeville novelties.

Despite the impact of the recording ban, the Soundies are still invaluable film records of musicians, including Duke Ellington, Jimmy Dorsey, Fats Waller, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, the Mills Brothers and others, even though their rock bottom production values leave much to be desired. The music in Soundies was almost always recorded first and the artists would then mime on camera to playback with varying degrees of professionalism. For technical reasons the prints themselves were printed in reverse as the confined space inside the Panoram machines required a complex series of mirrors in order to project the image on to the inside of the screen. When the whole Soundie novelty eventually wore off in 1946 the surplus stocks of prints were sold off to television and to the home movie enthusiast. These were the prints that, with a corrected image, eventually found their way to the 16mm and film collectors' markets.

The Soundie production concept was revived between 1950 and 1952 by Lou Snader's Snader Telescriptions in order to produce a series of 3-minute musical performances to fill program junctions on television. Again, major jazz performers were involved, among them the Delta Rhythm Boys, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Mel Torme, Count Basie and Peggy Lee. In the 1960s, a similar system appeared in Europe called the Scopitone, produced in color and boasting magnetic sound. These were particularly popular in France but failed to travel successfully despite headlining such artists as Julie London, Claude Luter, Clark Terry, Claude Bolling and Sue Raney. Also in the early 1960s, and immensely popular in Britain and in Italy, was a series of over 600 Cinebox coin-box operated jukebox music shorts (renamed Colorama in the United States). They were produced mainly for the European market in Italy, though some were made in France and a few in Britain, promoting popular music entertainers with the occasional jazz group making appearances.


One of the most productive associations of jazz and the moving image is to be found in the area of the animated cartoon. Animators had fallen under the influence of jazz at around the same time as the sound film gained public acceptance. They were quick to exploit its rhythmic and harmonic possibilities using music numbers such as "Tiger rag" and commissioning the jazz inflected orchestras of Abe Lyman and Gus Arnheim to record their soundtracks. The animators Max and Dave Fleischer were particularly quick to realize the potential of the popularity of famous jazz personalities and produced some of their finest work around such figures as Cab Calloway in MINNIE THE MOOCHER (1932), SNOW WHITE (1933) and THE OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN (1933); the Boswell Sisters in SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH (1932); Louis Armstrong in I'LL BE GLAD WHEN YOU'RE DEAD YOU RASCAL YOU (1932); the Mills Brothers in DINAH (1933), I AIN'T GOT NOBODY (1932) and WHEN YUBA PLAYS THE RUMBA ON THE TUBA (1933) and Don Redman in I HEARD (1933).

A further phase began when Hollywood animators produced a memorable series of cartoons caricaturing jazz celebrities such as Paul Whiteman, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, the Mills Brothers and Benny Goodman. Their titles included CLEAN PASTURES (1937), SWING WEDDING (1937), PORKY AT THE CROCADERO (1938), HAVE YOU GOT ANY CASTLES? (1938), WHOLLY SMOKE (1938), COAL BLACK AND DE SEBBEN DWARFS (1942), TIN PAN ALLEY CATS (1943), THE SWOONER CROONER (1944) and BOOK REVUE (1946).

In the 1940s stereotypical jazz caricatures, usually black, were also the inspiration for Walter Lantz's brilliant series of Swing Symphonies whose titles alone are enough to set the feet tapping, SCRUB ME MAMA WITH A BOOGIE BEAT (1941), BOOGIE WOOGIE BUGLE BOY OF COMPANY B (1941), BOOGIE WOOGIE SIOUX (1942), COW-COW BOOGIE (1943), ABOU BEN BOOGIE (1944) and SLIPHORN KING OF POLAROO (1945). The Hungarian puppeteer, George Pál, gave us his fascinating series of Puppetoons featuring Charlie Barnet for JASPER IN A JAM (1946), Duke Ellington for DATE WITH DUKE (1947) and Woody Herman for RHAPSODY IN WOOD (1947).

Around the same time in Canada Norman McLaren tried a few jazz experiments with BOOGIE DOODLE (1948) to music by Albert Ammons and his famous BEGONE DULL CARE (1949) featuring soundtrack work by the Oscar Peterson Trio. The Walt Disney Studio rarely used jazz (despite later becoming the home of The Firehouse Five Plus Two) but they did come up with a couple of jazz sequences for Benny Goodman in MAKE MINE MUSIC (1945). Highlighting the 1950s was the emergence of the masterful team of John and Faith Hubley and the sadly neglected Ernest Pintoff. They showed genuine feelings for jazz when utilizing the talents of some of the period's finest instrumentalists and composers, including Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Benny Carter, Shorty Rogers, Quincy Jones, Stan Getz and Lionel Hampton.

The music was not, however, an entirely American prerogative and many worthwhile cartoons have been produced in Europe featuring the soundtrack work of such major jazz figures as John Dankworth, Martial Solal, Jacques Loussier, Claude Luter, Svend Asmussen, Romano Mussolini and Krzystof Komeda. The versatility and flexibility of jazz musicians, the abstract and free-form quality of their ideas and their adeptness at improvisation make them eminently qualified to work creatively with animation directors. The jazz musician's art is not, as some would have it, to play 'jazzy' music but rather to create imaginative, unfettered musical lines—how much closer to the concept of the animator's art could one get?


A major shift in the genre took place in the late 1950s with the release of the first major jazz documentary, JAZZ ON A SUMMER'S DAY (1959), a mainly irrelevant but nevertheless hugely popular film record of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. The film was a commercial success and, despite its unfortunate tendency to sacrifice the music for crafty camera work, lighting effects, and cutaways to the Newport milieu,The film's commercial success the film's popularity had an enormous influence on the jazz and blues documentary tradition that is still current today. From then onwards, usually with television funding involved, many of the world's major jazz and blues festivals have been captured by the cameras and there is now a vast repository of performance footage in existence from such locations as Montreux, Newport, Montreal, Monterey and Berlin. Over the years documentaries of varying quality have now been made around a seemingly endless series of jazz subjects and themes.


One of the great cinematic pleasures for the jazz enthusiast has always been to come across an unexpected appearance by one of their idols in a movie, particularly when it's entirely unexpected. For example, spotting Eddie Lang in KING OF JAZZ (1930), Sidney Bechet in EINBRECHER (1930), Stéphane Grappelly and George Shearing in ENGLISH WITHOUT TEARS (1944), Dorothy Donegan in SENSATIONS OF 1945 (1944), Svend Asmussen as a postman in PIPPI LÅNGSTRUMP (1949), Laurindo Almeida in SAILOR BEWARE (1951), Tal Farlow in TEXAS CARNIVAL (1951), Richie Kamuca in KINGS GO FORTH (1958), Billy May in NIGHTMARE (1956), Tubby Hayes in A KING IN NEW YORK (1957), Cleo Laine with Johnny Dankworth in SIX-FIVE SPECIAL (1957), Humphrey Lyttelton in THE TOMMY STEELE STORY (1957), Lucky Thompson in AIMEZ-VOUS BRAHMS? (1961), Pete Candoli in DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962), Anita O'Day in THE OUTFIT (1973), Med Flory as a cop in HUSTLE (1975), John Surman in MERRY-GO-ROUND (1977/8), Dexter Gordon as a pianist in AWAKENINGS (1990), Lalo Schifrin as the conductor in RED DRAGON (2002) and so many more.


In 1951, once again at Warner Bros., yet another jazz revolution had occurred on a Hollywood recording stage, one which was to have far reaching effects on the music world extending until the very present...and beyond. Composer Alex North wrote and recorded the first ever jazz-orientated film score for a dramatic picture, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951). The score served to color the sound of the film's steamy New Orleans setting. It has become a well-deserved landmark in the history of film music and paved the way for numerous movie jazz scores. Producers, ever on the lookout for new ways of cutting costs soon tumbled to the sad truth that jazz musicians were relatively cheap to hire and that a small ensemble, an octet, or even a quartet could satisfactorily provide the necessary musical background to a film's action.

Up until that time all the major Hollywood studios had kept their own full-time orchestras; their days were now numbered. The recent demise of the big band era had dumped hundreds of skilled, hard-working jazz instrumentalists in the Los Angeles and New York areas eager for the rewards offered by the film, TV, and recording studios. They could sight read and could play anything put before them. Jazz scores soon proliferated. Composer Leith Stevens started the ball rolling with his seminal use of source music jazz cues in THE WILD ONE (1953) arranged and played by Shorty Rogers and his Giants. Elmer Bernstein used rhythmic elements of jazz in his influential scores for THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1955), again performed by Shorty Rogers, and for SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) featuring the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Johnny Mandel used the talents of top West Coast musicians for I WANT TO LIVE (1958). Suddenly jazz scores were hip.

Producer Blake Edwards was quick to jump on the bandwagon by adventurously hiring Henry Mancini for what was to become a groundbreaking jazz score to his television series featuring a jazz-loving detective, PETER GUNN (1958/61), soon followed by John Cassavetes' STACCATO (1959). Before long a whole school of jazz composers was busy churning out jazz-orientated music tracks for TV series—MIKE HAMMER (1957/59), RICHARD DIAMOND (1957/60), M SQUAD (1957/60), MR LUCKY (1959). Made-for-television movies gainfully employed Pete Rugolo, Gil Melle, Quincy Jones, Shorty Rogers, Benny Carter, Oliver Nelson, Benny Golson, Artie Kane, and J.J. Johnson who all worked regularly in the studios during the 1960s and 1970s before the pendulum swung back to embrace symphonic scores or more fashionable styles of music making., isolated jazz and embraced more fashionable styles of music making.

Some jazz musicians still active today have worked on more than 1,000 film and television soundtracks since the 1950s though not always as jazz soloists, of course. Only occasionally in the past had their work received the screen credit due to them but a daring and influential step forward was taken by composer Quincy Jones when he listed his soundtrack musicians during the end titles of a major Hollywood studio production, THE HOT ROCK (1972). Main instrumental soundtrack soloists are sometimes credited nowadays though still not as often as one, or they, would wish. The film industry in Europe too had welcomed the jazz composers' work.

In France, jazz enthusiast and filmmaker Louis Malle enticed Miles Davis into the studio to improvise directly to the images in his film L'ASCENSEUR POUR L'ÉCHAFAUD (1957). Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers were used on the soundtrack of Edouard Molinaro's DES FEMMES DISPARAISSANT (1958). Roger Vadim then recorded Art Blakey again, in addition to Thelonious Monk, for his film LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES 1960 (1959). Many of the stature of André Hodeir, Johnny Dankworth, Henry Crolla, Klaus Doldinger, Claude Bolling, Kenny Graham, Michel Portal, Giorgio Gaslini, Krzysztof Komeda and the jazz-orientated Michel Legrand have contributed between them to literally hundreds of movie scores. It is interesting to learn the extent to which jazz musicians have contributed to one composer's movie scores.

A list of some of the major names who have worked on film soundtracks with the French maestro Philippe Sarde is impressive:

Brass: Chet Baker, Aimé Barelli, Lester Bowie, Billy Byers, Nat Peck, Malcolm Griffiths, Henry Lowther, Clark Terry, Jiggs Whigham.

Reeds: Stan Getz, Johnny Griffin, Hubert Laws, Claude Luter, Hubert Rostaing, Archie Shepp, Wayne Shorter, Alan Skidmore, Stan Sulzmann, John Surman, Phil Woods, Lee Konitz, Tony Coe, George Coleman.

Keyboards: Herbie Hancock, John Lewis, Eddy Louiss, Maurice Vander.

Guitars: Philippe Catherine, Larry Coryell.

Violins: Stéphane Grappelli, Didier Lockwood.

Harmonica: Toots Thielemans.

Vibes: Milt Jackson.

Bass: Ron Carter, Barry Guy, Percy Heath, Pierre Michelot, Guy Pedersen, Buster Williams, Chris Laurence.

Drums: Kenny Clarke, Steve Gadd, Billy Hart, Tony Oxley, Tony Williams.

Percussion: Billy Cobham, Frank Ricotti.


Apart from their anonymous employment on soundtracks there are many other areas of movie work open to the more articulate jazz musician—composing, arranging, orchestrating, supervising, copying, fixing, etc. One of the most fascinating areas of studio work is "ghosting" or "soundtracking" to someone else's moving image. An inordinate amount of precision and sheer professionalism is given over to this highly skilled work, playing and then synchronizing appropriate sounds to an actor's movements on screen. This can involve an entire band, as in BLAZING SADDLES (1974), or simply one or more solo instrumentalists.

A number of examples, only a few of whom received screen credit for their extraordinary work:

Duke Ellington (piano) for Guy Lombardo—MANY HAPPY RETURNS (1934)
Bobby Hackett (trumpet) for Fred Astaire—SECOND CHORUS (1940)
Snooky Young (trumpet) for Jack Carson—BLUES IN THE NIGHT (1941)
Danny Polo (clarinet) for Bing Crosby—BIRTH OF THE BLUES (1941)
Mannie Klein (trumpet) for Melvyn Douglas—OUR WIFE (1941)
Phil Moore (piano) for Jimmy Conlin—THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942)
Frank Beach (trumpet) for Oliver Hardy—JITTERBUGS (1943)
Barney Bigard (clarinet) for Glenn Vernon—DING DONG WILLIAMS (1946)
Arnold Ross (piano) for Maureen O'Hara—DO YOU LOVE ME (1946)
Kenny Baker (trumpet) for Kay Kendall—GENEVIEVE (1953)
Johnny Williams (drums) for Ray Milland—LET'S DO IT AGAIN (1953)
Humphrey Lyttelton (trumpet) for John Mills—IT'S GREAT TO BE YOUNG! (1956)
Pete Candoli (trumpet) for Tony Curtis—KINGS GO FORTH (1958)
Red Nichols (cornet) for Danny Kaye—THE FIVE PENNIES (1959)
Uan Rasey (trumpet) for Robert Wagner—ALL THE FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS (1960)
Shake Keane (trumpet) for Roy Castle—DR TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1964)
Ronnie Lang (alto sax) for Michael Caine—HURRY SUNDOWN (1966)
Nat Adderley (trumpet) for Sammy Davis, Jr.—A MAN CALLED ADAM (1966)
Justin Gordon (tenor sax) for Gene Hackman—THE CONVERSATION (1974)
Georgie Auld (tenor sax) for Robert De Niro—NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1977)
Maynard Ferguson (trumpet) for Burt Young—UNCLE JOE SHANNON (1978)
Branford Marsalis (soprano sax) for Sean Connery—THE RUSSIA HOUSE (1990)
Bob Cooper (tenor sax) for Jeff Goldblum—LUSH LIFE (1993)
Howard Alden (guitar) for Sean Penn—SWEET AND LOWDOWN (1999)
Arturo Sandoval (trumpet) for Andy Garcia—FOR LOVE OR COUNTRY (2000)
Terence Blanchard (trumpet) for Val Kilmer—THE SALTON SEA (2002)


Following many years of experimentation, television—the most voracious medium of them all—finally began to appear (in very small numbers) in homes in Britain, Germany and the United States in the mid-to late 1930s. In Britain, Henry Hall and his Orchestra soon became regular performers on BBC Television's single channel with their programs of popular dance music. It wasn't until 1938, though, that the first recorded appearance by a jazz musician took place when Fats Waller, then on tour in Britain, performed on the pipe organ of Alexandra Palace in North London, BBC Television's studio at the time.

In the United States, it was during the early 1940s when the first jazz concerts were televised but, in Europe, the outbreak of World War II in 1939 put a temporary moratorium on regular television services. Sadly, no jazz footage from those days is known to have survived as all transmissions were live. (Although there were a few enthusiastic amateurs busily photographing programs on an ad hoc basis—and without any sound—the results were somewhat less than successful. It was not until 1947 that the American practice of making kinescopes was formally adopted. This was a method of filming off a television monitor while a show was actually being transmitted, sometimes necessary in the United States in order for a program to be repeated in a different time zone. Magnetic tape was not to be introduced in any worthwhile form until the 1950s.)

Evidently, as is the case today, much of the material transmitted was in the form of film so considerable quantities of what might be termed "early television" has in fact survived. German archives are preserving a lot of documentary material of this nature dating from the 1930s. In Britain television newsreels from 1948 have been kept. Until that time it is hardly likely that anyone would have thought it necessary to archive jazz performances—even if there were any. But before the 1940s had drawn to a close jazz had started to become a regular ingredient of light entertainment scheduling in the United States with the seminal series, EDDIE CONDON'S FLOOR SHOW (1948/9). The format was repeated later with such memorable series as Bobby Troup's STARS OF JAZZ (1956/8) featuring virtually every Californian jazz star of the day, TIMEX ALL STAR JAZZ SHOW (1957/9) and ART FORD'S JAZZ PARTY (1958), THE SUBJECT IS JAZZ (1958) and SWING INTO SPRING (1958/9).

The were, in addition, "specials," among them SATCHMO THE GREAT (1956), the justly famous THE SOUND OF JAZZ (1957), A DRUM IS A WOMAN and THE SOUND OF MILES DAVIS (1959). Further series soon followed: JAZZ SCENE USA (1962), FRANKLY JAZZ (1962) and JAZZ CASUAL (1962/69). Innumerable series of a similar nature have appeared in their wake. The televised history of jazz in America from the 1960s onwards is well preserved and much of it remains accessible to those who seek it out.

Although jazz is essentially an American-based musical form it has never been exclusively so. It is appreciated as much, if not more so, by audiences in Europe and in the Far East and the medium of television has reflected this. Most of the major jazz packages that regularly toured European capitals during the 1960s were seduced into the studios and recorded either on film or on tape. In Britain, BBC Television produced several series of classic programs such as JAZZ 625 (1964/6), JAZZ GOES TO COLLEGE (1966/7), JAZZ AT THE MALTINGS (1968/9) and JAZZ SCENE AT THE RONNIE SCOTT CLUB (1969/70) and so forth. With the honorable exception of the JAZZ 625 series, secured on 35mm Kinescope, many segments of the other series were lost when BBC TV wiped the tapes for re-use.

In Germany similar use was made of visiting groups for the JAZZ GEHÖRT UND GESEHEN series (1955/74). The same policy applied to television stations in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, France, Finland, Poland and also in Japan, etc., all of whom also regularly televised their local jazz and blues festivals. Berlin, Montreux, Munich, Burghausen, Baltica, North Sea, Cannes, Umbria, Bologna, Liège, Antibes/Juan-les-Pins and many others were all covered. Much is owed to the handful of producers whose enthusiasm and hard work secured such an enviable amount of valuable footage, particularly Jean- Christophe Averty, Terry Henebery, Joaquim-Ernst Berendt, Andrzej Wasylewski, Frank Cassenti, Per Møller Hansen and Jan Horne.

Jazz and those who create it have served the movies in many different guises. Only too often and for far too long, the musicians were exploited for all that they were worth. Quite enough has already been written elsewhere about the extent of their exploitation and the limitation of opportunity for black personnel working in the film industry (for instance, until the 1950s drummer Lee Young, Lester's Young's brother, was the only black staff musician in a Los Angeles film studio orchestra) but, even so, it is frightening to realize just how recently a modicum of equality has been won partly due to the courageous behind the scenes lobbying for integration and pay parity by established names such as Benny Carter and Buddy Collette—at the time there were separate union locals for (lower paid) black and for (higher paid) white musicians in the Los Angeles area.

A good example of the rampant inequality was the practice at Universal Studios for white musicians in an otherwise black band to be replaced on camera by black ones and vice versa—a notorious example of this is in the short film SUGAR CHILE ROBINSON—BILLIE HOLIDAY—COUNT BASIE AND HIS SEXTET (1950) in which the white clarinetist Buddy De Franco, a key member of Basie's Sextet at the time, plays on soundtrack but is replaced on camera by the darker Marshall Royal.

Quincy Jones has noted that when he composed the music for THE PAWNBROKER in 1964 he was the first black musician in the film studios permitted to score for strings; until then he would only have been allowed to write band music— much as Benny Carter and Phil Moore had done before him. And it was not until the 1960s that legendary bassist Milt Hinton was to become the first black player to be accepted fully into the tightly protected world of the New York session musician. Similar stories told, always anonymously, about the status of black instrumentalists in the Hollywood studios make one cringe. Such horrors were more prevalent in the United States, one reason why so many jazz musicians uprooted to Europe.

Today, jazz and the screen in all their manifestations are once again facing an uncertain future together as a result of constantly shifting audience tastes and with a wide range of alternative choices in both music and the visual arts— electronic experimentation, digital recording and synthesizers, video and lasers and a whole new world of computer, satellite and micro-technology cruising the information highways of the universe. They have survived successfully for over a century since before the days when man could fly or listen to the radio or before Don Ameche made that first telephone call. Ultimately, it won't matter what previously undreamed of technological achievements influence our lives as they will have combined to ensure that for many jazz scholars and enthusiasts, the music remains our religion.


JAZZ AU CINÉMA by Henri Gautier. Premier Plan, Belley (Ain) 1962
JAZZ IN THE MOVIES by David Meeker. British Film Institute, London 1972
JAZZ SUR FILMS by Jean-Roland. Hippenmeyer Éditions de la Thièle, Yverdon 1973
JAZZ IN THE MOVIES by David Meeker. Talisman Books, London 1977
JAZZ IN THE MOVIES by David Meeker. Talisman Books, London 1981/Da Capo Press, New York 1981
JAMMIN' IN THE MARGINS by Krin Gabbard. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1996
JAZZ IN FILM NOIR by David Butler. University of Manchester, Manchester 2000
JAZZ ET CINÉMA by Gilles Mouëllic. Collection Essais Cahiers du Cinéma 2000.

This article appears courtesy of David Meeker and the Library of Congress. Learn more about Jazz on Screen. Copyright David Meeker, London, November 2004.

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