Jazz Score: Final Set

First published in Film Score Monthly Online
Volume 13, No. 10, October 2008

“Jazz is not only hot, cool, bluesy and lowdown; it can be amusing, romantic, tender, bizarre, nostalgic as well,” said Dick Williams, entertainment editor of Mirror News. All of these attributes were on display at “Jazz Score,” the five-month-long celebration of jazz in film at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition recently wrapped up with “Anatomy of a Jazz Score,” an evening of “behind the scenes” presentations by Academy Award-winning composers Johnny Mandel and David Shire, and video artist Stan Douglas, followed by a panel discussion moderated by music journalist Gary Giddins.


Johnny Mandel (b. 1925) began his career as a trombonist and trumpet player arranging and playing for Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Jimmy Dorsey and Artie Shaw. In 1949, Mandel began composing music for radio dramas and Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows on television. He also worked with artists such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Chet Baker, Peggy Lee and Mel Tormé. In 1965, Mandel and lyricist Paul Francis Webster won an Oscar and a Song of the Year Grammy Award for “The Shadow of Your Smile” from The Sandpiper.

In 1958, at age 32, Mandel composed his first film score, for Robert Wise’s I Want to Live! The film starred Susan Hayward in the true-life story of prostitute and self-proclaimed “good-time girl” Barbara Graham, who was accused of murdering a woman during a botched robbery attempt and sentenced to death in the gas chamber in 1955. Though André Previn was originally asked to score the film, he was busy arranging Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess for Otto Preminger, so he recommended Mandel instead.

Mandel’s score featured the underscore as well as original jazz numbers, featuring baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and a host of West Coast musicians, spawning two separate LPs. In addition to performance cues such as at the opening scene at the jazz club, Mulligan and his septet can be heard in numerous source cues on record players and on the radio.

The underscore broke from Hollywood tradition: a 26-piece orchestra with no strings. Mandel’s music featured “a lot of unusual sounds with unusual instruments and odd combinations,” including “decidedly offbeat instruments” like the E-flat clarinet, contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon, bass trumpet and bass flute. In the stakeout scene, Mandel used a battery of percussion—rhythm logs, cowbells, claves, scratcher, Chinese and Burmese gongs, bongos and conga drums—“to drive [the scene] forward to its conclusion,” explained Mandel in the soundtrack’s CD liner notes. “I was using the music as propulsive force, to speed up what you were seeing on the screen.”

For the death scene, Wise insisted on a musical background. “What I didn’t want to do is get very dramatic,” said Mandel. “When you see somebody die in a gas chamber, it’s not like being electrocuted; it’s more like the life seeping out of you as the cyanide takes over. It’s anticlimactic. I had to concoct something that felt like the scene looked. What you saw on the screen were clouds of smoke, so I used instruments weaving in and out of each other, creating an impressionistic texture.” Mandel used the piccolo in its bottom register to make “an eerie sound…almost like someone’s dying gasp.”

To help sell the picture, producer Walter Wanger wanted Mandel to compose a theme song. In a memo to Wanger, Wise wrote, “Considering the subject matter of our picture and the meaning of I Want to Live!, any lyric, no matter how well written, could not escape being in the worst possible taste. It makes no difference that it’s not used in the picture. It would work against every bit of reality and honesty that we’ve struggled so hard to get into the movie. An instumental I Want to Live! theme is a must and Mandel certainly has plenty to draw on for that…and it can be a real hit. But, please, let’s not louse it all up now with a tasteless, cliché title song. Surely we have enough to sell the picture on without going to that extreme.”

According to Patrick McGilligan in the CD liner notes, it was a “really radical decision” for Mandel to stick with jazz for the underscoring. As if in response, Mandel said that evening, “You can get away with anything as long as you don’t get caught.”

* * *

After composing for television beginning in the 1960s, David Shire (b. 1937) made the leap to feature films in the early ’70s. The Hindenburg, All the President’s Men, Farewell My Lovely and Return to Oz are treasured scores among film score fans. He won a 1978 Album of the Year Grammy as one of the many artists involved with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and a 1979 Best Song Oscar (along with lyricist Norman Gimbel) for “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae. As a student at Yale, Shire met lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr., and the team went on to compose numerous off-Broadway (Starting Here, Starting Now, Closer Than Ever) and Broadway shows (Baby, Big).

“Movies allow and encourage avant garde music that wouldn’t play in the concert hall,” said Giddins during the panel discussion. And Shire’s score for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) is based on one of the 20th century’s most avant garde musical developments—the 12-tone row. Devised by Arnold Schoenberg in 1921, twelve-tone technique encompasses all 12 tones of the chromatic scale arranged into a “row.” The pitches can be used in any order, but each pitch cannot be repeated until the entire row is completed. For this story of a New York transit cop (Walter Matthau) trying to halt the hijacking of a subway train, Shire had “to capture a particular time and place”—New York in the early 1970s—and since he found that often “progressive jazz can appear aleatoric,” he employed serial composition techniques to convey “organized chaos.”  

At the piano, Shire demonstrated Pelham‘s main theme, which is built around a tone row with only four intervals: the minor second, the minor third, and their respective inversions, the major seventh and the major sixth. Underneath it all, a two-note ostinato propelled the music forward, utilizing multi-ethnic percussion, featuring percussionists Shelly Manne and Larry Bunker.

“I scored a lot of cattle stampedes in my day,” said Shire, and as a result, he learned how to score music to be heard in the final cut of a film. Shire scored the Pelham music mainly for the low (including the rare use of a contrabass saxophone) and high instruments, so that the music would not be covered up by the noise of the subway train.

The end credits, which were originally supposed to be a reprise of the main titles, ended up with an extra minute that needed music. Shire’s first wife, Talia, came up with the idea of smoothing out the tone row as a way of bringing some peace and calm out of the chaos of the film. With a wry grin, he hoped that the audience “fleeing up the popcorn-encrusted floor…would notice my artfulness.”

“Music in a movie is a handmaiden to another vision,” said Shire. But his score to 1974’s The Conversation (which was not screened as part of “Jazz Score”) is more than mere “handmaiden” to director Francis Ford Coppola’s vision. Coppola (who was also Shire’s brother-in-law) wanted a piano score that reflected what was going on internally in the life of Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul, a wire-tapper who gets caught up in a web of murder and intrigue until he becomes the victim of his own paranoia. Think of the “spirit, the central essence” of the character, Coppola told him. “Don’t do what the world sees; do what only Harry knows about.”

Coppola had Shire write five short pieces with titles utilizing scenes that were not part of film, such as “Harry Caul Goes to Get His Laundry.” Shire came up with a handful of themes, and Coppola’s choice out of the group became the main theme of the film. Shire demonstrated the theme at the piano, explaining that the combination of the right hand’s jazzy blues melody and a “Chopin nocturne” quality in the left hand resulted in a “Dionysian jazz freedom.”

* * *

Next up was video artist Stan Douglas (b. 1960), who discussed his two-channel video installation, Hors-champs (1992), which reconstructs a 1960s Paris TV broadcast utilizing four American jazz musicians and two cameras. Commissioned by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Douglas calls Hors-champs a “symbiosis of sound and image,” examining the interplay and tension between free-jazz improvisation, film editing, and the construction of narrative.

In the gallery installation, two separate images are simultaneously projected on the front and back of a large-scale suspended screen. While one side shows the edited version of this two-camera production, the other side presents a simultaneous “backstage” counter-narrative of all that has been edited out. Though Douglas was obviously unable to recreate the video installation for his presentation, the audience was shown a short film clip of the work in which the camera pans 360 degrees around the video projection, showing both sides of the screen. Unfortunately, Douglas’ subject matter seemed out of step with the “Jazz Score” theme, and though Giddins tried to include him in the panel discussion, it was clear that Mandel and Shire were the focus.

* * *

“Why has jazz virtually disappeared from scores?” Giddins asked his panelists at the end of the evening. Both Mandel and Shire agreed that it mainly had to do with “the content of the stories.” However, the latter films featured in “Jazz Score” counter that argument.

Shohei Imamura’s Dr. Akagi (1998) from Japan showcased a progressive jazz score by first-time film composer Yosuke Yamashita. The style of jazz may seem anachronistic to the film’s World War II atmosphere, yet it brings humanity to the film’s title character, a small-town doctor in the final days of the war searching for the cure for hepatitis. The jaunty main theme often accompanies Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto) running from one hepatitis case to another. The use of a more atonal, free jazz appropriately accompanies the doctor’s delving into the mysteries of science. It’s an interesting score that brings a contemporary immediacy to the period feel of the film.

Spike Lee’s first film, She’s Gotta Have It (1986), tells the tale of a sexually free black woman (Tracy Camilla Johns) and her three lovers. Filmed in 12 days for $175,000, the film pulled in over $7 million at the box office and help usher in the American independent film movement of the 1980s. Like many of Lee’s films since, She’s Gotta Have It was a family affair: sister Joie had a supporting role, brothers David and Cinqué served behind the scenes, and father Bill Lee composed the score. An accomplished jazz bassist, Bill (b. 1928) has played with artists such as Aretha Franklin, Odetta and Bob Dylan. After composing the scores for all of Spike’s films in film school, he made the leap along with his son to feature films.

Orchestrated for a sextet of piano, bass (played by the composer), trumpet and flugelhorn, drums and percussion, Bill’s score contains two main themes. Nola’s theme features a carefree 3/4 meter with a Vince Guaraldi flavor to it. The other main theme is associated with the lesbian Opal (Raye Dowell), a tender melody that bears more than a passing resemblance to “Blame It on My Youth.” In Jazz and Its Discontents, Francis Davis praised Bill’s “modest, by turns moody and frolicsome” score. “In its mix of disciplined composition and footloose improvisation, Lee’s music recalls earlier film scores by such jazz composers as Duke Ellington…Miles Davis…Sonny Rollins…John Lewis…and Gato Barbieri.”

Bill composed Spike’s next three films, including School Daze (1988) and Do the Right Thing (1989), until Bill’s heroin arrest following Mo’ Better Blues (1990) cemented the growing rift between the two men. Spike next turned to a musician who had played on his father’s earlier scores, including “ghosting” Denzel Washington’s trumpet playing in Mo’ Better Blues: Terence Blanchard.

After studying at the famed New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, Blanchard (b. 1962) attended Rutgers University and immediately began performing in the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. Two years later, he succeeded Wynton Marsalis in the legendary Jazz Messengers and went on to form his own influential groups.

Spike’s moving HBO documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006), features archival footage of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and interviews with celebrities, politicians, and the citizens of New Orleans, including Blanchard, who saw his childhood home wrecked and his mother displaced by the flooding. “I didn’t want to write New Orleans-style music—I wanted to write music that was more universal,” said Blanchard in a 2007 interview. “Because in my mind, this was a universal story of tragedy, hope, despair. I tried to find melodic themes related directly to those emotions.”

Blanchard wrote a set of somber themes that Lee assigned to scenes. The story of a 72-year-old trumpeter stuck on a roof with two elderly women inspired the “Levees” theme. “The Water” was inspired by Blanchard’s childhood memories of Hurricane Betsy when it flooded his Lower 9th Ward neighborhood: “There are big, dramatic moments in the arrangement, because I kept thinking about these kids here during Katrina. If I was traumatized from Betsy, and Betsy was nothing compared to Katrina, what are these kids going through?”

“Funeral Dirge” accompanies a still-horrifying montage of dead bodies: “I wanted to write an arrangement that would pay respect to the dead and give them a proper burial, at least in the documentary.” “Wading Through” accompanies a series of interviews and news clips about the “refugees” of the city. Accompanied by Aaron Parks’ mournful piano solo, Gralen B. Banks, Director of Security at the Hyatt Hotel, says directly into the camera, “We weren’t American citizens anymore?…In the media, and people on the street, ‘refugees.’ I thought that was folks that didn’t have a country.”

Blanchard’s album, A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina), built off these four themes from the score, won a 2007 Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.

Spike Lee remains arguably Hollywood’s staunchest supporter of jazz—and the musicians—in his films. “Because I grew up in a jazz household,” said Lee in an earlier interview, “I value the contributions of the musicians and the composer….Musicians are great artists. In my opinion, I think they’re the greatest artists. If somebody gets credit for pushing a dolly or holding a boom mike, why should someone who’s playing the violin, the bass, the trumpet, the French horn or the oboe not get credit, too? They contributed as much as anybody else. That’s why I give musicians credit in my films.”

* * *

Whether or not jazz has virtually disappeared is debatable. Shire argued, “Jazz is not an end in the movies, it’s just a technique.” But, oh, what technique was on display as “Jazz Score” showcased six decades of jazz in film. In the words of Francis Davis, “jazz musicians…[have] plenty to offer behind the scenes. Here’s hoping that more film producers take them up on the offer.”

Yes, here’s hoping…



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