“Jivin’ in Be-Bop” is an obscure all-black revue from 1946 which is noteworthy solely for being the first and only time that jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie starred in a movie.
Backed by an ebullient orchestra, Gillespie was a swinging, dancing, trumpet blasting dynamo. While his singing voice was thin, he more than carried the show with a surplus of charm and personality. He also presented the finest be-bop jazz music ever created. The film captures the young Gillsepie at an early peak in his career, and his screen dynamism is so strong that it is a wonder that Hollywood never bothered to tap into his talents.
“Jivin’ in Be-Bop” works best when Gillespie and his orchestra are working their magic with such infectious tunes as “Salt Peanuts” and “Oop Bop Sh’bam,” or when the vivacious vocalist Helen Humes fronts the tunes while Gillespie and company back her lively song styling.
Sadly, too much of this short feature is weighed down with dull and frequently silly dance numbers staged to Gillespie’s music. The landmark “A Night in Tunisia” provides musical inspiration to one of the worst ballets ever put on film: an inane harem dance which is so puerile that one background dancer has problems keeping a straight face. There is a lady jazz dancer who seems to be counting her steps while mechanically rocking her shoulders and arms, a man in an ill-fitting tuxedo doing a lame tap dance to the sublime “Grosvenor’s Square,” and a duo who never bother to sync up their feet into something resembling unison rhythm.
This DVD release strangely cut out the amusing comedy bits by Milt Jackson, who served as an emcee between acts. The print used for this release is also scratchy and splicey in places (the film has been in the public domain for many years and the original negative and release prints are long-lost).
Still, Gillespie fans will look beyond the flaws of the original production and new digital presentation to enjoy this rare showcase of be-bop at its best. Way to go, Diz!