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Get in the Swing With These 8 Irresistible Jazz Movies

The best dramas and docs, from Louis Armstrong to Lady Day

spinner image Side by side images of Forest Whitaker in the film Bird and Richard Gere in The Cotton Club
Forest Whitaker (left) as Charlie 'Bird' Parker in "Bird" and Richard Gere as Dixie Dwyer in "The Cotton Club."
Courtesy Everett Collection; Orion/Courtesy Everett Collection

Hollywood has been fascinated with jazz ever since the genre emerged, inspired by the creativity and struggles of its artists. Adding to the canon this winter is The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Feb. 26, Hulu), a biopic of Lady Day directed by Lee Daniels (Precious, Lee Daniels’ The Butler), written by Suzan-Lori Parks and starring Andra Day. Whether you're a lifelong jazz buff or a new one, settle in for any of these 8 great jazz movies (and check out the iconic cut from each on Spotify).

Young Man With a Horn (1950)

This film offered one of the first Hollywood depictions of the troubled musical genius, played by Kirk Douglas, with Lauren Bacall as his love interest and Doris Day as the big-band vocalist who introduces them. Douglas’ trumpeting is dubbed with playing by Harry James, one of the most popular big-band leaders of the era, leading The New York Times to call the soundtrack “the very soul of the picture.”

Iconic cut: "The Very Thought of You,” Day's first song in the film

Where to watch: Young Man With a Horn, on HBO Max and Amazon Prime

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Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960)

If you're missing live performance right now, this concert film will transport you to the 1958 performances of the famed Newport Jazz Festival. The all-star lineup includes Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk, and is artfully directed by photographer Bert Stern. A newly restored version was just released, so now's the time to dig it.

Iconic cut: “The Lord's Prayer,” sung by Mahalia Jackson at the end of her midnight set

Where to watch: Jazz on a Summer's Day, on YouTube

RELATED: 11 Black Filmmakers You Should Know

The Cotton Club (1984)

In 2019, director Francis Ford Coppola released an “encore” cut of this crime drama set in the 1930s Harlem jazz scene, and starring Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, and Diane Lane. The latest version incorporates more of the Black performers’ stories that financiers pressured the director to cut, including tap-dancing scenes starring brother duo Gregory and Maurice Hines.

Iconic cut: "Minnie the Moocher,” a Cab Calloway song featured on the Grammy-winning score

Where to watch: The Cotton Club, on Amazon Prime

Bird (1988)

Forest Whitaker stars as Charlie “Yardbird” Parker in this Clint Eastwood–directed biopic. While the film's timeline jumps around, it's grounded in the saxophonist's relationships with his wife Chan Parker and fellow musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Red Rodney. For the soundtrack, Eastwood took original recordings and isolated Parker's solos, then cleaned them up and re-recorded the accompaniment.

Iconic cut: “All of Me,” one of two previously unheard Parker tracks

Where to watch: Bird, on YouTube and Amazon Prime

Chico & Rita (2010)

This Oscar-nominated, animated love story follows jazz pianist Chico and singer Rita from Havana to New York, Hollywood and Paris as they pursue their music dreams and navigate their tumultuous relationship. The character Chico is based loosely on the life of Cuban pianist and bandleader Bebo Valdés, who plays on the swinging soundtrack of jazz, batango and mamba.

Iconic cut: “Lily,” voiced by flamenco star Estrella Morente

Where to watch: Chico & Rita, on YouTube

RELATED: 5 New Films to Watch During Black History Month

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I Called Him Morgan (2016)

During a blizzard in February 1972, jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan was shot in a Manhattan club by his common-law wife, Helen. Styled like a feature film, this critically acclaimed documentary recounts not only that killing, but also the lives of Morgan and Helen (who nursed him through a heroin addiction), as well as his contemporaries on the New York jazz scene.

Iconic cut: “Gaza Strip,” from Morgan's 1957 debut album Indeed!

Where to watch: I Called Him Morgan, on Netflix

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes (2018)

This documentary details the history of Blue Note Records, one of the most renowned labels in jazz. Beginning with its founding in 1939 by German immigrants who fled the Nazis, and tracing its succession of great artists from Thelonious Monk to Herbie Hancock and Norah Jones, the film also looks at the label's broader influences on contemporary hip-hop.

Iconic cut: “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),” by Us3, the first appearance of a Blue Note sample in hip-hop

Where to watch: Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, on Prime Video

Soul (2020)

The first Disney-Pixar film follows a middle school music teacher and flailing jazz pianist, played by Jamie Foxx, as he tries to reunite his body and soul before his first big gig. To accurately animate the jazz performances, Pixar animators studied the piano-playing fingers of Jon Batiste, the Late Night With Stephen Colbert bandleader and one of the film's music consultants.

Iconic cut: “Bigger Than Us” exemplifies the shimmering soundtrack

Where to watch: Soul, on Disney+

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