Crime Jazz: How Miles Davis, Count Basie & Duke Ellington Created Soundtracks for Noir Films & TV

When we think of film noir, we tend to think of a mood best set by a look: shadow and light (mostly shadow), grim but visually rich weather, near-depopulated urban streets. You’ll see plenty of that pulled off at the height of the craft in the movies that make up “noirchaeologist” Eddie Muller’s list of 25 noir pictures that will endure, which we featured last week. But what will you hear? Though no one compositional style dominated the soundtracks of films noirs, you’ll certainly hear more than a few solid pieces of crime jazz. Xeni Jardin at Boing Boing, writing about Rhino’s eponymous compilation album, defines this musical genre as “jazzy theme music from 1950s TV shows and movies in which very bad people do very bad things.” She links to PopCult’s collection of classic crime jazz soundtrack album covers, from The Third Man to Charade (the best Hitchcock film, of course, that Hitchcock never made), to The Man With the Golden Arm, all as evocative as the music itself.

“Previously, movie music meant sweeping orchestral themes or traditional Broadway-style musicals,” says PopCult. “But with the growing popularity of bebop and hard bop as the sound of urban cool, studios began latching onto the now beat as a way to make their movies seem gritty or ‘street.’” At Jazz.com, Alan Kurtz writes about the spread of crime jazz from straight-up film noir to all sorts of productions having to do with life outside the law: “In movies and TV, jazz accompanied the entire sordid range of police-blotter behavior, from gambling, prostitution and drug addiction to theft, assault, murder and capital punishment.” Get yourself in the spirit of all those midcentury degeneracies and more with the tracks featured here, all of which will take you straight to an earlier kind of mean street: the theme from The M Squad, “two minutes of mayhem by Count Basie and his mob of heavies”; Miles Davis’ “Au Bar du Petit Bac,” improvised by Davis and his Parisian band against Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows; and Ray Anthony’s “Peter Gunn Theme,” a “quickie cover” that “beat Henry Mancini’s original to the punch.”

And finally we have Duke Ellington’s score for Anatomy of a Murder, directed by Otto Preminger in 1959.

via Boing Boing

Related Content:

30 Free Noir Films

1959: The Year that Changed Jazz

The Nazis’ 10 Control-Freak Rules for Jazz Performers: A Strange List from World War II

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.



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  1. C. Neil Scott says . . . | February 23, 2014 / 10:01 am

    How can you omit the excellent contribution of Duke Ellington’s “Anatomy of a Murder” soundtrack?!?!?

  2. Dan Colman says . . . | February 23, 2014 / 10:13 am

    Thanks, we added a segment from that to the post.
    Good call,
    Dan

  3. Tony D'Ambra says . . . | February 23, 2014 / 1:37 pm

    Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1958) and Ralph Nelson’s Once A Thief (1965) feature standout noir jazz scores,

    Odds Against Tomorrow based on Abe Polonsky’s knockout screenplay of a William P. McGivern novel is about a bank heist and features a score from John Lewis. I talk about the score in my review of the movie at filmsnoir.net in these terms:

    “Composer John Lewis’s edgy modern jazz score, played by an ensemble that included Milt Jackson on vibraphone, Percy Heath on bass, Connie Kay on drums, Bill Evans on piano, and Jim Hall on guitar, is demanding and intrusive in a way that gives it an unprecedented role in proceedings. It takes on the role of a Greek chorus that exceeds its mandate by persistently and loudly challenging the protagonists’ actions. Though the soundtrack has quiet piano interludes and significant long silent scenes where nothing much happens – particularly an extended sequence in which each gang-member waits out the afternoon before the heist alone in a desolate industrial landscape on the banks of the Hudson river, its calm beauty sacrificed to the garbage strawn in the water along its shores, and to an overcast desolation… A commentary by Ted Farlow for a 2008 MoMA screening of the movie nicely conveys the artistry at work: “Bill Evans [on piano], harmonizes beautifully with Dede Allen’s taut editing—with its stretches of haunting silence and its use of shock cuts in place of traditional fades and dissolves—and with Joseph Brun’s stark black-and-white cinematography”.”

    Once A Thief is a derivative late noir with a hip Lalo Schifrin score and atmospheric on the streets of San Francisco visuals tinged with a European ambience. The opening credits appear over a brilliant scene in a Frisco jazz club – a clip is on YouTube here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NhiYGouDbs.

  4. Samuel Diamond says . . . | February 25, 2014 / 12:41 pm

    Can’t forget Herbie Hancock’s Death Wish sndtrk

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