LOS ANGELES, June 19, 2017 – Members of each generation perceive its music as special and unique, something that is so very personal that they often speak of it as “my music.” In 1994, when Tony Bennett saw a brief period of crossover popularity with younger audiences, he allowed this “possessive” to creep into an advertising plug as he sang, “I want my MTV.”
While each generation’s music is indeed special, Tony must have know that MTV was far from unique as he crooned those four plaintive words!
Anyone who read the trades back in the late 1930s would have been aware that something was in the works where coin-operated entertainment was concerned. Billboard, Variety, and Metronome each reported the news: Entrepreneurs were asking, “If people are willing to spend a nickel to listen to a musical favorite on a jukebox, wouldn’t they spend a dime to both hear and see it?”
As with any new approach to entertainment, there was a period of experimentation and development, hyperbolic claims made in the press, early successes, and failures …. this before anything actually arrived on the market.
But in January 1941, the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago, manufacturers of jukeboxes, slot machines, and other coin-operated devices, introduced their newest sensation, a jukebox with a screen called the Panoram. The three minutes film shorts to be screened in the Panoram were dubbed SOUNDIES.
A release schedule of eight films per week began on January 5, 1941, and continued until March 1947, an output of more than 1,850 shorts.
Because sales of Panoram machines, and distribution of films to franchise participants, was a nationwide effort, the films needed to reflect the widest of musical tastes.
While most films fell within the pop-oriented side of the big band scene, music reflecting the popularity of the big Swing bands, there were many other musical genres reflected in the release schedule: country, hillbilly and Western Swing; Irish ballads, polkas and Russian Balalaika orchestras; Broadway, motion picture and radio stars; comedy and ethnic humor; Hawaiian tunes …. and even a brief foray into classical music.
Each weekly release of eight films (nine during the war years, when a propaganda short was often added) presented a wide variety of musical styles.
Today, however, it is the jazz content, and specifically the shorts by black artists, that interests us the most. Much of the jazz found in SOUNDIES shorts is performed in the context of the big bands so dominant during the period.
Among the finer releases were performances by the great black jazz bands: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Lucky Millinder and, a little later, Billy Eckstine, Henri Woode, Cecil Scott, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
Among the white jazz bands making their way to the SOUNDIES screen were those of Jimmy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, Will Bradley, Larry Clinton and Gene Krupa.
It is among the small groups, however, that the freest and most effective jazz can be found. One of the earliest jazz groups to visit the studios was Fats Waller and his Rhythm, who recorded four terrific performances in September 1941.
Nat “King” Cole and Louis Jordan made a large number of SOUNDIES, and each is an absolute delight. Among the other swing-to-bop combos are those led by Tiny Grimes (a great chance for jazz fans to see tenor sax Paul Bascomb on screen), Skeets Tolbert (his trumpet player, Leonard Hawkins, was on many early bop dates), Dallas Bartley (John “Flap” Dungee offers the earliest bop alto solo on film) and Phil Moore (an early integrated group with guitarist Chuck Wayne in fine form).
Solo pianists also made their way to the Panoram screen, with sessions featuring Meade Lux Lewis, Pat Flowers and Bob Howard. Liberace may not play jazz, but his music can also be found on the Panoram screen.
Among the more effective white combos appearing in SOUNDIES is Joe Marsala’s group, featuring his wife, harpist Adele Girard.
Wingy Manone makes a number of appearances playing his beloved New Orleans jazz. Vocalists Anita O’Day and Jane Harvey can be found in four shorts, with Anita performing with Gene Krupa’s band (her musical foil is, of course, Roy Eldridge), while Jane Harvey is accompanied by a swinging society band led by Emile Petti.
Vocal harmony groups are well represented, with very strong films released over a six-year period, featuring such groups as The Mills Brothers, Delta Rhythm Boys, Charioteers, and Chanticleers.
Back in the 1980s, years before the advent of the Internet, jazz film archivist Mark Cantor used to host regular “film nights,” which always included friends and special jazz guests.
One night dancer Tommy Thompson was an unexpected participant, brought to the gathering by jazz guitarist John Collins. Someone requested a film with a vocal harmony group, and Mark just happened to grab “Jumpin’ Jack From Hackensack,” a SOUNDIE by The Chanticleers, a lesser know vocal group from the 1940s.
Midway through the film, Mr. Thompson started making sounds that brought fear of a heart attack or something worse to those in attendance. But before anyone could dial for an ambulance, Tommy pointed to the screen, to the character “Jumpin’ Jack”: “That’s me, that’s me.”
The SOUNDIE has been digitally transferred for all to enjoy, and can be found on the Celluloid Improvisations website:
Other SOUNDIES uploaded to the site include two marvelous 1941 outings by Count Basie and his Orchestra:
Last, check out the Chicago-based Dallas Bartley Sextet. The alto work by John “Flap” Dungee is the first bebop solo to be found on film:
Now, these SOUNDIES were clearly made for black audiences, although they would have been screened in white neighborhoods as well.
Next month we’ll share a rather astounding clip: another black jazz band, this time from 1946, which was fully integrated, and the first such big band to appear on film. Seven of the sixteen sidemen are white, a courageous move by a black bandleader.
The orchestra actually toured the Deep South, and returned to tell a harrowing tale. The story of their tour, and a film made in the spring of 1946, is the subject of next month’s visit to jazz history.
Mark Cantor is a film and music historian and the curator of Celluloid Improvisations Music Film Archive, one of the largest private collections of jazz, blues, and American popular music on 16mm film worldwide.
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