Around the same time that Eddie Condon was introducing African-Americans and Caucasians to each other in front of the recording microphone, a similar experiment was taking place — although with much less directness. James “Bubber” Miley was appearing with the Leo Reisman Orchestra on record and (I believe) in stage shows, where he would perform from behind a screen or in other guises. When the Vitaphone Company approached Reisman to create a short sound film, it is to his credit that he included Miley — as well as an Ellington composition that we can be sure Miley brought with him. But how to show a racially-mixed orchestra onscreen?
The answer — both gratifying and frustrating — can be found below, thanks to “vitajazz,” who posted this rare Vitaphone Varieties film on his YouTube channel.
You can see many more fascinating Vitaphone treasures here:
I’ll let Vitajazz explain, although some of the commentary will only be fully understood once the film has been seen:
LEO REISMAN and his Hotel Brunswick Orchestra
Vitaphone Reel 770, March 1929
Restored about 14 years ago, film for this short was much sought-after because the surviving Vitaphone disc clearly featured African-American hot trumpeter James “Bubber” Miley. The question was, how was he presented on-screen? Showing a mixed-race ensemble on a cinema screen was completely verboten in America in the twenties and into the Thirties. This finally-located mute element resolves that conundrum…Anyone who thinks of the Leo Reisman band as tending to sweet and commercial will be completely surprised by this film, it has true jazz. The excellent vocalist is Paul Small.
Songs: “Moochie (Ellington), “Water of Perkiomen,” “If I had You,” “Hyo-Mio,” “Milenberg Joys,” “Lonely,” “Some of these days.”
It’s clear that Miley is in charge on “Moochie” (sic) and I believe he is the hat-muted trumpeter on “Some of These Days.” I hope he was paid well, and was happy with the results. The film, eighty-plus years after its creation, is a small sad triumph. We can almost see Bubber Miley, and in this case “almost” does count.