Cry of Jazz…is now recognized as an early and influential example of African-American independent filmmaking. Director Ed Bland, with the help of more than 60 volunteer crew members, intercuts scenes of life in Chicago’s black neighborhoods with interviews of interracial artists and intellectuals. Cry of Jazz argues that black life in America shares a structural identity with jazz music. With performance clips by the jazz composer, bandleader and pianist Sun Ra and his Arkestra, the film demonstrates the unifying tension between rehearsed and improvised jazz. 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.
The Cry of Jazz is set in Chicago at the meeting of a jazz appreciation club of musicians and intellectuals, both Black and White. It is broken up into seven parts. Parts one, three, five, and seven center around conversations between the jazz club members. Parts two, four, and six are done in a documentary style and utilize footage of life in Chicago as well as of Sun Ra’s band performing the music. Alex, the film’s main character, serves as narrator during these sections. Although the film is nominally about jazz, jazz is utilized primarily as a metaphor through which to understand the African American experience.
According to Bland, The Cry of Jazz was made in part as a reaction to the rising popularity of the cool jazz of the 1950s. In the early years of that decade, Bland, Hill, Kennedy, and Titus frequented a club in Chicago’s Southside called Jimmy’s, where they would converse with young musicians and jazz fans, both black and white. The most popular and well-known players of cool jazz were white, and in Bland’s view, the general excitement with cool jazz neglected to recognize jazz as fundamentally black music. In an interview with Waxpoetics, Bland referred specifically to the young white jazz fans he termed “jazz critics-to-be” as the primary perpetrators of this crime. In Bland’s words: “I felt there was a racial angle too; I felt they were trying to, shall we say, wipe the Blackness out of jazz. And they wouldn’t listen to us, so we decided to put it in stone.” In an introduction to The Cry of Jazz delivered at the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem, film critic Armond White hypothesized that Bland may also have been responding to Norman Mailer’s essay The White Negro, which reflects positively on the appropriation of African American culture and language by young white hipsters.
By Ed Bland (YouTube : gNv5l8KuoZw) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons