Among the many areas of jazz filmography still requiring further research are those films produced in Los Angeles during the 1930s and early 1940s that include, and occasionally feature, recordings and/or sideline appearances by black bands. While the bands of Les Hite, Paul Howard and Leon Herriford often provided musicians for both short subjects and feature films, especially during the first half of the 1930s, this is not always the case, as the following two films clearly illustrate.
In 1937 independent filmmaker Walter Wanger produced two feature films, with the production of the second commencing immediately upon the completion of the first. Both films include black bands occasionally (and erroneously) credited to Maurice Rocco, this because Rocco’s flamboyant “stand at the piano and give it a lot of body English” style is so prominently featured. Both films were produced in Los Angeles, although no additional West Coast engagements by Rocco have been discovered to this point in time.
The fact that Rocco “photographed well” led to two additional feature film appearances in the 1940s, Incendiary Blonde (Paramount, 1945) and Duffy’s Tavern (Paramount, 1945), plus a series of four SOUNDIES produced at the end of the recording ban. These film appearances will be discussed in a later series of articles.
Born Maurice Rockland on June 26, 1915, Maurice Rocco was taught piano by his mother, who provided a strong classical foundation to the instrument. This changed when Rocco enrolled at the Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, probably in the early 1930s. It was during this period that Rocco moved from the world of Bach and Beethoven to that of jazz, and he soon found himself performing on local radio stations in the Cincinnati area.
During the mid 1930s Rocco came to the attention of Noble Sissle, in whose band he appeared for a short period of time. During the mid 1930s Rocco also appeared at New York’s Kit Kat Club, as well as on a series of regular broadcasts from the Club Zanzibar, in a program credited to Claude Hopkins (possibly the Claude Hopkins Show), also featuring the Mills Brothers. It is probably during this period that Rocco began performing standing at the piano, although this too remains to be confirmed.
Following the two feature appearances Rocco formed his own band, usually billed as Maurice Rocco and his Rockin’ Rhythm, and for the next five or six years he performed with success in both New York, midwest and on the West Coast. He also performed frequently as a single, and ads reproduced in Hoffman’s Jazz Advertised note appearances at the Cafe Zanzibar, Le Ruban Bleu, Roxy Theater and elsewhere.
While he is best known for his boogie woogie styling, and stand-at-the-piano approach to performance, Rocco is a talented improviser with considerable technique, a strong sense of swing and certainly a sense of “jazz humor.”
Rocco passed away in Thailand on March 25, 1976.
THE WALTER WAGNER FEATURES
- Walter Wanger’s Vogues of 1938 (occasionally credited as “Vogues of 1938”)
Walter Wanger Productions, released by United Artists; Walter Wanger, producer; Irving Cummings, director; Seymour Felix, director of “Cotton Club” sequence; Borris Morros, musical director
Starring Warner Baxter, Joan Bennett, Mischa Auer, Helen Vinson, Alan Mowbray, Jerome Cowan
- Soundtrack recording (Cotton Club jazz sequence)
The date of soundtrack recording for this feature, including the Cotton Club sequence, is unknown, but can be safely ascribed to ca. March-April 1937. While the soundtrack was probably recorded by a studio orchestra under the direction of Borris Morros, pianist/vocalist Maurice Rocco is featured. It is possible, although unverified, that other black musicians were called for the recording session. Dorothy Saulter and a chorus of unidentified singers contribute to the soundtrack recording.
- Sideline photography
Sideline photography for the Cotton Club sequence was completed April 9 and 10, 1937. While there was apparently some location shooting completed in New York City for the feature, all of the photography in the segment under discussion was completed in Los Angeles.
- Uncredited black jazz orchestra
Dootsie Williams, Jack Bratton, trumpets; Norman Green, trombone; reeds, left-to-right: Bob Dorsey, Floyd Turnham, alto saxes; William Griffin, tenor sax; Maurice Rocco, piano and vocal; Al Morgan, string bass; Lee Young, drums
- Camera angle and screen coverage makes it impossible to determine section placement of the two trumpets.
- Dorothy Saulter, vocal and dance
- Eight unidentified vocalists / chorus line dancers
- The Four Hot Shots, four unidentified male dancers
Sophisticated Lady (as introduction to the featured number) (Duke Ellington)
Red Hot Heat (Paul Francis Webster; Louis Alter)
This production number is “presented” at The Cotton Club. Dorothy Saulter and eight unidentified chorus line singers / dancers appear in gowns, expressing their complaints of general boredom with life, and their preference for music “by Chopan and Lizst.” However, the introduction of hot music dispels these thoughts, and they sing and dance (along to a performance by The Four Hot Shots) to the featured song. Rocco is given a full chorus, singing and dancing in a way that certainly “photographs well.”It should be noted that during another nightclub sequence radio / film vocalist Virginia Verrill introduces the standard “That Old Feeling.”
- 52nd Street
Walter Wanger Productions released by United Artists; Walter Wanger, producer; Harold Young, director; Alfred Newman, musical director; Danny Dare, dance direction
Starring Ian Hunter, Leo Carrillo, Pat Paterson, Ella Logan, Sid Silvers, Zasu Pitts and Kenny Baker
Plus many of the unique entertainers who have made 52nd Street famous
- Georgie Tapps
- Collette Lyons
- Al Shean
- Jerry Colonna
- Al Norman
- Maurice Rocco
- Dorothy Saulter
- Cooke [sic] & Brown
Soundtrack recording (for jazz sequence under consideration)
52nd Street was produced between May 26 and June 27, 1937; unfortunately, it has not been possible to locate a more precise date for soundtrack recording and sideline photography. As with Vogues of 1938, the soundtrack was recorded by a studio orchestra —this time under the direction of Alfred Newman— with the participation of Maurice Rocco on piano and vocal. Again, it is possible that other black musicians were called in for the soundtrack recording session.
- Dorothy Saulter, vocal
- Ella Logan, vocal
- Pat Paterson, vocal (I have not been able to verify if Paterson recorded the soundtrack or merely appears as a sideline vocalist.)
- sideline photography
- unidentified black jazz orchestra (for jazz sequence under considera-tion)
- Trumpets, left-to-right: Winslow Allen, unidentified; unidentified trombone; Elmer Fain, alto sax; Maurice Rocco, piano and vocal; unidentified drums
- Cooke [sic] & Brown, dance
- 52nd Street (Walter Bullock; Harold Spina)
In this number the action alternates between three nightclubs, Jack and Sid, The Onyx and Zamarelli and Rondell, with Ella Logan, the black performers, and Pat Paterson each interpreting the featured number in one of the three clubs. During the segments at The Onyx, Dorothy Sautler sings the lyrics to the song, followed by Rocco singing and playing at the piano, concluding with the band backing Saulter, and Cook & Brown in a brief dance sequence.
While neither of these films may be considered major successes, they are far better than much of the “B” output of the period. We wish, of course, that jazz musicians (other than Rocco) were featured on soundtrack, although it is wonderful to be able to see and hear Maurice Rocco, Dorothy Saulter and Ella Logan in action at this early period; the dancers involved in the production numbers don’t do any harm, either! Since Rocco’s discography encompasses less than three dozen recordings or broadcasts, and nothing before September 1940, this is an important addition to his recorded legacy.
In addition, I would argue that the more we know about the involvement of various musicians in films produced during the 1930s, the more complete picture we can paint of the activities of the Los Angeles-based musicians and bands during the decade.