Because of the energy of the music and the atmosphere of a club, the scene with the hip (and rather sexy) Jazz musician playing at a bar has been a huge staple of cinema since the beginning of film. Here are some facts you might not have known about Jazz in film.
Django Reinhardt stars in one of the first short films on Jazz:
In 1938, guitarist Django Reinhardt, a Roma Gypsy, joined forces with cosmopolitan violinist Stephane Grappelli to form the Quintette du Hot Club de France. As a way to introduce the band to UK and US audiences, the band’s UK manager commissioned a short film of the band playing live to be shown in movie theaters before the main event. This short film, “Jazz Hot”, which could, if you think about it, be considered the first teaser ever (move aside Riri) started the Gypsy Jazz craze in the UK that spread around the world from there. What’s more, the manager of the Quintette du Hot Club de France that commissioned the film was none other than Lew Grade who became very involved with TV and film as the producer and creator of Thunderbirds, The Prisoner and The Muppet Show. Roger that Scott Tracey!
Here is the ridiculous 60’s awesomeness of Thunderbirds in case you’d forgotten:
Jazz musicians turned actors:
When you are a Jazz musician, you usually will end up being cast in movies for the requisite nightclub scene with the femme fatale (ooohh myyy). A few faces that you know from film and TV started out in Jazz bands – Med Flory, was featured in films like “The Nutty Professor” and TV shows like “Dragnet” and “Happy Days” and played great alto sax in the Woody Herman Big Band as well as his great group Supersax.
Another face you will recognize is that of Jack Sheldon, who besides being featured on shows like “Dragnet” and films like “Freaky Friday” and “For The Boys”, toured as a singer/trumpeter with Benny Goodman. He even composed the ending to the much loved kids show Hey Arnold on Nickelodeon!
Check it out:
Actors that actually could play Jazz
Actors that can actually play an instrument are a rare commodity – to be able to perform well enough to be able to play live on film is very noteworthy. Clint Eastwood has played piano on a few of his films, like “Play Misty for Me”, and Peter Weller of “Robocop” played trumpet at North Texas State University and was featured playing in “Buckaroo Bonsai”. And of course, actors like Jack Lemmon and Dudley Moore were accomplished Jazz pianists off screen.
Watch a rather young and seductive Clint woo the crowd with his blue peepers and talent:
…And actors that move their fingers really well
In actuality, it is more common for great Jazz musicians to play on movies while the actor does their best to mimic the movements required – some of the most convincing have been Forest Whitaker as Charlie Parker in “Bird” (actually played by Lennie Niehaus), and Kirk Douglas in “Young Man With A Horn”, where Douglas’ trumpet parts were actually played by Big Band icon Harry James.
I mean look at Whitaker air sax, he nails it!
From Duke Ellington to Cowboy movies
One of the most unusual career moves was that of Herb Jeffries, a suave moustachy baritone singer who worked for many years with Duke Ellington. Westerns were the big movie genre of the 30’s through the Fifties and Herb Jeffries became a big star in the Cowboy movie genre starring and singing country songs in films like “Harlem on the Prairie” and “The Bronze Buckaroo”. Along with Jazz albums, Mr. Jeffries made an album featuring his hits from the Cowboy movies called “The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again”. Needless to say that more than one 50s housewife spent afternoons swooning over hunky Herb.
If you’re a Jazz lover like our Music Editor Rick, check out his Jazz History 101 playlist, with 90 Years of Jazz from Louis Armstrong to the Bad Plus!