The Jazz Singer

The Jazz Singer

Since its premiere in 1927, many jazz critcs have overlooked The Jazz Singer, America's pioneer talking picture, in the history of American jazz film. Despite its title, the talkie's account of Old World vs. New World tension and Jewish assimilation has little to do with the jazz sound made famous by such artists as Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Yet as crtic Krin Gabbard argues, the film's appropriation of the title jazz reflects the cultural understanding of "jazz" during the American Jazz Age. In the 1920s, jazz, referring in general to up-tempo music, represented the emotional release and freedom of a generation striving to break established social conventions. While African American contributions to jazz were largely overlooked in the rise of Paul Whiteman and Al jolson's fame, blackface minstrelsy of the age represented white Americans attempt to ventriloquize blacks associated with supposed freedom of Negro primitivisim. Using jazz to represent Raboniwitz's break from Old World tradition and featuring a finale in blackface minstrelsy, The Jazz Singer (as Gabbard argues) lays the foundation for cultural representations of jazz in American cinema.

The following clip from the The Jazz Singer provides a glimpse of the film's pioneering achievements in filmography--its experimental use of dialogue and its synchronized score. It begins with the first and most legendary words spoken by Jackie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson), "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain't heard nothin' yet!" and ends with the finale of Jack Robin's (Rabinowtiz's stage name) Broadway premiere. "Toot Toot Tootsie" and "My Mammy", the two musical selections featured in the clip, were among the film's most populuar songs.


Gabbard, Krin. Jammin' at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1996.

Download Movie Clip

Return to Times


The King of Jazz

The King of Jazz

Paul Whiteman's The King of Jazz provides a translation of contemporary Broadway revues from stage to cinema. While featuring elements of early cinematic technology--double exposure, matting, and animation, the film is rooted in what critic Henry Jenkins has described as the "vaudeville aesthetic." (Jenkins, 132-36.) Largely lacking a narrative thread, The King of Jazz consists of an arrangement of musical numbers and comic sketches reminiscient of early minstrel shows. More, the film's virtual ommission of African Americans beyond a brief and essentialized appearance of a young black girl and an African native represents an appriopriation of blackness akin to minstrelsy. While attempting to recount the birth of jazz music, the film overlooks African American contribution in a celebration of Whiteman and his white jazz band. As jazz film critic Krin Gabbard notes of The King of Jazz, "a more thorough denial of the African American role in jazz in difficult to imagine." (Gabbard, 10-11) Notably, in the film's final number, "The Melting Pot of Music," African Americans are absent among the parade of Europeans and "Americans" that have provided "the melting pot of music wherein the melodies of all nations are fused into one great new rhythm, JAZZ." (Gabbard, 13)

The following clip is excerpted from the film's grand finale.


Jenkins, Henry. What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedyand the Vaudeville Aesthetic. New York: Columbia UP. 132-36.

Gabbard, Krin. Jammin' at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1996.

Download Movie Clip

Return to Times