I rarely suffer from writer’s block, but I’ve been stymied for weeks and weeks by the opening of the fifth chapter of Mood Indigo, my Duke Ellington biography. I’m sure that the underlying reason for my paralysis was the unusually high level of distraction in my life, but I found it so hard to get going that I actually became near-phobic about it.
Yesterday I finally broke through the ice and wrote the following words:
Hollywood has always had an equivocal relationship with jazz. Once upon a time, the presence of a saxophone on the soundtrack of a Hollywood film was a signpost pointing to unbridled sexuality. Nowadays it indicates world-weary sophistication. But no matter what signals the sound of jazz is meant to send, the making and makers of jazz have usually been romanticized when they are portrayed in movies (just as the music itself is softened). Nor has the American film industry ever been at ease in putting black musicians on the screen in anything other than the most stereotypical of roles–when it allows them to appear at all. The supremely photogenic Louis Armstrong was customarily relegated to such roles, so much so that he once played a character who was referred to on screen as “Uncle Tom.” Even though the first feature-length talking picture was called The Jazz Singer, it was not until 1929 that black jazz musicians of importance appeared on the silver screen. Moreover, the films in question were shot in Manhattan, not Hollywood, and they were directed not by an old studio hand but by an avant-garde filmmaker.
* * *
Excerpts from Black and Tan, a 1929 short directed by Dudley Murphy and starring Duke Ellington and Fredi Washington: