Jazz at the Movies

Down through the years, jazz has graced many a Hollywood production with sass, class and swing.

By Bob Weinberg

Jazz and the movies grew up side by side in this country. Twin sons of different mothers, they developed into dominant popular entertainments of the 20th century, their respective global influences proving all but incalculable. Both were initially viewed by cultural gatekeepers as disreputable pastimes, agents of Satan designed to lure masses away from religious teachings and to subvert societal mores. So, naturally, audiences embraced them like naughty uncles at a holiday gathering.

Jazz and cinema synched beautifully. The first motion picture to prominently feature sound? The Jazz Singer, of course. The movie stunned audiences in 1928 with its synchronous use of sound for the musical sequences, a harbinger of what was to come. In one of the movie’s few spoken lines, Al Jolson presciently ad-libbed, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” The story itself was perfectly suited to the essential conflicts of the era. A cantor’s son, portrayed by Jolson, grapples with a dilemma: Should he fulfill his father’s wishes and take his place at the synagogue or pursue dreams of stardom? Also presaging the happy marriage of movies and jazz, the film’s score boasted hits such as “My Mammy” and “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’Bye!).”

Al-Johnson-THE-JAZZ-SINGERThe union of jazz and cinema strengthened over the decades. Larger-than-life characters from the jazz milieu — Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Hoagy Carmichael — became familiar presences on the big screen. Fred Astaire movies popularized songbook standards such as “Cheek to Cheek” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” African-American performers earned greater prominence on the screen, while still battling stereotypes and outright racism, their sequences sometimes cut from prints shipped South.

Jazz fit the postwar film-noir genre like Sam Spade’s fedora. It’s shadowy cinematography and often-complex morality were well-suited to urban settings. Star composers emerged, such as Elmer Bernstein and Bronislaw Kaper, whose scores made liberal use of jazz forms and instrumentation. Sometimes filmmakers turned to jazz artists, such as Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, to score their movies. And even as jazz dwindled as popular entertainment, filmmakers continued to utilize the genre to create mood or atmosphere, as reflected in scores by Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin and Randy Newman. Jazz biopics, from The Benny Goodman Story to Bird, comprise a subgenre all their own, providing showcases for their subjects’ music, while individual directors such as Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood made jazz a signature of their storytelling styles.

Today the jazz-movie connection is tenuous, as the music has become ever more marginalized. Still, there are flickers of hope, such as the fine score to the 2014 film Whiplash. Justin Hurwitz’s original, modern big-band jazz follows the narrative arc of the movie, which tells the tale of a gifted young jazz drummer and the instructor who kicks his ass at the conservatory.

So, with an eye toward triumphs of the distant and recent past, a nod to this year’s Academy Awards on February 22, and a recognition that this piece represents but a kernel in the deep popcorn bucket of cinema-jazz pairings, we salute some of our favorite instances of jazz in the movies.

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