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Chronology: Eight Great Jazz Soundtracks

Thoughts on the all-time best jazz created for films

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The Modern Jazz Quartet - Great Jazz Soundtracks
The Modern Jazz Quartet—L to R: Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, John Lewis, and Connie Kay—made not one but two great albums out of Lewis’ music for Odds Against Tomorrow. (photo: James J. Kriegsmann)

Films that tell stories about jazz open a revealing window on the place and perception of the music within popular culture. See Kevin Whitehead’s compelling 2020 book Play the Way You Feel, whose insightful readings of roughly 100 films connect the dots between plot points, thematic ideas, conventions, and tropes related to race, authenticity, subculture, and personal expression.

Films with jazz scores, or those in which jazz musicians sneak onto the screen for a chorus or two, are also fun to ponder. David Meeker’s massive online database, Jazz on the Screen: A Jazz and Blues Filmography, covers the territory. If you prefer scholarly psychoanalytic interpretations focused on racial and sexual identity, Krin Gabbard’s Jammin’ at the Margins (1996) awaits. 

However, I am less interested here in what happens on screen than what happens on record: What are the greatest jazz recordings connected to film? Those that rank with the best music produced by a particular musician or group. 

I would elevate eight to the top tier: Miles Davis’ Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows); Gerry Mulligan’s The Jazz Combo from I Want to Live! (composed by Johnny Mandel); Duke Ellington’s Anatomy of a Murder; the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Odds Against Tomorrow (both the John Lewis-composed soundtrack and the MJQ record); Freddie Redd’s Music from the Connection (discussed in my Chronology column of July/August 2021); Sonny Rollins’ Alfie; and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Les Stances à Sophie. 

These reflect multiple styles and idioms, from modern mainstream to East Coast hard bop, West Coast cool, modal, postbop, Third Stream, and avant-garde. Ensembles range from small groups to big band and chamber orchestra. But the Davis, Ellington, Mulligan/Mandel, and Lewis/MJQ recordings define a clique of their own. All date to 1957-59, when filmmakers in Hollywood and Europe were beginning to find in jazz scores a more relevant, contemporary mirror of the energy, angst, and expression of life in the atomic age.

French director Louis Malle asked Davis to improvise a score for Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud, a noirish step toward the New Wave, in late 1957. The trumpeter responded with electrifying music of brooding detachment and existential freedom. The original 10-inch LP, issued in Europe on Fontana, included 26 minutes. In America, the music was released on one side of Jazz Track (Columbia). 

Working with a few proto-modal harmonic sequences and no written melodies, Davis’ quintet created improvised sketches while watching projections of the film. The mostly French players—tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen, pianist René Urtreger, bassist Pierre Michelot, American expat drummer Kenny Clarke—rise to the challenge. Davis, whose chops now approach the strength of his personality, transcends. The music captures him pivoting toward the modality of Kind of Blue, and there are moments of plaintive abstraction that presage later mood pieces like 1966’s “Circle.” His scampering lines on “Sur l’Autoroute,” tightly muted and fiercely articulated, remind you how strongly he influenced a young Wynton Marsalis.

Recorded in 1959 for Columbia, Ellington’s episodic score for director Otto Preminger’s courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder includes some of the composer’s most evocative themes. Ever. The kaleidoscopic orchestrations, at once opulent and downhome, are played with the majesty of America’s greatest vernacular orchestra entering the peak of its postwar maturity.

 The memorable title sequence, a stalking blues with a backbeat as menacing as a husband liquored up and jealous, sets a high bar. The luscious “Flirtibird” surpasses it with a hip-swaying melody and call-and-response structure that showcases Johnny Hodges’ slinky, come-hither blues on alto. On “Way Early Subtone,” spare duet passages of Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet and Harry Carney’s baritone sax, voiced in 10ths and shadowed by hipster finger snaps, are magic. Ellington wrote and arranged most of the score, but Billy Strayhorn’s major contribution remains top-shelf too: the sensuous “Polly” music, a.k.a. “Low Key Lightly,” “Midnight Indigo,” “Grace Valse,” and “Haupe.” 

Both I Want to Live! (1958) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) are crime thrillers directed by Robert Wise. Mandel’s excitable score for the former never quite shakes a slick Hollywood vibe, but Mulligan’s The Jazz Combo from I Want to Live! (United Artists) showcases the septet from the film blowing heartily on Mandel’s rewarding themes. The horn players—Mulligan, Art Farmer, Frank Rosolino, Bud Shank—chew up the scenery.

Lewis’ score for Odds Against Tomorrow marked a leap forward for him as a composer and the Modern Jazz Quartet as an improvising chamber ensemble. The soundtrack LP released by United Artists—Odds Against Tomorrow: Original Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack—features a 22-piece orchestra of brass, cellos, flute, vibes, piano, bass, guitar, harp, drums, and percussion. The idiom remains fundamentally jazz in terms of rhythm and gesture, and Lewis’ gift for alluring melody is everywhere apparent, but the formal wrinkles, counterpoint, tactile textures, and sometimes startling dissonance illuminate a composer drawing on classical influences to push into fresh territory. 

Lewis distilled the score into six discrete pieces for the MJQ on Music from Odds Against Tomorrow (United Artists), also released as Patterns. A masterful record, it includes three songs that remained part of the MJQ’s repertoire: the graceful waltz “Skating in Central Park,” the gently mercurial “A Cold Wind Is Blowing,” and the autumnal title song. Lewis is the auteur, directing from the piano with a fastidious eye for telling details. Vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s charismatic improvising brings the heat of an unbridled leading man. The clarity of Percy Heath’s bass sound and drummer Connie Kay’s subtle dynamics suggest great character actors. Forget the film, dig the band. 

Further Listening

Sonny Rollins: Alfie (Impulse!, 1966)
Bacharach and David wrote the hit “Alfie,” but Rollins composed the score, highlighted by an epic tenor solo on “Alfie’s Theme.”

Art Ensemble of Chicago: Les Stances à Sophie (Pathé, 1970)
The eclectic soundtrack for Moshé Mizrahi’s film includes one of the Ensemble’s funkiest pieces, “Theme de Yoyo.”

Various Artists: The Other Side of Round Midnight (Blue Note, 1986)
Columbia released the soundtrack, but Blue Note’s facsimile, though uneven, concludes with the finest solo performance of Herbie Hancock’s career on “’Round Midnight.”

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Mark Stryker

Mark Stryker is the author of Jazz from Detroit (University of Michigan Press), named Jazz Book of the Year in the 2019 JazzTimes Critics’ Poll. Inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2020, Stryker covered jazz, classical music, and visual arts for the Detroit Free Press from 1995 to 2016. He also grew up working as a jazz alto saxophonist.