Jazz is one of the few musical genres that originated in the US. The Jazz Age began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in New Orleans. The pioneers of this genre were the African-American community in New Orleans during that era. Artists like Buddy Bolden, Scott Joplin, and Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton blended the rhythmic style of West African music with the harmonies of European music to create the unique sound jazz is known for (the process was much more complex and nuanced, of course, but this generalization captures the basics). The genre then rose to global prominence and further evolved into a magnitude of subgenres, such as Hard Bop, Modal Jazz, Afro-Cuban Jazz (aka Cu-bop), Cool Jazz, and Free Jazz. All the subgenres, however, still included the two fundamental aspects of jazz music: improvisation and tradition.
A hallmark of the jazz genre, improvisation is believed to have been influenced by blues and folk music, which themselves originated in the work songs sung by enslaved Africans during forced labor on US plantations. Improvisation by performers was also a standard feature of the Baroque and Romantic eras of Western classical music. As a musical technique, improvisation highlights the performers themselves rather than a song’s composer by creating a completely unique performance: a defining feature of jazz is that a song never gets played exactly the same way twice. Improvisational freedom allows for the creativity and skills of musicians to be at the forefront of performances by transforming the music as the artist sees fit. Although to some this may sound like random noise, even chaos, only the most dedicated, accomplished performers can create the type of sophisticated solos, improvised in real time, that represent the height of jazz artistry. In other words, it isn’t easy: they just make it look that way.
Jazz is an important part of American History, a fact that prompted the designation of April as Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) by the Louisiana Jazz Federation in New Orleans in 1980. In 2001, JAM was elevated to a nationally recognized observance through the efforts of John Hasse, curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Since then, national celebrations have paid tribute to past and present jazz musicians as well as the rich history of jazz itself. If you missed the opportunity to immerse yourself in jazz during the busy month of April, consider treating yourself to a summer celebration of our national genre. We have curated a list of jazz-related films, from biopics to romance movies to comedies, that celebrate the history of jazz and explore the themes and traditions of the genre in film. We hope you will agree: any season is the perfect season for jazz!
Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Musical comedy/drama Mo’ Better Blues is about the career and life of the character Bleek Gilliam, a jazz musician. Bleak is the trumpeter of a very successful jazz band, The Bleek Quintet, with his childhood friend Giant working as the band’s manager. Throughout the film, Bleek tries to solve the issues he created both in his personal and professional life due to his own questionable decision-making skills.
Bird is a biopic film following the life and untimely death of the legendary jazz musician Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker. Bird jumps between montages of Parker’s life from his early childhood to his death at the age of 34, blending his personal history with his wife, bandmates, and friends, with his career as an influential jazz musician.
All Night Long (1962)
All Night Long is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello, set in the 1960s’ London jazz club circuit. The film follows the musical couple Aurelius Rex, a jazz musician, and Delia, a retired singer, at their one-year anniversary party thrown by the wealthy socialite and jazz aficionado Rod Hamilton. Trouble arrives for the happy couple in the form of aspiring jazz drummer Johnny Cousin, the retelling’s version of the Iago character from the original Othello. Johnny sets forth with an elaborate scheme to break the couple up and jump-start his own career. The night turns eventful in unplanned ways as everything for everyone begins to unravel. All Night Long was directed by Basil Dearden.
Chico & Rita (2010)
Chico & Rita follows the titular characters through the late 1940s to the early 1950s. The romance between Chico, a piano player, and Rita, a singer, begins in Cuba in 1948, when Chico sees Rita perform and falls in love with her and her enchanting voice. He then gets an opportunity to play piano for an upcoming performance of hers and leaps at the chance to finally meet Rita. Their love of jazz music and their romantic desire for one another set the stage for a tumultuous romance across their successes, failures, and all the life in between. This animated film was directed by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, and Tono Errando.
Miles Ahead (2015)
A biopic on jazz musician Miles Davis, Miles Ahead is an adaptation of Davis’ life after ending his career due to health, personal, and drug problems. The story starts with an interview being done by fictional reporter Dave Braden, who wants to learn Davis’ story. The interview sparks a desire in Davis to return to his musical career and redeem himself in the eyes of the public, his wife, and himself.
Businessman Julien has fallen in love with his boss’s wife, Florence Carala. Julien and Florence make plans to murder her husband, Simon Carala, and make it look like a suicide so that they can run away together. Unfortunately, things don’t go exactly to plan when a stopped elevator causes a series of unfortunate events for the couple. Ascenseur pour l’echafaud is a romantic crime spree of chaos as the two secret lovers do everything they can to avoid the consequences of their actions. The score is one of many famous jazz film soundtracks of the era.
The Aristocats (1970)
Taking place in 1910s Paris, The Aristocats is a romance between Duchess, the cat of a retired opera star Madame Bonfamille, and Thomas O’Malley, a local street cat. Thomas takes Duchess and her three kittens out to the alley cat jazz scene to appreciate the art of jazz music. Meanwhile, Edgar, the butler for Madame Bonfamille, is upset that he isn’t the primary beneficiary in Madame’s living will, but rather the cats are, and he will only get an inheritance if the cats are removed from the picture. Edgar devises a plan to get rid of the cats, but is thwarted by Thomas and the rest of the alley jazz cats. (Warning: this film contains outdated and insensitive racial/ethnic stereotypes.)
Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do follows an aspiring jazz drummer, Guy Patterson, as he tries to find a life and career in the music industry. He gets his opportunity when the drummer for the local band The Oneders [pronounced “Wonders”] breaks his arm and they need an emergency replacement for the upcoming talent show. Patterson’s musical style and talent win the competition for the band, prompting a string of successes as well as troubles for the band throughout the film. CR
Student staff blogger Cas Regan is a Junior at IU in the Earth Science B.S. program with a minor Geographic Information Systems (GIS). In addition to classes and working for Media Services, they are also the Co-President of the Beekeeping Club at IU.