Echoes of the Jungle

How Hollywood Came to Know and Love Jazz

Dec 26, 2015 · 12 min read
1935’s “Symphony in Black,” one of the seminal jazz shorts produced by Paramount during the 1930s.

Should anyone in 1930 with even the vaguest interest in jazz music — which at that time described a considerable chunk of the United States — have wanted to know where it came from, their options would have been limited, if they existed at all. Jazz was becoming ever more popular, but the discographies, biographies, various publications and record collectors’ clubs that would emerge by the end of the decade weren’t around yet. The music was young and nearly all of its key veterans like King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton were still recording while a relatively new wave of young-gun innovators like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were near the height of their artistic achievements. It was a great time for listening, not necessarily for studying. In 1930, the only place the inquisitive jazz listener might be able to find an answer to the question “where does jazz come from?” was the movies.

That same year saw the release of a film notorious to jazz and film fans alike, Universal’s King of Jazz, the story behind which amounts to one of the great disastrous making-of chronicles in early Hollywood history. That production disaster is unfortunately more interesting than the film itself, a fantasia picture about the titular “King of Jazz,” Paul Whiteman. The film features a marginal amount of hot jazz, a good deal of Western classical with a jazz influence (what we might call “third stream”), and a whole lot of forgettable popular dance music, the appeal of which has been lost to time. Watching this film, the inquisitive jazz fan would leave with a questionable answer to where the music comes from. Whiteman, whilst big-game hunting in “darkest Africa,” was confronted by an array of wild animals including Oswald the rabbit, scatting something of a rag-tag Jazz Age version of “Music Has Charms” and “Streets of Cairo.” Not long after, Whiteman was hit on the head with a coconut and the goose egg that rose turned into a crown and thus was born the king of jazz to usher the music from the darkest annals of the jungle into the light of popular culture. All’s well that ends well. Leaving the cinema, the 1930 jazz fan could now sleep at night, their questions about the origins of the music answered once and for all. As Eddie Robinson puts it in Double Indemnity, “all wrapped up in tissue paper with pink ribbons around it.”

Of course, today this cringeworthy telling of the story seems almost as absurd as Whiteman’s own place in the court of jazz royalty. But this racist and oversimplified vision of the merger of European and African music traditions that led to the music we know as jazz nonetheless represents a crucial and very early attempt to answer critical questions about the music at the start of its popular explosion. The ill-received King of Jazz almost sunk Universal with its lavish expenses of the pre-Depression Hollywood variety, including complicated set pieces, early color photography and even color animation, and the use of emergent “talkie” technologies. At one point the delays had gone on for so long with Whiteman’s requests for rewrites that the studio specially built a lodge on the back lot for the entire band. But its financial failure did not put an end to the major studios’ interest in the commercial potential of jazz. Other movie moguls saw that, even during the Great Depression, jazz music sold. The question for studios became what kinds of films can get jazz to sell for us, and how can we build and commercialize the myth of jazz without risking it all, repeating Universal’s mistake?

To some degree the answer came from the shorts departments — a cartoon about jazz wouldn’t be too much of a financial risk, and the one-reel (ten minute) format was ideal for a brief taste of the kind of surrealist expression that pushed King of Jazz into the red. King of Jazz in this sense laid the groundwork for things to come, as it employed practically every aesthetic, structural and thematic technique that would become characteristic of the wave of jazz shorts to follow. The playing with large-scale set pieces, the employment of animation, the slapdash use of tribal and “jungle music” imagery, and the variety show structure would all be critical to the presentation of jazz in short subjects like “Pie Pie Blackbird” (1932), where Eubie Blake’s band plays inside a giant pie, or the Betty Boop short “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You” (1932), in which the giant head of a hostile jungle native chasing two animated characters turns into a jovial Louis Armstrong performance of the titular song. Most of these thematic and technical conceits had been developed in the years leading up to King of Jazz, beginning in 1927 with the stream of musicals following Warners’ The Jazz Singer which swelled into an absolute tide after MGM’s widely successful Broadway Melody of 1929.

So although King of Jazz simply follows suit on all of the developments these films made, it pulls out nearly every trick in the book and, more importantly, does so while incorporating a nationally popular jazz orchestra. But just as King of Jazz embodies the protean opportunism of early studio-produced jazz films, so does it embody their plethora of follies, as becomes clear as we watch Whiteman’s band play “Rhapsody in Blue” inside a gigantic piano. The filmmakers John Murray-Anderson and Paul Fejos decide to have a chorus of supernaturally attractive men, pulled from the seemingly bottomless stockpile kept by Hollywood, sit down at the giant keys and slap their hands all over them so as to seem to be playing the thing. The clever cinematic ideas on display, sometimes reaching a state of absurd poetry not often seen in Hollywood narrative feature films, are also the aspects that make the films so hard to swallow because they’re so often used to demean the very same pioneers the films ostensibly aim to venerate. To put it more directly, these films wield a sense of humor that is at best laboredly unfunny, and at worst shockingly, sneeringly racist. Whiteman announces at the beginning of the film’s “Rhapsody in Blue” section, itself one of the least objectionable segments of the movie, that “jazz was born in the African jungle to the beating of the voodoo drum.” The line is the kind of thing we’ve come to expect by this point in the movie, but it’s followed by a man, his body painted in metallic silver, decked out in a headdress of sorts, dancing on top of a giant drum and backlit by a saturated blue screen. It could take a five-hundred page study to tease out all of the half-baked suppositions about race and geography which the directors drew upon here, and perhaps an additional five hundred pages to properly condemn them. But it’s also one of the most beautiful shots in all of King of Jazz and for that matter all of early color cinema.


The development of the studio-produced jazz short from the early ’30s, as well as its attendant slate of stylistic devices, did not begin with King of Jazz. Notable and considerably more successful in this regard are two famous short films from 1929 by the director Dudley Murphy, an early American independent filmmaker whose take on jazz is far more sensitive to the experiences and struggles of African-Americans in the early 20th century. “Black and Tan,” featuring Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, and “St. Louis Blues,” featuring Bessie Smith, though limited by lumbering plots and stiff acting, are both supreme examples of the jazz film as wouldn’t be seen for another six years or so at the tail end of the studio-produced jazz short boom. Absent are scenes of savage jungle natives playing Congo jazz that would become commonplace, or images of the devil conjuring up rhythm from the depths of hell, as in the Vitaphone short “Melodie Masters: Jimmie Lunceford and his Orchestra” seven years later in 1936. Instead these films set their stakes in the ground of realism — an approach that unfortunately doesn’t serve to spare its audience from scenes of minstrelsy, but that does try to show more of the real stories of African-Americans living in urban America at the time, and less of the wildly fantasized rituals of their mythical ancestors.

“Black and Tan” begins with Duke Ellington at the piano, his back facing the camera, playing “Black and Tan Fantasy” alongside trumpet player Arthur Whetsol, when two men from the piano company show up to collect dues or take Ellington’s instrument away. If we overlook their Amos and Andy-style comedy, along the same lines of the Chick Webb Orchestra-featuring Paramount short “After Seben” of the same year, it’s clear that the film at least tries to do something other than merely parody and demean. Yes, these opening scenes of “Black and Tan” aren’t exactly convincing, and the social issues at stake feel glossed over, but the artistry of the performers is so remark able that to make fun of them and the larger culture to which they belong seems itself a laughable prospect. “Black and Tan” features one of the most wonderfully expressive scenes of jazz on film ever with kaleidoscopic visual effects in a concert hall setting, featuring a sophisticated, sharply dressed orchestra playing a medley of magnificent Ellington compositions, some even in new arrangements as another example of the film’s attention to the music itself. There are no giant watermelons like in Paramount’s 1935 “All Colored Vaudeville Show,” or nonsense casino settings complete with giant playing cards and a roulette wheel as in Vitaphone’s “Melody Master Don Redman” (1934).

When it came to the movies’ adoption of jazz, Ellington, like the band he led, was always the estimable mark of excellence. From “Black and Tan” to Otto Preminger’s 1959 Anatomy of a Murder, where Ellington’s work comprises one of the greatest jazz scores of all time, he was able to maintain his self-image as a figure of sophistication and utmost elegance, the embodiment of his famous quip that the only two types of music are bad and good. While “Black and Tan” is a great example of Ellington’s singular voice amidst the degrading stereotypes of the day, it’s another pair of films made for Paramount in 1932 and 1935 respectively that most demonstrates his dedication to the appreciation of jazz for what it is, as it is—in Ellington’s concise tongue, good music. The films are “Rhapsody in Black and Blue” featuring Louis Armstrong and “Symphony in Black” with Duke Ellington and a very young Billie Holiday in her only recorded appearance with Duke.

“Rhapsody in Black and Blue” has become one of the most referenced jazz short films of all time, and is probably the most famous of those produced by a major studio in the early ’30s due to its portrayal of Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra performing “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You” and “Shine” while wearing animal pelts and standing knee-deep in soap bubbles. The film engages in all the clichés of jazz shorts at the time, including a minstrel-type character who gets hit over the head by a sudsy mop and finds himself in a jazz heaven bubble bath. It’s easy to reduce such nonsense narratives to an easy parody of old-timey Hollywood pitchmen: “Then he gets hit over the head with a mop, see, and goes to jazz heaven knee-deep in soap bubbles, see?” But in so many of these shorts there is a telling hesitancy to show jazz where it actually exists, in the dance halls, clubs, and even concert halls of any given major city. Instead Hollywood opted for the fantastic, the ridiculous, the soapy. “Smash Your Baggage” (1932) takes place in a train station, “Office Blues” (1930) in a stenographer’s office, and unfortunately a whole lot of them take place in the jungle. The only consistent quality between all these places (besides perhaps jazz heaven, which remains to be seen) is that jazz was not played in any of them.

The purpose of these films was not to be particularly authentic or uphold veracity, but rather to appeal to an unlikely myth that the studios wanted to tell and audiences wanted to see, fundamentally if questionably motivated by the feeling of utter new-ness within the music itself. Hence the problem of trying to learn anything about jazz during the late ’20s and early ’30s when the material and documentary histories of the genre were will- ingly left almost entirely untouched. Popular culture didn’t look to tell the objective story of jazz and popular audiences weren’t looking to find it either. Instead, these often absurd locations for jazz performance do something for the films rather than the music — they give them an identity. And it’s this concept of identity that makes jazz shorts of the early ’30s so different from the independently produced “soundies” that kicked into gear as the studios dropped their shorts departments and that reached their height of production during the 1940s. Whereas the intention of those later films was to showcase the bands and the music in the least intrusive (or, as it were, quickest and cheapest) way possible, the goal of the studio shorts was to create memorable, concept-driven films, and for them, one jazz band was about as good as the next. If Louis Armstrong hadn’t agreed to put on the animal pelt and play in jazz heaven, Paramount could have found somebody else without giving it a second thought.

But there are always exceptions, and the challenge Duke Ellington presented to this widespread carelessness can never be overstated. “Symphony in Black,” perhaps the greatest jazz short produced by the studios during the 1930s, features the Ellington Orchestra playing the extended piece “A Rhapsody of Negro Life,” in five parts: “The Laborers,” “Dance,” “Blues,” “Hymn of Sorrow,” and “Harlem Rhythm.” Aside from the music it- self, however, the most telling element of the film is its being written by an African-American — indeed, the first African-American screenwriter working for the studios, Milton Hockey, who wrote jazz related shorts from 1934’s “Hi-De-Ho” with Cab Calloway to 1936’s “Musical Charmers.” It’s Hockey to whom we can attribute most of the estimable qualities of “Symphony in Black,” a film that tries to present jazz composition and performance in, if not an authentic, then at least a more sensitively considered light. The film, like Dudley Murphy’s “Black and Tan,” begins in Ellington’s office, only this time it is not a down-and-out hole in the wall but instead a legitimate establishment, decked out with a fancy plaque on the door that reads “Duke Ellington Studio” — jazz, here, is finally revealed to be a serious art. The rest of the film consists of Ellington writing the score, the band performing it, and tableaux of daily life meant to illustrate and express the music. It’s in the cross-cutting between these three narratives, each with their own thought-through cinematic concept — Ellington’s studio as realism, the performance embodying art deco expressionism, and the tableaux staged in a kind of montage-like dreamscape — that the film feels neither demeaning nor hackneyed.

The more straightforward “soundies” made in the years following pale in comparison to their slightly older counterparts. They simply don’t have the same kind of naïve enthusiasm, if not fictionalized curiosity, about jazz, where it came from and how it’s played. By the late ’30s and early ’40s, when jazz was without a doubt at the height of popular attention and the independently produced jazz soundie was beginning to take off, the U.S. at last saw an emergence of interest in jazz’s origins, a few discographies, some memoirs and books, and at least three record labels devoted exclusively to jazz. The record companies no longer needed to sell jazz — consumers knew it, liked it and embraced it. Likewise the studios no longer needed to keep the risk exclusive to the shorts departments. As jazz was more often finding its way into major feature films by the end of the ’30s, eventually becoming a subject of them during the next decade, jazz music and cultural appreciation were brought into popular recognition. This change is without a doubt the success story of the jazz fan, but for the film fan, the obsessor over the aesthetically obscure and oddball imagery, what exists from those years preceding a kind of jazz industry remains disturbingly fascinating. As we gape in awe of the beautiful early color scenes from King of Jazz or the giant pie in “Pie Pie Blackbird,” it’s clear that the iconography of Hollywood’s ambivalent early relationship with jazz, inspired and depraved as it was, signified more than just reverie for Dixieland or echoes of the jungle.

Originally published by Double Exposure, the undergraduate film journal of Columbia University. http://doubleexposurejournal.com/blog/

Be sure to watch a playlist of early jazz shorts curated by Matthew Rivera: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLWm-AyjTgmCFProCmf1VXQWfU1QoEoACQ

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