Jazz and films went down the same way for a long time, almost hand-in-hand. They both first appeared at the turn of the XX century. They both found it hard to be accepted as legitimate art, especially at the beginning. They both went through the ordeal of the electric recording revolution. But because sound make its appearance at the very end of the decade, most of the rich history of jazz and film lies beyond the 1920s.
But even in the time of the silent movies jazz entered the movie theatres. In the bigger houses, bands accompanied the films, and especially in black establishments, the music was often jazz.
Jazz was there at the very dawn of the talkies. In fact the first feature-length film had the very word in the title: The Jazz Singer. In those early days, very important jazzmen and blueswomen found their way to the silver screen.
The Jazz Singer (1927)
Based on a short story by Samson Raphaelson from 1921 (A Day of Atonement) and adapted by Alfred Cohn, The Jazz Singer wasn’t actually the first film with sound in it, but was indeed the first feature-length Hollywood film to use sound and spoken dialogue as part of the dramatic action. Only about 25% of the film offers sound, most of it songs and pieces of dialogue.
Despite its title, the film has very little to do with the music played by artists such as Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton. It is rather an account of the Old World versus the New World, where Al Jolson is a Jew trying to adjust to a new life. So the word ‘jazz’ speaks of what that meant in the 1920s for people of that time. Jazz represented the emotional release and freedom of a generation who wanted to break with the past and with established social conventions, to seek a new, different future.
St Louis Blues (1929)
In 1929, WC Handy and Kenneth W. Adams wrote the treatment of a short film based on Handy’s song St Louis Blues.
Bessie Smith was hired in the role of a woman cheated by her man in every possible way and on any possible occasion. Though the movie was criticise because it presents many stereotypes attached to African Americans, it was a huge success because of Bessie.
At just over fifteen minutes, it was the first of a variety of similar features that became popular between 1929 and 1932.
Black and Tan (1929)
This was the first film where Duke Ellington appeared. It was made on the same set and with the same crew with overlapping schedules with Bessie Smith’s St Louis Blues. It is also a short movie.
Story isn’t usually important in short musical performance film, but this one is a lot more tragic than it would be seen in jazz films of the following decades and it doesn’t shy away from showing African American’s actual position in the entertainment business.
Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989
The Librery of Congress – Jazz on the Sceen
Musicals 101 – 1927-1930: Hollywood learns to sing
Knotholes and Textures – J is for Al Jolson
The New York Review of Books – Not quite all that jazz
The Virginia University – The Jazz Singer
Film Site – The Jazz Singer
Red Hot Jazz – St Louis Blues
Phish.net – Black and Tan
Weird Wild Realm – Balck and Tan