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Edward Bland, 86, musician whose documentary became a black rallying cry

Mr. Bland created “The Cry of Jazz,” which became a staple of academic film studies and black history departments.
Mr. Bland created “The Cry of Jazz,” which became a staple of academic film studies and black history departments.Credit: Guillaume le Grontec/New York Times

NEW YORK — Edward Bland made only one film before deciding to pursue a career as a musician, composer, and arranger. And that film, ‘‘The Cry of Jazz,’’ a 34-minute documentary explaining jazz in the context of black history, was by his own account amateurish.

But within a year of its release in 1959, ‘‘The Cry of Jazz,’’ which Mr. Bland produced on a shoestring with friends, became an improbable film landmark of sorts, not as art but as a manifesto of black militancy.

Using the didactic voice-over style popular in educational films of the 1950s, Mr. Bland, who died March 14 at 86, interspersed selections from jazz performances, scenes of deprivation in the ghettos of Chicago, and a stilted portrayal of an argument over jazz at an interracial social gathering of college-educated young people.

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During the argument an unbridgeable racial divide seems to open in the floor. When it was an article of faith in the civil rights movement that all people were essentially the same, Mr. Bland’s film depicted a group of black men explaining to their white peers that the opposite was true, that after centuries of battling racial oppression, black Americans were actually quite different from white Americans under the skin and in many ways better.

The movie caused an uproar. Notable intellectuals took sides. Novelist Ralph Ellison called it offensive. Poet LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka, called it profoundly insightful. An audience discussion after a screening in 1960 in Greenwich Village became so heated that the police were called.

Kenneth Tynan, in The Observer of London, wrote that it ‘‘does not really belong to the history of cinematic art, but it assuredly belongs to history’’ as ‘‘the first film in which the American Negro has issued a direct challenge to the white.’’

He went on to write arrangements for Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sun Ra.

He died of cancer at his home in Smithfield, Va., said his wife, Mary Batten Bland.

While ‘‘The Cry of Jazz’’ became a staple of academic film studies and black history departments, Mr. Bland told an interviewer, ‘‘I do wish we had made a better film.’’

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