Theatrical release poster for the 1943 film Cabin in the Sky
While 20th-century jazz and blues artists have been well documented in books and documentaries, the cinematic achievements of these remarkable performers have either been downplayed or deeply undervalued. This is especially puzzling, says film historian Max Alvarez, because of the tremendous impact blues musicians and singers had on commercial films from the late 1920s to the early 1960s, where they easily stole any musical comedy, show business biopic, or edgy melodrama, in which they had fleeting cameos.
Consider Thomas “Fats” Waller’s delightful rendition of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in Stormy Weather (1943); Cab Calloway’s subversively energetic “Reefer Man” in International House (1933); Duke Ellington burning up the keyboard in Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (1943); the Technicolor jam session with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Lionel Hampton in Howard Hawks’s A Song Is Born (1948); and Ella Fitzgerald and the Andrews Sisters livening up run-of-the-mill Abbott and Costello comedies in the early 1940s.
As jazz and blues evolved after World War II, the movies gradually embraced Cool Jazz and bebop. In the late 1950s, director Robert Wise spotlighted Gerry Mulligan, Frank Rosolino, and Art Farmer in I Want to Live! (1958) and united the Modern Jazz Quartet with Harry Belafonte in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Meanwhile, Otto Preminger commissioned a score from Ellington and Billy Strayhorn for Anatomy of a Murder (1959).
These are just a sampling of treasures in store from Alvarez in a two-part multimedia online presentation. The electrifying musical journey begins in 1929 with Bessie Smith’s only screen appearance (Dudley Murphy’s St. Louis Blues) and culminates in Dave Brubeck’s work in the 1962 British drama All Night Long. As a bonus, Alvarez pays tribute to a 1986 French film many consider to be the greatest ever made about jazz and blues: Bertrand Tavernier’s ’Round Midnight starring brilliant tenor sax player Dexter Gordon.