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Hardly Strictly Jazz

Crimejazz: The Sound of Noir

By Published: September 25, 2012
The wonderful English jazz magazine Jazzwise has launched a label, Moochin' About, and they've kicked off with an exquisite five disc boxed set, Jazz On Film... Film Noir (Moochin' About) that collects Streetcar and six other notable film scores—Private Hell 36 (composed by Leith Stevens, best known for his famous score for The Wild One), The Man With The Golden Arm (Elmer Bernstein with a controversial assist from Shorty Rogers), Sweet Smell of Success (Bernstein with Chico Hamilton), Touch Of Evil (Henry Mancini's first), Anatomy Of A Murder (Duke Ellington), and Odds Against Tomorrow (MJQ's John Lewis). The packaging is eyepoppingly gorgeous, the liner notes deep and beautifully written, and mastering quality truly Grammy-worthy. The label has already announced a follow up that looks just as good.

It is interesting to note that most of this stuff—not the Lewis or the Ellington scores—is true Hollywood music. The composers were real live trained composers who largely started in radio and/or big bands, then went into film music because that's what composers get hired to do in Hollywood. The players are the cream of the West Coast 1950s jazz scene, and the recording quality is just gorgeous. At every stage of musical creativity, Hollywood in the 1950s had an incredible human resource bank, and during this period more money was spent on music for film than music for any other purpose.

Leith Stevens' name recognition isn't what it used to be, but he was—along with Leonard Rosenman (Rebel Without A Cause)—a definitive composer of the age. Private Hell 36—orchestrated by Shorty Rogers—is a lost masterpiece.

Elmer Bernstein's name is not well known these days, but he was one of the most successful film composers ever. While by no means a composer of North's gifts, he really knew his job, and stayed at the top of the profession for 50 years. He scored a great many iconic films including The Magnificent Seven, To Kill A Mockingbird and Animal House.

But it was with his 1955 score for The Man With The Golden Arm that he first came to real notice (an Oscar nomination), with its brassy retelling of the Muddy Water's "I'm A Man" riff, jagged minor chords and spotless performance. This score is truly perfect of its craft, and deserves every accolade.

Shorty Rogers and his Giants appear onscreen in the film and are on the soundtrack and there was for decades much speculation that Shorty might have done more than just the "jazz arrangements" for which he's credited. Bernstein denied it angrily, Shorty denied it mildly, and it is now just more Hollywood folklore as both men are dead. Bernstein never again wrote this way, although his score two years later for Sweet Smell of Success is hard-hitting, incisive and more compositionally developed. But Arm is the famous one.

Oddly, the composer who makes the weakest showing here is Henry Mancini, whose debut score, Touch Of Evil, is included here. While it has a few great moments (his underscore of the famous opening shot is fully brilliant), the bulk of the score—but not all of it—is throwaway source cues, mostly fake jukebox music.

Mancini's subsequent scores for Blake Edwards' productions would go down as one of the great director/composer relationships in the history of film.

Mancini's unfailing sense of melody made him an unforgettable songwriter (as did his choice of lyricist, Johnny Mercer). But his film scores combined elegance (also unfailing), creative instrumentation and a sense of mood and pacing that has rarely been given due credit, largely because everyone remembers his songs but—when it's done right—nobody leaves the theater humming the underscore. Mancini's autobiography (co-written with Gene Lees) is in fact called Did They Mention The Music?

(It sucks, too.)

With Mancini, crimejazz found its way to the small screen—the watershed Peter Gunn—and so much great music then did come from TV (especially sci fi or crime shows). Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, and many others did some astounding composing for television. Bernstein's Johnny Staccato theme is a genre classic.

One of the greatest composers of TV crimejazz was not working in Hollywood but New York, Kenyon Hopkins. His theme for the socially conscious and shortlived (one season) TV series East Side, West Side was truly, truly great.

(The show, which starred George C. Scott as a New York social worker, ran into censorship hassles from its first episode.)

Hopkins' most enduring work is his score for The Hustler, the 1961 milestone featuring Paul Newman as a pool hustler. Not only was Hopkins' score a wonderful job of film composing—this guy was a truly brilliant—but he put together ensemble worthy of this music, featuring Hank Jones and Phil Woods, who both rise to the occasion.

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