Thursday, 5 April 2012

Minnelli's Jazz Portraits

Recently attended a screening of Vincente Minnelli's I Dood It (1942) at National Film Theatre, I was amazed by its dedication to jazz music of the early 1940s. I felt one of the subtexts of the film is the transition from popular big band music to a more personal, wilder and challenging jazz which is soon about to happen in Minton's club. Though there is no reference to revolutionary bop music in I Dood It, the sharp contrast between early scenes in Jimmy Dorsey's MGM style club with its white sets, and overdecorated space with the last numbers played by Hazel Scott and Lena Horne alludes a change in life-style and art in which main characters with their social differences can reunite.

In the "segregated" concept of placing the musical numbers, when the it comes to the "black" numbers, sets are minimalist, or even empty, hence the emphasis has been put on music. The walls of Jericho in a number near the end of the film is a painted paperboard, but the manner in which the musicians are shown, the sound, choreography and dazzling camera movements create the complete space, as if Charlie Parker is rising from the ashes of big bands to give birth to a new sound and a new black identity.

In this very short extract from I Dood It, you'll see Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra playing Star Eyes (the tune which is used as a leitmotif throughout the film). Some of the names in this orchestra are too big to stay uncredited: Babe Russin is playing tenor sax and Johnny Guarnieri is on piano.

[Filmed in 1942/11/10-24 in MGM studios, the rest of the band (not all of them seen here) are: Paul McCoy, Nate Kazebier, Bill Oblak, Shorty Solomson (tp) Al Jordan, Sonny Lee, Andy Russo (tb) Phil Washburne (tb,vcl) Jimmy Dorsey (cl,as) Milt Yaner, Frank Langone (as) Babe Russin (ts) Charlie Frazier (ts,fl) Chuck Gentry (bar) Johnny Guarnieri (p) Allen Reuss (g) Jack Ryan (b) Buddy Schutz (d) Helen O'Connell, Bob Eberly (v).]

But there is more to the transition from White Big Band to Black Solo Artist that we mentioned earlier. Parker loved the sound of Jimmy Dorsey on alto, and adored Dorsey's technical efficiency and emotional vacuity. Parker died watching Dorsey Brothers' TV show, and laughing to their juggler's number, on March 12, 1955.

Five years before his death, and some eight years after the clip you just watched, Parker played his version of Star Eyes, and no one can deny the Dorsian way this song is played. Here, Bird is accompanied by Hank Jones (piano), Ray Brown (bass) and Buddy Rich (drums) in New York City, March, 1950.

I Dood It, in spite of its tardy and predictable story and uninspiring musical numbers, and one of the hollowest Minnelli characters*, is a great documentation of jazz music in the early 1940s. For that reason, any flabbiness in the film can be forgiven for the sake of Dorsey, Scott and Horn.

I Dood It will be played for the last time, tomorrow, 6th of April 2012 at NFT.

* Red Skelton is a clown that looks like a clown and acts like one. Gene Kelly in other Minnelli films is an "artist" who wants to look like a clown.


  1. Hi there, Ehsan --

    Wow! Never seen this clip with JD and "Star Eyes". Well, it's a well known fact that Bird loved Jimmy's playing, respectively his technique on the alto sax. -- Alas, in my opinion Jimmy's sound is a bit thin and "shaky", don't you agree? -- But the phrases he plays there have been revived by Bird in is own splendid rendition of "Star Eyes": Beautiful!

    1. Hi Brew. I agree about thinness of sound in JD's playing. There is no doubt that JD belonged to a different league of jazz musicians, a different age, hence a different sound. But probably both of us believe in this, that beauty of jazz is hidden in the interconnectedness of all these ages, peoples and styles.

      Beside that, hope you're fine Brew.


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