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Hardly Strictly Jazz

Crimejazz: The Sound of Noir

By Published: September 25, 2012
As the 1960s unfolded, the style fell more and more by the wayside. Times changed. The wisecracking private eye gave way to James Bond, and with him a new style of film music. Mancini did just fine in that realm—The Pink Panther, no less—but other composers moved away from the sultry big bands, sultry alto saxophones and so on, although James Bond composer John Barry—whose first score was the gloriously sleazy British B flick Beat Girl—gave it one last hurrah with "Eat Topless," in the 1968 film Petulia.

Hollywood made a truly great return to the classic hardboiled detective in 1974, with Chinatown, but the old crimejazz was abandoned for a lush orchestral score with jazz influence (trumpeter Uan Racey's exquisite, expressive reading of the theme). Not that it can be said that anything was lost by this choice. Jerry Goldsmith might well have been the greatest composer for film we've had to date, and this was one of his very best scores.

When Hollywood sought to reclaim its noir roots with 1997's LA Confidential, Goldsmith signed on to do the score, and again he gave went the orchestral route (and again was purely brilliant). But he did include a glorious bit of crimejazz—a (fake) TV theme for the fictional show Badge Of Honor.

Really, the last original moment of crimejazz comes to us from a composer never really affiliated with the style—Bernard Herrmann, known mostly for his work on Alfred Hitchcock's great films. But Scorcese brought him in for the 1976 tour de force Taxi Driver, and Herrman did something brilliant. He brought Ronny Lang in as the alto saxophone soloist throughout the score. Lang had been a stalwart of the 1950s Hollywood jazz scene, and was used often and to exceptional effect by Henry Mancini, and for Taxi Driver, he turns in a performance at once expressive and virtuostic, worthy of Johnny Hodges.

Crimejazz has found its way into so much of American music, in no small part because the twentieth century was the century of film. Film has colored our musical DNA as a culture, and not just for its visual content. To paraphrase John Cleese, life is visual, but not strictly, and that's why the most interesting thing in show business is still doing 90 minutes of storytelling—it forces every aspect and dimension of storytelling to hold up its end of the deal.

These composers lived up to the challenge, mostly with such inconsequential recognition that mentioning them is a small public service. There's so much wonderful music here, and the North's and Hopkins's deserve their consideration next to the Bley's and Mingus's. Hopefully, the anthologies will keep coming. This music has more than earned its place.

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