[Dixielandjazz] "Warner Bros. Big Band, Jazz and Swing" reviewed

Robert Ringwald rsr at ringwald.com
Tue May 25 07:39:38 PDT 2010

"Warner Bros. Big Band, Jazz and Swing" reviewed

What Swing-Era Audiences Saw and Heard
An essential DVD package of 64 music one-reelers from 1930 to 1947
by Will Friedwald
Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2010

Some people cry at the end of "Gone With the Wind." Others lose it when Bambi's mother
buys the farm. Me, I'm always moved to tears by the first two minutes of "Jammin'
the Blues." This remarkable 10-minute film from 1944 is quite easily the most amazing
visual representation of the jazz aesthetic that I've ever seen -- whether through
painting, dance, film or whatever.
Even the main titles of "Jammin' the Blues" (a collaboration between producer and
concert impresario Norman Granz and director-photographer Gjon Mili) capture the
spirit of jazz: We see what looks like the abstract image of two concentric circles,
which tilt upward and are revealed to be the top of the porkpie hat worn by tenor-saxophone
pioneer Lester Young. That's one of the things jazz is all about right there -- turning
the abstract into the concrete and then back again. Young then puts the horn to his
lips and plays a single chorus of the most exquisite blues you ever heard: so cool,
so effortless, his fingers barely move across the pads. He even continues to hold
a lit cigarette (I hope it's tobacco) in his left hand. His solo is incredibly restrained
but so full of passion and feeling, the whole of the human condition in a mere 12
bars, that I find my cheeks are wet long before the director cuts to trumpeter Harry
"Sweets" Edison for the next solo.
"Jammin' the Blues" is merely the climax of the "Warner Bros. Big Band, Jazz and
Swing Short Subject Collection," an essential package of six DVDs. To be sure, none
of the other films included here can quite match "Jammin' the Blues" either musically
or visually, but they all document brilliant music from a high point in American
culture. As with "Jammin'," these films show that music in those days was almost
as much a matter of image as of sound. Throughout the swing era, the big bands spent
much of their time playing live stage shows in movie theaters. These one-reel shorts
are a fairly good representation of what those performances were like, and show that
the big bands almost always did more than just sit there and play.
The 64 one-reel short films included here, from 1930 to 1947, show that dance, visual
comedy and various kinds of shtick were always part of the presentation. The most
valuable entries in the new package are the many films of African-American bands
and singers of the '30s, even though the visual representation of those artists would
hardly be regarded as racially sensitive by 21st-century standards. The 1933 "Smash
Your Baggage" features a rather amazing cast, all costumed, alas, as Pullman porters,
which makes the film somewhat embarrassing today. That aside, "Smash Your Baggage"
is seven sensational minutes of sheer entertainment: Even the musicians (including
the young trumpeter Roy Eldridge, trombonist Dicky Wells and drummer Sid Catlett)
move like dancers as they play, while the dancers literally fly through the air,
and blues shouter Mabel Scott moans "Stop the Sun, Stop the Moon" like a woman possessed.
The short never stops moving, even to catch its breath.
Those bands with dynamic high-energy front men, like Cab Calloway and Louis Prima,
are the best served. Not all the ensembles here are quite so animated, but the music
is always top-notch. The package could serve as a general primer and introduction
to the Swing Era, and illustrates how the reach of the big bands extended into every
nook and cranny of American pop, even in terms of ethnic markets. There are bands
oriented toward straight-ahead swing (Jimmy Dorsey), the blues (Woody Herman), New
Orleans jazz (Prima), European classical music (Jan Savitt), country-western music
(Spade Cooley, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys), Afro-Cuban music (Desi Arnaz),
Hawaiian music (Ray Kinney), modern jazz (Stan Kenton), and novelty and comedy (Borrah
Minevitch and His Harmonica Rascals). The 1942 short starring Minevitch is almost
scary: This is a frighteningly funny ensemble featuring midgets, underage ballerinas,
and the world's biggest tenor (not to mention black men and white women performing
on the same stage at the same time -- virtually unheard of in 1942), all blowing
into mouth organs of every shape and size.
You never know who's going to turn up here, including such hard-to-see vocalists
as Adelaide Hall, the Boswell Sisters, and a 7-year-old Sammy Davis Jr. singing with
the legendary Ethel Waters. TV patriarch Ozzie Nelson is shown in his original career
as the personable leader of an excellent, underappreciated swing band; Broadway dancer
Eunice Healy (who was profiled here in the Journal last October) rates a specialty
number in front of an all-female swing orchestra; Artie Shaw plays a clarinet solo
with society bandleader Roger Wolfe Kahn in 1932 and then leads his own pace-setting
ensemble seven years later. Even with six discs and 64 entries, there's still more
out there, including two amazing films from 1929 featuring future stars Benny Goodman,
Jack Teagarden, Glenn Miller, Eddie Condon and Pee Wee Russell in bands led by Ben
Pollack and Red Nichols that, for some reason, were not included.
Most of the set is, not surprisingly, straight-down-the-middle dance music, like
the smooth and stylish sounds of Hal Kemp, which shows that even the so-called commercially
oriented "sweet bands" (also known as "Mickey Mouse bands") of the period were highly
innovative and musical. If you ever wondered what it would sound like to hear four
clarinets playing into megaphones, or Latin percussion combined with oboe and bass
clarinet, now you know. This is a Mickey Mouse band that could open for Sun Ra.

--Bob Ringwald
Amateur (ham) Radio call sign K6YBV
Fulton Street Jazz Band

"Critics can't even make music by rubbing their back legs together."
--Mel Brooks

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