Jazz Score: First Set

First published in Film Score Monthly Online
Vol. 13, Issue 5, May 2008

The first in a series of reports from the new exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.

“Jazz is a purely democratic music. It’s collective creativity where somebody introduces something and we all get a chance to say something about it. It always amazes me, the whole of it is just a great spirit. It grabs you to the point where it never lets you go until the very last breath.”

Though Max Roach was discussing jazz performance, he could just as well have been speaking about “Jazz Score,” a new film retrospective, gallery exhibition, and live concert series at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. The program (which runs through September 15) celebrates the groundbreaking collaborations between filmmakers, composers and musicians who, by experimenting with new forms and techniques, radically transformed jazz and the cinema, from the 1950s to the present day. Recently, I toured the exhibition with Joshua Siegel, assistant curator in the Department of Film at MoMA, and the man behind this impressive program.

Siegel said the idea for “Jazz Score” came about because he was “interested in the role that jazz played in certain aesthetics in the early [19]50s, and flourished in the late ’50s and early ’60s. And the way jazz has been under-recognized in those aesthetics.” “In 1951,” he explained, “A Streetcar Named Desire really ushers in a whole new generation of composers working with jazz or jazz composers working in Hollywood. And I don’t think it’s an accident that it coincided with the demise of the Hollywood studio system; the rise of the American independent had their own moment, with people like [John] Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, [and] Herbert Danska; and then in Europe the rise of the New Wave movement and in Japan. These were filmmakers who were freed to be able to experiment more with the way that they directed actors—think of Brando in Streetcar, or the acting in Shirley Clarke’s films, or Cassavetes with Gena Rowlands—and in the way that they edited, the way that they used improvisation in their performances. [In Shirley Clarke’s] The Connection [1961], the jazz appears onscreen and they are actually improvising onscreen. It gives a kind of rawness and vitality to the films that is perhaps lacking in some of the Hollywood films. I think you find it in Crazed Fruit [1956]…and A Woman Ascends the Stairs [1960] from Japan, [and] you have it in the [Roman] Polanski films in Poland with that great [Krzysztof] Komeda music. You have it in Black Orpheus [1959] with the use of bossa nova.

“I think there were a significant number of American filmmakers who were passionate jazz lovers,” Siegel continued, “who would go to clubs downtown in New York or clubs in L.A. for the West Coast musicians. And I think there really was in the air in America that interest in using jazz in various ways. In Europe, certain people like [Jean-Luc] Godard and Louis Malle, were inspired by and very passionate about “B” movies from the States, many of which were made by people like Sam Fuller, who were on the margins of the Hollywood system, and Cassavetes, of course. The influence of the mutual correspondences between Godard and Cassavetes…I think all of that was happening simultaneously…. In Japan, for example…filmmakers like Mikio Naruse were looking at American…[and] European films, but they also brought their own sensibility to using jazz in their work. I think in some sense this was all coeval, it was all running on parallel tracks.”

In addition, Siegel points out the “reverberation effect,” in which film scores influenced the later music of jazz musicians and vice versa: “Elevator to the Gallows [1958] is under-recognized in that Mile Davis is moving into modality in this film before [his album] Kind of Blue a year-and-a-half later. It was very important in his development as a musician. Same for Ellington writing the music for Paris Blues [1961] at the time he was writing a number of suites. There is a symphonic, all-encompassing aspect to the music in Paris Blues that I think is not an accident because of those suites.

“So I think all of this stuff coincided at a very precipitous moment in the history of cinema,” Siegel concluded, “and I think that what’s under-recognized is how jazz had a major role in that change.”

The Films
“Jazz Score” took a year-and-a-half to pull together, and the centerpiece of the installation is the five-month-long film retrospective. Siegel watched over 450 films, whittling down the selection to 58 features and 26 shorts. “I tried to really plunge very deeply and look at films from all over the world,” he said, “and strike a balance between showing classics that either would have to be included…because they’re great examples of this theme of a jazz score, but also…to show classics that people would be coming to see in a different light, in the context of a series about music.”

Though many of the titles in the series are available on DVD, Siegel hopes that the opportunity to see these films on the big screen with other jazz fans will appeal to audiences: “Watching Anatomy of a Murder [1959] and thinking about the [Duke] Ellington score really creates a whole different appreciation of what’s going on.”

Audiences will also have the opportunity “to find some rediscoveries.” One of those rediscoveries is Dilemma, a 1962 film from South Africa directed by Danish filmmaker Henning Carlsen and adapted from Nadine Gordimer’s novel, A World of Strangers, which was banned in South Africa at the time. Siegel explained that the film was shot on the sly in townships in Johannesburg “under the pretense of making an advertising film because it was at the height of apartheid at a time when few people knew about apartheid. There are no credits because [Carlsen] was putting the musicians and actors at risk for even putting them in the film.” As for the music, “marabian and other township music had a lot of its roots in jazz and blues,” Siegel continued, and most of the score is performed by the South African musicians. “The wonderful thing about the music is this constant crosscurrent between the jazz that was inspired by the music of Africa and African music that was inspired by jazz.” The opening sequence is scored with a segment from Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (1960). Siegel says, “It was…an inspired idea to use it as a commentary on apartheid in South Africa.”

While not every film could be represented, Siegel “tried to strike a balance between great scores and great films, bad scores and bad films.” He selected Mark Isham’s score for The Cooler (2003) to represent a whole series of “cool, insouciant scores” that include recent entries such as John Williams’ Catch Me If You Can and David Holmes’ Ocean’s 11 series. “It was a stand-in for the trend that I’ve seen the last few years using jazz.”

Documentaries are also featured on the roster, though Siegel refrained from including films about jazz music, preferring instead to focus on those using jazz music. For instance, the subject of How to Make a Bunny (2002) is Ray Johnson, “a neo-Dadist, pranksterish artist,” whose star was on the rise in the 1980s until he suddenly disappeared. Johnson was a collagist among other things, and because there is no footage of him at work, director John Walter wanted to use Max Roach’s hands with his brushes on the drums as a “surrogate” for Johnson’s hands creating collages. Siegel says, “The idea of interplay between visual and aural is very interesting.”

Most of the screenings include animated or experimental short films as well. One of the rarer titles, Blues for Trumpet and Koto, a 1962 short made for Japanese television, has seldom, if ever, been seen outside of Japan. Titled from a track on Quincy Jones’ album, Quincy Plays for Pussycats, released that same year, the dreamlike narrative is accompanied by long sequences of Jones’ music as he walks the streets of Japan visiting Buddhist temples. The film also features music by Marvin Hamlisch and performances from Al Hirt, and Nobua Hara and his big band Sharps and Flats.

The centerpiece of the animated shorts is the museum’s newly restored print of Academy Award-winners John and Faith Hubley’s Adventures of an * from 1957, featuring a score by Benny Carter and vibraphone solos by Lionel Hampton. The museum houses a large collection of the Hubley’s animation art and the complete title sequence and background storyboards are also on display. On June 2, a special program of animated shorts from the Hubley Studio will be shown. Along with Adventures of an *, the program will feature the Academy Award-winning The Hole (1962, with a score by Dizzy Gillespie) and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Double Feature (1966), as well as a newly restored The Tender Game (1958), based on the jazz standard, “Tenderly,” featuring Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald.

The Exhibition
But “Jazz Score” is not all about sitting in a darkened theater. “The idea was to highlight some of the films that were in the series,” Siegel explained, “particular scenes or some of the marketing aspects of the film.” And Ron Magliozzi, assistant curator for Research and Collections in the Department of Film, has organized an impressive array of merchandising items. In addition to the numerous screens playing scenes and trailers, these include everything from posters and production stills to lobby cards and soundtrack album cover art.

Of particular interest to lovers of vinyl will be the wall of LPs. Siegel points out that the album graphics display “the idea of layering, the idea of truncating faces in the sense of alienation that I think was an undercurrent in so many of the films of the ’50s and ’60s that wanted to use jazz. It’s in harmony with the music as well.” The display includes distinctive album covers from films such as I Want to Live! (1958), The Pawnbroker (1965), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) and many more. The exhibition also features a number of evocative posters, including a selection of particularly striking Polish posters such as a trippy poster designed for Blow-Up (1966) and a unique poster for Taxi Driver (1976) attributed to director “Martina” (!) Scorsese.

Also on display is one of the most famous examples in which jazz music informs the graphic look for a film’s merchandising. “Jazz, of course, was associated with sex and violence, and alienation and drug addiction,” says Siegel, “all the good stuff!” And Elmer Bernstein’s legendary score for The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) accompanies Frank Sinatra’s jazz drummer as he descends into the depths of drug despair. The music (what Bernstein calls “jazz-blues, wails and trumpet screeches”) inspired Saul Bass’ stark graphics for the film’s title sequence. Simple thin, white bars representing heroin needles poke into a stark black background, ending with the memorable image of a jagged arm. The graphics further inspired the look for the film’s poster, soundtrack album, and trailer, all of which are on display in the gallery.

The Concerts
No jazz exhibition would be complete without live performances, and Siegel saw the program as a “wonderful excuse to bring in some jazz musicians, and some that may not be as well known in the States, but more well-known in Europe.” On May 19, the Tomasz Stanko Quartet, with special guest Billy Harper, will perform a tribute concert to composer Krzysztof Komeda. Stanko performed in all the original scores Komeda wrote for Polanski, including Knife in the Water (1962). The concert on June 14 features a rare U.S. appearance by Martial Solal, one of the world’s legendary jazz pianists and composers. As a composer of 40 film scores, Solal is best known for Godard’s 1959 classic, A bout de soufflé (Breathless).

The Panel
A panel discussion, “Anatomy of a Jazz Score,” caps off the summer-long program in September. Academy Award-winners Johnny Mandel and David Shire, film scholar Gary Giddens, and a filmmaker still to be determined will form the esteemed panel. Illustrated with film clips, the evening will feature “scene analyses based on the music, [discussing] the influence of jazz on the aesthetics of the films, or conversely the ways in which composers think about composing jazz for film,” Siegel explained. More information will follow as it becomes available.

* * *

Whether your taste runs toward Afro-Cuban, bossa nova, bebop or hard bop, modal, free, or fusion jazz, “Jazz Score” offers something for fans not only of great jazz music, but great film music as well. I will bring you continuing coverage of the films, concerts and panel discussion throughout the coming months.

As the summer heats up in New York City, “Jazz Score” promises to keep things cool.



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