Jazz Week: Louis Armstrong in the Movies

It’s Jazz Week here at The Retro Set! Put your glad rags on while we cut a rug, because from August 3rd through August 8th the Retro Set is groovin’ to the beat of some of the greatest jazz musicians in history as we look at the role jazz music has played in film. First up it’s our Creative Director Wade Sheeler with a tribute to Tuesday’s birthday boy, Louis Armstrong, and a retrospective on Pops’ career in Hollywood.

It’s almost impossible to put into a simple passage how major Louis Armstrong‘s impact was on Jazz and music in general. Before him, jazz was mostly cakewalks, marches and heavily orchestrated and syncopated dances. After his tenure with the first real jazz band under mentor King Oliver, Armstrong created the small jazz combo, and shifted the focus to solo performance and expression, which helped break down the provincial confines of the work, and broadened its breadth and depth. Combined with his incredible ear which allowed him to sing and scat like no one before him, Armstrong laid the fundamentals and groundwork for bebop and modern jazz, not to mention a limitless way for musicians to approach composition and music production.

Armstrong’s heart and soul were all New Orleans where he was born, and it’s there, more than anywhere else, that you can still hear the roots of his work displayed in Preservation Hall, along Frenchman Street and bouncing off the building walls within Jackson Square. Because he was not only a skilled cornet player and trumpeter, able to distill a tune into the simplest of notes within a solo, but an affable, magical personality that helped break color barriers and excite the world,  he became a global ambassador for music, jazz and goodwill.

With his winning personality, a smile that seemed to go on for miles, and a bouncy, hip way to articulate pure happiness, he was a perfect match for the moving image. Sadly, his early appearances adhered to the worst of all stereo-types. Although his very first film short, Ex-Flame (1930) has been lost to time, the 1932 short Rhapsody in Black & Blue has him as “Louis Armstrong,” already the idol of black audiences, including the protagonist, a working-class dreamer,  who after being henpecked by his wife, is knocked unconscious and awakens in a sort of Jazz Heaven. Armstrong is painfully bedecked in leopard skins. As uncomfortably as he was rendered here, there’s no arguing the sheer artistry of Armstrong performing “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You,” and his standard “Shine.” Watch it here:

The same year, he would appear half in and out of animation in a Max Fleischer Betty Boop cartoon, also using “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead..,” as well as “High Society Rag.” This time, however, he’s in live action as himself and horribly designed as a cannibal. The music is great, the rendering; racist and excruciating.

By 1936, Armstrong was a household name across all culture lines, and one of his greatest supporters was the top of the pop charts’ crooner Bing Crosby. Bing starred throughout the 1930s in a series of light musical comedies tailored to his specific persona and style, and Pennies From Heaven, named after one of his biggest hits, offered Armstrong the opportunity to perform in a nightclub setting (the artifice used to showcase most entertainers in 30s & 40s musicals). Here, he delivered the original tune “Skeleton in the Closet.” Watch it here, and see if you can spot a well-known vibraphonist from Benny Goodman‘s band sitting in on drums:

From the 40s through early 50s, several cafes, juke joints and bars were outfitted with not just juke boxes, but novel little devices known as “Panorams” that for a nickel or dime, would play 16mm short loops of the top acts and musicians of the day, basically the earliest form of music videos. In rural areas where bands rarely performed live, Panorams were extremely popular. Several of these loops, called “Soundies,” still exist today. In fact, black performances on disc and film, known as “Race Records,” were the reason artists like Louis Jordan, the grandfather of Rhythm and Blues, became top selling acts.

With the success of Panorams, film distributors dug back into their vaults to re-release any musical acts that existed in print. Some included Armstrong, and these are probably the least bastardized, purest recordings of the musician on film prior to the 1940s. They allowed him to perform his tunes his own way completely without any racist imagery. One such, Dinah, from 1933, is considered the on screen performance that best captured his free-wheeling, improvisational style. You can watch it here:

By the late 30s, there was no denying Armstrong’s charisma, beyond his incredible jazz “chops.” He began getting small supporting roles in films such as Going Places, a trifle of a horse racing comedy with the trumpeter playing the part of Gabe. In order to contrive a reason for Armstrong to perform his current hit tune “Jeepers Creepers,” the scenario involves a horse named Jeepers,  lulled in acquiescence by Armstrong when he plays the tune.

By the 1940s, Armstrong’s records were not selling as much, since the music in vogue was swing, and the trumpeter’s New Orleans style was considered by white audiences as “passé,” not that it was, and not that it eclipsed his celebrity status or international appeal. He was still touring worldwide and selling out venues.

Studios also began dipping their toes into “Race Films,” lower than low budget films that were produced by small, independent studios and distributed chiefly in black communities. There was never any arguing the power of the dollar, and the movie moguls saw the big return these smaller studios were getting on their modest investment. Even the Gold Standard Studio, MGM, could not shy away from the massive appeal of black artists, and commissioned Vincente Minnelli to direct one of the best all-black movie musicals, Cabin in the Sky, which offered a veritable who’s-who of contemporary African-American musicians and performers, including Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Eddie Anderson and Lena Horne. Armstrong is only featured briefly doing a trumpet solo from “Walking My Baby Back Home,” but by then he was such a superstar, his appearance was tantamount to Steven Spielberg’s cameo in The Blues Brothers movie, or Tom Cruise’s turn in Austin Powers’ Goldmember. 

By the late 1940s and ’50s, getting Armstrong to appear in a film was definitely the Class A Seal of Approval, and it was here that he offered up three of his most enduring and memorable performances. He plays himself, not just as Louis Armstrong, but THE Louis Armstrong. In Howard Hawks’ remake of his comedy Ball of Fire, called A Song is Born (1948), Danny Kaye is a professor working with his esteemed colleagues to create the definitive modern encyclopedia. They bring in several jazz luminaries to try and fathom just what “jazz” is. Along with Armstrong, the film features music legends Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnett, Mel Powell and even Benny Goodman, playing one of the professors who seems to have the incredible chops of Benny Goodman himself. When it comes to Jazz in Film, A Song is Born is one of the very best. Read more about it here.

In 1956, the classic The Philadelphia Story was remade as the musical High Society. (For classic film lovers, this was equal to high treason, were it not for the inclusion of Louis Armstrong himself and his band at the time, The All-Stars). The highlight of the film was the reuniting of Bing Crosby and Armstrong for “That’s Jazz,” yet another musical re-telling of how jazz was born. (This theme was ubiquitous in films when jazz musicians were involved, and as inaccurate as the history they tell, you can’t help but tap your toes to this performance, one of the very best from Crosby and Armstrong).

Actors, singers, comedians and musicians continued clamoring for an opportunity to perform with Armstrong. With the 1950s came a renewed interest in early jazz which was now called “Dixieland.” Danny Kaye,  an old friend of “old Satchelmouth,” rejoined Armstrong (again playing himself) when Kaye starred in the biopic of the 1920s cornet player, Red Nicholls in The Five Pennies. You can read about the film here. And watch Kaye with Armstrong below:

It’s hard to fathom an artist today who enjoys the length of a career like Armstrong’s,  across all forms of entertainment. In 1969, Armstrong made his final film appearance in Hello Dolly! Now such a monumental star, he just has to be referred to as “Louis,” for a new generation to know exactly who was performing opposite Barbra Streisand. And who could’ve thought that the title song would not only top the charts, but win the Grammy for Best Song, in 1969, no less?

Watch the trailer: 

This is just a small handful of Armstrong’s many appearances, which grew even greater with the advent of television. And even sampling his finite contribution to film cannot reflect the unequaled impact he had on music. But for a spirit as bright and shining as Armstrong’s, we are lucky to have any record of his charm, humor and powerful musical style.

About Wade Sheeler 149 Articles
Wade Sheeler is a Reality TV Producer & Director, Writer, Frustrated lover of film and obscure music. He still makes mixed tapes if he likes you enough. For The Retro Set, he'll be covering the best new releases of classic and hard-to-find films on DVD, with an occasional foray into comedies and comedy teams you should really stay away from.

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