Biopic of Jazz and Blues composer W.C.Handy that features great musicians and singers. The band consists of Barney Bigard, George Washington, Red Callender, Lee Young and of course Nat “King” Cole.
Young Will Handy is playing his coronet while some men sing a work song. His Aunt Hagar (Pearl Bailey) is hurrying down the street and spots him and takes him to church. She hides the coronet in her purse. They’re late and that draws a serious frown from Will’s father, Reverend Charles Handy. Will plays the organ and Bessie May (Mahalia Jackson) and Aunt Hagar belt out a hymn. Charles has had it and screams that he won’t have that kind of music in his church. He says there are two kinds of music, the Devil’s and the Lord’s. Outside the coronet falls out of Aunt Hagar’s purse. Charles throws it under a passing wagon which crushes it.
Years go by and Will (Nat “King” Cole) is now an adult back home from his studies. He’s supposed to get into a teaching job. He tells his fiancee Elizabeth (Ruby Dee) he’s been playing in bands and minstrel shows. She’s shocked and not very happy.
Will is asked to compose a song for a man running for sheriff. He and the band play at a rally and then head for The Big Rooster and play outside hoping for some throw down money. Inside singer Gogo Germaine (Eartha Kitt) is performing to an audience of maybe three people including club owner Blade (Cab Calloway). She invites the band inside and they jam.
Gogo really likes the election song and it’s eventually worked into “Yellow Dog Blues.” Later a lawyer shows up at Will’s house and buys the rights to the song for fifty bucks. Will then composes “Careless Love.” As he and Gogo are working it out Bessie May is sweeping up. She’s shocked to see Will playing piano and tells Charles. Will has a choice. The music or him. Will moves out. Will composes “St. Louis Blues” and “Chantez les Bas,” A man from a record store comes to the club and offers him six hundred dollars for the rights to record “Yellow Dog Blues.” Will is close to being arrested for assault when Blade admits he has the rights to the song and shows Will the agreement he signed giving away the rights.
One day Aunt Hagar brings his mail from the house to his room. There’s a check for nine hundred dollars for one of his songs. He buys a piano. It’s something his late mother always wanted. He’s playing the hymn “Morning Star” when Charles walks in. He could care less.
Back at the club Gogo says she’s been offered a good job in New York and wants Will and his songs to come with her. He can’t because he’s gone blind. There’s no explanation for it. Aunt Hagar tells him she knew a man who had gone deaf but got his hearing came back when his wife left him.
Will starts writing hymns for the church. While Will plays the organ and Bessie May is singing his eyesight returns. He’s not happy writing hymns and walks down the street. He passes a club and there’s the Memphis Jazz Quartet and Ella Fitzgerald doing “Beale Street Blues.” He goes back home and Aunt Hagar asks him to play “St.Louis Blues” and she sings along. Inside his head he hears his father shouting about the two kinds of music. He runs off.
Will finds out that if the music is ingrained in you it has to come out. The movie works its way to the expected and predictable triumphant ending. But, in this case, it works. This is a great movie. The drama is not maudlin and the music is terrific.