by Roger Fristoe – TCM
Both jazz and the movies emerged as American art forms at the end of the 19th Century and flowered in the 1920s. Not for nothing was that era called The Jazz Age! Once sound appeared in movies, the two forms melded; noted by the first major “talkie,” The Jazz Singer. Since then, jazz artists – many of them African American – have performed regularly in films. Beginning in the 1950s, complete jazz scores were created for film noir and other genres with urban settings.
TCM (Turner Classic Movies) revisits the legacy of jazz music and its perfect marriage to film over the decades. First appearing as a special theme in 1999, our programming is expanded in this month’s Spotlight to two nights a week to encompass the eclectic sounds, artists, and films associated with jazz.
The movies in this Spotlight are arranged by categories. Classic Jazz Scores includes two controversial films of the 1950s, in which director Otto Preminger used contemporary jazz scores to juice up the drama in addressing subject matter that had been previously considered forbidden.
The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) stars Frank Sinatra and Eleanor Parker in a story about drug addiction – a taboo topic at the time. Elmer Bernstein was Oscar-nominated for his score, considered to be one of the best jazz soundtracks of the 1950s. Anatomy of a Murder (1959) stars James Stewart and Lee Remick in a courtroom drama that includes dicey details about an alleged rape. Jazz greats Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn composed the evocative score, played by Ellington’s orchestra. This was considered the first major Hollywood movie to be given over to a jazz musician for its score, and the first to use an African American composer for that purpose. Ellington’s soundtrack album won a Grammy award.
Other films in this category are A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), scored by Alex North; and Bullitt (1968), scored by Lalo Schifrin.
On June 4 are two musicals featuring all-black casts from 1943 starring Lena Horne. Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (1943) tells the story of a shiftless gambler (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) who is facing death and torn between his loyal wife (Ethel Waters) and a temptress played by Horne. Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg added to the stage musical’s score by Vernon Duke and John Latouche, with Duke Ellington and other jazz musicians also contributing. Numbers include “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” performed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Andrew L. Stone’s Stormy Weather (1943) pairs Horne with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who plays a dancer putting his life back together after serving in World War I. The jazzy score includes songs written by Robinson, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Ellington and others. Performances in the film include the Nicholas Brothers, Ada Brown, Mae E. Johnson and Katherine Dunham and her dancers.
Other films on this night are A Song Is Born (1948), High Society (1956) and All Night Long (1962).
The Life of a Jazz Musician includes studies of two troubled horn players.
Kirk Douglas stars in Michael Curtiz’s Young Man with a Horn (1950), a drama based on the turbulent life of jazz great Bix Beiderbecke. The brilliant Harry James dubs the trumpet playing for Douglas and coached the actor on handling the instrument. Doris Day, as a band singer and one of Douglas’s love interests, performs three classic standards. A Columbia studio LP album, featuring vocals by Day with James on trumpet, rose to the top of the Billboard pop albums chart. Also prominent in the film’s cast are Lauren Bacall and Hoagy Carmichael.
Sammy Davis Jr. has the title role in A Man Called Adam (1966), as a gifted but erratic African American jazz cornetist whose fiery temperament and addiction to alcohol play havoc with his career in the 1960s. Davis’s cornet solos are expertly dubbed by Nat Adderley, and Louis Armstrong also performs. Armstrong and fellow jazz great Benny Carter wrote some of the numbers. Also in the cast are Ossie Davis, Cicely Tyson and Mel Tormé.
Also in this category are The Five Pennies (1959), Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Connection (1961).
Battle of the Big Bands feature two musical-bio pics built around famous bandleaders.
The Glenn Miller Story (1954) looks at the life and career of one of the most famous bandleaders of the swing era, as portrayed by James Stewart. Miller, also a trombonist, arranger and composer, was the best-selling recording artist in the country from 1939 to 1942; his big hits included “In the Mood” and “Moonlight Serenade.” During World War II, the plane he was taking on a tour to entertain the troops disappeared over the English Channel. In the film, Stewart’s trombone playing is dubbed by Joe Yukl. Miller’s wife is played, movingly, by June Allyson, and several music greats play themselves. The film won an Oscar for Best Sound Recording.
The Gene Krupa Story (1959) focuses on the legendary jazz drummer and his struggles with addiction and family problems. Sal Mineo, who plays Krupa, worked with the master himself to mimic his moves at the drums while Krupa provided the offscreen drumming. Susan Kohner and Susan Oliver play the women in Krupa’s life, with Red Nichols and singer Anita O’Day as themselves and Bobby Troup as Tommy Dorsey. Numbers include “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Song of India” and “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.”
Other films in the category: Ship Ahoy (1942), Around the World (1943), and Sweet and Low Down (1944).
Jazz Noir, blending two forms that just seem to naturally fit together, includes two highly dramatic film noir performances by female stars.
The Man I Love (1946), inspired by the George and Ira Gershwin song, stars Ida Lupino as a trouble-prone nightclub singer who falls for a down-and-out blues pianist (Bruce Bennett, who does his own playing). In addition to the title tune, Lupino (dubbed by Peg La Centra) also performs “Why Was I Born?” The film itself was a major inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s 1977 New York, New York.
I Want to Live! (1958) brought Susan Hayward a Best Actress Oscar for her scalding performance as real-life accused murderess Barbara Graham. Johnny Mandel composed, arranged and conducted the score, which features music performed by Gerry Mulligan and his Jazz Combo (who also appear in the film). Other well-known jazz artists contributing to the score include drummer Shelly Manne, bassist Red Mitchell, trombonist Frank Rosolino, and trumpeter Jack Sheldon. Mandel’s score won a Grammy nomination as Best Soundtrack Album.
More movies in this category: Crime in the Streets (1956), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), and Farewell, My Lovely (1975).
International Jazz includes two dramas made by French directors.
Elevator to the Gallows (1958), directed by Louis Malle, is a film noir starring Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as illicit lovers who plot a murder. The score was the first created by the American jazz trumpeter/bandleader/composer Miles Davis.
Black Orpheus (1959) was made in Brazil by French filmmaker Marcel Camus as a co-production by France, Brazil and Italy. A modernized version of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, it has a score by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá. The soundtrack is influenced by bossa nova, a synthesis of jazz and samba.
Also in this category: The Warped Ones (1960) and Pale Flower (1964), both from Japan, and Knife in the Water (1962) from Poland.
Real Jazz is represented by two feature-length documentaries in their TCM premieres, plus a 20-minute jazz short.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959), directed by Bert Stern and Aram Avakian, documents the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, with performances by jazz greats Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan, Dinah Washington, Anita O’Day and others. Meanwhile, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988) looks at the life of the legendary pianist/composer and features performances by Monk and his group, plus interviews with family and friends.
The short Jammin’ the Blues (1944) is directed by Gjon Mili and features such noted musicians as saxophonist Lester Young, bassist George “Red” Callender, trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, and pianist Marlowe Morris.
Art House Jazz features two black-and-white films with jazz scores that proved hugely influential as part of the American New Wave in cinema, and later developed cult followings.
John Cassavetes’ independently made Shadows (1958) is a study of the Beat Generation in New York City, with an emphasis on race relations. It focuses on the struggles of two brothers (Hugh Hurd and Ben Carruthers) who are jazz musicians, one a singer and the other a trumpeter. The jazz score by Charles Mingus and Shafi Hadi evolved naturally along with other improvised facets of the film.
Arthur Penn’s Mickey One (1965), released through Columbia Pictures, stars Warren Beatty as a standup comic on the run from the Mafia. The eclectic soundtrack, arranged by Eddie Sauter and performed by saxophonist Stan Getz, includes not only jazz but rock ‘n’ roll, bossa nova and even polka!
Also screening is Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966).
Billie Holiday gets a double feature with a musical biography built around Lady Day herself and the other her life and career.
New Orleans (1947) casts Holiday as a singing maid who falls for a bandleader played by Louis Armstrong. The musical romance from United Artists stars Arturo de Córdova and Dorothy Patrick, with a lineup of jazz greats as members of Armstrong’s band, including pianist Charlie Beal, bassist George “Red” Callender, guitarist Bud Scott, trombonist Kid Ory and drummer Zutty Singleton. Woody Herman also appears with his orchestra. This was the only time Holiday performed in a movie, where her songs include “Farewell to Storyville” and “The Blues Are Brewin’.”
Lady Sings the Blues (1972) brought Diana Ross an Oscar nomination for playing Holiday in a film that recounts her problems with men, substance abuse and racial prejudice as she struggles to succeed as a singer. Songs include more than a dozen Holiday standards including “Strange Fruit,” “Them There Eyes,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Fine and Mellow.” The soundtrack album was a hit for Ross, rising to No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
After both films, the Spotlight wraps up with Blues in the Night, featuring Blues in the Night (1941), Rhapsody in Blue (1945) and Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955).
(You can view the TCM June schedule and scroll to Mondays and Thursdays here: TCM Movie Schedule.)