Jazz and Blues on Film

Jazz has not been well-served by Hollywood films, from the earliest attempts to represent its emergence in New Orleans to respectful biopics. In New Orleans (1947), Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday struggle to maintain their dignity in a mythological rendering of the close of Storyville. The film does provide an iconic version of "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans." In the postwar era, Hollywood capitalized on the demand for films about the big band heroes of the Depression and World War II with The Glenn Miller Story (1954), The Benny Goodman Story (1956), and The Gene Krupa Story (1959). Yet due to the de facto boycott by Southern theaters of films with African-American protagonists, there were no such films about Duke Ellington, Count Basie, or Cab Calloway.

In the 1980s, directors became enamored of the lives of jazz and blues musicians. Clint Eastwood directed a biopic of Charlie Parker (Bird (1988) and French director Bernard Tavernier created a composite jazz protagonist of Bud Powell and Lester Young in the character of Dale Turner in 'Round Midnight (1986). Turner was played by tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon and his performance remains a high-water mark of the travails and imagination of a jazz musician passed his prime. Certain directors simply played into the myths of jazz and blues and only reinforced the legends. Robert Altman tried to capture the jazz music workshop of 1930s Kansas City in Kansas City (1996) and succeeded only in one of the jam session scenes. Walter Hill updated the myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil in Crossroads (1986) by creating a fictional harp-playing running-buddy of the tragic blues guitarist.

Only documentaries have provided insight into the workings of jazz and blues artists through footage of live performances and interviews with friends and family, for example, The Howlin' Wolf Story (2003) and Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988).