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 a legitimate art, especially at the beginning. They both went through the ordeal of the electric recording revolution. Yet sound made its appearance at the very end of the decade. Therefore 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. It 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.
The story isn’t usually prominent in short musical performance films, 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
Film Site – The Jazz Singer
Phish.net – Black and Tan
Weird Wild Realm – Balck and Tan
The movies were a little misleading back then, weren’t they?
I saw the remake of The Jazz Singer (1980) with Neal Diamond and Laurence Olivier, which didn’t help me understand Jazz any better.
Impatiently waiting for more, as I am learning more here that at the movies!
LOL! Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂
Amazing film clips! Are you by any chance a reincarnated flapper? I can’t think of any other explanation for how you know so much about the 20’s and about the origins of jazz! Keep it coming!!
Hey, that may be! 😉
But no. I suppose I’m just a curious woman.
Barbara In Caneyhead
I am just blown away by these clips you found! Amazing to think we are watching something almost a 100 years old! And to think no one before our time was ever able to do that! Bessie was just a joy to listen to! I loved the acapella part the most!
True, eh? Because we can watch these films, often on very accessible platforms as You tube, we often don’t realise how far back they go. But that’s also the beauty of it, because they make us feel nearer to those times, I think.
I know that I love them 🙂
That explains the Jazz singer – thank you 🙂 I didn’t realise that short movies were popular at the time – not sure why it never occurred to me, but it didn’t 🙂 I’m so used to thinking of Hollywood and the big musicals of the 30s.
Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)
I suppose we tend to think to short films or music video clip like a very modern thing. Well, the past once again has surprises to offer 😉
I loved the Jazz Singer! I’ll have to check out these other films.
St Louis Blues is my favourite… but then I have to admit I’m partial to Bessie 😉
I had no idea the Jazz Singer was an interpretive title, not a literal one.
Short format films were not something that I was used to in the cinema until Pixar and the like started adding shorts to the front of their pieces, and in those sometimes the music is very important. I just saw one called Lava by Pixar which is based entirely round a song.
Sophie’s Thoughts & Fumbles | Wittegen Press | FB3X
Well, I suppose it’s interpretative ‘for us’. For people of the 1920s, it must have been quite plain 😉
Ah, yes! I like this connection between jazz and film. My husband is super excited about the new Miles Davis movie, “Miles Ahead,” which is supposed to NOT be a biopic, but more of an impressionistic, jazzy approach to his life and work. It sounds quite different, so we are waiting for it to hit a theater near us. He also recommends a movie that Miles Davis scored, called “Elevator to the Gallows.” It’s actually a French crime film (“Ascenseur pour l’échafaud”), and somehow I still haven’t seen it yet, even though I love noir and French films. I’ll have to remember to hunt it down tonight!
I’ve seen a trailer of the movie about Miles Davis. Interesting to say the least 😉
You have done a lot of research to share with us the history of early jazz films. Thanks for sharing 🙂
My pleasure 🙂
Thanks for stopping by.
Interesting! I never really knew anything about Jazz.
Glad you found my challenge to be of interest 🙂
This is so interesting! I know so little about Jazz and films in general and NOTHING about them together. It’s so neat to think they were both branded together in the beginning, kind of the new kids of the art world.
That’s true 🙂
Films and jazz have actually had a very long and meaningful story together. But most of it it beyond my era of interested. But it’s a very interesting subject.
I think it would be wonderful to view a silent film accompanied by a jazz band playing in the background. Two for the price of one… makes going to the movies a bargain 🙂
I agree. That must be a truly unique experience.
Interesting! 🙂 I don’t get to watch a lot of old movies, but these definitely sound enjoyable 🙂
The Multicolored Diary
I watched quite a few silent films for my research and I’m following a few blogs about silent films. People normally think those films must be boring and old and not enjoyable. Well, some are, but I can assure you that there are very good silent films that have nothing to be ashemd of in comparison to modern films. Actually… sometimes it’s the other way around 😉
People probably forget about the films a lot, given that the music is the first connotation when you think of jazz.
Probably true. But silent films have a logic of their own. I’ve watched a few very good ones, and I know there are many more out there.
Every time I show up here I tell you some story about myself, I’m sorry. 😀 This reminds me of a guy who comes to my work every Friday night. (I bartend in an airport lounge now so we see a lot of regulars who fly all the time, plus you need a membership to come in.) He seems like a lonely old fellow and we always turn on the old movie station and watch an old movie together while he waits for his plane (it’s usually otherwise empty in the club when he shows up). He loves to talk about old movies. I will have to ask him about these!
LOL! What’s totally fine. As we say in my parts, “lived life” 😉
What kind of movies do you watch? Any silent one?
Wow, those are some real classic films you’ve got there. Where did you find those?
I found all the clips I’ve used in my posts on You Tube. That’s a mine of pearls!
Your posts are so historical and informative. Sending much love.
I’m so happy you’re enjoying it 🙂
Thanks so much for stopping by.
It was a really special experience to get to see The Jazz Singer on the big screen at one of the local indie theatres a few years back, as part of some series on how Judaism has been portrayed in Hollywood over the decades. I was very annoyed recently when I saw a horrible, missing the point review from the otherwise awesome Rap Critic and an amateur film critic billed as Lady Jess. They kept harping on the blackface, without understanding the context and intent, went on angry, off-topic rants, and embarrassingly mispronounced Nidre and Rabinowitz. They really had no business reviewing any old film if they insisted on applying their 21st century views to it.
I’ve referenced The Jazz Singer, particularly the climactic Kol Nidre scene, in a few of my books. The more times I see the film, the deeper I understand it, and the more hidden meanings I discover.
I really can’t stand people who seem to think there is only our, today, way of thinking. Sure, there have been hateful events and ideologies in the past, but there is always been a reason why and I think our business isn’t to judge, but to understand.
And we should always been aware that people in the past might have choosen to do certain things for a very different reason than we would today, as I mentioned in my article too.
There should always be awareness of perspective… at least for what we can.
You know, sometimes reviews such as the one you mentiond makes me think the reviewer tries very hard to be modern and cutting age. And I always think: sure. In 50 years, people will think how narrow-minded people were back then in the 2010s 😉
It sounds like jazz back then is what rock & roll, heavy metal, etc… is to the generations of people today.
I do think jazz and rock&roll did stir society in a very similar way… if maybe not for the same reasons 😉
Very interesting, Sarah.
Happy you like it. Ali 🙂
Thanks for stopping by.