Fats, Duke, Ella and all that (film) jazz

PUBLISHED: 08:12 23 January 2018

Ella Fitzgerald: One of the jazz stars whose legacy on film Paul Barnes has been exploring.

Ella Fitzgerald: One of the jazz stars whose legacy on film Paul Barnes has been exploring.


Paul Barnes thought it would be easy to write about jazz in films...

A good deal of the time just after Christmas and the early days of January has been spent working on a new edition of a book that last hit the shelves about five years ago. It’s The Bluffer’s Guide to Jazz. Some people were very generous in their comments. Alyn Shipton presents jazz programmes on Radio Three; he also plays a mean double bass so he does know a thing or two about the music. He was kind enough to write, “No two jazz enthusiasts ever agree about anything. This witty, elegant book, mixing the erudite with the mythical, will bolster spirited disagreements for many years to come.”

It involved re-reading the thing, expecting it to be a bit of a chore, hunting for previously unspotted errors, such as the wonky punctuation of the exquisite poetry of “beat me daddy, eight to the bar”, and historic howlers among various dates. For instance, ragtime pianist and composer Eubie Blake didn’t die in his late nineties; having drunk, smoked, and womanised his way through life he made it to exactly one hundred years and five days. “If I’d known I was going to live this long,” he said just before he expired, “I’d have taken better care of myself.”

The new publishers asked if I could add another chapter. One suggestion was a survey of jazz in film, and after I’d agreed I was frequently struck by the realisation that I might have been daft to do so. One directory of jazz in the movies lists about 4,000 instances, and that was published nearly 40 years ago. I’d been allocated just over 2,000 words.

The first film to synchronise pictures with sound was The Jazz Singer in 1927. There were gasps of astonishment from the audience, howls of protest from experts who pointed out that it had little, if anything, to do with jazz. Generations of innocent cinema-goers came to believe that jazz was exemplified by a blacked-up Al Jolson booming out “Toot, toot tootsie, goodbye”.

The real thing did make its way into films, often as a shining episode in some pretty dismal efforts. Soon after The Jazz Singer there came Check and Double Check, a mediocre feature for a couple of white characters blacked up to be called Amos and Andy. What lifted the film, and the spirits, all too briefly, was the appearance of the Duke Ellington orchestra, segregated from the rest of the all-white cast.

Watching these films amounted to seeing and hearing a crowded parade of jazz greats, in vision or on the sound track. Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, Thelonius Monk, Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, even popular performers such as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby had their moments of jazz glory. In High Society the jazz credentials of Bing were polished up when he and Louis Armstrong’s Allstars, assured us “Now you has jazz”. Not all of it, but it’s a reasonable start.

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