Movie Shoots, Jazz Scores

Last year, I commented here about the hit-and-mostly-miss tradition of movies with jazz or jazz-related stories. I neglected to discuss another, more successful tradition: movies with scores by jazz or jazz-influenced composers that may have little or nothing to do with jazz as plot material. That tradition is now the subject of a remarkable exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Prepared with unprecedented comprehensiveness by Joshua Siegel, the assistant curator of MoMA’s film department, this series includes dozens of films, some rarely if ever seen, as well as wall hangings involving posters, LP album covers and video displays. It opened in April, with director Arthur Penn introducing his surreal 1965 thriller Mickey One, music by Eddie Sauter and Stan Getz, and continues into September, closing with Spike Lee’s gripping documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, scored by Terence Blanchard.

Jazz has always been a part of the mix in Hollywood movies, even in the silent era, when ragtime was a major component in scores created by theater pianists and organists. From the beginning, jazz justifiably represented the sound of urban life, though with less justification, it also came to signal immorality. A silent film accompanist might use Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” to connote the innocence of country life, but the sound of jazz almost always indicated the presence of wayward flappers, dissolute roués and other lost souls. With the advent of sound, jazz often signified violence or madness—Duke Ellington’s “Rape of the Rhapsody” triggers homicide in Murder at the Vanities (1934).

During the Swing Era, the association between jazz and moral laxity briefly disappeared, as big bands were celebrated for their all-American vitality, wartime sentimentality and patriotism, though white Mickey Mouse or show bands were favored—Xavier Cugat appeared in more movies than any other dance band ever. Black bandleaders and musicians were usually hired for isolated episodes that could be excised for Southern distribution. In the postwar era, many of the shadowy crime pictures that are now fashionably characterized as noir included scenes set in seedy nightclubs where second-rate jazz musicians provided low-rent ambience.

But in 1951, Alex North—a newcomer to the world of Hollywood scoring long dominated by such venerable men as Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Franz Waxman—used jazz elements in the score to A Streetcar Named Desire. A generation of film composers weaned on jazz and swing followed suit, including Elmer Bernstein (The Man With the Golden Arm, in 1955, Sweet Smell of Success, 1957, and Walk on the Wild Side, 1962) and Henry Mancini (Touch of Evil, 1958, High Time, 1960, and the television series Peter Gunn, 1958-60). Some of these films featured onscreen appearances by jazz musicians like Shorty Rogers and Chico Hamilton, but the important thing was the non-diegetic music; these scores may have been “jazzy” rather than jazz per se, but they used jazz techniques to convey emotions previously reserved for string orchestras sawing variations on 19th-century romantics. An unsung pioneer was Benny Carter, who worked on several 1950s scores without credit; in some of them, he got onscreen appearances in nightclub scenes. Aside from a few Faith and John Hubley animated shorts and some TV work, Carter did not get to put his name on a feature film score until Leo Penn’s A Man Called Adam, in 1966.

Robert Wise, who is now more widely associated with the music of West Side Story and The Sound of Music, went a step further than other directors by hiring genuine jazz composers to score films: John Mandel (with an assist from an onscreen Gerry Mulligan ensemble) for I Want to Live! (1958) and John Lewis (leading an all-star offscreen orchestra) for Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Both pictures explored societal sleaze—junkies, thieves, killers, racists—yet, in both instances, the scores draw lines between a jazz that defines the lower depths and a jazz that comments on and supersedes plot and characters. Otto Preminger made a still bolder decision with his counterintuitive signing of Duke Ellington to score Anatomy of a Murder (1959), which showed that jazz was suitable for a story involving a homespun Midwestern attorney, even if his big case does involve rape and murder.

At the same time, jazz was finding a regular base in Europe and in America’s independent cinema. Louis Malle invited Miles Davis to improvise the score for Elevator to the Gallows (1957) and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers enlivened Roger Vadim’s 1959 Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1959). Martial Solal added terse grace notes to Breathless (1960) by Jean-Luc Godard, who used jazzier scores by Michel Legrand for A Woman Is a Woman (1961) and Band of Outsiders (1964), as did Agnès Varda, who put Legrand onscreen in Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962). In the burgeoning New York film movement of the late 1950s, Charles Mingus and Shafi Hadi provided intermittent music for John Cassavetes’ Shadows, David Amram scored Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy, and Freddie Redd (with Jackie McLean) created the classic onstage score for the off-Broadway production of Jack Gelber’s The Connection, which Shirley Clarke filmed in 1961. Other films were scored by Mal Waldron, Lalo Schifrin and, most prolifically, Quincy Jones. Jazz scores lost favor after The Graduate and Easy Rider, as filmmakers switched to rock or licensed records with which the audience was already familiar—yet exceptions abided, often in films by Clint Eastwood, not least his misperceived comic jaunt, The Gauntlet (1977), for which composer Jerry Fielding programmed expansive solos by Jon Faddis and Art Pepper.

Almost all these films are part of the MoMA series, and if you’re in New York in August and September, some highlights still to come include Jack Johnson (Miles Davis), A Man Called Adam (with a serious performance by Louis Armstrong), Tune in Tomorrow (Wynton Marsalis), New York Eye and Ear Control (Albert Ayler) and Naked Lunch (a Howard Shore score with Ornette Coleman improvisations). Most revelatory is Larry Clark’s long-overlooked 1977 UCLA master thesis film, Passing Through (on August 7 and 9), a genuinely innovative drama of Los Angeles musicians, in which Horace Tapscott’s score and recorded excerpts by Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy and others telegraph the emotions of the characters with a specificity rare in any film. Passing Through shows how the belief in music’s healing power could be throttled into vigilante justice, and it’s like nothing else you’ve seen.

Originally published in September 2008

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