The film industry started making jazz-related features as soon as synchronized sound came in, in 1927: “I’m gonna sing it jazzy,” Al Jolson’s Jack Robin optimistically declares in the pioneering talkie The Jazz Singer, before taking off on Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” (He gets closer to the jazzy mark whistling a quasi-improvised chorus of “Toot Toot Tootsie.”) Since then there have been dozens of movies focusing on jazz, or at least working it into the main plot.
Such jazz stories have never been easier to access, thanks to classic-movie cable channels, archival DVD and Blu-Ray reissues, and streaming video services. The six films listed below shed light on the development of the genre, Many others are available here.
Swing High, Swing Low
Jazz movies really get rolling after Benny Goodman’s band breaks through in 1935, kicking off the decade-long “swing era.” Two years later, at Paramount, light romantic lead Fred MacMurray (who’d later play goofy dads and oily villains) starred as a horn man in two romances, Champagne Waltz (where his jazz shakes up old Vienna) and Swing High, Swing Low, directed by Mitchell Leisen. In that one MacMurray is Skid Johnson, feckless trumpet player bumming around the Panama Canal Zone, and trying to make time with Carole Lombard, who finds the trumpet boorish—until she hears Skid’s suave and sensual wah-wahs. Many later movie trumpeters would similarly warm women’s hearts with a tender or assertive solo. But then Skid’s off to fame in New York, and vulgar high notes, high living, and the wrong woman, and his lip starts to go—looking ahead to Kirk Douglas’s decline (and last-minute recovery) in 1950’s Young Man with a Horn.
The Jazz Singer spawned a host of knockoffs, for decades: tales in which a tradition-minded father rejects his son’s innovative music, as an affront to everything the old man stands for. One of the more entertaining is the one-hour, decidedly low-budget Broken Strings, directed by Bernard B. Ray in 1940. It transfers that Jewish-American story to the world of the African American bourgeoisie, where some folks thought jazz a little too rowdy, rough-edged and redolent of down home to be respectable. The grave Clarence Muse portrays a classical violinist doubly distressed when an accident leaves him unable to play, and his student son Johnny steps in to support the family by swinging on jazz fiddle. You can’t fault Johnny’s ideals—aspiring, in his big speech, “to play like a bird flies—this way and that, up and down, winging and swinging through the air.” Out of respect for dad he pledges to give jazz up, but when Johnny breaks two strings playing a mazurka during a talent contest, he has to improvise his way out of trouble, making a believer out of Dad.
The Fabulous Dorseys
The 1950s was the (first) golden age of the jazz biopic: life stories brought to the screen with liberal amounts of hokum. In the 1944 Benny Goodman vehicle Sweet and Low-Down, a romance between a young musician from the Chicago slums and a New York heiress echoes events from Goodman’s own life. But the first proper jazz biopic was the dowdy The Fabulous Dorseys from 1947, about battling brother bandleaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey; it was directed by Alfred E. Green. The nonsense and inaccuracies come thick and fast. Its saving grace: squabbling siblings Tommy and Jimmy play themselves, and their mutual antagonism and clashing personalities are vividly depicted. In the end, a big (fictitious) New York concert brings them back together—if only for a night.
Louis Armstrong-Chicago Style
No jazz great appeared in more movies than the hugely influential singer/trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who died in 1971. By then his colorful life story was well known, and while a character based on him appears in the 1942 feature Syncopation, the closest we’ve come to an Armstrong biopic is this little-remembered TV movie directed by Lee Philips set in 1931, in which Louis is busted for pot possession (that actually happened in 1930) and leaned on by gangsters. In the movie (unlike life), Armstrong is no fan of marijuana, but stage and screen personality Ben Vereen plays him like he’s perpetually stoned, breaking into unmotivated guffaws and gyrating every which way while playing his horn (and singing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” years too early). Reno Wilson’s uncanny impersonation of 1931 Pops, in the 2019 Buddy Bolden biopic Bolden, puts Vereen’s clowning to shame.
Playwright Frank D. Gilroy (The Subject Was Roses) wrote and directed a few films, including 1985’s The Gig, about an amateur dixieland band that lands a two-week engagement at a resort hotel in upstate New York. For these once-a-week jammers it’s a dream gig. But they need to hire a professional bassist (Cleavon Little) who’s a little above them, the patrons balk at rowdy music, and then there’s a nasty, temperamental singer. Gilroy knows his craft, and all the complications arrive right on the beat, as in a good dixieland band, where all the pieces mesh in good time. The only real musician in the cast, cornetist Warren Vaché, is excellent as a talented soloist with zero ambition—he’d rather hang with the guys (and work for his father-in-law) than turn pro.
The Deaths of Chet Baker
The 2010s was the second great decade for jazz biopics, with movies about Joe Albany (Low Down), Bessie Smith (HBO’s Bessie), Miles Davis (Miles Ahead), Buddy Bolden (Bolden) and the jazz-related but unclassifiable Nina Simone (Nina). Seven years before his 2016 Chet Baker biopic Born to Be Blue starring Ethan Hawke, director Robert Budreau had warmed up to his subject with the eight-minute short The Deaths of Chet Baker, which lays out three theories of how the singing trumpeter came to be found dead on the pavement under his Amsterdam hotel window in 1988: jumped, pushed, or fell. Baker is played by character actor Stephen McHattie, whom Budreau would tap to play Chet’s disapproving dad in Born to Be Blue: McHattie’s craggy face foretells what would become of young Chet’s boyish good looks, after decades of bad choices and hard living.
This half-dozen barely scratches the surface, needless to say; jazz movies encompass not just biopics, romances, musicals and “race movies,” but also comedy, science fiction, horror, crime and comeback stories, and modernized Shakespeare—stories that parallel jazz itself in their stylistic diversity.