April is Jazz Appreciation Month. This can be a great time to get to learn what has been called America’s only original contribution to the history of music. Whether that is an example of hyperbole or just the rawest of facts, one thing is for certain: movies are a terrific accompaniment to the music itself as a means of celebrating the month of May with a brand new appreciation of the various jazz subgenres. Before trying to wrap your head around be-bop or what those crazy cats up there in the Art Ensemble of Chicago do in the name of jazz experimentation, however, why not focus this April on swinging jazz?
Paradise in Harlem
It would be a tragedy to begin an article about celebrating Jazz Appreciation Month with a movie made by white people for white people starring white people. We will get to the influence of whites on jazz very shortly, but seek out this public domain film on YouTube or the other PD distribution channels. It features an all-black cast with music from Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra as well as the Juanita Hall Singers. The jazz in question here is mostly swing, which is one of the styles of jazz that everybody can appreciate. You will also be treated to some blues in “Paradise in Harlem.”
“New Orleans” is actually a very appropriate film to watch for Jazz Appreciation Month. If nothing else, you will appreciate the music for taking your mind off a storyline almost as trite and unoriginal as “Titanic.” Of course, at least, “New Orleans” has the excuse of not having an extra half century of movies with the very same story of romance behind it. The film kicks off with “New Orleans Stomp” and before it’s over you will have been treated to Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday performing jazz standards written by Jelly Roll Morton, W.C. Handy and Spencer Williams.
As far as I’m concerned, Louis Jordan is right up there with Louis Armstrong. Jordan was not a pure jazzman and had a major influence on early rock and roll which could contribute to his lesser status in the jazz world of those on the outside looking in. “Look-Out Sister” wraps its actual status as a vital record of Jordan’s jazz brilliance within a bizarre outward appearance of being a “black western.” Forget that silliness and enjoy Jordan’s sublime versions of “Jack You Dead,” “Caldonia” and “Five Guys Named Moe.”
The Man with the Golden Arm
Like “New Orleans,” one of the great pleasures of watching “The Man with the Golden Arm” arrives courtesy of the jazz soundtrack. In fact, the hard-edged jazz that acts as a kind of symbol for the drug addiction at the center of the story is regarded as one of the most influential movie scores of all time. Unlike “New Orleans,” this groundbreaking film about addiction is worth watching for many other reasons than the jazz music. You won’t be able to get the opening theme out of your head for days.