Sunday, February 28, 2010

St. Louis Blues March

Although a fragile form of interracial dialogue had been established within the pre-war swing subculture, after the end of the Second World War—and with it, the end of the swing era—the color line was firmly re-established. There were a couple of post-war Hollywood films featuring an integrated cast exploring the history of jazz music (New Orleans, 1947, and A Song Is Born, 1948), but perhaps the most revealing evidence of the post-war period’s resumption of the color line is in the rise of the white jazz biopic. A biopic about George Gershwin with Robert Alda playing the role of the famed composer, titled Rhapsody in Blue, was released in 1945, featuring Al Jolson as himself. The following year, it was Jolson who became the subject of what was a highly successful biopic (more so than Rhapsody in Blue had been), The Jolson Story (1946), the success of which inspired a sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949). A biopic about Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, The Fabulous Dorseys, was released in 1947, while a film starring Kirk Douglas that was loosely modeled on the life of white jazzman Bix Beiderbecke, Young Man With a Horn, was released in 1950. By the time The Glenn Miller Story was released, early in 1954, the World War II era had become strongly associated with the famed trombonist and his orchestra, and with songs such as “In the Mood.”

Predictably, the biopic of Miller concludes with the bandleader’s death, his disappearance over the English Channel in December 1944. His band seems to be America in microcosm, the proverbial melting-pot, with, for instance, Germans, Russians, and Jews, but black musicians, who’d played such a crucial role in the development of swing, are conspicuously absent among its members. Gary Giddins observes about the film,

It was James Stewart who created a suitable posthumous personality for Miller, in “The Glenn Miller Story,” the 1954 film that inaugurated a genre of musicals about white bandleaders. These pictures, though basted in conformity, flattered the taste of the nineteen-fifties audience by recasting them as young radicals braving ridicule. Miller was depicted as an innovator hunting for an elusive sound, and Stewart had to recite breathtaking inanities like “To me, music is more than just one instrument. It’s a whole orchestra playing together.”

The film shows an integrated military during a sequence in which a general is reviewing the troops, but this was historically untrue, as there was still a Jim Crow military during the war. Miller’s hutzpah is dramatized in this same sequence, in which he instructs his band to play “St. Louis Blues” at march tempo, a bit of deliberate recalcitrance for which he is later upbraided by his commanding officer (see a video clip of this important sequence here). But perhaps the more revealing sequence of the film, illustrating the segregated lives of black and white jazz musicians, occurs in a studio while Miller and his band are recording “Tuxedo Junction.” As the song is being played, two black dancers appear merely as images being projected onto a screen. Black and white, in other words, exist in different spaces.

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