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Crimejazz: The Sound of Noir

Crimejazz: The Sound of Noir

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In 1923, Caroll John Daly wrote Knights of the Open Palm. Published June of that same year in the pulp magazine Black Mask, its protagonist was Race Williams, an acerbic private eye. This was the first hardboiled crime story, and it touched off a world of crime fiction. That same year, trumpeter Louis Armstrong recorded for the first time, and that touched off a world as well. There was no connection to speak of, except that each is an important first.

The golden age of film noir is basically 1941 (The Maltese Falcon being the first classic) to 1958 (Touch of Evil being the last). Most of the music for those films was not jazz, but rather modernistic orchestral music. Jazz on film was generally relegated as source music (the stuff that comes off of jukeboxes, radios etc in the scene).

Ironically enough, it was the 1951 Gothic southern psychodrama A Streetcar Named Desire that really truly introduced modern jazz to the big screen. Alex North's unique score broke serious ground. The dark, languorous compositions set the tone for Tennessee Williams' brutal and hedonistic masterpiece. Everything was sordid, steamy, and disturbing—not least of all the music. North won two Oscar nominations that year, but the statue went to the very formidable Franz Waxman (who scored Sunset Boulevard, among others). North didn't really invent any of the musical devices he used, but he blended them with such perfection that this score was not only praised by other film composers, but by no less than Miles Davis as well.

North was not a jazz guy, although he certainly knew his way around the style. And Streetcar's success signaled the emergence of modern jazz as viable mainstream film music. Nothing from Streetcar ever became a jazz standard, although his love theme from Spartacus sure did, especially when Bill Evans recorded it on his landmark Conversations With Myself.

So jazz has somehow earned the stereotype of being film noir's coin of the realm, although jazz doesn't really figure in film noir until after Streetcar. The major crime fiction writers of the period didn't much delve into jazz. The only one who I've noticed writing at all enthusiastically about it in his books was David Goodis, whose 1954 masterpiece Black Friday includes a wonderful, energetic passage about a thief listening to trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

(Raymond Chandler's letters contain no specific references to music, nor do any of Dashiell Hammett's. And when I asked James Ellroy, popularly described as the modern master of noir, about it, he said "I'm not a jazz guy," at which point we discussed piano transcriptions of Wagner preludes.)

But the idea of jazz just fits so well with noir, and near noir, pseudo noir, and everything else of that time that is at once seedy and urban. The nickname is "crimejazz." We all know the style—a kind of enticing sleazefest whose prototype composition is "Harlem Nocturne."

(... which was written by Earle Hagen, who went onto to be a prolific and brilliant writer of music for television, not least of all The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle, USMC.)

Here we have all the elements well in place—the "take it all off" minor melody played by alto saxophonist Rene Bloch with disreputable virtuosity popping out of a stripper cake of minor sixth chords, bumping grinding rhythms, and general unseemliness. It is perfect in its musical depiction of ill repute, and was prolifically recorded in the years immediately following the second World War. Film composers were well aware of "Harlem Nocturne," too, and after Streetcar, they hit the style hard. Historian Jim Dawson, whose recent and excellent book Los Angeles's Bunker Hill: Pulp Fiction's Mean Streets And Film Noir's Ground Zero, is an expert both on all things noir and Los Angeles music, shared the following opinion:

"The producers were looking for dissonant, expressionist, hard-edged music to go with the films' hard-edged cinematography. They wanted to subvert the standard Hollywood drama/love story."

Dawson, as usual, is correct. The music he describes quickly became a subgenre of both jazz and film music. And it is worth noting that crimejazz was an invented Hollywood style, not something that evolved from street level.

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.

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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