“They raided the joint, took everybody down but me/Now I was standing in the corner, just as high as I could be.”
When Vanita Smythe sings these words to a stone-faced cop during one of the many short films included in Jazz Ladies, jazz doesn’t seem like an avant-garde code word. There are no atonal scales blared on saxophones. Rhythm is attended to rather than deliberately avoided. Dissonance as a quality of fine art isn’t part of the discussion.
Smythe is singing in front of a wrecked gambling speakeasy about getting stoned, playing blackjack, and watching the cops bust up the place. Jazz is still a code word here, but for the world of late-night parties, bags of weed, and trouble with the cops. When Smythe shakes her hips, you see the moves Elvis Presley learned to imitate. Miles Davis never picked up that particular step.
Jazz Ladies, a fascinating and thoroughly engaging selection of rare films from the collection of French jazz enthusiast Jo Milgram, makes the argument for jazz as the genesis of American music without really trying. The 20-odd short films included here span everything from the spare, proto-rock ’n’ roll of Smythe to the dexterous big band chops of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. That all these performers are female just emphasizes that, even when drawing from a smaller pool, one still can find a vastness of American musical styles.
The films range from live, rough performance clips to strikingly staged Hollywood numbers. The earliest comes from Ethel Waters in 1929, a Bessie Smith-styled diva, performing on Broadway. She sings one number in front of a big city backdrop and another in front of a fake cotton field, carrying a picking basket to drive home the allusion.
The performers here are mostly African-American and it’s impossible to watch some of the clips without sensing the history — and sometimes presence — of racism. A couple of clips feature the standard “savage” costumes popular in the ’30s. Another film features a faux-destitute family smiling and tap dancing in ragged clothes on a front porch.
Yet, it isn’t always easy to parse what’s happening racially in these clips. When Jeni LeGon and the Peters Sisters perform “Ali Baba Goes to Town,” the scene includes African-Americans and blackface performers portraying characters from Arabic literature hanging out with what look like Pacific Islanders.
It is easy, however, to appreciate the superior quality of the music and films in Milgram’s collection. Seeing Sister Rosetta Tharpe swing her guitar around and give an electrified performance of “Didn’t It Rain” will be worth the price of admission for any gospel fan. Rarely seen films of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson give the big names their due. There isn’t any commentary or editing to tie these films together, so lukewarm jazz fans may not be enthralled. Passionate listeners, on the other hand, will be thrilled by these Jazz Ladies.