Soundies: Access through the Marriage of Talent and Technology
by Marissa Baum and Luke Harbur
We are in a new era, one where all museums must maintain a digital presence. The online experience must be equal in quality, to visiting a physical space. At the American Jazz Museum, we are looking at our audience engagement from a new lens and recognizing the digital access needs of our audience. Prioritizing accessibility in the presentation of art, has always been a part of the technological evolution that comes with the human experience.
During the Jazz Age, of the 1920s and 1930s audiences accessed their jazz through live music venues and jazz film scores and musical numbers.
The era’s Jim Crow laws segregated the arts, propelling white musicians into mainstream stardom. In the following decade, a new technology helped Black jazz musicians reach mainstream (read: White) audiences as well. This technology came in the form of a visual jukebox and showcased music videos long before the birth of MTV.
In 1938, Los Angeles dentist Gordon Keith Woodard invented the Panoram. Panorams paired an audio recording and a closed-loop 16mm film reel projected onto a glass screen. Many films of the time had a song, a dance, or a band or orchestral number.
Artists would record the audio track first, then lip-sync to the recorded audio for the visual included in a motion picture. Before the invention of the Long Play record, records only held 3 minutes of music, so consequently, the film companies followed similar guidelines.
Woodard halted his production in 1940, due to lack of funds, but Panorams were picked up by James Roosevelt, who joined forces with the Mills Novelty Company.
From 1940 to 1947, Mills Novelty Company made about 1,865 soundies. The company had studios in New York, Chicago, and Hollywood. Each studio produced around eight films per week. Soundies featured the day’s exceptional Black talent; Duke Ellington, Dorothy Dandridge, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and a young new talent named Nat “King” Cole.
Panorams were set up in bars, roadhouses, diners, and other public establishments, where they gained instant popularity. Taking films from inside theaters to public spaces dramatically increased the music’s accessibility. Similar to a jukebox, a dime placed in the Panoram would allow you to select a film of a song of your choice.
For Black entertainers, the popularity of soundies came with undeniable implications. This access and visibility to White audiences, launched the careers of some of the day’s biggest stars, such as Fats Waller, Lena Horne and Louis Jordan.
Soundies portrayed Black performers as competent, skilled musicians. However, portrayal of Black culture was through a White lens, and often rooted in stereotypes. As a result, the films often featured gross misrepresentation and blatantly racist content. While these short films played a vital role in the development of jazz and its reach of the mainstream, it unquestionably perpetuated racism.
Nevertheless, the soundies continued to grow in popularity. During WW II cheesecake segments or short commercials were added to the beginning of the films. These commercials encouraged views to purchase war bonds and to sing patriotic songs. Following the war, television replaced the Panoram and by 1947, the industry was gone.
In 1984, the City of Kansas City acquired the John H. Baker Jazz Film collection. This collection is the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of jazz film. This unique archive consists of more than 1.5 million feet (or roughly 700 viewing hours) of full-length features, and 2,000 unduplicated soundies.
Many of these soundies are available to watch inside the John H. Baker theater inside the American Jazz Museum. Currently, the Museum is open and we invite you to come in, sit back, and take in this invaluable film history featuring big bands, women in jazz, Duke Ellington, and African-American dance and Jazz. For more information on COVID-19 reopening policies and procedures, please visit americanjazzmuseum.org/reopening. Our newest exhibition, Saxophone Supreme: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker opens July 19th, and is co-curated by the American Jazz Museum and Chuck Haddix.
If you are not yet ready to visit us in person, you can share in the Museum experience with just a click of a button. Through AJM@Home, you can access digital exhibits, educational activity sheets, specially curated playlists, and much, much more. Visit AJM@Home at americanjazzmuseum.org/ajmathome.
Accessibility during a time like this is paramount to our mission, and we continue to work to bring the AJM experience directly to you.