One class of treasures to be found in the jazz archive are the many films, either full of music or else somehow related to jazz, that have been included in full length and quality. Curious about why Altman and Koss chose to make sure the archive contains this footage, I looked into three tapes of the 275 we have currently documented: one containing a handful of Duke Ellington film shorts, one with two movies featuring The Glen Miller Orchestra, and one starring Marilyn Monroe. In particular, I wanted to find movies that were older than 1960: easy to do if searching the catalogue for the “film” tag and checking the dates. I found myself getting sucked into these films: despite their age, I felt each one held up to today’s entertainment standards because of the remarkable quality of music, dance, and plot. Moreover, as a musician, I really did find myself paying close attention to the scenes that depicted live performance.
The Duke Ellington film shorts feature Duke Ellington, both acting and playing piano, sometimes with other musicians coming over. Ellington is famous in part for bringing jazz onto the big stage, both in film, theatre, and even opera. Tape 31 conveniently features several of his film shorts in a single, chronological sequence: Black & Tan Fantasy (1929), Bundle of Blues (1933), Symphony in Black (1935), and Perfume Suite (1947). They’re all interesting, differing in music and plot and having the Duke take a role both as an actor as well as a musician, but Perfume Suite particularly catches me because in addition to live-action acting and piano playing, it adds some cartoon/stop-motion effects, which (in my limited general film knowledge) looks really advanced for the late 1940s.
Tape 156 is totally centered on The Glenn Miller Orchestra, containing two full-length feature films that portray fictional stories of big band jazz orchestra musicians. These two films are the first and last time this orchestra took a role in a film like this, which is unfortunate, because they’re fine Hollywood entertainers. Both Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942) are chock full of music, musicians (both actors and real musicians from the orchestra, including Glenn Miller himself). They’re both still fun films to watch, but I had a hard time tearing myself away from Orchestra Wives; not only is it a bit of a rom-com, but the music is incredible and the scenes actually show the band playing. Especially around 1:35:00 on the tape, where the orchestra is performing at a wedding. They begin to play the famous jazz standard “At Last,” and it may be the most captivating version of it I’ve ever heard. The scene cuts between depictions of the orchestra on a gazebo and the audience out on the grounds, and audience is full of beautifully-dressed people with open mouths and awed expressions. It’s wonderful acting, probably because they weren’t acting: with the singing duet alternating with the standing solo trumpet player (and dubbed over by the orchestra’s actual soloist, Johnny Best), the performers commanded total attention, and I’m sure the effect was even stronger on set. I couldn’t watch the entire thing because I had more videos to research, but I’m planning on sitting down with some fellow jazz musicians and watching it soon…
While investigating which artists deserve credit for a clip, I’m sometimes surprised to find names that I initially would not have associated with the jazz world. Marilyn Monroe is one of those finds, and she’s the central star on tape 236’s Some Like it Hot (1959). Adolph Deutsch composed the amazing music here, and the synopsis is about two jazz musicians who have to disguise themselves as women to escape the mafia; they end up joining an all-women’s jazz big band, where they meet Marilyn Monroe’s character. Wildly successful at the time of its release, it is still considered one of the greatest film comedies of all time. Which is amazing considering it was filmed without permission from the Motion Production Code that major studios in the United States generally adhered to from 1930 to 1968. The producers decided they didn’t want to censor the film’s use of drag and suggestion of homosexuality, so they just didn’t bother with the rules; instead, they broke these codes and helped to end them. It’s still funny by today’s standards, interesting in its depiction of female musicians and suggestions of homosexuality, and the music and dance is seriously high quality stuff. So if you want an afternoon to absorb some jazz and jazz history in a highly entertaining way, I can’t recommend this tape or either of the other two enough.