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Jazz, Jazz-Scored, and Jazz Age Films: 1920s-Present
Jazz films are full-length feature films that meet one or more of these criteria:
The story is about jazz or jazz musicians;
The film features performances by famous
(or fictional) jazz musicians;
An impressive jazz soundtrack accompanies a story that may
not have anything to do with jazz;
The film captures some characteristic aspect of the Jazz
Age (the 1920s to early 30s).
NOTE: Some of the earlier films use unflattering racial stereotypes. Others seem to have
written Black musicians out of jazz history. The all-Black films had to operate on much
smaller budgets than the all-white ones did. Unfortunately, racism is part of the history of
the development of film in general, but these jazz films still contain valuable jazz
performances we have no access to in any other way.
All these films should be available at online sources like amazon.com; some may be found at
your local video rental store.
The Jazz Singer (1927) In this early part-silent, part "talkie" film,
the main character, played by legendary Al Jolson, must choose between a jazz career and his traditional
Jewish father; unfortunately, the ending includes the famous black-faced rendition of "Mammy."
Our Dancing Daughters (1928) "Transitional talkie" (no actual talking, but some
sound effects) starring a young Joan Crawford as a jazz babe/flapper. Watch an authentic 1920s
The King of Jazz (1930) No plot, and the music certainly is not "hot
jazz"--but that didn't stop highly successful bandleader Paul Whiteman from proclaiming himself
"King of Jazz" in this film. A somewhat racist animation explains humorously how he (a "white
man") got the title. Whiteman also manages to "whiten" up the origins of jazz. Early
Paradise in Harlem (1939) A performer's career is cut short by a mob
killing. All-Black cast. Includes song and dance numbers by Harlem greats like blues singer
Mamie Smith and others.
Birth of the Blues (1941) Bing Crosby founds the first all-white jazz
band (fictional) in New Orleans. Features Jack Teagarten jazz band.
Cabin in the Sky (1943) All-black cast's version of the Faust legend,
featuring jazz singers Ethel Waters and Lena Horne, Duke Ellington's music, and a comical
Louis Armstrong as the devil's assistant. Some racial stereotyping, but otherwise good.
Stormy Weather (1943) Weak plot vaguely based on life of famed dancer
Bojangles Williamson; mainly black cast and good performances by Lena Horne, Bojangles, Cab
Calloway, Fats Waller, and the Nicholas Brothers. Watch this film mainly for the music.
New Orleans (1947) Trite plot set in Storyville and the French Quarter
of New Orleans provides opportunities for good jazz performances by Louis Armstrong, Billie
Holliday, Kid Ory, and other jazz greats.
Rhapsody in Blue (1945) Somewhat fictionalized life of George
Gerschwin, but the music is authentic, with generous selections included.
A Song Is Born (1948) Music professor Danny Kaye learns about jazz
from a pretty night club singer hiding from gangsters. Music by Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong,
Lionel Hampton, and others.
Young Man with a Horn (1950) Loosely based on the life of the
legendary 1920s (white) cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, played by Kirk Douglass. Well-acted.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) Tennessee Williams' great play
directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh. Alex North's music is
the first American film score using jazz for dramatic purposes instead of just background or
set performance pieces.
The Glenn Miller Story (1953) A somewhat fictionalized version of
the life of jazz band leader Glenn Miller, played by Jimmy Stewart.
The Benny Goodman Story (1955) The rise to fame of clarinetist and
swing band leader Benny Goodman, played by Steve Allen. Watch this film mainly for the music.
Pete Kelly's Blues (1955) Jack Webb as 1920s cornetist runs afoul of
the Kansas City mob. Includes jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee, plus good jazz combo. Watch this film
mainly for the music.
The Man with a Golden Arm (1955) Otto Preminger film about a junkie
musician, strongly portrayed by Frank Sinatra. Great jazz soundtrack.
St. Louis Blues (1958, Alan Reisner) Nat King Cole plays the turn-of-the-century blues musician and composer W.C. Handy. Cast includes Ella Fitzgerald,
Cab Calloway, Eartha Kitt, and Mahalia Jackson.
I Want to Live (1958) Oscar-winning performance of Susan Hayward as
a "good-time gal" convicted of murder (fictionalized version of a true case). Powerful jazz
Jazz on a Summer's Day (1958) Acclaimed as one of
the best jazz films ever made, JAZZ ON A SUMMER'S DAY captures some legendary performances by jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong,
Thelonious Monk, Anita O'Day, Chuck Berry, Chico Hamilton, Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson,
George Shearing, Big Maybelle, Jimmy Giuffre, Gerry Mulligan, Sonny Stitt, and Jack
The Five Pennies (1959) Story of Loring "Red" Nichols, the 1920s
cornetist/band leader, played by Danny Kaye. Includes Louis Armstong performances.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959) Excellent Otto Preminger movie, with an
outstanding jazz soundtrack by Duke Ellington. Stars Jimmy Stewart.
Paris Blues (1961) Two jazzmen (black Sidney Poitier and white Paul
Neuman) compete in Paris; includes a strong love story between Poitier and Diahann Carol, a
role by Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington's music. Watch this film mainly for the music.
Lady Sings the Blues (1972) The tragic life of jazz singer Billie
Holiday, played by Diana Ross. One of the few woman-focused jazz movies, but unfortunately not a good film.
Cabaret (1972) Liza Minnelli's most famous work has her star as American singer Sally Bowles in
1930s Germany, where she falls for two men (including one bisexual) while trying to make ends meet singing at the Kit Kat
Club, all while the Nazi rise to power builds around them.
The Great Gatsby(1974) There are no great movie versions of
Fitzgerald's novel, but this one, starring Robert Redford, is strong on 1920's costumes and
settings; includes some music. If you can find the 1949 black and white version, some critics
prefer Alan Ladd's performance as Gatsby.
All That Jazz (1979) An award-winning, dark musical dance film by choreographer/director Bob Fosse. Womanizer and pill-popping workaholic, Joe Gideon (Roy Schieder) frantically attempts to direct a new Broadway show and edit his most recent film as his life quickly spirals downhill.
Ragtime (1980) Based on the E.L. Doctorow novel, Ragtime explores the
Roaring Twenties from the perspective of race and
class struggle. We watch the unfolding of the anarchist movement in the US in response to economic, political, gender
based discrimination and racial issues that boiled over in the years during and after WWI. Ragtime examines the Jazz culture
and the rise of the African American in the music industry. Stars James Cagney.
The Cotton Club (1984) 1920s black tap dancer (Gregory Hines) and
white cornetist (Richard Gere) struggle for success while dealing with bootlegging mobsters;
includes good recreations of some of the famous Cotton Club performances (Duke Ellington, Cab
Calloway, dancers, etc.).
The Gig (1985) Amateur Dixieland band encounters the realities of the
professional music business and the people in it.
Round Midnight (1986) Starring jazz musician Dexter Gordon, this
story of an Afro-American saxophonist is loosely based on his own life and on the lives of
Lester Young and other jazzers. Some fans believe this is the best jazz film.
Bird (1987) Clint Eastwood's directorial version of the life of Charlie "Bird"
Parker. Sometimes criticized for focusing more on drug problems and less on jazz creativity.
Let's Get Lost (1989) Biopic about Chet Baker, featuring lots of his music.
Mo' Better Blues (1990) Spike Lee's movie about a Miles Davis type
character played by Denzl Washington. For some jazz fans, the definitive jazz film.
Tune in Tomorrow (1990) Crazy New Orleans comedy, with a wonderful
jazz soundtrack by Wynton Marsalis. Stars Barbara Hershey, Keanu Reeves, Peter Falk.
Dingo (1990) Australian story of a jazz trumpeter from the bush journeying to meet
his jazz idol (played by Miles Davis) in Paris. Low budget film.
Lush Life (1993) Interesting story about the relationship of two jazz musicians making a
living in the New York jazz scene.
Kansas City (1996) Robert Altman's recreation of the 1930s Kansas
City jazz scene; features the sounds of Count Basie and Lester Young.
Sweet and Lowdown (1999) Woody Allen's story of a (fictional) jazz
guitarist with a big ego, played by Sean Penn. Careful recreation of 1920s and 30s jazz
scene and music.
Chicago (2002) Director Rob Marshall. This award-winning musical stars Richard Gere as a seedy celebrity attorney defending cabaret
singer Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) accused of murdering her lover. She and fellow inmate Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) fight for
the fame that will keep them from the gallows in Jazz Age Chicago.
Louis (2010) A silent film paying homage to Louis Armstrong, Charlie Chaplin, and the birth of American music. Loosely based on jazz great Louis Armstrong at age six. Starring Jackie Earle Haley.
Bolden! (2011) Stars Anthony Macke as jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden--his rise to fame and his later fall into schizophrenia.