A Typology Of Jazz Films
These shorts (with an average running time of 10 minutes) were mainly produced during the 30ies (by Vitaphone, RKO, Universal, Paramount), telling a little (funny) story, but mainly filled with music numbers of various artists.
Three-minute clips originally for viewing on Video Jukeboxes, sometimes telling a "story" but also just showing an orchestra playing. Produced in the late 30ies and mainly during the fourties (many big bands during the Swing Era) - in the 50ies this type of setting was also used for TV productions. Among the many bands who made soundies are ...
The "prototype" of a Jazz Film was made in 1944: "Jammin' The Blues" (Lester Young, H.Edison, B.Kessel a.o.). This film was only made to show the musicians and their music - no "acting" musicians, no ghosting, no surrounding story, no speaker from the off, no silly jokes and no masquerades as it was used often enough before - just pure and very good Jazz with high documental value and an excellent camera work!
The story about a musician's life or a story in the Jazz environment ("New Orleans" as an example from 1947 with many original musicians). Most of the movies made afterwards were not very authentic, the music was seen through the eyes of Hollywood, just reflecting/reinforcing a popular taste of that swing era: "The Fabulous Dorseys" (1947), "Glenn Miller Story" (1953). The later made efforts were a little bit better - "Paris Blues" (1961), "Lady Sings The Blues" (1972). In the eighties and nineties you can find the most authentic Jazz Movies: Tavernier's "Round Midnight" (1986), Clint Eastwoods "Bird" (1987) or Robert Altman's "Kansas City" (1996).
Short (often much too short) appearances of musicians playing one or a few numbers (sometimes only a few seconds) within a movie that has no or only a little relation to Jazz (typical settings: night clubs). Several types can be found here:
In this huge category you can distinguish between:
Filmed concerts with a private video camera, sometimes without any movements of the cam and/or with poor picture/sound - but sometimes very rare appearance of musicians.
First answer: all what you like! Many Jazz enthusiasts have an affinity to a special style, era, instrument or musician. So try to get these ones first! Since you are perhaps "coming from the pure music" (from the records) you might first want to see the people you also like to hear. That's ok!
Second answer: To build up a collection, you should also look for items with music you might perhaps not like but that have a documental value. For example: some of the old films from the 30ies/40ies I only like for their atmosphere, their uniqueness and because I can see how Jazz was presented during that time (it's very funny to see Louis Armstrong with a tiger skin in the foam blowin' his trumpet!).
Third answer: All what is rare and hard to find! When I begun, the "old" b&w material was not easy to get, because it is originally on 16mm film reels and even if you found one, it was hard and expensive to get a good video copy from them. But it changed: since there are many more TV stations now (which have usually good equipment to copy films) a lot of the old material has already been shown in TV - and with better quality! But there are still some rarities which will never be shown on TV, because the audience is not large enough (example: Free Jazz/Avantgarde recordings from the 60ies).
Although it's very hard to make choices I'd like to present some of my favourites here. The criterions were: as much original music in authentic settings as possible (that means the documentaries and other types are left out), historical meaning or rare appearences of musicians should be also considered as the quality of music (or my personal taste with the focus on Modern Jazz). So here is a list with outstanding Jazz Films - at least from my point of view :
"Eubie Blake Plays" (USA 1922(!) - b&w, ca. 4 min.)
Although sound movies were introduced not before 1928/29 this experimental film with sound is the first Jazz film (produced by Lee De Forest Phonofilms). Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle are playing "Swanee River" on two pianos. Musically not too interesting (some wouldn't even say that the music is Jazz), but the first sound movie with let's say: a nearness to Jazz!
"St. Louis Blues" (USA 1929 - b&w, 16 min.)
One of the first real sound motion pictures with an impressive appearance of Bessie Smith (the only film appearance of her) with the James P. Johnson Orchestra (consisting of members of Fletcher Henderson's Band) - the composer W.C. Handy is also to be seen!
"Jazz Ball" (compiled USA 1958/59 - b&w, 60 min.)
This compilation (made for TV) of earlier released items and added narration is representing music from 1929 to 1947 (short films and soundies). Appearing: Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Mills Brothers, Ina Ray Hutton, Louis Prima, Bob Crosby, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Artie Shaw, Buddy Rich...
"Jammin' The Blues" (USA 1944 - b&w, 10 min.)
As mentioned above: the first REAL Jazz film with the musicians and the music in the absolute center! (Appearing: Harry "Sweets" Edison, Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Barney Kessel, Marlowe Morris/Garland Finney, John Simmons/Red Callender, Sidney Catlett/Jo Jones, Mary Bryant).
"Jivin' In Be-bop" (USA 1947 - b&w, 60 min.)
The main attraction on this mixed program ist the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band with a joking Dizzy together with Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Ray Brown, Benny Carter, James Moody, Helen Humes ... playing the wonderful Big Band arrangements of Night In Tunesia, Things To Come and other Bebop standards - still sounding fresh to me!
"The Sound Of Jazz" (USA 1957 - b&w, 60 min.)
Wow! The greatest Jazz film ever! There were traditionalists like Henry Red Allen/Rex Stewart/Pee Wee Russell, other giants like Count Basie with his Big Band, Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, but also modernists of that time like Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Giuffre and Thelonious Monk. Although it was filmed in a studio (with only the other musicians as audience) this atmosphere will never be reached - not to speak of the superb music! One hour pure Jazz with the best musicians of that time! This film was originally produced for the US TV by Nat Hentoff.
"Jazz On A Summers Day" (USA 1960 - color, 86 min.)
Perhaps the most popular Jazz Film because it was made to be shown in cinemas. Presenting a wide range of musicians appearing on the Newport Jazz Festival 1958 (sometimes the irrelevant pictures are covering the appearing musicians, but at least their music is presented with complete numbers). Among the musicians: Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Brookmeyer, Jim Hall, Ben Webster, Oscar Pettiford, Rex Stewart, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Stitt, Anita O`Day, Dinah Washington, Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Chico Hamilton, Eric Dolphy, George Shearing, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson...
"The Sound Of Miles Davis" (USA 1959 - b&w, 30 min.)
(Davis with John Coltrane & the Gil Evans Orchestra)
At a time when Miles and Trane weren't so close to each other (not long before they separated) this studio film with the Gil Evans Orchestra was made. It has an atmosphere that is a little bit cold but it is the only appearance of those two real Jazz Giants together.
"Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers" (France 1959 - b&w, 53 min.)
A Concert of the famous and best Blakey Band playing at the Olympia in Paris with Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Timmons, Jimmie Merrit. How I like that music!
"After Hours" (USA 1961 - b&w, 27 min.)
A late issue of the short film type with a Hollywood-like setting. Not the story is interesting, but the excellent music, the musicians and how they are filmed: Coleman Hawkins (ts), Roy Eldridge/"Little Jazz" (tp), Johnny Guarnieri (p), Danny Barker (g), Milt Hinton (b), Cozy Cole (dr) and Carol Stevens (voc - not too bad, but I don't know how she got into this film, never heard of her as a Jazz singer...).
"Jazz Scene USA" (US TV series 1962)
Producer: Steve Allen, Host: Oscar Brown Jr. who is also a Jazz singer and still singing. In these half-hour productions some fine musicians were presented: Shelly Manne, Phineas Newborn Jr., Jimmy Smith, Frank Rossolino ...)
"Frankly Jazz" (US TV series 1962)
Host Frank Evans presents Shorty Rogers, Gerald Wilson, The Jazz Crusaders, Paul Horn, Joe Pass and some others in this half-hour series.
"Jazz Casual" (US TV series, 1962-67)
Producer/Host: Ralph Gleason. Made for the National Educational Television (half-hour series) and showing Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Jimmy Witherspoon, Art Pepper, Earl Hines and others.
"Jazz 625" - (UK TV series, 1963-66)
Europe's best Jazz series of that time, made by the BBC. Most of the half-hour productions were hosted by Humphrey Lyttleton. Featured were (among others): Cannonball Adderley, Art Farmer, Erroll Garner, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, Wes Montgomery, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Jimmy Smith, Benny Golson, The Modern Jazz Quartet ...
"Jazz Gehört Und Gesehen" (Germany TV series, 1960-71)
The german "Jazz Pope" Joachim Ernst Berendt presented a lot of Jazz musicians during the 60ies in the german TV (running time: 30 or 60 min.). For example: John Coltrane & Eric Dolphy, Miles Davis, Clarke-Boland Big Band, Cannonball Adderley, Quincy Jones BB, American Folk Blues Festival...).
"One Night With Blue Note" (USA 1985 - color, 2 one-hour parts)
Filmed appearances of Blue Note artists with changing personnell, including Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, James Newton, Art Blakey, Stanley Turrentine, Jimmy Smith, Kenny Burrell, Grover Washington, Lou Donaldson, Charles Lloyd, Stanley Jordan (also released as a 3 LP Box).
"Carnegie Hall Salutes The Jazz Masters" (New York 1994 - color, 120 min.)
A filmed concert (celebration of Verve's golden anniversary) with many artists performing at the Carnegie Hall. Hosted by Herbie Hancock and Vanessa Williams (both also performing) there are among others: Kenny Burrell, Betty Carter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Charlie Haden, Roy Hargrove, Joe Henderson, Antonio Carlos Jobim, J.J. Johnson, Hank Jones, John Mclaughlin, Jackie McLean, Pat Metheny, Art Porter, Jimmy Smith, Gary Thomas, Yosuke Yamashita ...
The most comprehensive list for Jazz Films is...
David Meeker: "Jazz In The Movies". London 1981. (publ. by Talisman Books)
ISBN 0 905983 39 4 (hardback) - ISBN 0 905983 40 8 (softback). As far as I know there is no newer edition than this one, but it's the "bible" for Jazz Film collectors and highly recommended! It contains an alphabetic sorted and commented list of (nearly) all Jazz Films and/or even movies which have just a short sequence of Jazz musicians appearing or have Jazz soundtracks (3724 entries, 80 photos).
Very detailed Filmo-graphies, written by Klaus Stratemann (hard to find bec. privately published):
"Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa"
"The Films of Artie Shaw - Glenn Miller - Tony Pastor"
"Jazzball & Feather On Jazz"
"Negro Bands On Film Vol. 1 - Big Bands 1928-1950"
With the contribution of David Chertok (the most known collector of Jazz Films):
The Museum Of Broadcasting: "Jazz On Television". 1985.
Other (newer) Jazz Books sometimes have small Jazz On Film chapters. As an example see:
Miller Freeman Books: "All Music Guide to Jazz". San Francisco 1998.
(Only two informative pages about Jazz on film, but this book with 1380 pages is an excellent source for other infos on Jazz (Biographies, Essays, Musicians, Recordings, Music Maps ....).