Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Jazz and Film Noir

With its lowlife settings, femmes fatales, tough guys, shadows, urban landscapes, and fatalistic narratives, film noir  has long been associated with jazz. After all, both are considered predominantly indigenous forms and both can't help but celebrate marginality.  But prior to the late 1950s, that association, on-screen at any rate, had yet to be established. In fact, jazz would be, for the most part, notable by its absence.  Though some composers, such as Geroge Hermann, George Antheil, Henry Mancini, Max Steiner, Adolph Deutsch, Miklos Rozsa, David Raksin, Elmer Bernstein and Alex North, contributed soundtracks to films that had elements of jazz buried within them. It was only in the latter part of the 1950s with the popularity of the predominantly west coast cool-school, that jazz tended to become a mainstay of film noir.  Even so,  it still wasn’t all that commonplace given the degree to which the two art forms have become associated with one another. In fact, it was only in the 1960s that jazz and film noir begin to solidify what would become a long-term relationship. 

Having said that, jazz in most examples of film noir, functions primarily as mood music, to create a particular atmosphere or add  tension or feel of a given film. Nothing unusual in that; it’s, for the most part, how music functions in film. Nor should one be surprised that jazz is seldom allowed to speak on its own, much less form its own narrative. Which is why there are, to my knowledge, no film noir soundtracks by the likes of Ornette Coleman (though he did provide the soundtrack for Conrad Rooks’ 1966 Chappaqua), Coltrane or Monk (his unused soundtrack to Les Liaisons Dangereuses would no doubt have been an exception that proved the rule).  Perhaps the closest jazz came to assuming a dominant presence in a narrative were in films like  Arthur Penn’s Mickey One (see my review on the previous entry in this blog),  or the Euro-noir Elevator to the Scaffold.  Which illustrates that such music was more than capable of driving any given narrative, if not make a statement in its own right. This is not to say that there isn’t some excellent, provocative and interesting music to be  heard on film noir soundtracks. Only  that any such music is the exception rather than the rule. Which is why it might be worthwhile to compile an annotated list of my own favorite jazz soundtracks.  Not that all are the the greatest examples of film noir; in fact, some barely qualify as film noir, but such films are included because they contain elements of film noir and  showcase the music,  whether to create a mood or drive the narrative. Interestingly, musicians, when they appear on screen, function very much like domestic servants, as  silent witnesses to what is occuring in front of them. Comments or statements mainly exist in the sub-text of the music, surfracing only through the lyrics of songs that may or may not be jazz-based. Finally, one might ask why these films mostly relied on west coast musicians associaated with the cool school of jazz.  This might have been because west coast and cool jazz displayed, as a genre, a certain conciseness and self-containment; it was inoffensive, easier to understand than more complex jazz forms; it had no overt political connotations; and, finally, it was mostly Los Angeles based, which meant the musicians were at hand, and more likely to be familiar with the studio set up and recording process.

- Phantom Lady, 1944. Directed by Robert Siodmak. Remembered for Elisha Cook’s frenzied- some would say masturbatory- drum solo, intercut with Ella Raines’s sexual innuendos, until they reach fever pitch simultaneously. It was Lester Horton who staged the music and Hans J. Salter the film’s overall musical director.  The other musicians performing alongside Cook- his drumming dubbed by Dave Coleman- in the nightclub are Barney Bigard on clarinet, Howard Rumsey on bass, Robert Bain on guitar and Freddie Slack on piano. Those scenes occupy only a fraction of the film, but it’s what many viewers remember when it comes to Siodmak’s excellent adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s novel.  

- Man With a Golden Arm, 1955, Otto Premminger. Considered by many one of the best jazz scores to come out of the 1950s. Though Nelson Algren, who penned the novel, hated the adaptation.  Nevertheless, the angularity of Elmer Bernstein’s score nicely reflects the narrative structure. And he doesn’t shy away from making use of  post-bop passagzes, which he mixes with non-jazz elements. A rare example of a soundtrack album that stands up on its own, which utilizes the likes of trumpeter and fluglehornist Shorty Rogers and His Giants, which included Bob Cooper on tenor saxophone, Pete Condoli on trumpet, Shelly Manne on drums, Ralph Pena on bass, Bud Shank on alto saxophone, and Pete Turner on piano. Not Chicago musicians that would more accurately reflect the locale of the film, but effective all the same. Soundtrack available on Polygram.

- Sweet Smell of Success, 1957. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, music by the Chico Hamilton Quartet.  Martin Milner plays Steve Dallas, a guitarist in Chico Hamilton’s band and Hunsecker’s sister’s boyfriend.  Steve’s guitar licks are in fact played by John Pisano. The on-screen band consists of Hamilton on drums, Paul Horn on flute and sax, Fred Katz on cello and Carson Smith on bass. Other L.A. based musicians play on the studio soundtrack, including Pete and Conte Condoli on tumpet, Herb Geller on saxophone, Bob Cooper on saxophone and oboe, Shelly Manne on drums, Bill Holman on saxophone, Milt Holland on bass, etc.. All overseen by Elmer Bernstein.  Here the musicians contribute to the narrative, their music pushing the narrative forward. Set in and around Times Square, Hamilton also contributes some dark alley/backstage dialogue, altering Mackendrick’s script when necessary, changing  ‘Throw a rope around her and keep her here while I go get him.’  to ‘Cool this chick here while I go get him.’  Soundtrack available on Fresh Sounds (Spain).

-  I Want to Live, 1958, directed by Robert Wise. Susan Hayward performance as Barbara Graham, as the infamous prostitute sentenced to death for an alleged murder, is almost equalled by Johnny Mandel’s impressive score. It features Gerry Mulligan on baritone saxophone and Art Farmer on trumpet, assisted by Shelly Manne on drums, Red Mitchell on bass, Frank Rosolino on trombone, Pete Jolly on piano, Bud Shank on reeds. Like Man With a Golden Arm, Mandel’s soundtrack works on its own, either as mood music or as mainstream 1950s jazz. For me a more evocative soundtrack than the more renown Duke Ellington score for Premminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, a year later. Mandel’s soundtrack is available on Ryko.

- Elevator to the Gallows/Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, 1958, directed by Louis Malle, in his full directorial debut. Two lovers’ perfectly planned murder is ruined when one of them is trapped in an elevator.  As much Nouvelle Vague as it is a slice of Euro-noir, with a dark, brooding and profound score.  Arguably the most famous and recognisable of jazz soundtracks, with Miles improvising directly off the screen, recorded at Le Poste Parisien Studio in Paris on December 4 and 5, 1957. With nineteen year old French tenor whiz Barney Wilen on tenor, Kenny Clarke on drums, Pierre Michelot on bass and Rene Urtreger on piano. Soundtrack available on Verve.

- Touch of Evil, 1958, directed by Orson Welles. Mancini’s score fits perfectly into  Welles film, and was apparently a callaboration between the two men. Mostly it’s a Stan Kenton-influenced soundtrack that contains elements of rhythm & blues, border and latin music, with a dash of Martin Denny’s exotica music so popular during that era. With that opening music as impressive a score as Welles’s famous tracking shot. This and Mancini’s music for the noir TV show Peter Gunn would influence the music for TV shows like  77 Sunset Strip, Johnny Stacatto, Naked City, M Squad, and Mike Hammer. Among the musicians Mancini used on Touch of Evil were Pete Candoli on trumpet; John Stanley, trombone; John Graas, french horn; Plas Johnson tenor saxophone; Dave Pell, bass; Red Norvo, vibraphone; Barney Kessel, guitar;  Ray Sherman, piano;  Jack Costanzo from Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban orchestra, on bongos; Mike Pacheco, percussion; Shelly Manne, drums.  Soundtrack available on Fresh Sound.

- Anatomy of a Murder, 1959, directed by Otto Premminger. For me a little too glossy to be an authentic film noir.  Though one of first films to openly address the subject of rape. But there’s no denying the power of Duke Ellington’s soundtrack even if the great man was slightly past the peak of his career.  Nevertheless, it was arguably the first major film that showcased a jazz score, by an African-American at that. And, if it was at times the music is slightly intrusive, and the compositions, compared to his best tunes, a little thin, it does feature many of Ellington’s main musicians at the time, including Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves on saxophones, Harry Carney on baritone saxophone, and Cat Anderson on trumpet, with a handful of compositions by Billy Strayhorn. Released on Columbia Records.

- Odds Against Tomorrow,  1959, directed by Robert Wise, with a screenplay by Abraham Polonsky from William McGivern’s novel.  Another film about racial tensions, this time amongst armed robbers, starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame. With a soundtrack- heavily influenced by Shuller and his Third Stream music-  written by John Lewis, already a seven year veteran of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lewis deploys fellow MJQ members Connie Kay on drums, Percy Heath on bass and Milt Jackson on vibes, as well as  Bill Evans on piano, Jim Hall on guitar, Joe Wilder on trumpet and Gunther Shuller on french horn, Joe Wilder, etc.. Particularly lovely are Jim Hall’s sparse notes at the close of Odds… There are two albums related to this film: one is the soundtrack album on CBS, the other is an album by John Lewis and MJQ playing music from the film on United Artists/Blue Note.

-  Shadows, 1959, directed by John Cassavetes. The film and the accompanying music were a breath of fresh air when the movie first appeared. A film exploring inter-racial relationships in 1950s New York, with improvisational acting, reflected by  improvisational music supplied by the great bassist Charles Mingus and saxophonist Shafi Hadi. Mingus, always willing to demonstrate the influence of European composers on his music, is perfectly comfortable creating a soundtrack for one of the great independent film-makers.  Music from Shadows as well as The Connection can be found on Shadows (Beat, Square & Cool) Vol 5.

-  The Connection, 1962, directed by Shirley Clarke from Jack Gelber’s Living Theater play. Noir?  Perhaps not, but what could darker than junkies sitting around a cold water flat, shooting up, playing jazz, talking in hipster argot. Jackie McLean on tenor saxophone, Freddie Redd on piano, Larry Richie on drums, Michael Mattos on bass. A score by the great, but underrated, Mal Waldron. On the few films to have an edgy and uncompromising hard-bop soundtrack, played by musicians who also act in the film, so play an integral part. Music available from Blue Note.

- Mickey One 1965, directed by Arthur Penn. Music by Eddie Sauter with Stan Getz improvising on saxophone. A reprise of the Sauter and Getz collaboration on the 1961 album, Focus, in which Getz improvised against a modernist string accompaniment. Getz drives the narrative, which grows increasingly paranoid. Not only, in my opinion, Beatty’s finest film, but firmly in the noir existential tradition with elements of French new wave movies that Penn was so fond of at the time, refected in the soundtrack that works perfectly on its own. Soundtrack available on Polygram.

- Once a Thief, 1965, directed by Ralph Nelson, from John Trinian/Zekial Marko’s novel Scratch a Thief, and a remake of  (two of his novels have recently been republished by Stark House Press). Nelson deploys music as an integral part of the narrative, with a nice scene in a nightclub that feature various musicians put together by Lalo Schrifrin, amongst them Red Callender, Buddy Collette, Conte Candoli, Paul Horn, Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, Howard Roberts.

-  Sweet Love, Bitter, 1967, directed by Herbert Danska. A rarely seen film, with Mal Waldron’s score, with Waldron on piano and Charles McPherson featured on saxophone, as well as such musicians as saxophonist George Coleman and bassist Richard Davis.  About the problems facing a black jazz musician based loosely on the life of Charlie Parker.  A more immediate and darker film than Clint Eastwood’s 1988 Bird in which McPherson also takes Bird’s solos in a score supervised by Lennie Niehaus.  But Waldron’s soundtrack is more discrete, and Danska’s film a more low budget affair, yet just as, if not more, effective. 

- Round Midnight. 1986, directed by Bertrand Tavernier. A well-intentioned, up-market, slightly glossy, music bio- part Bird, part Bud Powell- with film noir elements hanging on its coat-tails. Starring the great tenor player Dexter Gordon, whose music is featured in the film, back by an array of great musicians, such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Billy Higgins, Tony Williiams, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, etc. Soundtrack available on Sony Music.

-  The Hot Spot, 1990, directed by Dennis Hopper from Charles Williams’ novel Hell Hath No Fury.  Despite an impressive cast, featuring Don Johnson and Virginia Madsen, and a screenplay at least partly written by Williams, this isn’t, for me, an all that  successful film noir. No matter, because it has an excellent and evocative soundtrack put together by long-term L.A. rock vet Jack Nitzsche, with significant contributions from  Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Taj  Mahal.  Watch the film but buy the soundtrack, available on Verve.

- Devil In a Blue Dress, 1995, directed by Carl Franklin. A glossy, yet workman-like film noir, which doesn’t quite come off, certainly not when compared with  Walter Mosley’s novel from which it derives. Nevertheless, not as bad as some have claimed. Moreover, it has a killer soundtrack brought together by Elmer Bernstein which combines the best of Central Avenue music from the late 1940s and early 1950s, or its approximation thereof, featuring Jimmy Witherspoon, T-Bone Walker, Roy Milton, Duke Ellington, Wynonie Harris, Pee Wee Crayton, Thelonious Monk, Bull Moose Jackson, Amos Milburn, Lloyd Glenn, Memphis Slim. The soundtrack is available on Sony/Epic.

(A version of this article first appeared in Noir City, 2015)