by Damon Locks (original interview appeared in Stop Smiling)
The Cry of Jazz, Edward Bland’s 1959 film, makes the argument that jazz is the embodiment of the spirit of African-American life. Filmed in Chicago with vintage footage of the Sun Ra Arkestra, as well as an astonishing glimpse of Chicago in the fifties, the film’s aesthetic value is almost as impressive as its content: Bland’s take on race and culture in America is still ahead of its time, almost 50 years later.
For the late Fifties, there are a lot of complex and challenging ideas about race in your film. How was the film received when it was first released?
It was considered the work of madmen. Black racists. At best it was considered a personal statement. Bad music, bad thinking, bad acting, bad writing and bad photography. Unfair to jazz, because we made jazz a political act. Kenneth Tynan, drama critc of the London Observer, called it historic, in that it was the first challenge to whites by blacks done in film. Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Nat Hentoff, hated it.
On the other hand, many younger American whites were surprised that we were so kind to them. Among filmakers moved by the film were Willard Van Dyke, Emile De Antonio, Lionel Rogosin, Jonas Mekas, Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie. It was a common observation among Chicago blacks in the 1930s and 40s that whites were soulless people. The historical and aesthetic evolution of the term soul and the incisiveness of that observation has been watched by me over the years with a bemused detachment. It struck me as a kind and gentle rebuke given Black history in the US. Years later it was realized that what we were talking about was American Black Culture and its impact nationally and internationally…a sort of “soft power.” The concept of Black culture was not around in the US until 10 or 15 years later as far as we knew.
What inspired you to tackle the subject matter of jazz and how it relates to race and culture?
Growing up as a jazz musician who later turned to musical composition – so called art music – jazz struck me as a perfect metaphorical construct thru which to formally examine Black American life in the present moment and historically.
The film has a lot of prophetic notions about jazz. Do you think that its ideas have played themselves to the conclusion predicted? Did jazz die?
Currently jazz is yesterday’s news. It is now primarily an academic exercise. In fact it was on it’s way out when we started making The Cry. The first step away was the Delta blues, r&b and Little Richard who gave birth to Elvis and all of rock & roll. The second step away was hip hop.
As to the notion that jazz is dead, similar things have been said about contemporary hip-hop culture. Do you see any parallels with the two genres and how they reflect and respond to black culture?
Hip hop is poetry, not music. It needs music in order to strengthen its poetic message, like opera. It is revolutionary on a number of levels. The stars of hip hop own themselves, their music publishing, their recordings (if they choose to) and have allied businesses like clothing and jewelry lines. The “soft power” of American black culture, with its international impact, has come of age thru hip hop.
Why did you chose The Sun Ra Arkestra to perform for the film?
We made The Cry on less than a shoestring budget. I knew of Sun Ra’s music and that he owned the recordings and his publishing rights. So we licensed it from his company, thus avoiding the costs of recording sessions. Most importantly the music was great for the spirit of the film.
There is an underlying sexual dynamic between one of the white women characters and the African-American lead character. I think that is an interesting element of the the film that creates tension. Is there something that you were addressing by including that dynamic?
There was a sexual dynamic between two of the actors. Yes, we were addressing American sexual racism.
The mixed race dynamic in the film creates a great setting for the discussion that takes place but African-American women are not represented in the film. Was this an artistic choice?
We got 65 people (black & white) to donate their services/labor to the film. They worked for free. We paid their expenses. We paid for film stock, rentals of cameras and sound equipment and motion picture labs. The actors were among the 65 people who were given contracts, in case substantial monies were made. We were unable to find any black actresses who would work for free. This was circa 1958.
Have you found that there is a consistent interest over the years in the film?
In the 60s and 70s there was quite a bit of interest in Black Studies departments in colleges and universities. Since the early 1990s there has been considerable interest including artcles, honors and a DVD release.