Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Soundies: a Musical History
Hosted by Michael Feinstein
Liberation Entertainment

There was a long paucity of jazz on PBS following the Ken Burns documentary series. In recent years though, there has been a greater presence for the music on public broadcasting. The latest, Soundies: a Musical History (trailer here), which premiered during the March 2007 pledge breaks (though not on New York’s WNET, I believe), fits in with recent PBS music programming that has emphasized nostalgic greatest hits.

Soundies are described by host Michael Feinstein as the original music videos—synched film and audio projected onto a screen in the Mills Novelty Company’s “refrigerator-sized” Panoram machine. Eight soundies fit to a reel playing in a continuous loop, making it impossible for patrons to choose preferred clips.

Soundies starts by showing one of the best, as chosen by several on-screen commentators—Duke Ellington’s “Hot Chocolate” (a.k.a. “Cottontail”), featuring Ben Webster on tenor. In addition to Duke’s men, “Hot Chocolate” also features Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, including Frankie Manning, seen performing a sometimes painful step in which Dottiemae Johnson kicks him from behind, sending him flying into the air.

Following Ellington, Soundies follows up with swinging numbers like Cab Calloway’s “Blowtop Blues” and Nat King Cole’s “Frim Fram Sauce.” Although country and pop-classical musicians are represented, the majority of the artists represented on Soundies are either legitimate jazz greats of the swing era, or contemporary popular vocalists who straddle the border of swing and sweet.

Not every novelty soundie deserves classic status. “Clink! Clink! Another Drink,” a Spike Jones drinking song is included because it features Looney Tunes voice-over artist Mel Blanc, and its charms would indeed require a strong buzz. There are some interesting discoveries though. Will Bradley’s big band is relatively unsung today, but they show a driving swing on “Boardwalk Blues,” matching up reasonably well to the bigger name bands in Soundies. However, the accompanying white-bread jitterbuggers simply cannot compare to Manning and his Lindy hoppers.

There is plenty here to interest jazz fans, including soundies from Fats Waller, American Master Les Paul, Kay Starr, and Count Basie’s band (featuring Jimmy Rushing). Like Peter Townsend’s Pearl Harbor Jazz, Soundies effectively blurs the distinctions between codified swing-style jazz, and 1940’s pop music. In fact, one of the best performances is “Lazy River” by the Mills Brothers, identified as the kind of vocal group who benefitted from the AFM musicians union ban on recording. Discussion of the unintended consequences of the recording ban, leading to changes in the entertainment tastes of the American public, have some added saliency now, as a strike looms over Broadway.

Intended to be interrupted by pledge breaks, Soundies can feel episodic. Within the Soundies program itself, there are no complete soundies, even though they clock-in around only three minutes. However, in the bonus section, six of Feinstein’s favorites are included in their entirety, and again, one of the best comes from the Mills Brothers. Feinstein also contributes an original song inspired by the program, “The Songs of Yesterday Are Here To Stay,” featuring some appealing clarinet accompaniment from Dan Block.

Soundies offers up plenty of footage that jazz lovers will enjoy (even if they do find many clips to be too short), and makes some interesting editorial choices in what it features. It is just good to see more programming encompassing jazz on PBS, and eventually finding its way to DVD.