Sunday, March 14, 2010

Altered Chords

The sequence in Jailhouse Rock (1957) showing a dirty, sweaty Elvis Presley (playing Vince Everett) in the prison coal yard is the closest the actor ever got to blackface. The practice had largely disappeared by 1952 (that year’s twenty-fifth anniversary remake of The Jazz Singer, starring Danny Thomas, did not include it, surprising given the fact that Al Jolson often used it early on in his career). But according to Krin Gabbard, in Black Magic (2004), Marlon Brando had appropriated black masculinity for his performances in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and in The Wild One (1953). Gabbard observes, “…the makers of The Wild One seemed . . . willing to create a part for Brando that drew upon African American experience. In Wild One, Johnny/Brando does after all ride with the “Black Rebels Motorcycle Club,” and when Johnny and his gang arrive in the small town of Carbondale, “their contempt for its bourgeois culture is entirely consistent with early 1950s bebop ideology and its opaque white Negro jive talk” (45). Curiously, when Johnny/Brando opts to play a jukebox, it plays “the big band arrangements that Leith Stevens wrote for the film” (45).

Brando reportedly had wanted popular cool jazz trumpeter-composer Shorty Rogers to write the music used on the soundtrack for The Wild One, and indeed, the music Rogers wrote for the film was later issued on the RCA Victor label, performed by Shorty Rogers and His Giants. Besides Rogers, the cool jazz style was associated with the Brubeck Quartet and the MJQ, as well as (for a time) Miles Davis and the orchestrations of Gil Evans, but it never displaced bop as the main style of post-war jazz in America. Coded as “white,” it was modern, cerebral, and arranged, and by the mid-50s, was associated with a white, college-educated audience. For by the time The Wild One was released, late in 1953, the Brubeck Quartet had already released Jazz at the College of the Pacific (1953) and Jazz at Oberlin (1953), and was about to release Jazz Goes to College (1954). Hence, in Jailhouse Rock (filmed late April through June 1957, released later that year), a crucial scene takes place in the home of a jazz-loving college professor. Perhaps borrowing a story element from The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), Elvis/Vince has been released from prison with the hope of starting over as a musician. He purchases a guitar and seeks out the “Club La Florita,” where he happens to meet Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler) during the performance of a burlesque number (pictured). The two strike up a friendship based on a mutual interest in music, and Peggy eventually invites Elvis/Vince to the home of her parents, where her aforementioned college professor father is having a party. Fortunately, the dialogue of the scene has been recorded by Krin Gabbard in his important work on jazz and the American cinema, Jammin’ at the Margins (1996). Soon after Peggy’s and Vince’s arrival, the conversation turns to jazz music and a jazz figure named “Stubby Ritemeyer,” a fictional musician whom Gabbard believes is based on Shorty Rogers.

“I think Stubby’s gone overboard with those altered chords,” says one of the pompous guests. “I agree,” says another, “I think Brubeck and Desmond have gone just as far with dissonance as I care to go.” “Oh, nonsense,” says a man, “have you heard Lennie Tristano’s latest recording? He reached outer space.” A young woman adds, “Some day they’ll make the cycle and go back to pure old Dixieland.” A well-dressed, older woman says, “I say atonality is just a passing phase in jazz music.” Turning to Presley, she asks, “What do you think, Mr. Everett?” He answers, “Lady, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” and storms out of the house. Followed and scolded by Peggy, Everett protests that he was being forced into a corner by a stupid question from “some old broad” (124-25).

As I mentioned earlier, given the release of albums such as Jazz at Oberlin and Jazz Goes to College, Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond would have been strongly associated with the (white) educated college crowd by the time of Jailhouse Rock. I suspect the “latest recording” by Lennie Tristano referred to by one of the party-goers is probably the now legendary Lennie Tristano, released on Atlantic in 1956, while the most recent releases by Shorty Rogers and His Giants were Martians Come Back! and Way Up There, both released in 1956 on Atlantic as well. Interestingly, RCA Victor—Elvis’s label since late in 1955—had made the corporate decision to issue what at the time were referred to “modern jazz records” in the fall of 1953, beginning with two 10” records, Cool and Crazy (LPM 3138) and Shorty Rogers and His Giants (LPM 3137). Early in 1957, just a few months before Jailhouse Rock began filming, RCA issued The Big Shorty Rogers Express (LPM 1350), an LP-sized reissue of 1953’s Cool and Crazy with four additional tracks. Hence the model for the fictional “Stubby Ritemeyer,” as well as Elvis himself, both would have had albums available the same year (1957) on the RCA label. Of course, the actual identity of these records hardly matters, since the more important point, as Gabbard observes, is that in Jailhouse Rock “bop-inflected cool jazz has become emblematic of bourgeois superficiality” (126). If, as Michael Jarrett has observed, the coding of cool jazz is white, or, as he calls it, “soul inverted” (Sound Tracks 24), then Elvis’s rejection of it in this film suggests he was far more comfortable, like his idol Marlon Brando, with acting out black male sexuality, even if that desire occasionally elicited in him the behavior more strongly associated with children and adolescents, as well as the demonstration of more “manly” pursuits like collecting expensive automobiles.

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