A TCM Series and a New Book Celebrate the Expansive Pleasures of Jazz in the Movies

Jun 4, 2020

“Now you has jazz, jazz, jazz, jazz, jazz!”

Bing Crosby warbles that exuberant line in a showpiece number for High Society, the 1956 MGM musical. He’s in first-rate company, flanked by Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars, and singing lyrics by Cole Porter. And he’s a suave ambassador, bridging the gulf between an African American art form and an Anglo-American aristocracy — or, in a meta sense, between the players onscreen and the viewers in their movie seats.

High Society is one of 40 films featured in Jazz in Film, a Turner Classic Movies series running Mondays and Thursdays in June. Curated by Charlie Tabesh, TCM’s Senior Vice President of programming, it’s a sprawling feast, featuring not only duly celebrated jazz movies but also cinematic touchstones with evocative jazz scores; musician biopics that mostly get it right (or really don’t); and fascinating curios that provide a window onto a bygone time.

Jazz and film share a natural kinship, as critic Kevin Whitehead puts it in his new book, Play the Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories on Film (Oxford University Press). “These signature twentieth-century art forms grew up side by side, building on extant traditions,” Whitehead writes. He adds: “Jazz and film are performance arts that unfold over time. Making that time fly is all about rhythm, and patterns of tension and release.”

Those variable patterns can be found throughout the lineup of Jazz in Film, which is hosted by TCM’s Eddie Muller. “When I watched all of these films, one after another, the analogy definitely occurred to me,” Muller, who is also founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, tells WBGO. “And there’s a maturation process, from films like that are kind of cringeworthy...” — he cites New Orleans (1947), which Whitehead defends as more substantive than its reputation allows — “...to the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, where jazz kind of reached its pinnacle in popular culture. Suddenly these musicians that were coming in the back door 10 or 15 years earlier are the stars. You know, they’re paraded out, and it’s a big deal.”

On the set of 'Jammin' the Blues' with director Gjon Mili, bassist Red Callender and saxophonist Lester Young, 1944.
Credit Life

TCM has set a place at the table for some jazz stars of our own era, who will join Muller remotely throughout the series. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis will beam in on June 22 to talk about landmarks like the 1944 Warner Bros. short Jammin’ the Blues and John Cassavetes’ Shadows, with its evocative Charles Mingus soundtrack. Violinist Regina Carter will be featured on June 25, when the lineup includes New Orleans, the Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, and the 1941 film noir Blues in the Night. 

Pianist Christian Sands will have the chance to weigh in on both The Gene Krupa Story (on June 11) and Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, with its Miles Davis score (on June 18). Another pianist pulling a double shift is Monty Alexander, whom Muller counts as a friend: he’ll appear on June 8, for a program subtitled “The Life of a Jazz Musician,” with films like Some Like It Hot and Young Man with a Horn, and return on June 15, for an evening of “Jazz Noir,” featuring the likes of Farewell My Lovely and The Man I Love.

The first guest to join Muller on Jazz on Film was dancer and choreographer Mercedes Ellington, who appeared on June 1 and 4. The granddaughter of Duke Ellington, she was an ideal commentator for Monday’s presentation of Anatomy of a Murder, the Otto Preminger film starring Jimmy Stewart, and featuring an iconic Ellington soundtrack.

“In his scores,” Mercedes points out, speaking by phone, “he even picks a particular instrument to identify with a certain character, and the feelings following that are always in line with the tone and the mood of the music. And it’s also responsible for the audience’s reaction.”

Eddie Muller and Mercedes Ellington in conversation for 'Jazz in Film' on TCM, June 1, 2020.
Credit TCM

Ellington has enjoyed diving into these films — including another Preminger offering, The Man with the Golden Arm, which earned Frank Sinatra an Academy Award nomination. “Ironically enough, being raised in the Catholic faith, we were not allowed to see certain movies,” she says. “And somehow, you know, jazz has always been attached to the bad side, the dark side.”

Bill Robinson and Lena Horne in 'Stormy Weather'

Given her career in dance, it’s no surprise that she cites Stormy Weather as her favorite film in the series; it features performances by some of the iconic stage performers in American history, like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers. (“Stormy Weather barely has a story,” Whitehead notes in his book, “the better to make way for one stellar performance after another.” He makes clear that means this as a compliment.)

“You look at Stormy Weather, and you see a whole ‘nother period of the relationship between the jazz element portrayed in the story and the roles played by Lena Horne and others,” Ellington says. “The performers are all people of color, but the audience is all white — so it reflects the times, even back to The Cotton Club.”

For his part, Muller expresses enthusiasm not only for canonical jazz performances on film but also smart portrayals, like Jimmy Stewart in The Glenn Miller Story. (Per Whitehead: “As jazz films go, it’s refreshingly free of intergenerational conflict or dangerous women.”)

Sammy Davis, Jr. in 'A Man Called Adam' (1966)

Asked whether he’d encountered any pleasant surprises in the series, Muller points to A Man Called Adam, the 1966 film starring Sammy Davis, Jr. as a trumpeter battling racism and addiction. “It’s directed by Leo Penn — Sean Penn’s father, in his only feature-film directing credit,” Muller says. “I thought that was pretty cool, because there are a lot of real musicians in that movie, and the music is really good.” (Benny Carter wrote a couple of songs for the film, including one that’s performed by Mel Tormé. The trumpet parts were ghosted by Nat Adderley.)

Muller also flags a Japanese yakuza film from 1964, whose English title is Pale Flower. “That has one of the most unique and avant-garde scores — I don’t know if I would call it jazz, but it certainly is an innovative use of not just scoring but of incorporating practical sound into the musical scoring,” he says.

Due to the ins and outs of licensing, there are inevitable omissions across the lineup of Jazz in Film. The most notable might be Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight, which brought Dexter Gordon to the Academy Awards, and featured musicians like Herbie Hancock (who also wrote its original music). Other candidates would include the Paul Newman / Sidney Poitier vehicle Paris Blues and the Sun Ra fantasia Space is the Place.

But the abundance of the series should outweigh any quibbles about what’s missing. Still, it seemed worth asking: nothing from Damien Chazelle, the auteur behind Whiplash and La La Land? “Um,” Muller says. “I think they’re too new.” Pressed further, he offers an opinion shared by most jazz partisans: “I didn’t love either of them, to be honest with you.” 

For listings and more information about Jazz in Film, visit the TCM website.

WBGO will begin a series called Jazz at the Movies on June 8, hosted by Brian Delp on Midday Jazz.

Kevin Whitehead’s Play the Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories on Film is available on Oxford University Press).

For more information about jazz’s relationship to film noir, I also recommend Sheri Chinen Biesen’s Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films (with the disclaimer that the author is my sister).