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.


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