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 (13)
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  • C. Neil Scott says:

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

  • 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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