Soundies: Access Through the Marriage of Talent and Technology

We are in a new era, where museums must maintain a digital presence. The online experience must be equal in quality to visiting the physical space. We are looking at audience engagement from a new lens, 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, audiences accessed the genre through live music venues, and films with jazz scores and musical numbers. But Jim Crow laws segregated the art, propelling white musicians into mainstream stardom. In the following decade, a new technology helped African American 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. Films had a song, dance, band or orchestral number. Artists would record the audio track first, then lip-sync to the recorded audio for the visual. Each film was three minutes or less. Due to lack of funds, Woodard halted production in 1940, 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 exceptional Black talent, including Duke Ellington, Dorothy Dandridge, Cab Calloway, Count Basie and a young Nat King Cole.

Panorams were set up in bars, roadhouses, diners and other public establishments, gaining instant popularity. Taking films from inside theaters to public spaces dramatically increased accessibility. Similar to a jukebox, a dime placed in the Panoram would allow you to select the film of your choice.

For African American entertainers, the popularity of soundies came with undeniable implications. Access and visibility to white audiences launched the careers of some of entertainment’s biggest stars. Fats Waller is one such example. Soundies portrayed Black performers as competent, skilled musicians.

However, portrayal of African American culture was through a white lens and usually rooted in stereotypes. As a result, 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 in the mainstream, it unquestionably perpetuated racism.

Nevertheless, soundies continued to grow in popularity. During World War II, “cheesecake segments,” or short commercials were introduced. These commercials encouraged the buying of war bonds or singing of patriotic songs. Following World War II, the television replaced the Panoram, and by 1947, the industry was effectively out of business.

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 Museum.

When our doors reopen, 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. But until we are able to welcome you back through our doors, 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. Accessibility during a time like this is paramount to our mission, and we continue to work to bring the AJM experience directly to you.

For the latest updates and exclusive content, visit us at americanjazzmuseum.org/ajmathome.

–Marissa Baum and Luke Harbur

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