Free Content and a poorly-received Movie about “Jazz”: New Orleans starring Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday

The sheer amount of cinematic product from 1930s, 40s and 50s, which could have had wider (or the widest) distribution in the pre-internet era, was suppressed (via copyright control) by Hollywood studios/monopolies. This can now be well demonstrated via the endless amount of black and white movies from those years, and from those same studios, that is now available on Youtube due to catch-me-if-you-can amateur, semi-professional and downright professional content providers.

Back when I only had three TV channels/networks to choose from (for the most part), and could find any one of these under-rated, never-rated or poorly rated black and white movies broadcast over the airwaves on a lazy Saturday afternoon or, even better, well after midnight, I would have considered myself, under certain conditions, to be quite lucky. But the usual TV officially-licensed-movie fare (back then) consisted of drab Charlie Chan movies, a repeat of a Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi/Lon Cheney horror flick, or an extra-special broadcast of Casablanca.

Now I play catch-up, as many of these titles were even hard to find in your local video rental store (another bygone era). This, per force, must be a solo Youtube viewing experience, just as I probably was watching TV alone at 2am (back-in-the-day), hoping against hope that “something good” would come on. I indulge in a kind of nostalgia that others can’t abide, partaking of content that was originally pitched to persons of my parent’s age (when they were young). These were my TV habits: I occasionally caught a glimpse, a hint, of the exponential pile of “golden-era” (or otherwise) Hollywood content. I learned to watch these kind of movies (as indeed, with most TV programs of that era) with half an eye, picking up all the narrative clues while also engaged in other activities.

And so, I came across the Billie Holiday/Louis Armstrong vehicle New Orleans (originally released in 1947) on Youtube, a movie that downplays the mega-watt star power of those two, tossed over to two lackluster white (of course) leading actors. Witness the New York Times review from June 20, 1947: “…the girl (lead actress), Dorothy Patrick is feeble, and Arturo de Cordova (lead actor) plays the merchant of blues as though he were hearing far-off voices and seeing visions like Joan of Arc.”

One point being, by good graces, that even back then I was able to parse the content on TV from a sociological or ideological perspective; critically, as it were, while still viscerally enjoying the show. The deal being, that those old-timey productions with their tangential propaganda or implicit message concerning the-way-things-are-and-should-be was obvious enough to me, because, well, by the late 1960s (my early teenage years) the old guard was already culturally suspect. What was more infuriating was when those same tired ideas about morality or class or race turned up, with some slight tweaking, on a contemporaneous network TV series.

Not that I always penetrated the subtext; sometimes I fell for “the plot”. In this regard, I was intrigued by my first viewing of New Orleans on Youtube, a movie that in the same New York Times review was deemed as, “A far-from-inspired screen endeavor . . .” or, even better, “ . . . a wretchedly routine romance . . .” So let’s start with that: how is it that two towering figures in American jazz took a back seat to two second-tier actors in a movie that intends to “trace the birth and evolution of jazz from Basin Street in New Orleans to the capitals of the world . . .”? The parts of the movie that shine are, of course, the parts where Armstrong and Holiday perform. Assuming that Armstrong is playing live (that is, recorded as the film rolled rather than being dubbed afterwards) he displays a stunning, on-the-spot genius. The insipid part being that the lead white actress first hears a jazz/blues song that she will eventually appropriate/steal so she can supposedly convert dismissive concert goers to jazz, when Holiday, playing the maid of the lead actress’ stodgy aunt, is seated in the aunt’s upper-class parlour playing an off-limits piano. Holliday is promptly chased away, sent back to her menial chores.

But subtext is exactly what Hollywood of that era offers to the beleaguered viewer. And while Ms. Holiday is relegated to a subservient role, substance does leak from the cracks (so to speak). One speculates that with all the bureaucratic and financial phases a Hollywood movie of the era went through, it was most exactly the beleaguered writers who occasionally inserted a reputable subtext, let alone the improvisational asides of Louis Armstrong. At about a half hour into the film, with the “main plot” being set up in Nick Duquesne’s (Arturo de Cordova’s) New Orleans nightclub, we find Miralee Smith (Dorothy Patrick)“slumming” (oh yeah, she likes that jazz) with the implication that these two will eventually hook up, despite the fact that she is “high class” while he runs a gutbucket salon/gambling parlour (albeit in a smart suit). Anyway, besides all that, we get to witness Louis and Billie’s first sustained performance, in which Louis delivers a proto-rap (“everybody move, get right in the groove, there ain’t nothing you can lose”) eventually introducing, in rhyme, all the band members: Charlie Beal: piano, Kid Ory: trombone, Zutty Singleton: drums, Barney Bigard: clarinet, Bud Scott: guitar, Red Callender: bass.

Once Armstrong has introduced the band, put a name to a face so the sincere fan can follow up on the serious information, we are impelled to cut back to the two white romantic leads, in which Mr. Nick (as Armstrong calls him) curiously keeps reprimanding Miss Smith, saying that she shouldn’t be in such a dive location “unchaperoned”. She excitedly insists, “Where does such music come from?” Mr. Nick relents, “It comes from work songs, the Gold Coast of West Africa, Christian churches, riverboats . . .” When Miss Smith asks “Why don’t we hear more of this music?”, Mr. Nick answers obliquely, yet to the point, “There’s a wall around it, a big invisible wall that you can’t climb over.”

Putting aside an allusion to Jim Crow apartheid in Duquesne’s comments, there is also the matter of his business being located in the notorious confines of Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans, let alone that while Duquesne seems honest, sweet, even upstanding, he’s of the Hollywood gangster physical type, read: Italian or “swarthy”, not exactly 100% white in that all-too American era. The actor himself has an Italian-sounding name, but in the dubious reinvention that places like New Orleans allow for, his character’s name has been Frenchified.

The weirdness of USA style sophistication: a Frenchified cafe of the world that specializes in coffee and donuts

Paradoxically, given the shady nature of his sort of business, he keeps trying to warn off Miss Smith, taking her on an automobile tour of the district, showing her saloon patrons getting the bum’s rush, women soliciting clients (the whole place over-run by soldiers and sailors), and all manner of alcoholic/drug addict. When Duquesne offers to show her “a really choice section of town”, Smith has had enough, “Nick, take me home now.”

That brand of moral expose must be broached via Hollywood in order to excuse the mess and move the other supposedly central story forward, that would be how Miralee Smith is going to elevate jazz as an artform, eventually bringing it to the all-white concert hall audience. In the meantime, some of her cohorts shut down the exact Storyville businesses that they previously patronized; things have gotten a little out of hand, I mean, even pristine Miralee is starting to hang out down there. And wouldn’t you know it, this gives Holiday and Armstrong (who are romantically linked in the film) a chance to play “one more tune before we leave”. Billie Holiday stands up, urged on by a sharply-dressed, all-Black audience to “tell it like it is”; Armstrong chipping in with “you get the idea . . . shout some words to it”. Holiday sings, “All you old time queens, from New Orleans, who live in Storyville . . .” The audience begins interjecting, ala church-goers, “That’s right!” Holiday continues, “The law stepped in, and called it sin, to have a little fun . . .” In salute to supposedly lax morality and the socially-uplifting possibilities of miscegenation, a multi-racial population then files out of their hovels into the street, exiting Storyville en masse while singing the just-made-up chorus to Holiday’s song.

The set-back in Storyville has Duquesne moving his business to Chicago, because, of course, he is going to be instrumental, with Louis Armstrong along for the ride, in the promotion and distribution of jazz. But where’s the real action in this film? In the tiniest of scenes Armstrong, once in Chicago, hears someone playing a piano, none other than Meade Lux Lewis, stalwart of the solo piano genre known as boogie-woogie. Armstrong tunes in and says “we got to get together”.

A new thing is brewing. But what are we going to call it? Duquesne over hears a drunken white dude in his nightclub shouting out to the dancers “Jass it up!”. We then get a close-up of Duquesne sporting an expression that says, “hmm”.

While the etymology of “jazz” has been eternally disputed (with many of the greats distancing themselves from the naming) the most intriguing explanation I’ve come across, and extrapolated from, is that like “jizz”, a synonym for sperm (as action or noun), “jazz” denotes vigour or energy, and was occasionally shouted out to the piano player in New Orleans brothels to speed up the tempo as to facilitate a faster turn-over of clients. There has also been speculation that the word is African in origin, with, at the very least, it being primarily located within African-American vernacular.

We now see JAZZ (in the movie), like its definition, whipping up a storm and conquering New York City, Paris, etcetera, but jarringly, in the last twenty minutes or so, its Black performers are erased, seemingly replaced by Woody Herman and his band, certainly by all rights a reputable jazz musician, having for one thing fostered the careers of Jimmy Giuffre, Zoot Sims, and Stan Getz (among many others) as well as being the subject of, supposedly, the first recorded example of be-bop (“Woody’n You” as recorded by Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy Gillespie). What’s far more jarring is that the final song of the movie has Miss Miralee Smith (who is, by-the-by, a “classically” trained singer and performer) pulling a fast one on an all-white concert hall audience and using (as a finale) the song she first heard Billie Holliday singing in her stodgy aunt’s parlour. Wretchedly singing, I might add. I mean, to put it on a scale, as far as white jazz-inflected female pop singers, you’re going to pick Jo Stafford well before Dorothy Patrick, let alone, being utterly depressed that Billie Holiday is not given her rightful place in the scheme of things.

Seeing as the movie was released in 1947, a couple of years after the end of World War Two, well after or into the height of the jazz/pop crossover, what was called “swing”, the movie is dragging its heels as far as converting the unconverted, most especially in leaving us with Miralee Smith’s lackluster send-off. Get hip to it, by that date be-bop was snapping at the heels of the “moldy figs”.

Musical music, historical and cultural connections