Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Jivin’ in Be-Bop (Alexander Productions, filmed 1946, released 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a movie that I’d been doing a lot of study on lately, since over the weekend I dubbed some Dizzy Gillespie recordings to digital format and among them was the soundtrack of this film: Jivin’ in Be-Bop, filmed in 1946, released in 1947 and therefore the first extended sample we have of Gillespie and his band in performance. Jivin’ in Be-Bop was a “race” production by William D. Alexander, written by Powell Lindsay (or at least compiled by him from ancient Black vaudeville jokes), directed by Leonard Anderson and an uncredited Spencer Williams (Clarence Williams’ brother and partner in his music publishing firm in the 1920’s, later an actor who played one of the leads on the 1950’s TV version of Amos ’n’ Andy after NBC and the producers realized that the whites who created the characters on radio, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, couldn’t get away with the blackface act in a visual medium and they needed real African-Americans for the roles). Blessedly, the film has no plot: it’s just 19 musical numbers, of which 16 feature Gillespie — 13 with his full band and three by a sextet drawn from it, with Dizzy on trumpet, James Moody on alto and tenor sax, Milt Jackson on vibes, John Lewis on piano, Ray Brown on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. (The rhythm section would later become the nucleus of the Modern Jazz Quartet, though after their first session for Savoy in 1948 as the “Milt Jackson Quartet” Percy Heath replaced Brown, and at the end of 1954 Kenny Clarke emigrated to France and Connie Kay replaced him on drums.) The other three are by an intriguing duo consisting of Dan Burley on piano and Johnny Taylor on electric organ, and their songs are called “Hubba-Hubba Blues,” “Hubba-Hubba Boogie” and “Boogie in C.”

Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra were one of the most musically advanced bands of the late swing era, even though Dizzy’s bebop style was usually better showcased in the classic five-piece bebop combo (trumpet, sax, piano, bass, drums) than a full-sized orchestra. In 1946 big bands were still considered the acme of jazz success, and you weren’t considered a real star until you’d worked up to being able to sustain the payroll of a full band and play venues large enough to pay enough to cover the costs. (As the jazz audience shrunk, so did the spaces in which it was played until very few leaders could put together enough gigs to cover the costs of a big band; even Duke Ellington’s band lost money the last 20 years of his life, and he essentially subsidized his band with his royalty earnings as a songwriter.) What alternately amazes and frustrates jazz fans about Jivin’ in Be-Bop is that Dizzy’s advanced music is showcased in a setting that draws heavily on the already outdated Black vaudeville tradition: each song is introduced with comic banter between Dizzy and M.C. Freddie Carter. Some of the material is genuinely amusing, some of it just lame, but at least it puts Dizzy’s performances in context — the thinking in 1946 seems to have been that the way to get audiences to accept the highly sophisticated bebop style of music was to plug it into old-fashioned variety-show formulae. Half of Dizzy’s songs — “Salt Peanuts,” “Be-Baba-Leba” (sung by Helen Humes, who’d replaced Billie Holiday with Count Basie’s band in 1938 and broken through as a solo star with “Be-Baba-Leba” in an R&B version with Bill Doggett’s band in 1945 — and it’s fascinating to compare the relatively simple rockin’ backing she got from Doggett with Dizzy’s high-flying inspirations behind the same singer on the same song), “Oop-Bop Sh’Bam,” “I Waited for You” (a lovely ballad Dizzy had written for singer Kenneth “Pancho” Hagood, who sings it here to a woman who stands on stage, listens to him and otherwise does nothing), “Crazy ’Bout a Man” (sung by Helen Humes and credited to her as composer on imdb.com, though it’s really just a new lyric to the song “Good Dues Blues” which Dizzy had already recorded with vocalist Alice Roberts), “One Bass Hit” (a vehicle, as the title suggests, for bassist Ray Brown, young but already a formidable musician), “He Beeped When He Should Have Bopped” (a charming novelty which Dizzy had already recorded with Alice Roberts but on screen he sang it himself), and Gil Fuller’s awesome “Things to Come” — are audio-visual performances with Dizzy’s band on screen. 

The other eight are audibly Dizzy’s band (though three tracks, “Shaw Nuff,” “Dizzy Atmosphere” — introduced here under its alternate title, “Dynamo A” — and “Ornithology,” are by the sextet) but what we actually see on screen are dancers cavorting in front of cheap but relatively substantial sets. A woman calling herself “Sahji” and billed as an “exotic dancer” performs on four numbers, “Shaw Nuff,” “Grosvenor Square,” and the Burley-Taylor “Boogie in C” and “Hubba-Hubba Boogie” (which, oddly, is the final number on the program — one would have expected the makers of a movie with Dizzy Gillespie as the star to feature his band at the end, but no-o-o-o-o), in the last of which we get a lot of medium shots of her crotch, making it clear who William D. Alexander thought his target audience was! Sahji may also be the central woman in the weird production number set to Dizzy’s classic “A Night in Tunisia,” whose title was the cue for the directors to trot out all the “Middle Eastern” movie clichés with a tall, thin, muscular young Black dancer named Ray Sneed showing off as much of his bod as conventional morality and the Production Code would allow, while a female lead stands on a pedestal and six chorus girls apparently play his harem. Sneed also appears, less scantily clad, on Dizzy’s final number, a feature for Milt Jackson listed on imdb.com as “Bags’ Boogie” (“Bags” was Jackson’s nickname for decades; when Atlantic Records made an album with him and Coleman Hawkins, whose nickname was “Bean,” they called the record Bean Bags and the cover photo was a shot of coffee beans in a large burlap bag). Other dancers featured include the soft-shoe duo of “Johnny and Henny” on an untitled song by the full Gillespie band; the spectacular tap dancer Ralph Brown on “Ornithology” and “Ray’s Idea,” two couples doing a quite good dance to “Dizzy Atmosphere,” as well as a few numbers in which Dizzy himself makes some nice, fluid dance-like motions as he’s leading the band. The dancing has taken its lumps over the years from some critics watching the movie — writer Phil Hall called it “frequently silly” and labeled the “Night in Tunisia” sequence “one of the worst ballets ever put on film” — but I found it quite entertaining. Not only is it nice to know there was such a depth of talent among Black dancers that a bunch of people almost no one has ever heard of could put on such a good show, the choreography seems designed to put the lie to the idea that the reason bebop wasn’t popular with a mass audience was you couldn’t dance to it. 

The overall presentation of Jivin’ in Be-Bop has an endearing tackiness — though the budget was noticeably higher than the strangulation-level of a lot of previous “race” movies — and I was rather stunned to read on the Wikipedia page for Jivin’ in Be-Bop that though the film was released on DVD in 2004, the DVD cut out all the between-songs banter between Dizzy and Freddie Carter. (Oddly, some sources, including imdb.com, list the great jazz musician Benny Carter as being in this film, which he isn’t: i 1946 Carter was a bandleader in his own right and if he’d done an appearance here he would have been featured as a guest star. He isn’t, and he’s probably not just sitting in as an anonymous drone in Dizzy’s sax section either. My guess is that someone got him and Freddie Carter confused.) That, I suspect, was a mistake: as dumb as some of the comic dialogue between them is, it’s nice to have it not only to preserve the original context and keep the film from degenerating into a bunch of barely connected numbers, but also to show what a pleasant, easygoing frontman Dizzy was. Out of all the major bebop innovators, Dizzy was the one who most had the showman’s instinct for relating to the audience and making it seem like he enjoyed entertaining them — one can’t imagine Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis bantering with a Black vaudeville comedian like Freddie Carter, let alone seeming as warm and natural doing it as Dizzy does here. (Maybe Dizzy had learned something about how to front a band from his two years with Cab Calloway.) Jivin’ in Be-Bop is a marvelous film, not only because it preserves one of the most musically advanced big bands at its absolute peak (by the end of the 1940’s Dizzy was clearly bored with the whole big-band concept and was probably relieved when his managers told him they could no longer get him enough gigs to sustain it and it was time to return to the New York nightclub scene and work with small bands — though on occasion Dizzy would organize special-purpose big bands and he obviously got a lot out of the experience) but the overall charm of the whole exercise; true, the “Night in Tunisia” number is so dated one could readily imagine it having been performed at the Cotton Club to Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” 20 years earlier, but the whole weird juxtaposition of Dizzy’s advanced music, the spectacular dancers and the sometimes shopworn but still engaging comedy routines and production numbers has a real appeal.