As many of you know, my book, The Soundies: A History and Catalog ofJukebox Film Shorts of the 1940s, was released this past Monday. (It is available through the MacFarland Press website and will soon be released through Amazon.com.) I thought it would be appropriate to share a Soundie this week, and our three-minute musical short is a session mate of the Soundie that I recently posted on Facebook at “The World of Soundies.” I’ll quote in part from the description that accompanies that Soundie.
What do you do when there is a trombone solo on the soundtrack, but no trombonist in the sideline combo? Why, you have the alto sax pretend to solo, even if his sax now sounds like a trombone. Yet, despite this obvious disconnect, there is a great deal to recommend this Soundie, Boogiemania, starring the dance team of Helen Bangs and Albert Reese Jones, Cecil Scott’s orchestra on the soundtrack, and the Sun Tan Four on screen.
I’ve spoken of producer and director William Forest Crouch before and noted that he had a genuine affinity for black people and their music. Like all Soundies directors, he worked with a very restricted budget, although he usually was able to fill up the screen and make things look just a little more “opulent” than the budget might suggest. But there were always exceptions to the rule and Boogiemania is one of them.
Much of the black talent used by Crouch came from Harlem’s Sun Tan Studios, an unfortunately named talent agency run by former African-American football star “Fritz” Pollard. From the studio, Crouch hired dancers Helen Bangs and Albert Reese Jones, protegees of Pollard’s who apparently are known only for this film short. Crouch then used the studio name for the ad hoc jazz combo we see on screen, the Sun Tan Band. This group merely sidelines and we don’t hear them at all, but it gives us a chance to see Joe Keyes, trumpet player with Blanche Calloway and Count Basie in the 1930s, and Fritz Pollard, owner of the Sun Tan Studio, on piano. Little is known about alto sax player Allan Jackson, save that he led a small jazz combo that was booked at various Manhattan venues in 1944. The drummer is unknown. Any thoughts, ladies and gentkemen?
This Soundie was filmed the week of January 21, 1946. For the soundtrack Crouch headed back to the vault and selected a recording by Cecil Scott and his Orchestra titled “Mr. X Blues,” waxed a full 12 months earlier and released as a Soundie in July 1945. Confident that nobody would recognize the music, Crouch paired it with the quartet seen on screen. Panoram viewers thus saw a quartet on screen but heard the music of a fifteen-piece jazz orchestra coming from the speakers. The trombone solo by Jonas Walker is especially soulful.
People today often become indignant about the lack of any “sync” in this Soundie. But what did patrons think when they saw a Soundie where the soundtrack did not match the visuals? In this case, I don’t think they cared much at all. The music is in a tight and swinging groove, and the solos are uniformly strong. Or maybe they just didn’t notice the musicians at all because their eyes were on the dancers, a simple routine, but something that jitterbugs would pay attention to. This is one of those Soundies where over-analysis leads in the wrong direction. Enjoy the dance, dig the music, and get another dime ready so you can watch again.