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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

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