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Crimejazz: The Sound of Noir

Crimejazz: The Sound of Noir
Skip Heller By

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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.


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