- Beyond the ‘Futureless Future’: Edward O. Bland, Afro-Modernism and The Cry of Jazz
At a key moment in Edward O. Bland’s The Cry of Jazz, the film’s central character and voiceover narrator – an African American music arranger named Alex – is asked by fellow members of their interracial jazz club to offer his authoritative opinion on the future of the music. “Yes,” he replies dramatically, as the camera suddenly zooms in on his face: “Jazz is dead.” Rapid reaction-shots show the startled faces of the group. The club’s white members erupt in outrage and dismay.
What soon follows is a climactic sequence that actively stages the musical death of jazz. Narrated by Alex and performed by the silhouetted figures of pianist Sun Ra and members of his Arkestra, this dramatization re-presents jazz – hitherto portrayed as an extraordinarily rich and powerful medium central to African American cultural survival – as a fatally constricted musical style, a sonic cul-de-sac whose rigid formal constraints signal the social imprisonment of Black America. As Sun Ra’s hands are seen playing the same discordant piano run over and over again, and other instruments join in to repeat the passage, the result is a closed and unyielding musical loop – a “circular see-saw,” in Alex’s somber voiceover, one which leads African Americans and America itself to “nowhere.” Shots of the shadowed musical performers intersperse with images of abandoned buildings being demolished as the musical passage recurs, dissonant yet wholly caged within its repetitions. Montaging a staged musical impasse with a dispassionate destruction of ghetto structures, this sequence culminates in a black screen and an extended moment of silence – then returns viewers to the fictional social-club gathering, whose troubled members besiege Alex for further insights. But what is the future of music, of America, after the death of jazz? Alex, speaking for the [End Page 33] film director, delivers an emphatic if enigmatic answer: only a clean break from the “sound of jazz” can liberate music and, by extension, bring about “the salvation of the Negro” and the rest of America through the birth of a new way of life.1
The Cry of Jazz, initially released in 1959, has come to be recognized as a major landmark in independent Black cinema. An early influence on 1960s-era intellectuals Amiri Baraka and Harold Cruse, this “lost film” still confounds conventional histories of African American moviemaking even after its inclusion on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.2 It also remains an unsettling and surprisingly understudied cultural artifact. Shot and produced in late-1950s Chicago, the 16-millimeter film failed to gain widespread distribution at the time of release but elicited strong reactions from the audiences who managed to see it. Many white viewers were stunned by the confrontational attitudes of the movie’s Black characters; even a sympathetic review called the picture “the first anti-white film made by American Negroes.” A post-screening debate in New York became racially incendiary enough for the police to take down the names of the participants. Criticism at the time fastened on a range of perceived flaws, from wooden acting and amateurish direction to unfair portrayals of the club’s white members. Film commentators today are more likely to appreciate Bland’s gleeful puncturing of liberal pieties about racial “sameness under the skin” – while also noting that the movie’s own race politics often center on a contest between Black men and white men for the possession of white women.3
What remains especially striking, however, is that the musical and social claims advanced by Bland’s short “thesis film” have eluded serious engagement.4 Barely thirty minutes long, The Cry of Jazz takes the viewer through more than a few disconcerting shifts in genre and tone. Initially conveying the earnest pedagogical style of a 1950s-era instructional short interspersed with illustrative dramatic sequences, the film actively unsettles viewers, not only with its contentious racial politics but with a tone that switches between sly and awkward, celebratory and somber, sharply polemical and coolly observational. Stagy social-club interactions alternate with documentary-style and often lyrical footage...