Sunday, April 3, 2011

Jazzball (National Telefilm Associates, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

In the morning I ran the video of the film Jazzball, which turned out to be a 1958 compilation of excerpts from jazz shorts from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Among the shorts included was Louis Armstrong’s film debut, A Rhapsody in Black and Blue — his terrific performance of “Shine” was included substantially complete — and Duke Ellington’s A Bundle of Blues, which was slashed to ribbons (the version of “Stormy Weather” was presented with a snide little comment about Fred Waller’s “syrupy” visuals, and with Ivie Anderson’s vocal completely deleted! — fortunately I was able to get the complete version of A Bundle of Blues on tape when AMC showed it). There were also some clips from complete Republic features (the film was presented by Republic Home Video and apparently they own the rights to this original National Telefilm Associates production) and some odd bits from heaven knows what provenance, including a version of “The Dipsy-Doodle” by Vincent Lopez’ band (they had a “sweet” reputation but the only clips I’ve seen of them, this and the “Drummer Man” blues number they did in The Big Broadcast, are actually quite credible swing numbers) with a young Betty Hutton making her film debut as vocalist. Hutton wasn’t as wild or seemingly out of control here as she was later, nor was she as strident; though her version of “The Dipsy-Doodle” pales by comparison with Ella Fitzgerald’s superb one with Chick Webb’s band, she’s actually quite good.

The rest of the selections range from the sublime (Cab Calloway doing “Smokey Joe,” one of his innumerable follow-ups to “Minnie the Moocher”; the Mills Brothers’ “I Ain’t Got Nobody”; Peggy Lee’s “It’s a Good Day” and Artie Shaw’s band with Buddy Rich doing a hot swing instrumental I wasn’t able to identify) through the interesting (Sammy Davis, Jr. and the Will Mastin Trio — Mastin was his uncle and the third member of the trio was Sammy Davis, Sr. — doing a hot dance number; Bob Chester’s band doing a boogie blues; Ina Ray Hutton singing, tapping and bandleading on “Truckin’”; Hal Kemp doing their version of “Swamp Fire” a decade before Duke Ellington covered it, shot in an interesting way with an overall dark lighting effect and flashes of “swamp fire” covering the screen — if anyone had made a film noir musical this is what it would have looked like — and Bob Crosby doing the most blatant imitation of his brother Bing I’ve ever heard in a surprisingly risqué song called “How’d You Like To — ?”) and the (inevitably) ridiculous: Russ Morgan’s “Wabash Blues,” Rudy Vallée’s band in a group-vocal version of a song called “You’ll Do It Someday (So Why Not Now?)” — also surprisingly risqué for a 1930’s movie! — and a Lawrence Welk cover of “Ain’t She Sweet?” which the commentator tried to legitimize as a jazz piece, but no such luck; aside from a reasonably Goodmanesque clarinet solo the piece was the usual Welkian schlock. — 8/30/97


I ran Charles Jazzball, pointing out to him that the 1958 narration was by now as much of a period piece as the 1930’s and 1940’s film clips themselves! He enjoyed it and, like me, found some of the sequences (notably the Lawrence Welk performance of “Ain’t She Sweet”) unbelievably campy (when a horrible organ solo turned up in the middle of Welk’s arrangement Charles said, “And now here’s a chorus for all you skaters in the audience … ”). — 9/4/97


I watched the 1958 NTA movie Jazzball, including the version of “The Dipsy-Doodle” sung by the young Betty Hutton with Vincent Lopez’s band (at the start of her career and not yet having made a feature film, she nonetheless does a frantic jitterbug and flails her arms about while seemingly about to charge the camera like a rampaging elephant — I wanted her singing of this song to compare to the marvelous Chick Webb version featuring the young Ella Fitzgerald, who not surprisingly was more musical and rhythmically looser — though Hutton’s version isn’t at all bad and would probably sound better if we didn’t have Ella’s to compare it to) and an instrumental by Artie Shaw’s band featuring Buddy Rich that he doesn’t seem to have recorded commercially — at least I couldn’t find it among the first two discs of the Mosaic boxed set of Shaw’s RCA Victor recordings, which included the 1938-39 band for which Rich played.

I remember having mixed feelings about Jazzball when I first saw it and I still do: annoyances like having Ivie Anderson’s vocal meticulously edited out of the version of “Stormy Weather” on the clip from the Duke Ellington short A Bundle of Blues and the rapid alternations between jazz and schlock (particularly having Russ Morgan’s “Wabash Blues” come hard upon Louis Armstrong’s “Shine,” from the bizarre short A Rhapsody in Black and Blue that clothed him in pseudo-African garb and cast him as the “King of Jazzmania”!) and the inclusion of a Lawrence Welk version of “Ain’t She Sweet” (featuring a not-bad hot clarinet solo that’s interrupted by Welk’s accordion and a cheesy electronic organ — even Welk grew to dislike his own accordion playing; during his TV years he just stood up front and directed the band as conductor and M.C. and left the squeeze box to Myron Floren) in between an infectious clip of Peggy Lee (allegedly) recording “It’s a Good Day” and that mysterious Shaw/Rich instrumental still rankle.

So does the piss-ant narration, which dismisses the marvelous visual effects director Fred Waller used in A Bundle of Blues as “syrupy” and makes the mistake of identifying the final clip, a spectacular dance sequence featuring Sammy Davis, Jr. with the Will Mastin Trio (Mastin was Davis’s uncle and the third member of the trio was Sammy Davis, Sr.) as Davis’s first film. (It wasn’t; he’d made the short Rufus Jones for President in 1933 at age seven; he played a precocious tap dancer who did an impression of Louis Armstrong singing “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You” and dreamed his way into an all-Black federal government that seems like a parody of the racist portrayal of the Reconstruction Congress in The Birth of a Nation.)