Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!

From The Jazz Singer

Jolson plays Jack Robin, whose mother is entranced by his performances, while his father disapproves.

If you haven’t seen the The Jazz Singer, the 1927 film starring Al Jolson, you really “ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”  With those words, Jolson ushered in a new era in popular culture – the “talkie.”  The film, which will be shown at the Museum at Eldridge Street on Sunday, December 4 is a treat!

The Jazz Singer is based on a story by Samson Raphaelson, a Lower East Side native, who saw Al Jolson perform in 1917 and was mesmerized:  “I shall never forget the first five minutes of Jolson—his velocity, the amazing fluidity with which he shifted from a tremendous absorption in his audience to a tremendous absorption in his song,” he recalled, explaining that he has seen emotional intensity like Jolson’s only in synagogue cantors.
from The Jazz Singer

Al Jolson takes on the role of Cantor in The Jazz Singer.

When Warner Brothers acquired the movie rights to The Jazz Singer, the studio decided that the film would be the first feature-length showcase for its new Vitaphone technology, which enabled sound sequences to be interspersed with silent footage.  With singing now a part of the production, Al Jolson, then phenomenally popular, was a natural choice for the lead.

In its day, The Jazz Singer was a sensation!  To a modern viewer, the shift between silent film and “talkie” is fun to watch.  What is strange, what makes us uncomfortable, though, is the fact that Jolson performs at times in blackface, something that hasn’t been tolerated for many decades, even if it was common and popular in its day.  Today, even in an 84-year-old movie like The Jazz Singer, blackface will make most viewers squirm, and it leads to a rather automatic assumption that blackface is a racist act.  But Jolson was no racist, far from it.

At a time when blacks were not seen on the Broadway, Jolson promoted a play by Garland Anderson, which became the first Broadway production with an all-black cast.  He insisted on equal treatment for Cab Calloway, with whom he performed in The Singing Kid.  Jolson and his wife Ruby Keeler were the rare entertainers who invited black singers and dancers their home, and when he died, black actors turned out in force for Jolson’s funeral.  According to the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, “Almost single-handedly, Jolson helped to introduce African-American innovations like jazz, ragtime, and the blues to white audiences…[and] paved the way for African-American performers like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Ethel Waters.”  Clearly, Jolson felt a kinship with African-Americans

So come to the Museum on December 4th and see and for yourself.  See Jolson, who was himself the son of a rabbi and cantor who became the most popular star on Broadway, truly the Elvis of his day.  See him sing, shimmy and shake, and see something that only could have happened when and where it did – in the 1920s, on the Lower East Side of New York.

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