When Jeff Lambert (Bing Crosby) was a boy in 1890s New Orleans he dutifully took clarinet lessons as ordered by his classical musician father, but it was not classical music that he liked to perform. When his father was looking the other way, Jeff would head off to Basin Street to be with the jazz crowd, joining in, much to their surprise. However when his father tracked him down with the help of manservant Louey (Eddie Anderson), Jeff was scolded severely, and dragged back to his practice. Yet the love of jazz never left him, and when he grew up he started a white band of musicians, against the popular style...
Birth of the Blues has a reputation of whitewashing history, literally, by making it look as if jazz was invented by the white community of America. However, this is not entirely fair as yes, there are more white cast members than black, but the film makes clear where the music originated and in no way has, say, Bing Crosby creating jazz and ignoring the black pioneers of the medium. This was a pet project of Crosby's, a way to illustrate where he was coming from as a fan of the music who loved it so much that he adopted it for himself and those large sections of white America who were receptive to his way with a tune.
It's true that in the final montage of jazz pioneers there are more white faces than black, but the film is careful to have the fictionalised Jeff and his band be validated by those who came up with the style in the first place. Jeff is looking for a cornet player, and following a lead he ends up at the local jailhouse where he has heard that one has recently been incarcerated. Now, the name Brian Donlevy doesn't exactly conjure up the spirit of jazz, but that's who is in the role of the cornet player, and one can only assume he was miming his way through the numbers.
Donlevy is really there as a love rival for Crosby's Jeff when, through much contrivance, Jeff allows visiting aspiring singer Betty Lou (Mary Martin, the mother of Larry Hagman in real life) and her five-year-old aunt Phoebe (outspoken moppet Carolyn Lee) to share the boarding house he stays at: he gives up his room for them. The narrative is flimsy to say the least, only arranged with these clichés as a framing for the musical passages, but Crosby and Martin enjoy a certain charm - you could always rely on Der Bingle for easy going charisma.
And here he is obviously relishing the musical side of his act, not simply crooning for Middle America but championing the style he grew up singing, essentially in the hope that they would be respected and welcomed by those who might have dismissed them. The jazz episodes are the best part of the film, and all the trials Jeff's band have to go through to be heard are distractions; bizarrely, the story transforms into a criminal undergound thriller when Jeff and company catch on, make a lot of money for nightclub owner Blackie (J. Carrol Naish) then wish to move forward. It's as if the producers appreciated Bing's love for the music, but couldn't settle for the right vehicle for it: even the comic relief Anderson gets placed in tragic jeopardy so the band can play him out of his coma! Birth of the Blues is interesting, but there are all sorts of reasons why it's a bit of a muddle.