Sunday, April 26, 2009

Jazz Soundtracks — Part 1

The following is an excerpt from the book Film and Television Scores, 1950-1979 (McFarland, 2008) by Kristopher Spencer, founder of

The Silver Age of film music began in the early ’50s when jazz, pop and rock started to influence film composers. It can be argued that Alex North’s jazz-tinged A Streetcar Named Desire (’51) is the first Silver Age soundtrack. But, in general, early jazz soundtracks accompanied movies and TV shows about crime and justice.

Prior to the Silver Age of cinema and Golden Age of television, the crime genre made its transition from pulp magazine pages to radio programs such as The Shadow and the movie serials like Dick Tracy’s G-Men. These hero-oriented productions were presented with rehashed orchestral scores only a few notes removed from 19th Century and early 20th Century classical works such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee,” Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” In each case, robust orchestrations accompany the epic struggle between hero and villain as violins soars triumphantly.

By the mid ’50s, however, the line between good and evil became increasingly tenuous. Do-gooder crime fighters came with bad habits and dubious virtue. They didn’t always “get their man” and dames often proved to be more trouble than even the most corrupt criminals. For this new era of moral ambiguity the only music that would prove apropos was jazz.

In the ’50s jazz was still a fairly commercial music genre, though not nearly on the level of its dance floor incarnation better known as swing. To be considered a sophisticate in the post-WWII era often meant digging the sound of jazz whether one was a beatnik or not.

In the context of film noir and TV crime shows from ’50 to ’65, jazz perfectly accompanies the images of rain-drenched streets, smoky private eye consultations and backroom busts.

“(Jazz) represented something lean, tough, cynical, and intelligent — adjectives that applied easily enough to the detective heroes of these pictures. These guys weren’t well described by a soft violin. Instead, the metallic-yet-soulful saxophone summed up this brave new world,” wrote Skip Heller in the CD booklet notes of Crime Jazz: Murder in the Second Degree (Rhino, ’97).

That’s not to say that jazz and the crime jazz of film and TV productions is the same beast. For one thing, crime jazz is mostly scripted and arranged for big bands, whereas the stylistically similar “cool” jazz and bebop of that period favored small group improvisation and long solos. Many West Coast musicians played crime jazz for the paycheck, not for the artistry. In fact, it wasn’t until Johnny Mandel scored I Want to Live in ’58 that true jazz musicians were even granted an opportunity to compose a Hollywood score.

The composer who usually gets credit for introducing jazz to the silver screen is Miklós Rózsa for The Asphalt Jungle (’50). A Hollywood veteran since ’37, Rózsa had scored many films including Double Indemnity and Spellbound before scoring John Huston’s urban potboiler. While The Asphalt Jungle score contains jazz elements, it still leans heavily on the orchestral approach long favored by Hollywood studios. (It’s worth noting that Rózsa’s final film score — the noir spoof Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (’82) — also favors the jazz sound.)

In ’51, a younger composer, Alex North, delivered a score that truly set the tone for iconic crime jazz. North, having written incidental music for the stage production of Death of a Salesman, followed its director, Elia Kazan, to greater success on the screen adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. On “Blanche,” sultry horns smolder against fiery strings, transitioning into a cooler mood where shadowy piano and furtive horn figures dance against a spare cymbal ride. Although most of his scores favor the traditional orchestral style, North’s contribution to the crime jazz genre proved inspirational to his younger colleagues, including Leith Stevens, Henry Mancini and Elmer Bernstein.

To be continued...

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