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Published: 2004/03/30
by Benjy Eisen

The Cry of Jazz featuring Sun Ra and his Arkestra

"Foreign policy is one thing; jazz is another" Edward O. Bland
Prepared for theatrical release in 1959, but not available on home media until this year, "The Cry of Jazz" may feature Sun Ra and his Arkestra but it is hardly a Sun Ra film. The 35-minute docudrama is an essay on jazz history and America’s historical treatment of blacks, making a bold argument for the connection between the two.
Although critically considered to be an important achievement in black film, its views remain controversial and its conclusions still are up for debate. According to the film, blacks were the only jazz pioneers and the art form lost its soul as more and more whites attempted to perform and compose the music. Which more or less may be true one certainly could make the argument.
However the feature plays like a campy schoolroom special; I even found myself writing notes to my old classmates and making doodles of the teacher while I watched along at home, by myself.
Clips of Sun Ra and his Arkestra most notably saxophonist John Gilmore filmed at nightclubs in Chicago during the late-50s, are included as examples of specific jazz traditions. Usually accompanied by narration, these clips are intended as a learning tool, to serve as a demonstration of various jazz forms including Dixieland, swing, bebop, and cool jazz. And although the Arkestra performs the otherwise unreleased soundtrack, there’s really nothing overly exciting or exclusive here. If you want to hear Sun Ra perform jazz like this, look to any of his late-50s vinyl (much of which has been re-released on CD) instead.

It is of no small irony that "The Cry of Jazz" predicts the death of the form, claiming that jazz has nowhere to go but in circles, and yet Sun Ra composed the score. It wasn’t until a few years after the film’s completion that Sun Ra discovered "space was the place" and helped take jazz to new entirely heights as an expressive art form.
So don’t watch "The Cry of Jazz" thinking that it’s a typically freaky Sun Ra video. This one is for extreme musicologists and American ethnologists to screen and geek-out to together afterwards with their own ethno-musicological debates.

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