Six of the Best… Jazz Film Cameos

Whether it’s breaking the tension of a thriller or adding sparkle to a musical, jazz musicians have a history of making scene-stealing cameos on the silver screen. Neil McKim explores six of the greatest

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LOUIS ARMSTRONG
High Society, 1956
Arguably the most recognisable jazz face of all time, ‘Mr Louis Armstrong’, has a pivotal role in this Technicolor musical, with its snappy-paced score by Cole Porter. A kind of jazzy Greek chorus, Armstrong laughingly comments on the film’s action – ‘what we need here is a change of pace’ – as he and his band strike up tunes in the mansion of Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly). Armstrong plays at both ends of the film and notably sings a duet with Dexter-Haven (Bing Crosby) ‘Now You Has Jazz’. Here, each band member – Edmond Hall, (clarinet), Billy Kyle (piano), Arvell Shaw (bass), Trummy Young (trombone) and Barrett Deems (drums) – are fittingly namechecked.

CANNONBALL ADDERLEY
Play Misty For Me, 1971
The soul-jazz star of the 1960s finds a place in Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut about jazz radio DJ Dave Garver, with himself as the lead. Garver has a casual fling with a dangerously unhinged fan, Evelyn (Jessica Walter), who always requests Erroll Garner’s hit ‘Misty’ on his show. As the tension ramps up he takes time-out at the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival. Real colour footage includes big-hatted saxophonist Adderley and his band, playing the track ‘The Country Preacher’. With him on stage are his brother Nat Adderley (cornet), Roy McCurdy (drums), Walter Booker (bass) and keyboard legend and founder of Weather Report Joe Zawinul.

DUKE ELLINGTON
Anatomy of a Murder, 1958
In this gripping courtroom drama, the fishin’ and jazz lovin’ lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) takes on the case of an army lieutenant accused of murder. Biegler has to warn his defendant’s attention-seeking wife (Lee Remick) to ‘stay away from juke joints and pinball machines’. And prior to removing her from one such venue, he performs a piano duet with Pie Eye – played by Duke Ellington. Biegler smokes a cigar as he jams with Pie Eye, playing ‘Happy Anatomy’ from the film’s soundtrack, while Ellington band regulars Ray Nance (trumpet), Jimmy Hamilton (sax), Jimmy Woode (bass) and Jimmy Johnson (drums) also appear on screen.

COUNT BASIE
Blazing Saddles, 1974
One of the funniest jazz cameos places the Count Basie Orchestra in a Wild West setting, as a bizarre aside in this whacky Mel Brooks comedy. When a troubled town needs a new sheriff, the unlikely candidate, Bart (Cleavon Little), is seen on his Gucci-branded horse saddle, dressed in a beige outfit that matches his trusty steed. He sets off through the desert, as the Basie orchestra – raised up on a large stage with a white grand piano, plays a brilliantly out-of-place swinging rendition of ‘April in Paris’. Basie stands up to slap the hand of the new sheriff as he passes by. Watch the clip here.

HERBIE HANCOCK
Indecent Proposal, 1993
This sensationalist drama, which has been rich pickings for comedy send-ups, has a surprisingly high-profile jazz cameo. When a young couple, Diana (Demi Moore) and John Murphy (Woody Harrelson) go to Las Vegas and fail to win the money they need to finish their dream house, they are approached by John Gage (Robert Redford) who offers the couple $1m for a night with Diana. Few people probably care how this film ends but as Diana arrives on a luxury yacht as part of her date with Gage, a dinner-suited Herbie Hancock plays a serene version of Oscar Peterson’s ‘Night Time’ on piano, adding a brief glimpse of class to this overhyped movie.

CAB CALLOWAY
The Blues Brothers, 1980
And finally, perhaps the best-known jazz film cameo. This cult comedy musical follows the quest of Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood Blues (Dan Ackroyd) to put their band back together to raise money for an orphanage. While they are dodging the police to get to a concert, their former teacher Curtis (Cab Calloway) fills in for them. ‘You guys know Minnie the Moocher?’, Curtis asks the backing band, who become radiantly transformed into a retro swing band, complete with a New York skyline backdrop. Calloway then performs his trademark call-and-response anthem, which he originally recorded in 1931. All together now: ‘Hi de hi de hi de hi…’ Here he is singing his trademark song some years earlier:

All the above artists appear in Geoffrey Smith’s 100 Jazz Legends, published by BBC Music Magazine.

Duke Ellington’s ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ is featured as part of the 5-CD Jazz on Film: Film Noir box-set, a stylishly packaged jazz soundtrack collection.