Thesis: Technological History of Jazz in Film

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Technological History Of Jazz in Film

Jazz has a long and colorful history within American popular culture. It is truly an original American tradition, and has mesmerized music lovers for generations now. Part of its rise in popularity was its use in early film history as the medium began adopting elements that allowed for the recording of sound to go along with motion pictures. The first successful talkie film, The Jazz Singer, was about a want to be Jazz musician. From these early starts came popular short films featuring popular artists as well as spots in major Hollywood films thanks to technological developments that allowed for an entire orchestra to be recorded and incorporated onto the silver screen.

There is a long history of the musical tradition before film even burst onto the scene. As a true American original, "Jazz originated from pop music styles of the 1800s that were blended to satisfy social dancers," (Gridley 28). It included a unique blend of African and European musical influences. Elements such as improvisation and call and response, crucial elements which help to define the nature of Jazz itself, came from African musical traditions. These elements were then blended with classical European instrumentation. These traditions came from the heavy European influence in areas like New Orleans which then became the birthplace of Jazz itself. This new and vibrant musical trend then was mixed with sorrowful melodies of the blues (Gridley 30). Before the era of film, there was a need for live music. Jazz fit that need nicely and bands played on stages to accompany films live in person. Ragtime became a popular accompaniment of early silent films. This tradition is an early form of jazz, and "some scholars consider ragtime to have been the first jazz style," (Gridley 31). However, it lacks the traditional swing feel and beat to what we know of Jazz today. Thus, jazz even played a crucial role in film before the incorporation of recorded sound.

The first Jazz record was recorded early at the beginning of the Twentieth Century and sparked a massive chain of developments based on new, emerging technologies. The first recording was in 1917, when the all white band the Original Dixie Land Jazz Band set their classic "Livery Stable Blues" on wax recording (Schoenherr 1). From that time on, Jazz records became incredibly popular all across the country. Then, commercial radio was established in the early 1920s (Schoenherr 1). This helped further the spread of Jazz's popularity, making it a perfect choice for budding film makers of the time when the technology to record sound with film became available. With the rise of the radio, Jazz began to gain a large following.

In the mid 1920s, technology began revolutionizing the film industry. In 1925, the "first electrically-recorded discs and Orthopedic phonographs go on sale, using Western Electric system developed at AT&T's Bell Labs over the previous ten years, making it now possible to record whole orchestras and symphonies and even sound in motion pictures," (Schoenherr 1). Thus, the conversion to sound began, and had a huge impact on the musical tradition and popularity of Jazz. The first talkie was Don Juan in 1926. According to research, "Ultimately Don Juan failed to recoup its production costs, a disappointed Warner Brothers shifted focus to promoting The Jazz Singer," (History Link 1). Thus, it was clear that Jazz music was to be deeply embedded into movie history.

The very first successful talkie film was in fact about a Jazz singer. In December 30, 1927, The Jazz Singer is the second movie with sound produced. It debuted in Seattle and was met with great popularity and fan fervor (History Link 1). This was a film utilizing revolutionary technology to bring Jazz into the dream world of Hollywood films. According to research, "The movie uses Warner Brother's Vitaphone sound-on disc technology to reproduce the musical score and sporadic episodes of synchronized speech," (History Link 1). Thus, although it is primarily a silent film, it uses a musical score and sparse implementations of speech to present the first step towards the incredibly clear audio clarity we know in the modern movies today. It is an interesting glimpse into the transition between archaic silent films and the new modern films of the present; "Although the song and dialogue portions of The Jazz Singer were limited to a handful of scenes, they meshed nicely with the rest of the film, shot in silent film format," (History Link 1). The movie itself was primarily based on Samson Ralpaelson's play of the same name. It highlights "a Cantor's son who pursues a career as a vaudeville song and dance man, spurning the wishes of his Jewish parents, who would rather he sung traditional music," (History Link 1). It features an all white cast, with what is close to Jazz in musical tradition. However, it is not a concrete representation of the rich developing Jazz of the day, but a variation that was easily mass produced to the American public. After its massive success, producers and studio executives saw great potential in the use of both sound and Jazz within the context of popular American film. Silent films became a thing of the past and "Sound-on-sound film would eventually become the industry standard," (History Link 1). The Jazz Singer became a pioneer that spurred many other talkie Jazz films or stories with Jazz performances to emerge and dominate early American cinema. Following films included movies like Our Dancing Daughters in 1928. This film portrayed no talking scenes but and incorporation of jazz music in the story of a flapper in Charleston. Thus it was representing not only the musical traditions of Jazz, but the cultural movement which was popularized right along side it. Other early films included Paradise in Harlem in 1931. This featured an all black cast, about a young Jazz musician whose life is cut short by mob killings. It was another development that made the Jazz influenced plot lines a more realistic portrayal within the context of fictional film.

The 1930s saw a huge surge in popularity of experimental and short musical performances highlighting major Jazz musicians. The Jazz Singer "led to an end of the silent movie era and the proliferation of the talkies," (Yanow 1). After its success, a wave of new talkies featuring Jazz performances emerged. Many of the earliest talkie movies were experimental shorts; "Among the experimental shorts were a few brief performances by the team of Noble Sussle and Eubie Blake, at least one clip by the Van Eps Trio and, most successfully, the Ben Bernie Orchestra performing a swinging version of 'Sweet Georgia Brown' in1925," (Yanow 1). These short films became even more popular later as the years progressed and technology continued to improve sound quality within American cinema. Even famous musicians got into it, as in the case of Duke Ellington in his musical short film, Black and Tan (Yanow 2). Featuring smaller quartets and ensembles, these shorts eventually began to fall out of popularity. According to research, "There were many shorts subjects filmed in 1927-32 that feature legendary hot jazz bands and dance orchestras, but unfortunately a large percentage no longer exist," (Yanow 2). They normally featured three to four songs with two vocalists. One of the most popular of the more modern shorts was Jamming the Blues and became one of the most recognizable films from the swing era with Lester Young in 1944. The 1940s saw a ton of jazz shorts known as Soundies, produced by the Mills Novelty Company (Yanow 3). These were typically "Filmed in a day with the music being pre-recorded, the performances have the musicians and singers miming to the music (the same as in all early Hollywood films)," (Yanow 3). Such films continued to increase… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Technological History of Jazz in Film.  (2009, November 17).  Retrieved July 18, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/technological-history-jazz-film/3030

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"Technological History of Jazz in Film."  Essaytown.com.  November 17, 2009.  Accessed July 18, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/technological-history-jazz-film/3030.