October 6, 2019

THE JAZZ SINGER PREMIERED ON THIS DAY IN 1927: It is usually regarded as the first feature-length “talkie” (though it contained only a bit of actual talking).

Starring Al Jolson, who performs several scenes in blackface, the film is the story of a Jewish boy, Jakie Rabinowitz, who longs to be a jazz singer. His father, on the other hand, wants him to follow the family tradition and become a synagogue cantor. Jakie eventually runs away to follow his dream of show business stardom.

Alas, just as he is about to make it big, he finds out that his father is on his deathbed. Young Jakie is thus needed to sing the Kol Nidre for Yom Kippur in his father’s stead. If he fails to show up for the premiere of his big show, his fledgling career will likely be ruined.   But who will sing at the Yom Kippur service?  (Yes, I know … it’s probably a bit too melodramatic for the 21st century, but whatever ….)

With Justin Trudeau and all, blackface has been a big news item lately.  Here is an aspect of the issue that I did not realize until recently (though it doesn’t surprise me): Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer were both very popular with African Americans. When the film played in Harlem, Harlem’s newspaper, the Amsterdam News, called it “one of the greatest pictures ever produced.” About Jolson, it wrote: “Every colored performer is proud of him.”

I also did not realize that Jolson had been such a champion of African American performers. Here is what Wikipedia says:

While growing up, Jolson had many black friends, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who became a prominent tap dancer. As early as 1911, at the age of 25, Jolson was noted for fighting discrimination on Broadway and later in his movies. He promoted a play by Garland Anderson, which became the first production with an all-black cast produced on Broadway. He brought a black dance team from San Francisco that he tried to put in a Broadway show. He demanded equal treatment for Cab Calloway, with whom he performed duets in the movie The Singing Kid.

Jolson read in the newspaper that songwriters Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, neither of whom he had ever heard of, were refused service at a Connecticut restaurant because of their race. He tracked them down and took them out to dinner, “insisting he’d punch anyone in the nose who tried to kick us out!” According to biographer Al Rose, Jolson and Blake became friends and went to boxing matches together.  …

Jeni LeGon, a black female tap dance star, recalls her life as a film dancer: “But of course, in those times it was a ‘black-and-white world.’ You didn’t associate too much socially with any of the stars. You saw them at the studio, you know, nice—but they didn’t invite. The only ones that ever invited us home for a visit was Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler.”  …

Jolson’s physical expressiveness also affected the music styles of some black performers. Music historian Bob Gulla writes that “the most critical influence in Jackie Wilson’s young life was Al Jolson.” He points out that Wilson’s ideas of what a stage performer could do to keep their act an “exciting” and “thrilling performance” was shaped by Jolson’s acts, “full of wild writhing and excessive theatrics”. Wilson felt that Jolson “should be considered the stylistic [forefather] of rock and roll.”


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