#618) The Cry of Jazz (1959)

#618) The Cry of Jazz

Directed by Edward O. Bland

Written by Bland, Nelam L. Hill, and Mark Kennedy

Class of 2010

The Plot: Following a jazz appreciation club meeting, a group of Black and White members debate whether jazz is solely a Black creation. Alex (George Waller) explains that jazz was created through “the Negro’s cry of joy and suffering”, comparing jazz’s form and improvisatory style to the restraints that Black Americans face every day. Through an extended and nuanced conversation (plus jazz interludes by Sun Ra and his band), it is theorized that African-Americans are this country’s conscience, and that like jazz itself there must be an evolution in America’s treatment of its Black citizens in order to survive.

Why It Matters: The NFR highlights the film as “an early and influential example of African-American independent filmmaking.” There is also an expanded essay by film expert Chuck Kleinhans.

But Does It Really?: Based on the title alone, I assumed “The Cry of Jazz” would be another one of the NFR’s concert films. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film is so much more: a documentary/educational hybrid dissecting the Black American experience through jazz. The points made are incredibly nuanced by 1959 standards, though it’s a bit concerning how many of them are still relevant over 60 years later. Filmed near the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, “The Cry of Jazz” is the powder keg waiting to explode as these inequalities are about to enter the national conversation, and Bland’s choice of music to illustrate his points is an inspired one, making this discussion far more palatable. “The Cry of Jazz” is an engaging, unique film experience, and I’m glad that the NFR found a spot for it.

Everybody Gets One: Shoutout to the aforementioned Chuck Kleinhans, whose detailed and very informative interview with Edward Bland served as an invaluable resource during my research. Edward Bland grew up on the South Side of Chicago, playing saxophone and clarinet at a young age, ultimately studying music on the G.I. Bill and finding work as a composer. One day while chatting with his friend the novelist Mark Kennedy, Kennedy off-handedly mentioned New York’s independent film community. Remembering a heated argument he had about jazz with White people at a club, Bland was inspired to make a film about the importance of jazz from a Black perspective and “put it in stone”. “The Cry of Jazz” was produced by the newly formed KHTB Productions, named for Kennedy, urban planner Nelam Hill, mathematician Eugene Titus, and Bland. The film was financed from the four men’s incomes (a budget of $3500), and the cast and crew agreed to work on the film for free.

Title Track: According to the film, the “cry of jazz” is the contradiction between freedom and restraint for Black Americans: the freedom representing what their life in this country should be, and the restraint representing their reality.

Seriously, Oscars?: To the best of my knowledge, “The Cry of Jazz” never played an Oscar-qualifying run. For the record: 1959’s Live Action Short Subject winner was “The Golden Fish“, produced by Jacques Cousteau.

Other notes 

  • Honestly, most of my note-taking was transcribing the film’s more potent theses. Alex discusses that the hazard of being Black in this country “starts before brith and extends beyond death.” The phrase “futureless future” also comes up quite a bit. There’s also mention of individualism leading to “nothing but death and destruction”, which can definitely be applied to this country’s response to COVID.
  • Bland later bemoaned the film’s more amateurish qualities, something the film’s more negative reviews also latched onto. Yes, it’s a group of first-time film actors spouting the writers’ viewpoints with minimal sound equipment, but ultimately you get past it and listen to the words. That being said, watching a low-budget film of actors arguing in someone’s living room definitely gave me some “Night of the Living Dead” flashbacks.
  • Unfortunately, when researching the film’s cast, it seems that only the White actors in this movie went on to any notoriety, most notably future Oscar nominee Melinda Dillon (in her film debut). In addition, Andrew Duncan had a steady career as an actor, while Gavin MacFadyen became an investigative journalist. All three of this film’s Black actors (George Waller, Laroy Inman and James Miller) – as well as White actor Dorothea Horton – make their sole film appearance in “The Cry of Jazz”.
  • The one part of this film I am truly qualified to discuss: jazz as performed by White artists. After explaining and demonstrating the Black origins of jazz, we hear what jazz sounds like when played by White performers. The result is a structured, harmonious sound; pleasant yet unexpressive. In short, the antithesis of true jazz. The footage shown during this is White families walking home in a snow covered suburbia, a counterpoint to the more dangerous inner city life of the film’s Black subjects.
  • Oh good, the White argument for jazz basically boils down to “All Lives Matter”. Why does this film have to remain so relevant?
  • The film’s jazz score was provided by Sun Ra and his Arkestra, right before they pivoted towards their more recognizable Afrofuturism aesthetic. Bland recognized that composing an original jazz score would take time and money, so he filmed Sun Ra and his band performing the variety of jazz featured in the film, and got permission to needle-drop Sun Ra’s records in the soundtrack.
  • Ultimately, the thing that made this movie stand out for me amongst other NFR films was its presentation. “The Cry for Jazz” isn’t about music, it’s about ideas. This is one of the rare movies that wants you to focuses on the words being said, not necessarily on how they are being presented. In that regard, “The Cry for Jazz” is a precursor to the modern video essay, with the visual elements illustrating and supporting the main talking points.

Legacy 

  • “The Cry of Jazz” quietly premiered in Chicago in 1959, gaining traction at that year’s Playboy Jazz Festival. Using Mark Kennedy’s New York connections, the film played at the Cinema 16 film society in 1960. “The Cry of Jazz” was divisive from the get-go, with the likes of Kenneth Tynan and Amiri Baraka praising the film, and Ralph Ellison (as well as most film critics of the time) dismissing it.
  • After its initial controversy, “The Cry of Jazz” lingered in obscurity, until being rediscovered in the 1990s by film scholars who cited it as an early example of Black independent filmmaking. The film was also recognized for its prediction of the Black pride movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Edward Bland lived long enough to see this revival (as well as its NFR induction), and while he came around to accept the film as representative of its time, he confessed in his later years, “I do wish we had made a better film.”
  • While Bland had intended to make more films following “The Cry of Jazz” (including a sequel titled “The American Hero”), he went back to composing, as it was easier for him to pay the bills. In addition to his original compositions, Bland worked on arrangements for the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Sun Ra. He also wrote orchestrations for film and television, most notably 1984’s “A Soldier’s Story”.
  • While Sun Ra died in 1993, the Sun Ra Arkestra is still performing to this day, currently led by the band’s original saxophonist Marshall Allen.

Listen to This: Jazz and all its permutations are well represented on the National Recording Registry. Five of these recordings come from 1959, the same year as “The Cry of Jazz”: John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps“, Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue“, Charles Mingus’ “Mingus Ah Um“, Ornette Coleman’s “The Shape of Jazz to Come“, and the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Time Out“.

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