The Cry of Jazz

Ed Bland’s 35-minute essay, made in Chicago in 1959, argues that jazz is an essential expression of the African-American spirit. That idea may seem like a truism now, but this remains a fascinating and unique sociological document, not to mention one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen. It’s intensely serious yet filled with contradictions; rare, energetic footage of Sun Ra illustrates the film’s arguments, while other scenes have the feel of cheesy 50s instructional films. Black and white actors woodenly portray members of a local “jazz club” who meet in someone’s apartment; several of the blacks argue that only blacks can create authentic jazz, that white musicians are only “playing follow the leader.” One white woman sympathetic to the blacks removes her shoes, and Bland cuts to her disapproving white friends, establishing a provocative sexual subtext. In one bitter and hilarious moment, “white jazz”–sounding a lot like elevator music–accompanies images of a suburban train station and someone grooming a dog, contrasting the boredom of suburban life with the film’s ghetto imagery. Bland’s argument has multiple threads, and while in 1959 one critic called it “anti-white,” its real message is that “America needs the Negro to teach us how to be America”–that blacks, having suffered more intensely, have something to offer all of us. Presented by Chicago Filmmakers; Chuck Kleinhans, a professor at Northwestern University, will give an introduction. Columbia College Ferguson Theater, 600 S. Michigan, Friday, February 5, 8:00, 773-384-5533.

–Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.