Jazz and the movies have a lineage stretching back to the early days and remarkable longevity of Hollywood musicals. The starting point, appropriately enough was The Jazz Singer, the first big budget talkie with fully synchronized sound in 1927 via the twenty year golden age of Hollywood musicals, through to the remarkable collection of high concept musicals in the 1940’s and 50’s – West Side Story, On the Town, Guys and Dolls all stand-out examples. Equally significant was the ever-present jazz sound world providing a bespoke background to a seemingly endless production line of noir movies stretching from art house -to mass appeal to C-list pot boilers. In the 1950’s these signature jazz influences began to appear in new wave movies in France Italy and the UK.
It is important to note that, as in so many other spheres of American social and cultural life, the Hollywood studio system was highly racialized. The suppliers of musical soundtracks -composers, arrangers, conductors and musicians, -were exclusively white. Relatively well paid, highly accomplished musicians, often refugees from “the road”. U.S. T.V. bands followed a similar trajectory right up to the late 1960’s when African-American jazz musicians of the calibre of Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, and Clark Terry began to breach these glass ceilings.
Miles Davis and Art Barkley – Back to Back Album
I want to focus on three distinct types of jazz- in- the movie collaborations.
The first involves a jazz musician being invited to improvise a soundtrack with the minimum of pre-preparation simply through responding to the film itself. The two most notable examples were both French projects with Miles Davis and Art Blakey producing a distinctive, improvised soundtrack to two 1950’s movies, one seminal; The Lift to the Scaffold (Miles), one largely forgotten; Des Femmes Disparaissent (Blakey).
Michael Caine – Alfie 1966
The second category are mainstream movies where jazz musicians of the calibre of Duke Ellington in Anatomy of a Murder, Sonny Rollins for Alfie and, less well known, the Modern Jazz Quartet for No Sun in Venice were specifically commissioned to provide and perform a bespoke soundtrack for the movie.
Anatomy of a Murder was a tense court room drama directed by Otto Preminger with a starry cast including James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara and George C Scott with an original, highly atmospheric score by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. It was released in 1959.
I couldn’t resist pinning this video of Cilla Black recording her version of the title track.
The final category is a rarer specimen; movies whose central focus is some aspect of the jazz life and where the accompanying soundtrack necessarily reflects a modern jazz vibe. Over the last 40 years three examples particularly come to mind.
Round Midnight, Bernard Tavernier’s 1986 homage to the lost world of the bebop masters, showcased a central performance from Dexter Gordon, loosely based on the Paris years of the tragic bebop virtuoso pianist Bud Powell. This was Dexter Gordon’s first and only film role coming late in his career. Dexter was nominated for an Oscar and won a Grammy for the associated album The Other Side of Midnight. Herbie Hancock wrote the score and appeared in the movie along with Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson and Billy Higgins.
Mo Better Blues an early Spike Lee movie that appeared in 1990 tells the story of an itinerant jazz trumpeter with an original score by Spike Lee’s father, jazz pianist Bill Lee and played superbly by the Branford Marsalis quartet with Terence Blanchard on trumpet. Blanchard has gone on to write numerous film scores, and more recently an opera commissioned by the New York Metropolitan Opera.
Finally, the rather unlikely smash hit Whiplash, the story of a super-obsessive jazz drummer and his crazily intensive relationship with a young student. Whiplash was the first major credit for writer/ director Damien Chazelle. It won a best actor Oscar for JK Simmons in 2014. Justin Hurwitz is responsible for the atmospheric score. Chazelle went on to direct, even more successfully, La-La Land. Whiplash was a smash at the box office, less so within the jazz world, where its portrayal of learning and mentoring did not ring true to many cognoscenti.