Long before music videos completely disappeared from MTV’s line-up and even before Debbie Reynolds’ unholy hammer swinging alliance with Scopitone, there were the soundies. Soundies were a series of (mostly) musical short films made to be played on Panoram visual jukeboxes. More than 1800 were released between 1940 and 1947 and if you love them as much as I do, you can view many of them on archive.org.
“C Jam Blues,” the song featured in this 1942 soundie, was written by Ellington and recorded during what is known as the band’s Blanton-Webster period. Double bassist Jimmy Blanton and saxophonist Ben Webster were only in The Duke Ellington Orchestra from 1940-1942 but many people call those two years the orchestra’s golden age. This film names almost every musician individually which was almost unheard of at the time but these men were all famous enough to warrant it. Sadly, the unnamed bassist featured in this video is not Blanton. He was probably either very ill or already dead by the time this was filmed. He contracted tuberculosis and died in July of 1942. He was 23. Ben Webster left the band the following year. Apparently there was an ugly fight where Webster cut up one of Ellington’s suits! (So says Wikipedia with a cautious  thereafter)
I posted on Facebook today that my daughter cannot tell the difference between Batman and Spiderman which makes me a failure as a nerd mom. BUT today we went to see “Toy Story 3” finally and she turned up her nose at the hip-hop tunes they were playing before the show. When we got home and I cranked up “C Jam Blues” she said “Oh cool I love this song!” So as a jazz loving mom, it appears I’m doing something right! I shall end now and carefully omit the part where I confess that she also really really loves the song “Achy Breaky Heart.” *sigh* I have got to get this child out of “Mayberry!”
Saxaphonist Ben Webster and bassist Jimmy Blanton both played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra during the period between 1940-1942. Most critics call these years “the golden era” for the orchestra. The video is a 1942 soundie of “C Jam Blues.” The bassist is uncredited in this video. He’s hard to see but I doubt it’s Blanton who died of tuberculosis in July of that year.
I love Ellington’s soundies! I love soundies in general but he made some particularly fine ones. Duke Ellington also did quite a few feature films. He was in “Cabin In The Sky” with Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and Lena Horne to name a few. I haven’t seen it in years but I remember it being full of the stereotypes you expect from a movie of that era. But it also had some fantastic performances by an amazing all star cast. Now that I’ve been reminded of it, I think I’ll buy that one along with “Stormy Weather” which I love and which was released the same year.
Ethel Waters is also in that little clip of young Sammy Davis I put up a few posts ago. While I was reading up on Duke I took a bit of a tangent to locate the source of that clip. It’s from a 1933 short film called “Rufus Jones For President.” In it Sammy plays Rufus, a young boy who falls asleep and dreams he is president. That tap numer you see is his first act in office. I watched this one last night and all I could say was “wow!” Mainstream Hollywood movies of this era almost always contain offensive stereotypes but… “WOW!” This thing is hilariously offensive. They actually appoint ministers of fried chicken and watermelon and then it REALLY gets rude! The only non-insulting moments in the whole thing are the musical numbers. During the height of the civil rights movement people used to get really angry about the stereotypes perpetuated in films like this one. Personally I think in 1933 when many Americans were out of work and struggling, a cast of 20 or so Black actors and heaven knows how many crew members got to take home a paycheck. They created a film that features 3 great Ethel Waters songs and a song and dance by young Sammy Davis who, at that point, had already been working in show business more than half his life. If I ever find this one on DVD I will pick it up too for the great music and for the historical significance.
PS I may get disbarred from the Fraternal Order Of Black People for saying this, but a lot of Black people, myself included, really do enjoy fried chicken and watermelon. Sue me for spilling the secret but that’s just dang good eatin’ right there!