2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
The Cry of Jazz and the expressive politics of music and race: interview with Ed Bland
by Chuck Kleinhans
About Bland's film The Cry of Jazz (1959)
Edward O. Bland directed the remarkable film, The Cry of Jazz (1959), a landmark work of African American independent filmmaking. A 34 minute-long exposition about the nature and status of jazz music and the situation of black Americans, the film uses dramatic dialogue, direct address argumentation, realist documentary illustration, an innovative music soundtrack, and essayistic construction to argue about the nature of U.S. jazz music as an expression of the situation of black Americans in the center of the Civil Rights era. Seeing jazz as both empowering and limiting, the film is an acute and even painful statement of its political, social, cultural, and artistic moment.
The film’s frame starts with a post-meeting discussion at the “Parkwood Jazz Club” among a racially mixed group of members. When a young white guy offers the opinion that rock ‘n’ roll is jazz, he is schooled by several very articulate black fellows who give an elaborate explanation of both the formal musical qualities of jazz and an explanation of jazz as an African American cultural form. The film was controversial in its first screenings: denounced as “Negro chauvinism” and promoted as bearing a message whites needed to hear and understand. It was elected to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2010. The film experienced a new surge of interest following the revived reputation of musician Sun Ra whose group is seen and heard extensively illustrating the didactic points.
After making the film, Ed Bland has had a notable career in the commercial music industry as a recording executive. In his varied professional life he has also been a working performing musician, a composer of blues and rhythm and blues music, a music-track producer for educational films, an arranger and recording executive for dozens of notable music artists, a composer, arranger, and orchestrator for dramatic and documentary films, a jazz radio DJ, a concert impresario, and a teacher and mentor to young aspiring hip hop artists. He has also composed work in the field of “art music,” that is, modern classical music.
I was astonished when I first saw the film in the 1970s, and I wanted to find out more about it and its director. That took a long time, but I finally had a chance to interview Ed Bland in Los Angeles, April 2, 1998. This interview represents that encounter, augmented with a few facts from other sources. [open endnotes in new window]
Nina Cartier, a Ph.D. student in Screen Cultures, Northwestern University, did the initial transcription of the interview (and a terrific job!). I have edited it into a more concise and readable format (standard procedure for interviews). And I promised Bland the opportunity to review the interview before publication for any corrections of fact.
Because new information has come to light, and several later interviews have been published, I’ve added some explanatory and additional information here in footnotes, hoping to make this as efficient for the reader and as accurate and informative as possible especially for a younger and international audience who may not know all the passing references.  The film can be found often on YouTube, often posted by fans of jazz musician Sun Ra, who appears with his band, in this rarest of footage of Ra’s early career. But I would encourage anyone to obtain the excellent DVD version of film for better viewing and audio.  Other interviews and writers have been especially interested in Bland’s music career; in this interview I’ve concentrated on the influences on and meaning of his single film. But I’ve also come to see The Cry of Jazz and Bland’s career as being profoundly connected to its times, the changes in music and African American culture in the post WW2 era. The film was made in Chicago, and since I grew up there and returned to teach there I think Bland spoke more familiarly about those aspects of it.
I intend to write a follow up article providing a close analysis of the film itself. In it I will get to elaborate some points, but it will be useful for today’s readers to remember or know that the film appeared at a key phase in the Civil Rights Era. The film itself does not mention specific recent events in the struggle, but the audience at the time would have been acutely aware of what the film’s narrator, Alex, describes as the “savagery of white Americans.” While the U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education 1954 decision conventionally marks the start of the Civil Rights Era by ending legal school segregation, Americans witnessed national events on television, such as the 1956 attempt by a young black woman to enroll in the University of Alabama which resulted in whites rioting, and President Eisenhower’s sending Federal Army and National Guard troops to Arkansas to hold back angry abusive whites and protect black students while Little Rock High School was integrated. In 1958 a black church was bombed during Sunday morning church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls. These headline events and many smaller more local struggles were common knowledge at the first screenings in 1959.
CK: First of all, another teacher at Northwestern, Zeinabu Davis, said to say hello. She met you once at [filmmaker] Julie Dash’s house here in Los Angeles. She said that she remembered one long evening where you started talking about the relation of jazz and film, and she said it just kept going on and on and on, and she loved it and she remembers that as one of the best times she ever had in LA. 
To start, can you tell me about how you grew up and how you got to the point of making The Cry of Jazz?
EB. I was born in Chicago, July 25, 1926. I lived there until World War II was on and I was drafted into the Navy. When I was a little boy, my father (Edward Bland) worked at the Post Office. But he was also a literary critic and active in literary groups. I would be forced to sit in some of his literary meetings and listen to people like Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright or Gwendolyn Brooks, and so on.  I hated it. I wanted to play baseball. (laughs) You know, I was thinking, “What’s this guy makin’ me do this for when I could be havin’ some fun?” It was boring, you know. You’re 7 or 8 years old, and this is boring shit.
I had grown out of a situation in my home where my father was a Marxist. I don’t know if he ever belonged to the [Communist] Party or not, but there are so many ways in which that can be expressed, you know, like Socialism and the Socialist Party and Trotsky and all that other stuff. And my mother was deep into Voodoo. So here was I, right in the middle, (laughs)…in the middle of this mess.
Before I went in the Navy I had a couple of years of college because I got out of high school when I was 16. During my musical development, my mind started to expand. My father was an autodidact, and he had thousands of books around the house including, you know, (James Joyce’s) Ulysses and I remember once he had me go get a book by Bertram Russell and I brought it to him, and he shows me Bertram Russell’s picture and I say, “Oh, he’s ugly.” And my father being very stiff said, “It doesn’t matter whether he’s ugly. He’s a great man. You understand that?” [EB replies] “Yes I understand that.” (laughs) So all these books and influences were around. So then, I got into college, and I had a chance.
CK: But you were also involved in music.
EB: Well, put it this way, we were good. In those days, there was much more around for kids, young musicians, to do than there is now, paradoxically, and I was playing sax and clarinet in various bands around town. One of the places we would meet would be in Washington Park at the fieldhouse there.  You knew every musician from the neighborhood, and we had a little “big band.” Well, one of the players who was in the Jay McShann Band, a saxophone player, was sitting next to me and we were jammin’ and stuff and battlin’ each other in solos and so it comes up, he says to me “I’m quittin’ the band. Uh, if you want, I’ll recommend you for my chair.” And he says, “You’ll be sitting next to a fella named Charlie Parker.” And, I knew about Charlie Parker. And so, I said “Well, I have to get permission from my mother.” ‘Cause my father was in the war. So she wouldn’t give it.
CK: Well, you were pretty young.
EB: That, and plus she had the thing where she had to be able to say to people that my son is going to college. See. And so, anyway, I was caught in between that. I’m very happy I didn’t go out on the road…Now! So, I went to school at Wilson Junior College. This was when Junior Colleges were good, and their music major was based on the two-year plan of the University of Chicago.
When Pearl Harbor occurred in 1941, I knew what I was going to go in the service. I was 15, and I was playing music. And I would meet all the sailors from the band up at [the US Navy training center] Great Lakes, and they said, “Be sure and get into the Navy band. You should have no trouble, you play so well.” And so that was it. I went in the Navy in January of ‘45, and the War was over in August, and I spent a year, waiting, almost to the day to get discharged. I was stationed at Treasure Island [the major San Francisco Bay Area Naval Base].
You know, all I did was play the Star Spangled Banner, in the morning, and now and then we’d have some other duty, like play a dance. And that was it. And then things really became very rough after the war was over, because, you know, the country was celebrating. Consequently, we had duty all over. We had to be spiffy. You know all the admirals were coming through. We had to be neat as hell, things we didn’t have to do before. Every button had to be buttoned. And we were marching up and down the streets of San Francisco all the time. (laughs) So, that was the rough time: after the war was over.
At that time, in terms of college, you started majoring in your Junior year, and I knew that music composition was what I wanted to do. But I didn’t have the analytical tools that one needs to understand how a piece of music is put together. So, I was trying to read form and analysis books all the time. I’d go to the San Francisco Library all the time, but the books I found didn’t make any sense to me. So I’d began to develop a fine interest in philosophy. Also I’d read all kinds of musical criticism, especially the leading composers’ journal called Modern Music. I could see that the way in which writers criticized a piece of music was based on some type of philosophical assumptions. Those weren’t explicit at all; but, consequently, I decided, that obviously, anything I write when I get down to composing, I’m going to have to defend in some way or another, so I may as well go further in philosophy also. So at least I’ll know what the competing bases of various arguments are. And so, that is what made me go to the University of Chicago after the war.
Well, my father got killed in WWII. Gwendolyn Brooks dedicated her book of poems, Annie Allen, to him. So, my father had gotten killed and we had a horrible family life. All of us. So I said well, maybe I’ll stick around Chicago. ‘Cause, I could have gone to Eastman [School of Music], I could have stayed out on the West Coast and gone up to Berkeley where Roger Sessions was. But I said you know I should give this family life one last chance. And so I did. And it didn’t work: the family was just too dysfunctional, and it all dissipated, but that’s one of the reasons I came back and stayed in Chicago. The other was, my very best friend was a mathematician who grew up in the same neighborhood, Eugene Titus. He was going to the University of Chicago, and we were like this (motions with his hands). And so I decided, well I’ll stay around Chicago a bit more and see just what happens.
The main reason to go to University of Chicago was, that I knew if I had gone to a conservatory, yes I’d learn all the craft. At Northwestern too, I would learn all the craft I needed, but I wouldn’t know why. I had to find out what was, why was music conceived of in the manner in which was, in terms of writing contemporary symphonic music. And so I figured, well, I know University of Chicago is not a good school in terms of making all the connections you need to make and learning all the performance skills and things like that, but at least I can ask these questions---they’ll tolerate my questions. So I went there. And they tolerated my questions, uhm for a little bit…(laughs)…up to a point. But they hated me, you know. But I didn’t give a damn about that. ‘Cause I had to get my answers. And you know, eventually, I did get either the answers or I knew how to get them.
So then I transferred to the American Conservatory of Music, and the UC Music Department was very happy to see me go. I finished up the rest of my GI Bill at American Conservatory.  And a little bit later, I studied with a modernist composer, an atonal composer in the Chicago area named John Becker, who used to teach at Chicago Musical College. I studied privately with him. Well Becker was one of the early American modernists like Charles Ives. 
CK: That’s a really rich background.
EB: Oh yeah, well it is a very rich background. It gets richer..(laughs) Ok. Then eventually, it got to the point where I had to think about making a living. I’d given up playing altogether because I figured I had to get as far away from anything having to do with the jazz language as possible, to make sure that I made as pure a statement as possible of myself. And I could always go back. But having anything like that around me might keep me from going further and also give me easy ways out. You know I wanted to be as pure about it as possible. So, eventually I had used up all my, Navy benefits and had to think about getting a job, and by that time I had a kid on the way. So I started getting back in touch with my jazz musician friends and stuff. And I said, well I can always write popular songs. Which I could still. I was deep into Stockhausen and Webern and all that type of stuff, still.
So then, comes another period of richness. I started hanging around Chess Records.  And this was two or three years before Elvis.   And so, what you’d see, and it struck me immediately as something strange was going on, ‘cause you’d hit Roosevelt Road right at Michigan and you’d see the Illinois Central tracks, and you’d see hundreds of people who just arrived from the South, walking, with their belongings wrapped up in newspaper and they were headed to the West Side.  And blacks in Chicago who were more sophisticated—or so we should say the jazz lover types—were on the South Side.
So, some musician friends of mine introduced me to Chess Records. Chess wanted nothing but blues, so I had to remember how to write a blues, and then presented some Blues to Chess Records. And one of the owners looks at me and says, “We don’t do business with people who have copyright on their music.”
CK: (laughs) They wanted control!
EB: (laughs) And that was the beginning, when you begin to see what the plantation was, really. You know, they were very interesting guys. And when they started off, their main interest and love was jazz. But in order to stay in business they had to fulfill this market, as one of them said, “Look, we’re not Mercury Records,” ‘cause you know, Mercury was downtown.  So they said, “but, we know if we make a Muddy Waters record we’ll sell 40,000 copies.” And then, as talent came up from the South, they had many, many people they could rely on. That, and using Gospel music.  And they had a captive audience, so to speak.
And so, we did not, you know, Chess Records and I didn’t get along very well, ‘cause I was very smart-assed at the time, and I was more interested in what was right, and so on and so forth. And it was obvious that one couldn’t talk to any of the stars around there because they’re making whatever they’re making you know, and if you start telling them about how they can correct things, “well, who are you? (laughs) I’m makin’ $350 a week. You know, if it wasn’t for Mr. Chess, I wouldn’t be making that. “
And right across the street from Chess was Vee-Jay.  Chess was in an automobile garage which they had refurbished into a recording studio. I remember one day sitting there and a disc jockey named McKee Fitzhugh called up—just dyin’. And Phil said, “What?!? White boys are buying our records at McKee Fitzhugh’s record shop!” And they were pissing! 
I started thinking, uh-oh this could be a real structural change. Because you know, everything in the music business is just night and day, 90 days and the trend is over. What I started doing was getting Billboard, analyzing the top 100 records and seeing where they came from, and writing in that style, or a combination of those styles. And I ended up getting contracts with various publishers and stuff around town. Nothing ever with Chess Records, but I was fine. I liked being there just to watch the whole thing develop. Then Bo Diddley came along, a little later. And Bo Diddley got in, and you heard this stuff coming over and it sounded like sheer jungle stuff, you know. 
At that time, the covers were being made by the various singers who were like the Maguire sisters who were on the Arthur Godfrey Show.  I begin to see perhaps the blacks in this thing were avant-garde. I had to think of it in that way. Before, to me, the avant-garde was Stockhausen and Webern.
EB: But at least I saw this phenomenon going on that might be somewhat interesting. And then, what was very evident from reading the trades back then was that these huge companies like, you know, Mercury, RCA, Columbia, Decca, London Records; it was about five or seven record companies that were pretty big at the time. They had all this power and clout and yet they couldn’t control the market, you know. This was like what’s happening now in terms of rap music. But there they were, and I said well this should be interesting to see just how this develops. And the answer to that, was after about two or three years of this new music not being under control, was Elvis. (And, Carl Perkins shoulda been the one, because he came out first with “Blue Suede Shoes” and but was the breaks.) The Chess Brothers were good friend with some of the records people. I think it was Sam Phillips, down in Memphis.  So, that’s another item of richness yet, to see all this develop, and gauging this time, in terms of what’s actually going on. It was another education.
Making The Cry of Jazz
CK: Oh, that’s fascinating. How did you decide to make your film?
EB: Well, The Cry Of Jazz came into being, let’s see, something like this: There were four of us who were friends of a kind, with, various degrees of tension…Three of us were real close, and the thing is produced by a company called KHTB…
The K is for Mark Kennedy; the T is Eugene Titus, he was the mathematician; then there’s, H, Hill, Nelam Hill. All three of these guys are dead now. And then the B is me. Kennedy was a novelist, he wrote something called The Pecking Order.  Ah, I think it was, came out in paperback as Boy Gang. Nelam was a city planner, and at one time he was head of urban renewal or city planning for Jersey City. Titus was a research aide, working at the Museum of Science and Industry for the Air Force on missiles. It was key to the scientific group for the Cold War. After Titus left Chicago he went to Dayton, Dayton Air Force Base, and then he moved back to Chicago and died. And there was me, and, my interest was musical composition.
And so, we were sittin’ around drinking at Jimmy’s.  Drinking off and on. Kennedy’s book had come out, so he was heading out to New York. He was talking about some of the people he had met on the Near North side, and the power of film. You know how films could be done cheaply and inexpensively. So, and I knew something about film because my first job after being kicked out of schools was to score a film for the Anti-Defamation League in Chicago, called To Live Together, that came out about 1950. This guy, John Barnes later became head or close to head of Encyclopedia Britannica Films.  He worked out of his house. He had an editing bench all set up. In fact I saw how inexpensively it could be done, and I knew he was paying me, and there wasn’t anybody else involved. I saw it could be done relatively cheaply if one wanted.
So, that rang a bell when Kennedy had said that. Plus, knowing how ubiquitous film was in terms of getting around the world, there was a possible source of propagandistic power if one wanted to look at it that way. So, at any rate, he was telling me about some people he had met on the Near North side, one was a film editor, his name was Howard Alk.  But it was a long time before I met Howard, but it just, stayed in my mind.
So, after Kennedy had left, me and some other kids around that were white start arguing about jazz, and before I knew it, the thing that was getting to me was that they were trying to take all the credit for its invention and everything else. And I said, “Fuck this shit!” They, first of all, they don’t know anything, in terms of knowing the technical side of music or the historical side. And secondly, the way to put all this in perspective is to just make a film. We can do it quite cheaply.
So Nelham and I started thinking about that. We, got ahold of Titus who still lived in town, working at the Museum of Science and Industry. For money, whatever we could put together from our various jobs. It was mostly me and Nelham. I was working, I think, at the post office then. Nelham was at the Chicago Housing Authority. Kennedy was in New York. So, we sent scripts around and started planning. That’s how it all started. It came off an argument that occurred, you know, in Jimmy’s.
Then as it developed, you know the subject was bigger than music, especially after having seen what was going on with Chess and with migration from South to the North, and being able to put this stuff together. That’s, that’s how it started.
CK: How long did it take to make it from the time that you got the basic idea?
EB: The basic idea came out, probably in December of ‘56. And so we had this script and we had to try to find out what filmmaking was (laughs)…which we never did find out (chuckles) I don’t know when we started. Let’s see we finished New Year’s Eve of ‘58, cause the next year was ‘59. The copyright date was ‘59 on that film, and I remember being at Howard Alk’s place, and we very happy with what we had worked on. We were writing in ‘57 and rewriting, you know, auditioning and planning and, shot it in ‘58.
It’s probably about spring of ‘58 when we took time out, for the guy we wanted, you know who was gonna edit, was the cameraman but he’d never done any sync editing, and so he had to bow out, and that’s how Howard came in. And so I had gotten in touch with Howard, I went out to the Near North, and met with him, and showed him what we were doing and he said, “Well look, I’ll work with you for nothing. Just pay for the rental of the movieola.” Cause he was very busy as a commercial editor so, that we did and that’s how it all started, in terms of getting the final phase going.
Howard was completely shocked by it, and but, nevertheless he worked with us, and was a beautiful cat. I didn’t realize then that his closest friend was Paul Sills.  Cause I had known Paul from Hyde Park but I didn’t know him from the Near North Side. So, then Paul came to town while we were in the midst of editing. That’s when Second City started, and Al Grossman who ran The Gate of Horn. Howard and Al owned that. They had all those folk acts going. And I brought in Al Grossman. Nelham also knew Grossman, Grossman was also in housing, working for Chicago Housing Authority then. 
CK: Now where did it premiere? And how was, what was the reception like?
EB: Well the first time we had a chance to see the reception was at Howard’s place. Howard has the equivalent of what would be called a loft these days…So he had a bunch of his friends from the North side over, including Odetta who was one of Grossman’s clients at the time, and people from Near North and they had a fit. But you know it wasn’t too bad.
Now, where did it really show first? Well we couldn’t show it in any theaters in 16mm. And, at that time, nobody had dual capacity. I’m sure they do now in top theaters, or did, before the advent of video. It was shown at the Abraham Lincoln Center for about a month or so. And nobody as I can remember was all that happy about it. Playboy was still in Chicago, and it was shown at the Playboy Jazz Festival (Aug, 1959) and then I think it may have gotten some reviews. 
And then about the same time we had sent a copy to Kennedy to see if he could do New York, and he was the one who got Cinema 16. He was friends with Ricky Leacock and got Cinema 16, and Cinema 16 said well we want to premiere this in February, had to be February of ‘60. And we want to have a panel with you and Ed if you can come to town and uh, Marshall Stearns, Ralph Ellison, and Nat Hentof. 
And so, that happened. It was getting to the point that I was thinking about moving to New York anyway, because of the music. First my friends had come to town from various jazz groups and they were saying, well you oughta move to New York. And I said, well, what am I gonna do in New York? They said well you could work in music. I said but I’m not playing anymore. They said, well you could write.
And so James Moody came to town, a friend, a good friend of mine.  Moody asked me to write 20 arrangements for him, do some work on tunes for him. So I did that, and then knowing how musicians don’t get paid, I said, “well, you know, the safest way to earn a living in music, and a good one, is by writing for recording sessions.” This friend of mine had done some work for some recording sessions so I asked him what the scale was, and did he know people? Yes. So, with these 20 charts under my hand, I went to New York. Me and my wife had a boy, and so I went to New York in February of 1960. It was the first time I had ever flown in an airplane. I couldn’t take the train, because some extra work had come up in Chicago, some film scores to do, so it was extra money, but I had to stay longer, and I wanted a night’s sleep before I got on that stage; I decided to fly. 
So, I got there and started getting used to being in New York. There was some controversy at the screening, especially from a cat, Ralph Ellison. Kenneth Tynan wrote about the film for the London Observer. He said it was a historical document, in a sense. This was the first time he knew of in film that blacks had challenged whites period, you know, on any grounds, and whereas it may not had been the greatest film in the world, it was at least an historical moment. It should be noticed. And he called the acting and everything else amateurish, said it was on a slim budget and looked like it, and had second-rate music by somebody called Sun Ra. And then Dwight McDonald said, “ A sorry paean of racial prejudice,” I think it was in the New York Magazine, uh, so on and so forth. 
CK: So the controversy really erupted very fast.
EB: Well, the movie was called racist. I mean people wanted to know whether we belonged to the Muslims.  I’d virtually never heard of the Muslims. I knew they existed, but I knew, I’d seen people on street corners. But you see a lot of funny things on street corners in Chicago.
New York City years
EB: So that was the beginning of it. Now, right along with that, some how or another, Jonas Mekas knew that this was in the works. He was in Chicago visiting other Lithuanians a few times and we lived in the Hyde Park area, so he came by and visited, to see just how this film was coming along. When I was going to New York, he kept me aware of how to move into the Lower East Side, paying only $35 or $40 a month rent. So I had money saved up, and we made the transition. New York is so strange, you know coming from Chicago.
I had been there once before, I was gonna move there in ‘49 but, there was a love affair involved and we broke up, so I didn’t. The first time I saw it, I said I’d never live here. Never. It was impossible. Buildings like this (he smacks his hands together, laughs) When I did finally get there, I realized, tempermentally it’s very different place than Chicago. And my idea of New York was, ok, it’s three times as big or was three times as big then, uh, then it’s gonna be three times as rough as Chicago. So, but no, New York is a very soft and nice city, you know, once you realize the neighborhood character of it, and they’ve got this rough exterior but that doesn’t mean anything. Very decent place. And I was sensing that, and I didn’t wanna bring my Chicago aggressiveness, shall we say, to a place where it was inappropriate.
So, I didn’t work for a year, you know I had enough saved up and I could stop, so I just met people, and tried to get a feel of the place cause it was very different. Among the people I met at that time was Shirley Clarke, Willard Van Dyke, Emile de Antonio; we all became great friends. Let’s see. I met Pennebaker and Leacock and I’d hang with them, but I’d worked with Shirley on The Cool World.  Let’s see who else: then the Mekas Brothers, Sheldon Rochlin, Lionel Rogosin. De Antonio was very interested in The Cry, and started talking to us about what the next film could be. 
CK: Well, you certainly were introduced to a lot of people. And you were working closely with different people. In the piece you wrote for Film Culture you wrote, about, you said you were planning another one. So, what happened with those plans?
EB: Oh, it was written, all right. What had to happen, was that we had to learn how to write. Let’s see. This is probably the last copy I’ve got. This is what it ended up. (points to typescript). It took about, uh, ten years, it was like writing a novel.
And then once that was done, we got turned down I think at about a hundred and some places. And we didn’t we didn’t have the money to do this one. But at least it got done. It was good for me in a sense that it introduced me to what the discipline of writing was about.
Oh I had to earn a living. I’d had another kid, so I went to the record industry. I knew Clarke Terry and I met everybody, you know, a lot of guys I used to play with, especially when they were in positions with great connections. And so they introduced me to a lot of people. 
I wanted to do arrangements, behind singers, or for bands, so on. So, that’s what I did. It was rough, at first, even with all the connections I had. I remember getting on the phone, and making 600 phones calls in six weeks, but I got my first job after that. Then I got two jobs in one day and started getting really good work. I was still looking for a full time job or a day job, so to speak, but it just wasn’t happening. Finally I realized this is what I’m good at, and that’s what I’ve done for most of my life.
But, all kinds of things happened, like from ‘68 to ‘74, I produced, close to a hundred concerts for the Museum of Modern Art: the “Jazz in the Garden Series,” and the “Summer Garden Series.” Also coming out of that was the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I think I did 30 or 40 concerts for them. Plus film work because of my connections with the New York City film people. I was making my living by doing all these different short term projects, except for the four years I was head of A&R for Vanguard Records.
CK: When was that?
EB: From ‘74 to ‘78. It was the result of all this time in the record industry. They called me up and said do you want the gig, and it was the high point of a career. So I decided I better take it. I wanted to get back to writing, in fact I had started writing again. I decided to take it, cause I said I could always quit. (chuckles) But, you just don’t throw power away, just like that. It was an interesting, another type of madness in itself.
CK: What about Sun Ra?  Were you close to him, or had you just met him in the environment ?
EB: Ohhh. Well, Sun Ra, you know, having been a former jazz musician, I’d asked my friends from time to time what’s happening, you know, who’s doing what? And so, one of my friends mentioned Sun Ra, said he had this thing going on in the park in Chicago, and all this, what I considered weird talk. Fine. I don’t care about that. What’s the music like? So about he same time, during the time I was around Chess Records, I became a disc jockey, in Chicago, under another name, a jazz disc jockey, and played all this stuff, and among the records that came to my attention was a recording that Sun Ra had made, you know, on his on label. And it was absorbing, and quite decent, you know, the man was a good musician. So, when it became time to make Cry of Jazz, I could’ve written the music for it, but that would cost money so, the thing was how to get the jazz soundtrack without spending any money. So, I got in touch with Sun Ra, and I guess more of his representatives. Alton Abraham who was his manager at the time, the time we spoke, about using the music for the soundtrack of the film. And that’s how it happened. And his music was certainly good enough and interesting enough to be used to illustrate some of the points, that I wanted to, in terms of music. So, that’s how it happened. Uh, Sun Ra and I, uh, were miles apart, you know, temperamentally.
He was a likeable man, and stuff, and there’s more to the story. We moved to New York. About a year after we’re there, I get a call from Sun Ra. He’s up in Canada. And he’s asking me, “do you think we could make it in New York?” I said, “well, it’s tough, but uh there’s only one thing to do and that’s to try.” So he came by and whenever we had extra places for dinner and stuff, the guys, you know, John Gilmore and Pat Patrick, came by.  And then, things started happening for me in the record thing. Ok, so then, when I needed side men for these record gigs, I got Sun Ra. He needed the money anyway. Good musician, I mean, very virtuous musician.
And then, extra things would happen. A lot of these singers and songwriters couldn’t read or write music. So, somebody would have to do the dictations and it wasn’t gonna be me, so I’d get an additional part of the budget. Sun Ra was very patient with the guy. One of the people was the guy who wrote “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,”….Another Chicagoan, I forgot his name: Curlee Williams.  And the trouble with taking dictation from amateur songwriters is, each time you write something down, it changes the next time around. So it’s a never-ending job. So anyway, Sunny grew a name for it. There was a budget there for him, so I used the guy as much as I could, instead of using regular studio musicians.
Another guy who hung around was Tom Wilson. Tom Wilson was the black A&R man at Columbia Records who gave us Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan. I first met him in Chicago with Sun Ra. Tom was out of Boston and he had an MBA from Harvard, and he had this little record label, Transition, and he was doing some recording of Sun-Ra also, so when I got to New York I looked him up. He was on the Fidelity Records at the time and I worked on many, many recording dates with Todd. He moved on to CBS and eventually gave us Simon and Garfunkel. And Dylan.
I stopped using Sunny because what happened was this: the key to any recording session is everybody has to be there on time. You gotta be ready to go. You got three hours, you got 14 weeks, you gotta do it. You know, it’s not the most disciplined thing in the world, but it’s disciplined, and you can’t walk in at two o’clock. And if you’re a drummer, you gotta be there a half and hour early in order to set up your paraphernalia. So..
CK: You’re paying for the studio, and the time, and the engineers and everything.
EB: Right,. So it go to the point where Sunny was getting there late to the session times. And he had started complaining about how he was doing earth music. He didn’t want to do earth music, he wanted to do his outer space stuff, I said well fine. Get yourself a record label. I didn’t know who would record him. The only person I could think of who might record him might be Todd. And Todd didn’t want anything. Todd was trying to establish his own realm, you know. But as he got more successful, he wanted less and less to do with Sunny. And, one, particular time, one, session we did, we had Sun Ra and part of the Blues Project, it was Danny Kalb and Al Cooper.
CK: I went to college with Danny Kalb. Yeah.
EB: But Sunny was talking about how earth music was a drag and I said well, I was doing him a favor, and then he starts showing up late for the sessions. I said, Sunny I can’t have this. And uh, so, I warned him, and then he showed up late again so then I started using studio men, regular studio men. That was the last time I really had much to do with Sun Ra. I remember I had just started doing the MoMA concerts, and he wanted to know when I was gonna book him in there. And I said, “I can’t. You know, you won’t draw anybody."
CK: one of the things my students always notice when they see it is a certain level of sexual politics in it. Within the film, one white woman is very obviously, it seems, very attracted to the black men. And at the same time, there is an antagonism there as well: the white guys function as sort of a counterpoint as well. Can you say some more about that?
EB: Well, there’s not really much to say.
CK: The film shows the racial conflict, but my students, from today’s perspective, say, well isn’t there something else that’s going on here as well? It’s not just black and white; it’s also men and women.
EB: Well, as expressed to the white/black thing, I can say that I imagine it’s much cooler out there now, than it was then, but this was what was going on in terms of, that was the University of Chicago area. It’s like, if you had a white girlfriend, and these were liberal guys, the guys would come up to you and wanted to know whether you were pimping. Who needed that type of shit? I mean that’s insulting, and the other thing is, well, what it came down to, is they weren’t getting nothin’. (laughs)
CK: (laughs heartily)
EB: And that’s the problem. I mean, you know, put it this way: there wasn’t that much of that, but I didn’t need any of it in the first place. And secondly, it was uncalled for. Getting back to what you were talking about in terms of that club thing. There are no black women in that Parkwood Jazz Club scene. What happened in terms of that: we did try to get some black women in, but they wouldn’t work for nothing. You see nobody, nobody got paid. We had 65 employees. And nobody got paid except the film writer, and Royal Stock Footage and the equipment rental place.
CK: How was the film distributed? It was held by Grove Press Films for a long time, but then they disappeared.
EB: Well Cinema 16 originally screened it and they ran distribution too. But Grove bought Cinema 16, and about three or four years ago  they closed down their film department.
CK: Right. So how is it distributed now?
EB: Well, people call me up.
CK: They just call you up and you send it to them.
EB: Right. It’s got to be put on video.
CK: Oh, you have a website too? 
EB: In fact, that’s why my wife wants me to do all this, so that I can put The Cry of Jazz up on the website.
CK: Oh! That would be fantastic!
EB: The thing that’s most amazing to me: this film is 40 years old, you know, and I still keep getting people interested in it. To me, it’s such ancient history. It’s kind of gratifying in a way to think that something you did which was essentially artistically kind of a mistake in terms of music, but can have this kind of lasting power. I was talking to my wife the other day and said well, why are people doing this? To me it’s old hat. She said look, if you are 25 years old, and you saw, you know a figure of history is now, you see Martin Luther King, leading some marches….And that’s it. And you’re 25 years old, and you see that for the first time, what would you say? And she was right, she was absolutely right, in that sense, (laughs heartily) It’s a revelation.
CK: The course that I teach the film in is an historical course on avant-garde and film in the U.S.. When we get up into the transition, in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, I’m also showing other stuff like Shirley Clarke’s films, and talking about how there’s a whole efflorescence of connection between all these different areas: of music and poetry and filmmaking , and theater and so forth. I’m trying to give the students a sense of what this whole environment was like. Anybody who says that the Eisenhower years were totally passive and quiet isn’t looking at the many ways artists were expressing things and developing things that later became full blown and open throughout the culture. Change was happening in culture. There was a lot of ferment at that time, which then in the ‘60s became obvious because of the political developments.
EB: Well abstract expressionists were brooding all over the place during the ‘60s, and aside from west coast jazz, there was all that fusion jazz, that was taking place. It’s interesting. I was producing these concerts at the Museum of Modern Art. So Willard Van Dyke came up to me one day and says, “Ed, whatever happened to that film you did?” This was 1971. He saw it in 1960. I said Grove Press distributed it. He said, “I want to give you a couple days of screenings here.” I said why? He said, “Well, that’s the most prophetic film in film history.” I said, “Yeah?” He said, “Yeah. It foretold the riots of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the reasons for them.” I said, “yeah, ok.” It didn’t strike me that way, but it was fine, I understand what he was saying.
CK: Now in the credits for the film, it said it was based on a book.
EB: That’s a book I never finished…
EB: I worked for Vanguard Records from ‘74 to ‘78. It was the result of all this time in the record industry. They called me up and said do you want the gig, and it was the high point of a career. So I decided I better take it. I wanted to get back to writing; in fact I had started writing again. I decided to take it, cause I said I could always quit. (chuckles) But you just don’t throw power away, just like that. It was an interesting, another type of madness in itself.
CK: And then eventually you moved to L.A.
EB: Well I left Vanguard in ‘78. We had a loft in Soho, but, as all things happen in New York, since that whole city is about real estate, the place got sold, so we had to think about what we were gonna do. I had a number of friends out here in films, you know, and I’d been invited out quite frequently to the University of California, San Diego, you know, La Jolla: as a visiting artist. So, I was out here quite frequently, and uh, made a number of contacts, and uh, so uh. All the composers opened doors for me, in terms of getting work, like Lalo Schifrin and Gerald Fried. 
So I was out here about 2 months, and I had my first film thing to work on which was A Soldier’s Story.  I got to play the orchestrator on it. Herbie Hancock did the music, to the extent that any music was done. But, anyway that was my job. I didn’t do any ghost writing, you know ‘cause it was not about getting anything like that.
Then I did the music for a film called House of Dies Drear (TV movie, d. Allan A Goldstein, 1984) which was seen all the time on the Disney channels.  There was another one I did, A Raisin in the Sun. It was not good for film, but you know, they put a stage play on film, happens all the time, and I scored on that. 
And then about that same time, people started getting interested in my compositions and I started getting commissions and records. In the meantime, it was so crazy the Hollywood scene. It was crazy. I mean, I thought the record business a bad, but it was much crazier, and it was sicker, and so… things were coming all right in terms of the concerts, and so who gives a fuck about that? And that’s the way it’s been going since. In fact, I’m working on a CD right now. It’s supposed to be out in June.
CK: Well this is really fascinating background. Obviously you’ve done so many different things, and being adaptable is absolutely central to working in this business.
I had some specific questions on a couple of moments in it. How do you feel now about the analysis that’s presented in The Cry of Jazz? The argument that that you made?
EB: Many people have asked me, why don’t you make another one? You know, and I say well, that was that, that was then. But in terms of anything additional, I would like to couch it this way: when the film was made the idea of black culture was not around. At the time we did it. You know, there may have been, maybe Herskovits had an idea or two.  But he wasn’t highly regarded at all.
Once you understand the argument of black culture, that there is a persistent African heritage, shaped by the fact of slavery, then the film fits right into place. But in fact, that could not exist until somewhere around the mid or the late ‘60s, when many more people started talking about it. If I had anything I would add, I would add this film existed before the concept of black culture existed as we know it now.
CK: When I first saw it, I thought, wow, this film was made about six or seven years before Leroi Jones wrote Blues People, and the argument is very similar.  I had the sense he must have written his book because he saw the film, or something like that. You are both arguing a similar theme about the nature of black culture and the importance of how music fit in.
EB: You know I’d never met Leroi Jones, one. Two, my friends told me when we first got there, Leroi Jones hated The Cry of Jazz. Nelam told me (he died in ’92, so I think it was about 6 or 7 years prior to that) he said that Leroi Jones was telling him how much he loved it then. And that he’d changed his mind. I never paid much attention to Amiri ‘cause I knew he didn’t know any music. And I really don’t see how one can write very much about this unless one knows at least something besides one’s feelings. The way I saw Cry of Jazz was there was a structural identity between the black experience and the nature of the music. Now Leroi Jones would not know what the structure of the music was, you see, or what the disciplines there were involved in order to achieve the various effects that were going on.
CK: Right, there is very little musicology in what he does. It’s much more about the culture of individual artists.
EB: And the way he deals with that. And fine, you know, he’s using music, I’m sure, like most people do. I mean, it’s a consumer’s thing. I like it, I don’t like it, I don’t have to know anything about it. I get a Baby Ruth, I don’t have to know how that candy bar is made I like it. (laughs heartily) And then if you’re forceful enough, you can tell people why your likes should be paid attention to.
I met Helen Levitt in New York, and she’s good friends In fact, after I met her in New York she said, “Well, I hate the film, but I really want to know how you put it together.” Just from a production angle: you get 65 people who work for nothing, and they get something done. It cost, maybe out of hand, about, two or three thousand dollars. One week we do Nelham’s paycheck, next week we do my paycheck, maybe get a little bit from Titus and a little bit from Kennedy, and then, go around again. We had to postpone some bills to keep going.
CK: Well I show those films that Helen Levitt made in my classes.
EB: The Quiet One?
CK: The Quiet One and also In the Street.  I think what’s happening now is that people have enough distance on things, to go back and to say, “What was going on there? Why was it going on? And let’s find out more about it.” It’s time for a re-evaluation. In terms of the whole area of independent film at that time, certain films got a lot of attention remained famous. Those are the ones that people keep writing about and, teachers keep teaching. I’ve always been interested in other ones that in a certain way haven’t gotten the same amount of attention. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been interested in your film. One of the things that I just see is how the students have reacted to it. They say, “Wow, that was made, that was made in 1959, I can’t believe it.” They’re really surprised and they’re really provoked into thinking.
EB: Yeah well, all kinds of little things like that provoke thought. The film I worked on in 1950, doing the music, To Live Together: there’s a line in it that’s particularly cruel. One of the white girls is talking about one of the black girls, and she says, “Oh, it’s ok, they’re human, at least they’re human too. That’s what my father says.” And that just struck me, I said, “Wow, that’s very nice of her to say the words, human too.” And that’s why that line is in Cry there, you know, it fed off that. The assumption, or the arrogance as if nobody can question their humanity. And, if one did, you know, on what basis? Let’s just do it another way. And, I just thought to myself, it’s just interesting to me, that this is happening, that this interest is so hilarious. (laughs) But it kind of makes me feel good.
CK: I think artists often don’t know who’ve they’ve affected, especially when you do something like film, cause it goes out in the world and you don’t necessarily know all the audiences that are experiencing it. But when something is live performance, you know who experienced it. But when it’s recorded, and it goes off in another way, it can go on for years and I think that s the wonderful thing about the film: it exists. So we can still see it, we can still enjoy it.
EB: You know. Well, what’s even more interesting to me is getting the dovetail into something that is happening with my music right now. Namely this project that I’m working on. I’ve been hanging out with some rappers, in south central L.A. and I didn’t realize that education had gotten to this point where people can’t complete any more than two words together. Well, this is becoming interesting, this became interesting because it’s something that’s happening with the music. Anyway, I’ve been hanging out with these rappers, at a kind of community center arts place. It reminds me again when I was growing up. And the guy who runs it teaches film at Cal Arts, he runs the film department up at Cal Arts, Ben Caldwell.
CK: BEN CALDWELL!?
EB: You know Ben?
CK: I know Ben! I interviewed him about 5 years ago. Does he still have that little storefront?
EB: Yeah, KAOS Network. That’s where it’s all been happening. 
CK: I just love his work and, of course it fits together! I see all the connections now.
EB: Now, Every Thursday night, there’s a rap jam session, of these up and coming rappers. Some of them want to know how to read music, so, I have a class.
You know, I own my own time, no obligation, you know, it’s fine. I’m halfway curious about how these people think, you know, and what’s the divide. And it’s like teaching my grandchildren. This kid who I’ve been introducing to Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Pound, and telling him about that and the politics. But to get him look at it in terms of craft, that’s all. I didn’t expect the kid to go to the library, to get the books. I was shocked. And, he had these scarecrow clothes on (laughs) Three words was just about all he could say at once, and then you had to figure out what he’d said, you. But, he’s sitting there listening to this CD I have coming out. And then he turns to me, he says, “You write rap.” I said, “What?” You know I didn’t say anything. “Yeah. Rap, without words.” (claps his hands) And then it suddenly hit me, what he was saying... In the same way that the music is talking to his generation, so on, so forth, the film is too. And that is very satisfying, especially since I’m in good health. (laughs heartily) And plan on staying that way.
This kid is about the same age as my daughter, 23, the youngest, and I can talk to her just like that to, so, this is, it’s getting to be interesting. I just wish The Cry of Jazz, was made a little better, but, it’s representative.
CK: Well you know I think there’s been a change too. In the later part 1980s I think in terms of video, a lot of people who were making work were much more willing to make something that was very didactic: “I’m gonna put forward a position, this is what it is,” and so forth. But I think before that, it had been really discouraged in media making.
There were a whole lot of things that were going on, especially the attack on arts funding and stuff like that, suddenly artists who before hadn’t ever questioned very much were suddenly saying, “well wait a minute: why is the government trying to take our money away, or why are they trying to censor us?” And I think a lot more people became actively involved. Then people from other social movements who were organizing around AIDS, the women’s movement, stuff like that.
EB: With video it was so easy to do.
CK: Right. They had positions to put forward. We want to argue for things. And I think now people accept that much more, it’s like, of course if someone has a strong opinion and they make a work of art demonstrating that, it’s not so exceptional. In that sense, Cry of Jazz has an audience today…
EB: Very good point.
CK: I don’t think that you have to apologize very much for the way that it was made. It’s obvious it was made on low budget.
EB: Well I’m a perfectionist. That, that’s why to me, it’s kind of a strange thing to have in my background. I don’t do anything until I know it’s gonna be so smooth and so polished. But it’s the only thing I’ve ever done out of anger. In the sense that, obviously there’s anger behind the work, in this film it shows. In my other work, you’ll get an anger, but it’s never up front. I was noticing in the late ‘60s and ‘70s too, the cinema verité movement came along, which made art of the things that people hate, so many things had happened in The Cry of Jazz visually and stuff, began to be art, suddenly. Not that we were thinking cinema verité , in all honesty we weren’t. It was just a matter of what we didn’t know, it was our crudity. But that crudity is now art. (laughs heartily) And now, didacticism is kind of the accepted norm because of so many competing positions that have to be documented. And because of the ease of use, video equipment. You know everybody can be a video filmmaker. It’s not like carrying a Mitchell or an Arriflex around. Interesting, how things just change. Some things for the better. Or to one’s gain. It’s funny.
1. I want to acknowledge the help of many people on this project. First of course, Ed Bland who was generous and gracious in giving me the interview and answering so many questions. Nina Cartier’s work in transcribing the interview was outstanding. Many people who shared a deep interest in the film offered help, encouragement, and direct support, including: Jacqueline Stewart, Anna McCarthy, John Corbett, Terri Kapsalis, Zeinabu irene Davis, Amy Beste, Patrick Friel, Brenda Webb, Martha Biondi, Jacqueline Goldsby, Michael Martin, Joe Hendrix, the late JoAnn Elam, and Chicago Filmmakers, the Hyde Park Art Center, and Indiana University. [return to text]
2. I suggest keeping the notes window open while reading the article. Unless otherwise noted, most of the factual information comes from Wikipedia entries and Ed Bland’s own website: http://www.edblandmusic.com/index.htm. I attach a bibliography at the end.
3. “Unheard Music Series,” at www.atavistic.com and MVD Music Video Distributors.
4. Zeinabu irene Davis was in the UCLA filmmaking program in the 1980s. Among her 13 films to date, she made an experimental portrait piece of the pioneering black jazz musician, Clora Bryant: Trumpetistically, Clora Bryant She is currently completing a feature documentary on the LA Rebellion filmmakers Spirits of Rebellion: Black Film at UCLA. Julie Dash (Illusions, Daughters of the Dust, etc.) was one of the first LA Rebellion filmmakers.
5. The U.S .Postal Service was a significant employer of African Americans at the time, guaranteeing a stable good wage, and relative equality. This job marked Bland Sr. as a well-established member of the black working class. The post office also has a long history of being a base for artists and intellectuals.
In the early 1930s the Communist Party USA encouraged the formation of John Reed Clubs as meeting places for intellectuals, writers, and artists with left sympathies, both party members and nonmembers. This “proletarian” phase ended with the clubs being dissolved in 1934 in favor of a new approach to a Popular Front against fascism.
Ralph Ellison probably didn’t attend any Chicago meetings since he went to NYC after completing his college music studies at Tuskegee, but Richard Wright was certainly a presence. Aspiring novelist Wright came to Chicago in 1927, worked at the Post Office until laid off in 1931, and joined the John Reed Club and later the Communist Party itself, leaving for NYC later in the decade. Chicago’s African American writers and artists in the 1930s have yet to receive the critical attention that’s been paid to Harlem based people of the same period, but a new study by Lawrence P. Jackson, The Indignant Generation, begins to correct that. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks remained an active presence in Chicago circles. Notable figures such as Arna Bontemps and Margaret Walker were also part of the South Side writer’s community.
6. Washington Park is a 372-acre city park west of the University of Chicago area on the South Side. After WW1 it was a site of contention between whites and the expanding black community. Several semiprofessional black baseball teams played at the park starting in the 1920s. The fieldhouse was a major community center. Since 1961 the park has been the site of the DuSable Museum of African American History.
7. Jay McShann had a highly regarded blues and hard bop big band in the late 1930s and 40s featuring Charlie Parker (1937-42), Ben Webster, Al Hibbler and others.
8. Gwendolyn Brooks published a poem in his memory following the senior Bland’s death in the Battle of the Bulge in 1945. He was in his late 30’s, married with a child, when the war broke out and would not be drafted. He volunteered for service, and according to the commemorative line of Brook’s poem volunteered for a dangerous mission. The poem was included five years later in her 1950 collection, Annie Allen, which was also dedicated to Bland’s memory. The book won the Pulitzer Prize.
9. American Conservatory was a major musical college, based in Chicago. The GI Bill was a program of benefits for veterans that provided a stipend for service people getting formal education.
10. John J. Becker was known as one of “The American Five,” leading US modernist composers at the time, along with Ives, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, and Wallingford Riegger.
11. Chess Records was formed in 1950 by Leonard and Phil Chess, after Leonard had earlier acquired and worked with another record company. Chess quickly became famous for producing record of Chicago urban blues, recording artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Etta James, and many others in the 1950s. Chicago blues was a vernacular blend of Deep Southern rural blues, especially from Mississippi origins, and electrified instruments and amplified music and voice suitable for the noisy atmosphere of street corner and barroom performance. As Bland indicates, Chess was a classic case of white businessmen making sharp deals with black performers and maintaining control of the rights and profits. A recent dramatic feature film, Cadillac Records (d. Darnell Martin, 2008) presents a nostalgic picture of the studio.
12. Elvis Presley began recording and performing regionally in 1954. His first national hit was Heartbreak Hotel, 1956.
13. Bland is marking his own observation, but it certainly was a generally known phenomenon. The first Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North began in the first years of the 20th Century resulting in establishing the black neighborhoods of the South Side. A large Second Migration began at the start of WW2 and continued in the postwar era. Chicago, directly connected by railroads to Mississippi and Louisiana was the logical direct terminus for arrivals from those areas. During the 1940s, the black population of Chicago increased by 77 per cent, from 278,000 to 492,000. In the 1950s, it grew by another 65 per cent, to 813,000; at one point 2,200 black people were moving to Chicago every week.
In the postwar era, the new mechanical harvesting of cotton vastly reduced the need for agricultural labor in the South. So the new arrivals often came directly from rural life and with less urban experience or trade skills than the several generations of earlier black immigrants now resident in Chicago. In a familiar pattern worldwide, the recent labor migrants were seen as less sophisticated country cousins, and they found less expensive housing on the West Side as opposed to the longer established South Side areas such as the Bronzeville neighborhood.
14. Mercury, begun in 1945, was the major record label for post-swing era jazz with two powerful A&R (arrangement and recording) executives: John Hammond and Norman Granz. Mercury had the lead in bebop and contemporary jazz.
15. Chicago was the world center for Gospel music after WW1 and this continues to the present day. Thomas A. Dorsey, widely known as the father of black gospel music, started as a jazz and blues musician but changed to religious choral composition and conducting in the 1920s. His work, and the movement he inspired, combined Christian praise with rhythm and blues rhythms.
16. Vee-Jay Records was founded in 1953 in neighboring Gary, Indiana, and moved to Chicago. It was owned and operated by African Americans and specialized in blues, jazz, and rhythm and blues and eventually rock ‘n’ roll. Another important company, Chance Records (1950-54) was also near the Chess office on S. Michigan Ave, Its list featured blues, jazz, doo-wop, and gospel.
17. McKee’s Bop Shop, located in the Bronzeville neighborhood, at 47th and South Park Way (now MLK Drive), was across from the Regal Theater, a huge movie palace from the 1920s serving the black South Side, which also had large stage shows of black performers. While residentially segregated, white enthusiasts for black performers could see the headliners at the Regal, and then buy “race records” at McKee’s record store. This nascent cross-over boosted the market size for black urban music.
18. Bo Diddley established his Chicago presence playing as a street performer and later with club gigs. His first record for Chess, “Bo Diddley” went to the top of the R&B charts in 1955.
19. Godfrey was a radio personality, and in the postwar era a TV host and pitchman, who had a daily morning chat and light entertainment show and a weekly TV show, “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” which followed the trope of introducing amateur performers to a national audience.
“Covers” originally meant records or airplay broadcast of music originally performed by another musician. This was actually very common in a time when sheet music sales were central to the business, and a “hit” was established by tune and lyrics more than the unique first performer’s interpretation. Thus the weekly “Your Hit Parade” radio (and later TV show) gave a countdown of the top ten hits, performed by the same studio band and stock regular singers. As the business changed with more star and celebrity values, individual performance values (including arrangements and orchestration) made copies much less desirable in the market.
However the persistence of racism in marketing produced the parallel case of white performers being favored by the big record companies to copy (in a vastly milder way) songs that had originally been recorded by black artists. The original African American artists were thus denied cross-over and sales. For example, Arthur Godfrey “discovered” Pat Boone, who did R&B cover versions exuding his clean-cut white middle class suburban image.
In contrast, Elvis presented a lower class rebel image with long sideburns, long slicked hair, and flashy clothes. Presley’s rockabilly was a fusion of white country music and black rhythm and blues.
20. Sam Phillips founded Sun Records and Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1940s. He discovered and promoted Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnnie Cash and most famously, Elvis Presley. Presley fulfilled Phillip’s often quoted goal: “'If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.'" Chess Records formed a business relation with Phillips in 1951, making and distributing many records that Sun recorded, notably Howlin’ Wolf.
22. The Woodlawn Tap, 1172 E. 55th St. in Chicago, was called Jimmy’s after the owner. Opened around 1950, it was the closest bar to the U of Chicago campus and known for attracting neighborhood locals, artists and intellectuals, and also university people.
23. To Live Together was John Barnes’ first film. It depicts a summer camp with children of different races, showing that they have a natural tendency to get along, but what prejudices appear are the results of their parents’ attitudes. (30 min b&w, 16mm, co-written with H.H. Schuler; sponsored by the Anti-defamation League of B’nai B’rith). He dropped out of the University of Chicago and in the postwar era was active in theatre, moving into radio and television and film as writer and director. He regularly made films for Encyclopedia Britannica films, winning many awards and had a long career in educational and documentary film, completing over 100 works.
24. Howard Alk entered the University of Chicago at 14 and was a member of a cabaret theatre group. He also worked with Paul Sills and many others in the early improv and folk music scene in Chicago while also working as a film editor. His best known work was on the New Left films American Revolution 2 and The Murder of Fred Hampton with producer Mike Grey.
25. Paul Sills attended the University of Chicago and was active in theater there. In 1955 he founded the first improvisational theatre group in the U.S. and in 1959 began the famous Second City group with partners, including Howard Alk.
26. Albert Grossman, born and educated in Chicago, worked for the CHA in the postwar era, leaving it to start The Gate of Horn, a 100 seat folk music revival venue in 1956. He parlayed that into artist management, most famously representing Bob Dylan 1962-70.
27. The Abraham Lincoln Center, 700 E. Oakwood, was a large community center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and Dwight Perkins in 1905 as a supplemental building to All Souls Unitarian Church. It had an auditorium and served as church administration space, a settlement house, hostel, social and educational center.
28. A three-day indoor festival held at the Chicago Stadium, with remarkably low ticket prices, attracted 68,000. Two years earlier Playboy began an annual Jazz Poll, highlighting various star musicians. Although Playboy by then had its offices on the Near North Side (along with the first Playboy Mansion), the first issues were put out by Hugh Hefner on his Hyde Park kitchen table in the early 1950s. It was estimated that one out of every four college males bought Playboy, and as primarily a lifestyle magazine, its featuring of jazz contributed to the marketing of the music to the younger white middle class. The U of C students that Bland argued with at Jimmy’s likely had their own attitudes shaped by Playboy’s biases and perspectives which tended to value and validate white musicians disproportionately. In Nelan Hill’s papers (held at the NY Public Library), a letter from Bland reports he engaged in a heated discussion after the film was screened at the festival.
29. Cinema 16, run by Amos Vogel, was a regular film society series in the postwar era which played a wide range of art films: European and U.S. classics, experimental and documentary films. Because it was a membership group it could evade some of the city censorship rules that governed commercial theaters.
Marshall Sterns, a professor of English, was a widely published jazz critic who had recently published The Story of Jazz (1956), one of the first comprehensive books on the subject. Civil libertarian activist and journalist Nat Hentof extensively covered jazz music for various publications including the Village Voice weekly. The original announcement of the event listed novelist James Baldwin as one of the panelists, but Ralph Ellison replaced him on the actual date. Ellison had trained in college as a musician, and regularly wrote on jazz while also writing his own fiction, such as Invisible Man (1952).
30. James Moody was one of the top saxophone and flute jazz and hard bop musicians of the era.
31. Amy Beste’s research for her dissertation found Bland created music and soundtracks for several filmmakers who worked freelance in the large postwar Chicago educational film industry. Here Is My Hand (d. Robert Konecky, 1957-58) was commissioned for the long standing national community based civil rights group the Urban League. Many of the crew on that film also contributed to The Cry of Jazz. Bland also worked on five or six films with Robert Longini, who freelanced sponsored film and taught at the Institute of Design. Finishing these projects delayed Bland from his New York trip.
32. British journalist and critic Kenneth Tynan, now best remembered as a theatre critic, was in NYC and regularly wrote about the U.S. and its cultural life for British publications. Dwight MacDonald was well known as a cultural critic who leaned left in politics and despised mass culture or middlebrow culture.
33. The Nation of Islam (NOI) had been little known outside of the black community until the TV documentary series, “The Hate That Hate Produced.” Produced by Mike Wallace and Louis Lomax, it premiered in summer 1959. The NOI was separatist, rather than integrationist, and the reportage framed the group as preaching “a gospel of hate” against whites. The TV documentary prominently featured NOI’s dynamic and articulate leader Malcolm X, bringing him to national attention.
34. In addition to being an active filmmaker, Jonas Mekas was a tireless promoter of the New American Cinema movement. He founded Film Culture magazine in 1954, wrote a regular column on experimental films for the Village Voice weekly in NYC, organized the Film-makers Coop for distribution of the new work that was appearing as the New American Cinema, and helped found Anthology Film Archives. A postwar refugee from Lithuania who had been a forced laborer in Nazi Germany, Mekas was widely recognized as a major poet writing in the Lithuanian language.
35. Filmmaker Shirley Clarke by that time had made several short experimental films. She directed a feature, The Connection in 1962, based on a stage play which featured diegetic jazz performances by Jackie McLean and Freddy Redd . She also directed A Cool World in 1964 which realistically depicted a 15-year old boy dealing with Harlem ghetto life.
36. Jonas Mekas (above) along with his brother Adolphus was an active filmmaker. Shedon Rochlin was active in independent filmmaking circles making producing and later distributing new work. Lionel Rogosin made the neo-realist drama On the Bowery about New York’s Skid Row in 1956 and went on to make the anti-Apartheid Come Back, Africa clandestinely in South Africa (1960). Emile de Antonio moved in Pop Art circles in NYC at the time and formed a company to distribute the Beat Generation film Pull My Daisy (d. Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, script by Jack Kerouac, 1959). He went on to make left political documentaries. Willard Van Dyke was a photographer in the Edward Weston tradition in the 1930s and turned to filmmaking, doing cinematography on The River (Pare Lorenz, 1938) and The City (1939). He directed the MOMA film department 1965-73.
37. Trumpeter Clark Terry worked with the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands in the 1940s and went on to play with many different groups and as a recording session sideman. He is regarded as one of the top modern jazz trumpeters and is the most recorded horn player of all time (over 900 sessions).
38. Musician Sun Ra had a long career starting with work in big bands in the 30s and continuing with his own various groups for decades. His work was decidedly too esoteric for the more commercial record labels and venues, but he had a loyal following and core group of superb musicians. He became increasingly identified with a trend some label “Afro-Futurism” in which he promulgated a whole myth or interpretation of himself as having an alternative or astral origin. Since his death and an authoritative biography (John F. Szwed, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, 1997) was published, he has attracted much more interest and following, which has in turn created an interest in The Cry of Jazz which contains rare footage of Sun Ra in the 1950s.
39. Gilmore (tenor sax, bass clarinet) and Patrick (baritone and alto sax) had long careers with Sun Ra’s groups.
40. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was Jerry Lee Lewis’s huge rockabilly crossover hit, going to the top of the pop, R&B, and country charts in February 1957. The writing is disputed with Dave “Curlee” Williams and James Fay “Roy” Hall splitting the credit. Another example of white cover versions of songs first done by blacks, the song was first recorded with Big Maybelle two years earlier, produced by Quincy Jones.
41. Bland’s current website: http://www.edblandmusic.com
42. Argentine composer, conductor, and pianist Lalo Schiffren had a jazz orchestra in Buenes Aires before coming to the US c. 1960 and working with Dizzy Gillespie and many figures. He is best known for writing compositions for film and television, including many theme songs with strong jazz elements.
Gerald Fried has a long career composing for film and television beginning with his boyhood friend Stanley Kubrick. He collaborated with Quincy Jones on the score for the miniseries Roots.
43. A Soldier’s Story (d. Norman Jewison, 1984) is a filmed adaptation of a stage play by Charles Fuller. In WW2 a black soldier is killed in the Deep South and an African American Army attorney is sent to investigate. For its time, it had a prestigious black cast, but suffered from being stagey rather than cinematic.
44. Children’s Television Workshop production from a Young Adult novel. A black family moves into a house in rural Ohio and the young teen son discovers it was used as a station on the Underground Railroad to smuggle runaway slaves before the Civil War. Caves, tunnels, ghosts.
45. The TV series American Playhouse presented A Raisin in the Sun (d. Bill Duke, from the play by Lorraine Hansberry) in its 1989 season.
46. Melville J. Herskovits, American anthropologist, pioneered the analysis of African culture and its continuation in the Western hemisphere. Based at Northwestern University, he influenced generations of students. For example, his work, Life in a Haitian Valley, 1937, examining Voudon ritual and performance influenced dancer/choreographer Katherine Dunham, writer Zora Neale Hurston, and filmmaker Maya Deren, each of whom visited Haiti and wrote about Voudon culture.
47. Leroi Jones (changed name to Amiri Baraka) was a Beat Generation poet and editor at the time the film premiered in NYC. His first book of poetry appeared in 1961. Blues People: Negro Music in White America, 1963, is a landmark study which all subsequent writers have had to take into account.
48. Street photographer and film editor Helen Levitt shot In the Street (1948) on children’s street life in Spanish Harlem. She was cinematographer and writer on The Quiet One (1948) working with Janice Loeb, James Agee, and Sidney Meyers. The film is a portrait of a Harlem boy with a dysfunctional family who finds a better life in a special school.
49. Filmmaker Ben Caldwell, one of the key figures in the “L.A. Rebellion,” founded KAOS Network as a community arts project training youth in digital arts and multimedia arts in Leimert Park, Los Angeles. The center hosts WORDshop, a workshop for hip-hop artists, singers, and dancers. It is connected with Project Blowed, promoting West Coast underground hip hop. http://www.projectblowed.com
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