Louis Armstrong: Good Evening Ev’rybody! (Image)
Warner Bros. Big Band, Jazz & Swing Short Subject Collection (WB Archives)
What many people may not realize is The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie” motion picture, actually didn’t say that much at all. It still used cards for a lot of its dialogue, many times only switching to sound when the movie’s star, Al Jolson, would break into song. It wouldn’t take the film industry too long though to start making what were quickly called musicals with banners like “All singing! All dancing!” And the public couldn’t have enough.
Anyway, back in those days, when one plunked down their dime-that’s right ten whopping cents-one not only got the feature film, but also a cartoon, news real, many times a second feature, and what was called a “short.” Many of the most popular of these shorts also involved musical numbers or performances. One could see the origins of MTV and YouTube in them.
Nothing brings this home harder than WB Archives 6-disk collection of music shorts. This set collects over 60 musical numbers from 1932 through World War II. Among the celebrities one will find is a nine year-old Sammy Davis Jr. (performing with the legendary Ethel Waters), jazz legends like Artie Shaw, Jimmie Lunceford, Woody Herman and Cab Calloway. It even includes a purely musical performance by Desi Arnaz without the slightest sign of Lucille Ball.
As one can imagine, the music represented here is all over the board. For some reason, the WB staff had a particular love of harmonica orchestras led by clowns with names like Borrah Minnevich and His Harmonica Rascals. They also love (the pre-Ricky and Dave) Ozzie Nelson. The only other bandleader who gets as much exposure here is Artie Shaw. Also, if you despise blackface minstrelsy, avoid the entire contents of disk 2 like the plague.
At the same time, there are some true eye-openers amongst this collection of artifacts, curious and oddities. Disc one is worth a gander just for one rousing performance by Bonnie Poe (one of the main voices of Betty Boop). For something truly amazing, there’s Rita Rio and Her Orchestra, one of the most jamming all-women big bands of all time.
Still, the absolute gem here is entitled “Jammin’ The Blues.” It’s a very straight up woodshed session featuring no less than Illinois Jacquet, Harry “Sweets” Edison and the immortal Lester Young. Beautifully shot and apparently done all in one take, this short captures these three jazzmen at their absolute peaks. It makes one actually wonder if Warners is actually sitting on a number of similar master works. As it is, one is hard pressed to believe that major motion picture house only put out 63 of these shorts over a dozen or so years.
This leads to another musical treasure, the last ever performance of musical titan Louis Armstrong.
The year is 1970, and noted jazz impresario George Wein decides his Newport Jazz Festival should celebrate the 70th birthday of the world-renowned trumpeter. To help the celebration along, Wein put together a stellar assemblage of performers, including Dizzy Gillespie, Mahalia Jackson and the Preservation Hall Band. From there, he also made sure his self-financed camera team got vital footage of the previous day’s rehearsal, the performance itself, and then a final conversation with the great one after the gig in his home in Queens, New York.
This documentary is a small revelation about the power of Armstrong. During the rehearsal session, one can clearly see the man has seen better days. His once powerful chest was starting to collapse into his drawers. Throughout the entire film he never picks up the trumpet. There’s a touch of jaundice around his eyes.
That all goes away when he gets on stage. When it’s time to perform the legendary Armstrong smile is almost blinding. His shoulders are suddenly erect and his step is more a strut. While his actual performance time is extremely limited, you’d have to be blind not to see why Armstrong was considered one of the greatest acts of the 20th Century.
Most importantly, he isn’t alone. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band holds its own. Gillespie provides an august presence for his too-short performance as does fellow jazz man Ray Nance. Still, the one person who gives Armstrong a real run for his money is Jackson. At this time the grand dame of gospel is entering her 60s and even though she’s constantly moving faster than the mikes can keep up with, her powerful voice and presentation transcends the limited equipment of the day.
It’s Armstrong’s interview footage that provides the most interesting note, particularly when he goes into his belief there is only two kinds of music, good and bad. Even though one can easily see he was not in the greatest of shape, his sincerity and authority are undeniable. After screening the entire interview, included in the disc’s extra content, it also shows the roots of the man’s greatness.
So, in all, these are two interesting documents about 20th Century music, both at its worst and its greatest. While the WB collection does suffer for lack of a booklet or something similar, it’s still a romp travelling back in time to see what was considered popular entertainment in the 30s and 40s. As for the Armstrong, this is an absolute must for anyone who claims to love jazz.