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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).

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