In Fall 2007, I gave a presentation designed as a class session on the 80th anniversary of the film The Jazz Singer for a course on cinema history, theory, and pedagogy. To open our discussion, I asked my pseudo-student classmates to describe Elvis Presley. They talked about his fame and stage presence, and I told them that Al Jolson was similar to Elvis in popularity and performance of a multicultural American music genre. I spoke about characteristics of jazz and about George Gershwin and Irving Berlin’s songwriting, about Jewish liturgy and the Warner Brothers’ Hollywood studio, about the controversy of blackface and Jolson’s career before movies. My parting question to the those I hypothetically assigned to watch the film was to consider whether Jolson’s character Jack behaves the same in blackface as he does when he is not in blackface.
The original reason I chose this topic was the conclusion of my talk: The Jazz Singer is the first feature-length film with a synchronized musical performance, the first with synchronized speech, and the first with synchronized dialogue. To prepare for my presentation, I read a few scholarly articles and some online reference and film buff materials. I watched clips of The Jazz Singer on my laptop. Through this project, I found my passion for studying the role of music in representational media, specifically in film and also in site-specific sound art.
Last week, my appetite for film was sated by my first visit to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY. As intrigued as I was by promotional videos for the 1964 World’s Fair, conceptual drawings for The Silence of the Lambs, makeup for The Cosby Show, and the poetic light/soundscape of Jim Campbell’s Last Day in the Beginning of March, they all seemed a palette of appetizers compared to what I found in the gallery of projectors. I progressed along the row of American and French machines from the turn of the 20th century to the first projectors to incorporate speakers. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a familiar face at the end of the line. “That’s Jolson!” I inwardly exclaimed and whisked to the bench in front of the several-foot-wide projection.
Mesmerized, I watched Jolson on stage for two minutes before the museum closed. His dancing revalidated my comparison of him to Elvis. His whistling solo impressed me with its rhythm, contour, and clarity. And although I knew he was going to say, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute!” I felt like I was hearing synchronous speech and song on film for the first time.