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, 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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Comments (14)
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  • C. Neil Scott says:

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

  • Tony D'Ambra says:

    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 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

  • Samuel Diamond says:

    Can’t forget Herbie Hancock’s Death Wish sndtrk

  • Crocodile Chuck says:

    “Can’t forget Herbie Hancock’s Death Wish sndtrk” [snip]

    Why, oh why won’t SONY remaster/re release this??

  • marc le Sueur says:

    Arthur Penn’s use of a Gary Burton track in Night Moves has always been perfect for me.

  • Phil Tierney says:

    Elmer Bernstein’s TV’s Staccato should be included on this list

  • Toad says:

    Maybe all, certainly most, of these recordings in the post and also the comments were recorded in one take, no overdubs or punch-ins.

    What rich, full sound they could get with nothing but a good room, great players, and two microphones. Recordings of that era can be like farm fresh food if you’ve only ever eaten processed junk food–addictive, once you get the taste. The Ultra Lounge series of CDs that came out a couple of decades ago has lots of these sorts of recordings–the Peter Gunn Theme vid above shows one of those. By the way, for the best (according to me) version of the Peter Gunn Theme ever, check out Rahsaan’s:

  • Carl Russo says:

    Leonard Bernstein, Stan Kenton, Pete Rugolo.

  • Bill Simmons says:

    Not exactly film noir but French New Wave: Martial Solal did the music for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. Thelonious Monk’s music for Roger Vadim’s Dangerous Liaisons was also recently.

  • Bill Simmons says:

    …”was also recently” released. Typo fixed, sorry.

  • Silvanus Slaughter says:

    As for the 70s, please consider Isaac Hayes’ SHAFT score, along with Marvin Gaye’s TROUBLE MAN score, both of which draw on crime jazz heavily, and wonderfully. Also, DEATH WISH by Hancock. There is also THE PAWNBROKER by Quincy Jones from 65.

  • Gerald Nixon says:

    Absolutely agree

  • Jim Brown says:

    Duke’s score is truly a masterpiece! Sadly, for several decades, virtually all commercial releases (VHS, DVD) of the film destroyed it in the name of “noise reduction.” Lucky for me, I found the LP (and later the CD) of this music early in my life.

  • Steven Witt says:

    Film noir covers a specific period, thematic material, and cinematic style. Most of the scores cited here, such as Anatomy of a Murder, Peter Gunn, and Death Wish, while great jazz, are not from film noir. If anyone’s interested here’s one take on defining the genre:

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