[The film] intercuts scenes of life in Chicago’s black neighborhoods with interviews with interracial artists and intellectuals. ‘[The] Cry of Jazz’ is a historic and fascinating film that comments on racism and the appropriation of jazz by those who fail to understand its artistic and cultural origins.
As has been the case since the Fifties, jazz is once again portrayed as the kind of music that seems to hold a special appeal to snobs and elitists (“intellectuals”), especially so to those preoccupied by “its artistic and cultural origins.” I’m not actually disputing this characterization of the film since the argument of the film relies upon the foundational myth of popular music, the distinction between the authentic and the commercial (or inauthentic) and the various guises this distinction takes: innovation vs. popularization, black vs. white, jazz vs. rock, and so on. The way this opposition works itself out, as Michael Jarrett has written, “Hot jazz turns to swing, bop turns cool, eroticism turns to lassitude, black bleaches to white, the dirty gets laundered, and the uneven is worn smooth: the structure of this apocalyptic sequence reproduces itself any number of times in accounts of American popular music since World War II” (Sound Tracks 191). As Jarrett also observes, this authentic vs. commercial model seems ontologically stable to us “because it explains what Andrew Ross calls ‘the everyday, plagiaristic, commerce between white [“commercial”] and black [“authentic”] musics’; it conceptualizes the history of American popular music as a series of unilateral, commercially driven energy exchanges that everywhere bespeak ‘a racist history of exploitation exclusively weighted to dominant white interests’…” (191).
This argument is attractive, of course, but it also has limitations. For one thing, as Simon Frith has pointed out, the argument is based on a confusion that presumes “music is the starting point of the industrial process—the raw material over which everyone fights—when it is, in fact, the final product” (the contrast between music-as-expression and music-as-commodity). What’s more, the film employs an essentializing strategy avoided by today's cultural critics, and therefore is unable to avoid the limitations of an essentialist understanding of the “African-American experience.” Essentialism, Trina Grillo writes,
is the notion that there is a single woman’s, or Black person’s, or any other group’s experience that can be described independently from other aspects of the person—that there is an “essence” to that experience. An essentialist outlook assumes that the experience of being a member of the group under discussion is a stable one, one with a clear meaning, a meaning constant through time, space, and different historical, social, political, and personal contexts. (qtd. in Sherene H. Razack, Looking White People in the Eye, p. 157)
Perhaps the film’s greatest failing, however, is that its provocative declaration “jazz is dead” is actually an admission by the filmmakers that they cannot account for future jazz innovation. Shot largely in 1958, released in 1959, the irony is that about the time the film was released (rather limited, so I understand), Ornette Coleman and his associates began to pioneer harmolodics—a move beyond the lead/rhythm opposition which had structured all jazz improvisation up to that time—with albums such as The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959), the title of which uncannily seems like a rejoinder to the "jazz is dead" argument in The Cry of Jazz.
I should note that the Library of Congress admits that the goal of the registry is not to identify the best movies ever made but to preserve films with artistic, cultural or historical significance. Historically considered as a pre-Civil Rights Era documentary, The Cry of Jazz would seem to be an appropriate choice for inclusion in the Registry.