The Cry of Jazz: 1958’s Highly Controversial Film on Jazz & Race in America (With Music by Sun Ra)

“Jazz is dead.” You can imag­ine how that state­ment, poten­tial­ly inflam­ma­to­ry even today, shook things up when film­mak­er Edward Bland dared to say it in 1958. He did­n’t cause the stir so much by say­ing the words him­self, but by putting them in the mouth of Alex, one of the main char­ac­ters in his con­tro­ver­sial “semi-doc­u­men­tary” The Cry of Jazz. Alex appears in the film as one of sev­en mem­bers of a racial­ly mixed jazz appre­ci­a­tion soci­ety, strag­glers who stay behind after a meet­ing and fall into a con­ver­sa­tion about the nature, ori­gin, and future of jazz music. “Thanks a lot, Bruce, for show­ing me how rock and roll is jazz,” says an appre­cia­tive Natal­ie, one of the white women, to one of the white men. Enter, swift­ly, Alex, one of the black men:

“Bruce? Did you tell her that rock and roll was jazz?”

“Yeah, sure. That’s what I told her. Is there some­thing wrong with that?”

“Bruce, how square can you get? Rock and roll is not jazz. Rock and roll is mere­ly an off­spring of rhythm and blues.”


Debate ensues, but Alex ulti­mate­ly pre­vails, leav­ing all races present speech­less with his abil­i­ty to unite the nar­ra­tive of jazz music with the nar­ra­tive of the black Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence. We have here less a fic­tion film or a doc­u­men­tary than a type of heat­ed didac­tic essay — a cry itself, in some sense — unlike any oth­er motion pic­ture on the sub­ject. “The movie caused an uproar,” writes the New York Times’ Paul Vitel­lo in Bland­’s 2013 obit­u­ary. “Notable intel­lec­tu­als took sides. The nov­el­ist Ralph Elli­son called it offen­sive. The poet LeRoi Jones, lat­er known as Amiri Bara­ka, called it pro­found­ly insight­ful. An audi­ence dis­cus­sion after a screen­ing in 1960 in Green­wich Vil­lage became so heat­ed that the police were called. The British crit­ic Ken­neth Tynan, in a col­umn for The Lon­don Observ­er, wrote that it ‘does not real­ly belong to the his­to­ry of cin­e­mat­ic art, but it assured­ly belongs to his­to­ry’ as ‘the first film in which the Amer­i­can Negro has issued a direct chal­lenge to the white.’ ”

Where The Cry of Jazz oper­ates most straight­for­ward­ly as a doc­u­men­tary, it cap­tures the era’s extant styles of jazz (whether you con­sid­er them liv­ing or, as Alex insists, dead) as per­formed by the com­pos­er-band­leader Sun Ra and his Arkestra just a few years before his total self-trans­for­ma­tion into a sci-fi pharaoh. This pro­vides a “pul­sat­ing track of sound under the nar­ra­tion and serves to punc­tu­ate the protagonist’s long, engross­ing lec­ture with appro­pri­ate seg­ments of per­for­mance footage and musi­cal coun­ter­point,” writes poet John Sin­clair. “Inquis­i­tive view­ers may gain immense­ly from expo­sure to Bland’s fierce­ly icon­o­clas­tic expo­si­tion on the state of African Amer­i­can cre­ative music on the his­tor­i­cal cusp of the mod­ern jazz era and the free jazz, avant garde, New Black Music move­ment of the 1960s.” And on the issue of the death of jazz, I sub­mit for your con­sid­er­a­tion just four of the albums that would come out the next year: Ornette Cole­man’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, Charles Min­gus’ Min­gus Ah Um, the Dave Brubeck Quar­tet’s Time Out, and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. A top­ic cov­ered in the film, 1959: The Year that Changed Jazz.

Find more great doc­u­men­taries in our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Child’s Intro­duc­tion to Jazz by Can­non­ball Adder­ley (with Louis Arm­strong & Thelo­nious Monk)

Jazz ‘Hot’: The Rare 1938 Short Film With Jazz Leg­end Djan­go Rein­hardt

Haru­ki Murakami’s Pas­sion for Jazz: Dis­cov­er the Novelist’s Jazz Playlist, Jazz Essay & Jazz Bar

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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