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The Cry of Jazz

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Edward Bland’s 1959 documentary The Cry of Jazz is one of the most remarkable films I’ve ever seen. An early statement of the black nationalism that would become famous in the late 60s, Bland argues in this 30 minute film that only African-Americans have the soul and history to play jazz and that whites need to understand their inferiority in the genre is precisely because of their racist history. It’s an amazing film.

Shot for nearly nothing, The Cry for Jazz has bad acting, cheesy dialogue, and an awesome political point. There’s some sort of jazz club meeting. Whites and blacks are both there. They start arguing about race and jazz. The whites typically eschew any sense that blacks are better at jazz or that they have any responsibility for racial inequality or the legacy of slavery and racism. And for Bland, those two things are inseparable. The rest of the film switches from a narrator explaining the relationship between race and music (along with some quite technical information about the music, not every casual fan would get all the references) and the conversation continuing onto new points. The black characters in the room utter such lines as “The Negro is the only Human American” and “If whites had souls, they wouldn’t have tried to steal the Negro’s.” The legacy of racism creates the suffering that allows jazz to exist, thus “Jazz is the one element in American life where whites must be humble to Negroes.”

At the point of maybe convincing the whites, the lead narrator makes an even more shocking statement–Jazz is dying. Why? Because it can’t contain the black experience. New forms of music are needed, a clear reference to rock and roll. One assumes Bland saw hip hop as the extension of this late in life, but I wonder. And let’s face it, jazz is pretty white in 2013. Not exclusively so. But pretty white.

Who thus was Bland’s choice as the vanguard of the African nationalist music at the time? Why Sun Ra and his Arkestra! First, it’s of course the appropriate choice but who knows how obvious that was in 1959? Second, this is the first known footage of the Arkestra! It’s shot very darkly so most of it is of John Gilmore and you only see Ra’s back. But wow.

The film was quite controversial within the African-American intellectual community. Ralph Ellison hated it. LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka, loved it. For a period where assimilationism dominated the civil rights movement, this is quite the forward thinking statement.

Certainly not the best movie I’ve ever seen but judged for its jaw-dropping message and audacity, it’s a must see.

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