Saturday, June 06, 2015

Jazz at Film Forum: Jazz on a Spring Day, with Ellington, Armstrong, Shaw, etc.

Duke Ellington was ahead of his time, envisioning a place for jazz in proper culture, much like what Wynton Marsalis has established at Jazz @ Lincoln Center. He also enjoyed the company of beautiful women. As a result, probably no jazz artist more carefully groomed his public image than Ellington. In retrospect, we might wish many of his colleagues had been as far-sighted. We all know Ellington was a genius in many ways, but the far-reaching significance of his “Duke” persona comes through loud and clear in Jazz on a Spring Day, a collection of vintage jazz short subjects starring the likes of Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael, and Cab Calloway, which screens this Monday as part of a special celebration of jazz at Film Forum.

Ellington’s cultural stature only continues to grow over the years, but filmmaker Fred Waller’s contributions have been largely overlooked by the jazz critical community. However, it is most definitely worth noting three of his films are represented in Film Forum’s Spring Day, including the artistic highpoint, Symphony in Black: a Rhapsody of Negro Life. An early forerunner to Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige; Symphony is a suite-like meditation on the struggles and triumphs of pre-Civil Rights era African Americans. Often quite impressionistic, Waller’s film reflects a WPA aesthetic and features vocal contributions from Billie Holiday and solos from Ellington stalwarts Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown, Ray Nanton, and Barney Bigard.

Waller also helmed the Ellington short A Bundle of Blues, which is a straightforward performance piece, but it shows the Duke leading the band, with his signature élan. Although Ellington’s band book was already well stocked with originals, the unlikely centerpiece of Bundle is Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather.” Still, it is a good vehicle for Ivie Anderson’s voice and provides Waller with the opportunity to experiment with rain-drop swipe effects.

In contrast, Waller’s third selected film, Cab Calloway’s Hi-De-Ho is the sort of low comedy Ellington had the sense to avoid. At least Calloway plays a trickster rather than a minstrel and it concludes with on a slightly surreal note that does not feel very 1930s. However, when it comes to unfortunately dated representations of jazz greats, Aubrey Scotto’s Rhapsody in Black & Blue is the hardest to get one’s head around. When a fed up wife whacks her jazz-listening fool of a husband over the head, he wakes up in a fantastical jazz world of bubbles, where he reigns as king and is serenaded by Armstrong wearing a notorious leopard skin. Still, the tunes are vintage Satchmo and the straight acting appearance of blues vocalist and independent label trailblazer Victoria Spivey as the irate wife lends it further historical notoriety.

Romance is even more problematic in Dudley Murphy’s St. Louis Blues, the only screen appearance of Bessie Smith. Despite some Porgy/Runyonesque trappings, it is one of the darkest films of the program. Poor Smith plays a woman who falls for the wrong rake and keeps letting him take advantage of her time and again. Dramatically, she makes you feel her pain and of course she owns the song. Bizarrely, Mr. W.C. Handy himself gave it a Fred Waring like chorale arrangement, but it cannot bury the power of her voice.

Things get even more tragic in the third Ellington short, Murphy’s Black and Tan Fantasy. Again, Ellington is portrayed as a dashing and artistic sort of fellow, notwithstanding the two embarrassingly clichéd stock characters who attempt to repossess his piano in the opening scene. The show will go on, but the price will be dear when the ailing Fredi Washington literally dances herself to death trying to ensure his successful Cotton Club opening. It is a striking performance that evokes Camille and Eurydice. Probably best known for directing Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones, Murphy is another filmmaker ripe for a critical re-evaluation.

The simply but aptly titled Hoagy Carmichael is essentially another straight performance film, but viewers can also see how it contributed to his wry, laconic image. Jack Teagarden, then fronting his own big band, was the perfect choice to back Carmichael and trade good-natured barbs with the singer-songwriter. Likewise, a shockingly young and fresh-faced Artie Shaw swings his band, while a narrator explains it to us in Leslie Roush’s Artie Shaw’s Class of Swing, which logically includes “Nightmare,” arguably his greatest hit after “Beguine.”

A bit of a ringer, rumba bandleader Don Aspiazu directs himself in Jazz A La Cuba, another uncluttered performance piece. Technically, Aspiazu never really pulled off the jazz-Latin fusion he aspired to (that would have to wait for Dizzy Gillespie), but his band has a catchy beat that you can dance to.

Sure there is the occasional awkward reflection of the times in which they were produced, but overall the short jazz films screening at Film Forum are a whole lot of fun and they swing like mad. In some cases, they will inspire viewers to rediscover artists like Anderson, Washington, and Teagarden, while reconfirming just how great Ellington, Armstrong, and Shaw truly were. Recommended for fans of short films and classic jazz, the Jazz on a Spring Day shorts screen this coming Monday (6/8) at Film Forum.