Jason Moran Journeys to the Dawn of Jazz Cinema

Jason Moran Journeys to the Dawn of Jazz Cinema

Among today’s most revered jazz musicians, pianist and composer Jason Moran stands out for how seamlessly he blends tradition and innovation. Throughout his now two-decade career, he has honored the complex history of one of America’s most storied art forms (his discography reflects the influence of everyone from pioneers like Fats Waller to his professed idol, bop genius Thelonious Monk) while at the same time pushing it forward and opening it up to other fields: painting, sculpture, performance art, cinema.

Moran’s early career as a bandleader was centered on a string of stellar albums that showcased his rich melodic sensibility alongside his taste for sonic experimentation, but his work has come to encompass much more than what you hear on his records. In the decade since he earned a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship at the age of thirty-five, he has frequently focused on combining music with visual media. His creative dexterity has allowed him to thrive in collaborations with some of contemporary art’s most provocative practitioners, including Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Joan Jonas, Ryan Trecartin, and Glenn Ligon, as well as with the director Ava DuVernay, who commissioned him to compose for the films Selma and 13th.

Moran’s curiosity about the ways that sound and image can work together—and the vital role he has played as an ambassador for jazz in his capacity as an artistic director at the Kennedy Center—made him the perfect person to talk to about a selection of seminal jazz short films now playing on the Criterion Channel. Spanning from 1929 to 1939, the lineup captures a period at the very beginning of sound cinema when short-film units at Hollywood studios utilized the new technology to bring golden-age jazz to the screen, highlighting major artists who already enjoyed broad appeal among Black and white audiences. Due to their widespread popularity, these shorts were instrumental in cementing jazz at the heart of America’s musical heritage and shaping nationwide perceptions of Black artistry and performance. This series throws the spotlight on one titan after another: here you’ll find Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday crying the blues, Cab Calloway tearing up the stage, and Duke Ellington painting a panorama of the African American community. Always an incisive interpreter of jazz culture, Moran had a lot to say on these films and what they reveal about Black music and life in the first decades of the twentieth century.


For those who aren’t so familiar with jazz history, what’s special about the era covered in this series?

It’s really a second dawn for jazz, following the boom of ragtime in the late 1800s. By the 1920s, the beginning of the Great Migration is happening, and lots of African Americans are getting on trains and moving from the South to the cities where some of these films are set: Chicago, New York. And they’re starting to leave clues about what life is like outside of those terror-filled Southern states, where they experienced the traumas of racism and lynchings. Of course we know that it wasn’t always rosy for them when they got up north, but there is a sense of there being a different air where the community could breathe. And it was at this time that jazz was becoming extremely popular.

These films demystify what the music means and what it’s for, and that’s an important part of painting the picture of what Black music is. The films document not just the music but the stories surrounding it—in a sense, they are our earliest music videos. Because the artists here are at a supreme level, there’s so much to digest. Artists were finding their music, and they were also finding their audience. One of the revolutionary aspects of jazz flourishing when it did, during a groundbreaking moment in technology, is that the record is kept.

Also, there’s something special about the context in which these movies were seen. When you went to the theater, you’d stay all day. It wasn’t like you went to see just one thing. There’d be a band followed by a movie followed by another band followed by a comedian. People were there from ten in the morning until ten at night.

What’s it like for you to see your artistic forebears depicted this way on-screen?

Well, as a musician, you’re always threatened by great musicians. [Laughs.] Any time I watch a band in action, I can’t help but compare their work to my own practice and say, “Fuck!”

But I treasure getting to see them because I know this is a rare glimpse. As the music progressed, there wouldn’t necessarily be more images of jazz artists and the spaces they played in. Even by the time you get to the sixties and seventies, it’s not like there are a zillion images of the great jazz clubs where Sun Ra or Ornette Coleman were playing. These early films were powerful breakthroughs, partly because they made it so you can’t argue—you can imagine all kinds of ways that the music was put together, but when you see it all in front of your face like this, it’s no longer a mystery how this was done and who was doing it.

Let’s dive into one of the earliest films in the series, St. Louis Blues (1929), which is built around a performance by the blues icon Bessie Smith.

This is one of the most famous of all blues songs. The writer, W. C. Handy, was a pioneer who said that the blues was worth writing down, and it ultimately becomes the backbone of all American music, including rock and roll. The composer John Rosamond Johnson—who would go on to write “Lift Every Voice and Sing” with his brother, James Weldon Johnson—worked with Handy on the choral arrangements in the film.

On top of that you have Bessie Smith, who has one of the most singular voices and gave every subsequent jazz singer a foundation to stand on. The way she sings lyrics, it’s almost like she’s slinging them out. She was also a bedrock for generations of Black thinkers. There’s this great photo from the 1970s of “the Sisterhood,” a writing group that included June Jordan, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, and you see them standing in front of a portrait of Bessie Smith!

This film ends up being a tale about the struggles and the violence that women have to face. There’s an overarching message of “my man done done me wrong, my man done stole my money, my man done slapped my face” that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years, and this song is a collective sigh about that. In the scene where Bessie performs it in a bar, the song transmits to the choir around her. It’s no longer just about the asshole who mistreated her at the beginning of the film and steals her money. Every man and woman sings the song, and it belongs to all of them. And that’s the thing about the blues: it’s everyone’s form to take ownership of.

St. Louis Blues

There’s something extraordinary about the fluidity between the public and the private in that scene. She’s not even standing on a stage—she’s just singing at the bar, as if to herself, lost in her own emotional world. And yet the choir, which doubles as an audience, looks on as if she were performing for them.

Yes, and there’s this amazing tracking shot that moves across all those people in the choir. It’s a slow, beautiful pan that comes before the camera even shows us Bessie at the bar. I sent it to the cinematographer Bradford Young and was like, “You’ve got to see this!” And these people just watched Bessie get robbed. How do we look at inhumanity inflicted on a fellow citizen? This relates to what we’re seeing in our society right now. It’s a document of our collective pain.

Next to the brutality on display in St. Louis Blues, the joy in the Cab Calloway film Hi-De-Ho (1934) makes for a very stark contrast. Calloway is such a physical performer, and there’s something so electrifying about watching him that you would never get just from listening to the record. Talk a little bit about his screen presence.

Many of the bandleaders who became stars in this era, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, played instruments. But Cab Calloway is mainly a conductor, directing the band. Ellington had to sit in front of a big grand piano, and Armstrong had to play the trumpet before he could decide to sing. But there’s nothing shielding Cab. His arms are always spread out; he’s not a very big guy, but he takes up a lot of space. He was kind of like the jazz bard of his era. He coined a lot of slang that we still use today, especially in the musician community. And after Louis Armstrong, he was the second pop star.

Here again is that tension between the private life and the public persona. We see Cab on a train headed for New York, where his band is going to be playing. There’s this unbelievable scene where they all rehearse on the train, and we get a look inside his process before we see the show. We’re watching him working out what it is he wants to give the audience before he gives it to them. And then we start seeing how the music is affecting the community around them. There are scenes that depict a husband and wife—the husband leaving for a trip, and the wife deciding she’s going to go see some music. That’s when she starts up a love affair with Cab Calloway.

Artists at this time had to continually work to share themselves as complex, fully formed beings, something that had been denied Black people generation after generation. And this film helps pull that to the surface. There’s a sense of Cab saying, “This is how my life looks.” And regardless of who came up with the storyline of the film, that’s a life I can understand all these years later: I know what a rehearsal looks like; I know what it’s like to prepare for a gig, and to go to the gig and have your girlfriend come and listen to you, and then wonder what’s going to happen after the show. That’s a very real progression of a day.

Cab Calloway’s Hi-De-Ho

Louis Armstrong has a similarly exuberant energy, but the film he stars in, A Rhapsody in Black and Blue (1932), has him embodying a racist stereotype, wearing a leopard-print caveman costume.

I’m actually in the midst of working on the permanent exhibition for the Louis Armstrong Museum, which is going to open across the street from his house in Queens. So I’ve been watching this film and reading up about it, but I haven’t really gotten to the bottom of it. This isn’t the only film in which he overperforms. The long racist tradition of minstrelsy gets slathered on to Armstrong.  It was very common for Black performers to be trapped in these settings, losing agency while also performing music that is all about agency. And from what I understand about him, he was the kind of artist who would say yes first, with the idea that maybe he didn’t know what the final result was going to look like but, in the end, music saves. If you don’t look at the film, and just listen, it’s beyond incredible.

Ellington, meanwhile, is represented in the series with Symphony in Black (1935), which I had never heard before but struck me as a sort of spiritual precursor to Black, Brown, and Beige, the famous symphonic celebration of Black history he wrote in the 1940s. What stands out about this film?

Ellington, thankfully, was always obsessed with the complexity of Black life. He’s always trying to show you what it’s like to live in a neighborhood, as he did in a piece like A Tone Parallel to Harlem. He’s setting up a scene, and of course he’d also go on to score films later, like Anatomy of a Murder. 

What I love about this movie is what the four-act structure shows us. We start off with a vision of laborers, but it goes beyond just being images of workers shoveling coal. It evokes Black plantation life, where the song was one of the only things that got you through the day. Sometimes the person running the plantation would want the person who sang the best to be out on the field, because it made people work harder. So, in that way, the song could be used against you. In this scene with the laborers, I see Ellington trying to put the song back into the body.

Then the film progresses and becomes a dance. One of the things that fascinates me about jazz back then is that it was serious dance music. People had a lot of fun and burned a lot of calories. And Ellington knew how to make songs that picked people up. The way this band moves through a tempo, you feel like you’re riding something that’s almost out of control.

Ellington is trying to paint a community, and he spent decade after decade making sure that he looked around and gave voice to his people. Billie Holiday shows up in the movie, and you can see the value he, as someone who lost his mother early in life, gave the woman’s voice in his music; it’s something he continued to make space for. He never grew tired of evolving as one among a people.

I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that this film was made four years before Gone with the Wind, whose racism would have such a massive influence on how Black people were depicted in movies for decades to come and of course continues to be discussed to this day. For audiences in the 1930s, Symphony in Black must have been a pretty rare chance to see something like a multifaceted tapestry of modern Black culture on-screen.

I think great artists are always trying to figure out how to paint the community around them. And these are the same questions people are asking right now: Who gets represented? Who decides what gets depicted on-screen? Ellington is a rare example in the history of music of someone who keeps doubling down on the value of people. And of course his close relationship with Billy Strayhorn, a Black gay musician from Pittsburgh, helped him find that. I wish I had gotten a chance to meet him. Everyone I know who met him talks about this outward thing—his ability to pull you in and make you feel valued, whether you were a bandmember or just a kid. And I often think, what would his idea for a movie be?

Symphony in Black

That gets at something this series highlighted for me. I kept thinking about absence—the incredible moments in jazz history that never got captured on film, the stories that were never told.

Toni Morrison has a phrase, “invisible ink.” A book is as much about what’s not on the page as what is, and it’s up to the reader to decipher that invisible ink, what’s below the text.

Are there jazz moments you would love to see footage of?

When I think about what’s missing from the history of jazz, I think about people like James Reese Europe, who expanded the notion of how large a band could be. He led a military band during World War I, and by virtue of that he brought jazz to Europe for the first time. What was it like when these musicians got off that ship in France? You have to imagine this group of African Americans who were perhaps becoming the first people in their families to cross the Atlantic since the slave trade. What is that moment, and what did it look like? These were the people who would come back and lay the groundwork for what the music would become. And something like the jazz score in Le samouraï, for instancethat’s only possible because James Reese Europe landed in France decades before. Things like that are set in motion by actual history.

I also wonder about the sixties, when there were clubs in New York City that weren’t public. I wonder about that moment when there’s no famous musician around, and people just come in for a drink after they get off work, and they stay until 3 a.m. I want that everyday shit.

When the films in this series were made, desegregation was still about three decades away.

The arts are always asking this question of where the audience lives, right? And not wanting to limit the scope of that. Jazz becomes a test case for integration because it’s a very popular form of music, and it also happens to be making people a lot of money.

Right. And these movies were made by big studios.

There’s no reason they would put any money into it if they didn’t stand to profit. So in these movies you see this question: if it’s the hot thing, what about if we documented it? And then in some of the films, you also see: how do we copy it?

Like in the Bing Crosby films, where the entire cast is white. As if jazz were a white art form.

That’s why it’s so important that you see these faces in these movies, so you can’t lie to yourself about what this music represents. We’re looking at these films now, and it’s making me wonder who in 2020 is using art to speak into the future in a progressive way, so that seventy years from now someone can say, “shit, they were saying it!”

The reason I reached out to you to have this conversation is because so much of your work lives at the intersection of jazz and the image. Can you talk about how your collaborations with visual artists and your work scoring Ava DuVernay’s films have influenced your understanding of these two forms?

Growing up in Houston, I was exposed to a lot of art because my parents collected it. When I was practicing piano really badly, I would be staring at a painting. Then, when I moved to New York, I could see a lot more all the time. Once I graduated from Manhattan School of Music, I spent my first year just watching around fourteen films a week. Then when I started making music, I would record things for my albums like the theme from Yojimbo or music from Alexander Nevsky. I was trying to find repertoire that was beyond the jazz canon. 

Artists like Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson, and Joan Jonas started to help me think about how narrative works sonically. And I began to ask those questions of myself even when I wasn’t dealing with an image. My conservatory-trained brain got totally rewired. By the time I met Ava, I was able to give her music that was composed around these narratives, and she would hear the invisible thread inside. But the thing is, this history already existed: Ellington worked this way; Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith did too. If the sound can find something to match itself with, then it gets amplified.

These films were made eighty, ninety years ago. Why should contemporary viewers pay attention to them?

Because in them you see a form of music born in America and documented in one of its most iconic eras, with musicians who are at the very top of their field. The glitz and luster of that era would get burned away twenty years later, during the breaking point that was the era of Black liberation. But this was a moment when people had to believe in something that didn’t exist yet. This country is built on so many lies and so many tragedies, and American music is the residue of all that. We’ll never get tired of sifting through it. We mustn’t turn away.