Jazz in Film 1929-1961

Music-themed films were very popular in the late 1920’s, and helped to drive efforts to synchronize film and sound. While most of the performers on screen were white, the music of choice was Jazz and Swing band music, which became the dominant popular music genres of the 1930’s. Equally influential was blues music, with its southern origins and development through the midwestern cities of St. Louis, Kansas City, and Chicago.

African-American performers gradually found a place on the screen, primarily as performers in Jazz club scenes. Movies from this period include: St. Louis Blues (1929) starring blues singer Bessie Smith; Stormy Weather (1943) with performances by Fats Waller and Lena Horne; Cabin in the Sky (1943) with the Duke Ellington Orchestra; New Orleans (1947) featuring Luis Armstrong and Billy Holiday.

Bessie Smith in St. Louis Blues (1929)

Paul Whiteman “The King of Jazz”

Among the most popular music groups of the 1920’s was the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, a New-York based group that played primarily dance band and classically-influenced music. Their signature work was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which was commissioned by Whiteman in 1924. Rhapsody in Blue is not Jazz music, but rather a fusion of Jazz stylings into the classical music tradition. The work was tremendously successful to white audiences, and remained the signature piece of music for Whiteman’s orchestra over the next decade.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, from The King of Jazz (1930)

Whiteman’s music often accompanied dancers, as shown in the song Happy Feet. Note the singing performance by a young Bing Crosby.

Happy Feet (1930) featuring the Paul Whiteman Orchestra

Swing Band Music of the 1930’s and 1940’s

Paradise in Harlem (1939)

Despite the popularity of swing-band music in the 1930’s, few African-American performers were featured in films until the 1940’s.  Paradise in Harlem, which features a primarily black cast, shows club scenes with African-Americas performers, including the singer Billie Holiday. Despite the great musical performances, the film still reinforces many persistent stereotypes of African-Americans during this era. 

Billie Holiday in Paradise in Harlem (1939)

Cabin in the Sky (1943)

Among the first films to feature black actors without racial stereotypes was Cabin in the Sky (1943). The film, which had an all-black cast, featured Lena Horne and included nightclub scenes with performances by the Duke Ellington band, as well as other swing-era performers. Theaters in some southern cities refused to show the film, citing its “promotion of vulgarity”. 

Horne was promoted by Walter White of the NAACP as a new image of a middle-class African American Woman.  She received the role after signing a 7-year deal to star in films with MGM. In her autobiography Horne wrote, “Walter’s concern, and mine too, was that in the period while I was waiting for Cabin in the Sky, they would force me to play roles as a maid or maybe even as some jungle type. Walter felt, and I agreed with him, that since I had no history in the movies and therefore had not been typecast as anything so far, it would be essential for me to try to establish a different kind of image for Negro women.” (Horne and Schickel, Lena, p.184).

Cabin in the Sky (1943)

Lena Horne in Stormy Weather (1943)

Fats Waller  in  Stormy Weather (1943)

Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong in  New Orleans (1947)

Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington Band in Paris Blues (1961)