Though both have their roots in the previous century, jazz and cinema came of age as 20th century art forms, and they very often did so together (though not always in the most tasteful ways). Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer introduced the world to talkies. Cabaret, Lady Sings the Blues, The Cotton Club are all well-known fictional films that nearly anyone might name if asked about the subject. And though Ken Burns’ Jazz may seem like a definitive statement in jazz documentary, for decades, filmmakers have made jazz musicians their central subject—for example, in jazz fan-favorites like Mingus and Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser. Before these excellent, if sometimes painful, portraits, there were short films like Life magazine photographer Gjon Mili’s 1944 Jammin’ the Blues with Lester Young and other bop stalwarts, and 1950’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, a selection of clips featuring Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Buddy Rich, Ella Fitzgerald, and others performing at Norman Granz’s legendary series of concerts.
You’ll see excerpts from both Jammin’ the Blues and Jazz at the Philharmonic above in The Greatest Jazz Films Ever, a two-disc DVD set that appears to be out of print. (New copies currently retail on Amazon for anywhere from $259.00 to almost $4,000, but you can watch it free online.) This greatest hits collection also includes highlights from several television specials like Be Bop’s Nest—a rare Charlie Parker appearance with Dizzy Gillespie on the short-lived variety show Stage Entrance—and “The Sound of Miles Davis,” a 1959 episode of television show The Robert Herridge Theater that showcased one of Davis’ most celebrated ensembles.
You’ll also see excerpts from The Sound of Jazz, which Fresh Sound Records calls “one of the great glorious moments on television,” and which contains performances from Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, the Count Basie Orchestra, and more. Finally, we get excerpts from a 1959 television special called Jazz From Studio 61, featuring the original Ahmad Jamal Trio with the Ben Webster Quintet. The Greatest Jazz Films Ever is an impressive and enduring collection of documents from the golden age of jazz. While the emphasis here is generally on musicianship, not filmmaking, it’s a collection that also demonstrates jazz’s close relationship to film and television in the mid-20th century. Allmusic has a complete tracklist of the collection. And for a detailed breakdown of each clip, you won’t want to pass up a scroll through this helpful French site.