Things ain’t what they used to be? Disney, jazz and the problem with the good old days

The opening scene of Disney Pixar’s Soul establishes Duke Ellington as a symbol of the jazz tradition – but the animated fable educates us on the risks of nostalgia

Soul. Photo: Animation Screencaps

Jazz music and Disney animations remain two of the most significant American cultural exports of the 20th century. When jazz musicians have played or “played with” music from Disney films – from Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis and, indeed, the Duke Ellington Orchestra – they demonstrated an ability to make room for artistic experimentation within tight aesthetic and moral conventions. When Disney has evoked jazz in its films, it has often been as a signifier of race, and, in more recent years, has become a central aesthetic for introducing the first black protagonists into Disney’s canon. The Princess and the Frog (2009) relocates The Frog Prince to 1920s New Orleans, turning the German folk tale of vanity and prejudgement into a lesson on how single-sighted ambition can obscure (a conservative ideal of) what is really important in life: love, family, friendship. A similar lesson is to be found in Soul (2020), written by Pixar’s Pete Docter and Mike Jones with playwright Kemp Powers. When aspiring jazz musician Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) has a fatal accident, his disembodied spirit escapes death by sneaking into “the great before”, where he helps the stubborn, yet-to-be-born soul 22 (Tina Fey) gain the confidence to start her life on earth – and in the process learns to appreciate the small things. Duke Ellington is a recurring reference in Soul, and examining how his image and work function in the film sheds light on Ellington’s reception in the 21st century as well as the relationship between Disney and jazz.

The film’s opening moments set up the story in characteristically deft fashion: a wincing Joe conducts a pitchy middle school band as the shot pans out to reveal the title of the song written on the blackboard behind him: Things Ain’t What They Used to Be. In choosing to make Joe a reluctant teacher, the film sets out to challenge a general point about how undervaluing educators has become a well-worn trope in popular culture (“if you can’t do, teach”). But it also enters a debate about the importance of education in maintaining the jazz tradition and introducing the music to a wider audience – which, for Joe, is obscured by his ambitions as a performer. In the same scene, Joe gazes at a display of photos of jazz greats – including Duke Ellington – that sidelines thank you notes from his students. His passion has become a fixation (with romanticising the past and fantasising about the future) that prevents him from seeing the value in the present; indeed, it is his inattention to the world around him that leads Joe to fall down a manhole and into the afterlife experience structured around mentorship that widens his perspective. The same photo of Duke reappears later in the film, as Joe is about to fulfil his dream of performing with saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Now the object of self-recognition rather than a wistful gaze, Joe still fails to see that it is his role within a lineage, rather than his personal ambition, that links him to Ellington.

Duke Ellington’s cameo in Soul. Photo: Animation Screencaps

Soul stages how Duke Ellington has been placed at the heart of the jazz canon, as figured by a neoclassical jazz discourse popularised by trumpeter and Jazz at Lincoln Center director Wynton Marsalis. Under the mentorship of Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch, Marsalis’s conservative view of the jazz canon elevates music that adheres to tradition and rejects deviant genres such as avant garde and fusion. The neoclassical stance is key to understanding Ellington’s reception since his death in 1974, with its aim to “fix the musical and social meaning of Ellington’s legacy (including his later long-form work) as an inviolable center for the jazz tradition” (1). While Marsalis sought to “quarantine what he saw as a coherent musical tradition’s normative center from wayward influences”, critics contend that Ellington’s legacy has been “distorted and transformed into an essentially conservative and retrospective defence of a narrowly conceived canon of classical jazz” (2).

Marsalis’s vision of preserving jazz is closely linked to its development through education, a project of which Ellington has been situated at the centre (3). Marsalis founded the Essentially Ellington programme in the mid-1990s to support high school music departments across the US and Canada. The scheme, which transcribes and distributes Duke Ellington Orchestra charts in addition to cultivating mentor relationships, is “committed to instilling a broader understanding” of jazz.

In Soul, Ellington as a symbol of a jazz tradition is emphasised even in the mentorship and legacy implicit in crediting Things Ain’t What They Used to Be to “Mercer Ellington (Duke Ellington’s son)” on the blackboard. The tune – which has featured in the Essentially Ellington programme – was one of several written by Mercer during a strike against the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in the early 1940s, which prevented the songs of members from being played on the radio. While Duke had been an ASCAP member since 1935, neither Mercer nor Duke’s writing partner Billy Strayhorn were, so the young writers were tasked with composing new songs for Duke’s orchestra, many of which – including Things Ain’t What They Used to Be and Strayhorn standards such as Chelsea Bridge and Take the A Train – became permanent features in the band’s repertoire even after the ASCAP dispute was settled. Things Ain’t What They Used to Be also has a precedent on film, being among the songs played by the Ellington Orchestra in 1943’s Cabin in the Sky.

Soul emphasises lineage as indispensable to jazz, and places Duke Ellington at the heart of it. In a promotional video for the Soul of Jazz exhibition added to the American pavilion at Disney World’s EPCOT, Jon Batiste, who composed the film’s jazz songs, publicises artefacts from “greats of the music in this sacred lineage”, a heritage he mentioned, with direct reference to Ellington, during his Oscars acceptance speech for best original score.

A lot on her plate … The Princess and the Frog. Photo: Animation Screencaps

These insights are also revealing with regard to the role jazz plays in the films of Disney and its subsidiaries. The musical education depicted in Soul is a symbol of the dual pedagogical function of the film itself. In a study of The Princess and the Frog, Sarita McCoy Gregory writes that Disney uses the film “to make jazz (and therefore blackness) more accessible to its white audience” (4). This has an interesting relationship to Duke Ellington’s notions of race and nation: while Ellington perhaps saw cultural exchange as a way of introducing black narratives to an interracial audience, films such as The Princess and the Frog risk celebrating “cultural blackness” (food, music) while erasing “political blackness” (5).

Duke Ellington performing at Carnation Plaza Gardens. Photo: Disney Parks Blog

The Duke Ellington Orchestra performed at Disneyland at least five times during the 1960s and 70s. At this time, parts of Disneyland, such as the model of 19th century New Orleans Square installed in 1966, were still deeply entrenched in nostalgia for the pre-emancipation South of the kind for which Song of the South (1946) has been widely criticised, which “preserved a racial order (that was in the midst of being dismantled in the 1960s civil rights struggle) by encouraging its theme park tourists to safely ‘remember’ the good old colonial days, with its racial hierarchy firmly in place” (7). Outside of its evocations of the South, the park bandstands where Ellington’s band performed, such as that in Carnation Plaza Gardens, indulged in nostalgia for the “swing era” – broadly the years between the Wall Street crash and the second world war – when “jazz was synonymous with America’s popular music, its social dances and its musical entertainment” and which historian Gunther Schuller characterised as a “bygone era of American political innocence” (8).

Nostalgia remains a powerful currency in the Disney canon, and, while Ellington was employed as a symbol of bygone good old days in Disneyland, Soul both participates in and challenges the studio’s history of nostalgic narratives. The influential aesthetic conservatism of Marsalis and others may have been concerned with projecting a coherent racial culture that functions as a wider repository for black values (6), but being so highly indebted to retrospection of a perceived Golden Age can prize a narrowly defined idea of an aesthetically coherent tradition at the expense of a history of experimentation.


(1) Paul Allen Anderson, Deep River: Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance Thought (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), pp 267–8.

(2) Anderson, p. 268.

(3) Eric Porter, What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), p. 313.

(4) Sarita McCoy Gregory, ‘Disney’s Second Line: New Orleans, Racial Masquerade, and the Reproduction of Whiteness in “The Princess and the Frog”’, Journal of African American Studies, 14.4 (2010), 432–49 (p. 441).

(5) Jessica Baker Kee and Alphonso Walter Grant, ‘Disney’s (Post?)-Racial Gaze: Film, Pedagogy, and the Construction of Racial Identities’, Counterpoints, 477 (2016), 67–79 (p. 75).

(6) Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 97.

(7) Gregory, p. 434.

(8) Gunther Schuller, The History of Jazz Volume II: The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989), pp 4–5.