Vail Jazz summer: Jazz, jukeboxes and Soundies, the evolution of entertainment
Long before the Walkman (remember it?) and the digital music players of today, there were jukeboxes — in essence, coin-operated phonograph players (remember records?). They came into use in the 1930s, and at the height of their popularity in the mid-1940s, three-quarters of all American records made their way into the ubiquitous jukeboxes, which were found in bars, taverns, pool halls, roadhouses, nightclubs, soda shops, restaurants, diners, video arcades and even laundromats.
The jukebox got its name from the rowdy places known as juke joints (aka barrelhouses), which were roadside establishments where blacks were able to dance, drink and gamble outside of the view of whites. Jukeboxes allowed the masses the pleasure of choosing a tune and listening to it for only a nickel, and since jazz was the popular music of America during the 1930s, 1940s and into the 1950s, the who’s who of the world of jazz could be heard not only on the radio but, of course, in every neighborhood joint with a jukebox. Jukeboxes were big business in America during the 1930s, and by 1940, it is estimated that the industry had approximately 600,000 jukeboxes in use that grossed more than $150,000,000 that year.
The invention of the transistor in the 1950s, and, thereafter, the integrated circuit, ushered in the era of miniaturization and portability, allowing easy and free access to music on demand, thereby bringing about the demise of the jukebox in the mid-1960s.
While the jukebox was king in the 1930s, hobbyists began to tinker with it in an attempt to link a movie projector with a jukebox so that it could play a musical film. Remember, TV wasn’t available yet, and at that time, there were limited opportunities for people to see live music performances.
PANORAM BROUGHT TO MARKET
In 1939, the Panoram, the most successful of the movie jukeboxes, was brought to market. The size of a small refrigerator, it had an 18-inch-by-22-inch screen at eye level. The “movies” shown on the device were known as soundies, and long before MTV, the music video was born. Three minutes in length, filmed in black and white, the soundie was the precursor to today’s music video and cost a dime to view. soundies were made to play exclusively on the Panoram (there were other players, but the Panoram dominated the market), and during the period of 1940 to 1946, more than 1,800 were produced. The Panoram sold for $1,000, while a “regular” jukebox cost less than half as much. Since it cost twice as much to play a soundie as a tune on a regular jukebox, Panorams were grossing $50 to $100 per week (or more) compared to $10 a week for the lowly jukebox.
The production quality of the soundies was poor. In order to turn them out in volume, the music was recorded first and then the performers were filmed while lip-syncing the vocals and fingering their instruments. Even with the low quality, soundies were a huge hit in an era before TV, and while they were a novelty, they represented a new form of entertainment that allowed thousands of people the opportunity to enjoy music while seeing performers that they would generally never have an opportunity to see, all for a dime.
While the tunes presented in soundies ran the gamut of popular music, a substantial portion of the output focused on jazz and big bands. Famous performers such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Glen Miller, Stan Keaton, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole and Fats Waller were featured in many of the soundies. African-American performers were the beneficiaries of the medium, since soundies relied in some cases on lesser-established artists who were not constrained by recording contracts. The soundie was a two-edged sword for African-Americans. The positive was exposure to a new white audience, but the negative was that, in many cases, they were depicted in stereotypical roles, for instance as waiters or shoeshine boys.
Word War II curtailed production of the Panoram, and once the war ended, there was a significant decline in the interest in soundies caused by the fact that people were moving to the suburbs and staying home and watching TV. By 1947, the company that made the soundies discontinued operations.
While soundies had a short commercial life, they enabled many African-Americans to reach a then-segregated audience and build fan awareness while pointing the way to the development of the music video. Fortunately, many of the soundies were preserved and ultimately re-released on video and DVD. Today, many can be seen on YouTube just a few clicks away, and you don’t need a nickel or a dime to enjoy them.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 21st year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.