Celluloid Improvisations logo Jazz on Film Mark Cantor

Lionel Hampton “unidentified title”

The first instance that I can find of an integrated jazz band in a sound film comes from the 1929 RKO feature THE DELIGHTFUL ROGUE. The scene is somewhere in the South Seas. In a dive, ace drummer Lionel Hampton appears with an otherwise white combo…that is, unless the guitar player is Polynesian. Since the film is set far from American shores, the integration of the band seems natural. The image of blacks and whites playing together would not have been tolerated if the scene were set in a Los Angeles nightclub, for example. The brief glimpse of two men dancing would also have appeared “normal” in this setting: There are relatively few women available, and the men want to kick up their heels a bit before heading back to sea. In other words, this is not an early statement about gender orientation.

Of special interest is the “tricks-with-sticks” routine that Hampton shares at the end of the clip, and which he performed around the same time in the groundbreaking MGM black cast feature HALLELUJAH!

After this brief film appearance we have to wait a full eight years before we again see a mixed band on screen. By this time the Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet were appearing regularly in public. The two combos were fully integrated: Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa were white, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton were black. The appearance of the quartet in the 1937 Warner Bros. hit HOLLYWOOD HOTEL is an important hallmark in the quest for musical equality on screen.

Explore More