Thursday, December 3, 2009

Jazz Ladies busts up the High

Posted By on Thu, Dec 3, 2009 at 6:47 PM

“They raided the joint, took everybody down but me/Now I was standing in the corner, just as high as I could be.”

click to enlarge JAZZ LADIES: Vanita Smythe in "They Raided the Joint," 1946
  • JAZZ LADIES: Vanita Smythe in "They Raided the Joint," 1946

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.

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(Photo Courtesy the High Museum)

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