Published in Film Score Monthly Online
Vol. 13, Issue 9
Wah-wah… With those two notes, Alex North’s groundbreaking score for A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) ushered jazz elements into the world of dramatic film music. Jazz was no longer content to serve as mere source cues, and audiences sat up and took notice. In this month’s coverage of “Jazz Score,” we visit four other major Hollywood composers who showcase unique jazz sensibilities in their work.
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The career of Elmer Bernstein encompassed numerous genres—westerns, epics, comedies—but it was his use of jazz that first brought him attention. Bernstein (1922–2004) had cut his jazz chops arranging for Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band during World War II. After a string of mostly forgettable films in the early 1950s, Bernstein composed his first major score for Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (1955). Based on Nelson Algren’s National Book Award-winning novel, the film stars Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine—jazz drummer, card dealer and heroin addict.
Utilizing Shorty Rogers’ All-Stars and a 65-piece orchestra, Bernstein’s score employed rhythmic elements and “certain [amounts] of the harmonic limitations that are inherent in jazz, but I never gave that free rein to the players, which is the thing that becomes jazz. So it was really a score that used jazz to color it.” Jack Hayes and Leo Shuken helped Bernstein arrange the cues with Rogers’ band and the orchestra. When the band played solo, particularly in Frankie’s audition scene, Rogers did the arrangements. Sinatra’s drumming was improvised and dubbed throughout the film by the legendary Shelly Manne.
In an interview with Cinema Journal, Bernstein said, “[Frankie] was a man who wanted to be a jazz drummer, so I tried to make that broad jazz theme speak for his ambition, and by giving it a sad quality it also implied his frustration. He was a tormented man, a narcotics addict, and there are sounds in jazz—blues, wails, trumpet screeches—that are perfect for expressing anguish.” The main title sets the mood immediately. As Roy M. Prendergast explains, the repetitive figure in the bass creates “a sense of drive and a kind of grinding, grim monotony,” while the triplet figures in the middle “merely continue in a hopeless circle and never arrive anywhere until the very end…and then only for a last cry of despair.”
One of Bernstein’s favorite cues in the score occurs when Molly (Kim Novak) realizes Frankie is still “using” and decides to leave him. “The intense, rather nervous rhythmic piano figures, string bass pizzicato and the insistent drumming of Shelly Manne seemed to me to create a kind of grim, driving excitement that suited the scene very well.”
“Out of respect for the field of jazz and the many gifted people who work in that field,” said Bernstein, “I must say I’ve never considered myself to have written a jazz score. I’ve written scores that have used certain elements of jazz.” In fact, he “lived to regret” the score’s “commercial success”: “[The Man With the Golden Arm] opened up something that went on for the longest period of time. Jazz was being used to score the most inappropriate things only because it was thought that it could make money.”
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Though jazz had infiltrated film music throughout the 1950s, in 1958, “the jazz sound was modified and fully integrated into the industry’s mainstream expectation of a movie sound,” wrote Paul Monaco in History of the American Cinema. “That modification, in part, shifted jazz away from its African American origins to a ‘lighter, whiter’ sound that could be thought of as more appealing to a far wider audience.” That “lighter, whiter” sound belonged to Henry Mancini and it began on television.
Peter Gunn (1958) starred Craig Stevens as a debonair private eye who, when not investigating crime, hung out at jazz clubs sipping an occasional martini. The show’s success was due in no small part to Mancini’s music. Restricted to an ensemble of 11 musicians, Mancini had to be creative in composing for the show. “We had an awful lot of love scenes in Peter Gunn,” said Mancini. “This was a situation where I found that vibes, guitar, and piano, or a solo instrument like flute, could have as much romance as a whole string section.” In addition, he established the percussion section as an important new source of effects.
But it was the popular main title theme that caught the sophisticated aura of the series. A steady, driving rhythm underscores the brass melody, followed by a wailing saxophone, French horn rips, and belching brass. The Music From Peter Gunn LP reached No.1 on the Billboard charts, stayed there for 10 weeks, charted for two years, and won the first Grammy Award in 1958 for Album of the Year. But 40 years later, the connection between Peter Gunn and Mancini’s score for Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) would prove to be problematic.
Touch of Evil stars Charlton Heston as the U. N. representative of a seedy U.S.-Mexican border town who butts heads with corrupt police captain Welles in the murder investigation of a U.S. Senator. Instead of traditional underscoring, Welles wanted to use only source cues. Mancini gave the director exactly what he wanted.
In her essay, “Crossing Musical Borders,” Jill Leeper praises Mancini’s “innovative” score due to “its reliance upon diegetic cues…and because of Mancini’s pioneering use of popular music, especially jazz and rock idioms.” Mancini’s music includes cool jazz, Afro-Cuban jazz, Latin big band, rock and roll, mariachi, bluegrass, and Gay Nineties parlor music, resulting in a sound that author Jeff Smith calls “a strange mishmash of flavors, textures, and cultures.” Mancini believed the studio orchestra “couldn’t blow like the [Stan] Kenton band, which was my prototype for this,” so he sought musicians outside the standard contract players who were fluent in the particular styles he and Welles wanted on the soundtrack.
Because of difficulties with the film’s producer, Welles was barred from the cutting room during post-production and the film was severely edited down to 98 minutes. In response, Welles wrote a 58-page memo to Universal studio executives detailing the changes he wanted made, including specific instructions for the music. In 1998, supervising producer Rick Schmidlin and sound editor Walter Murch recut the film to its current 112-minute version using Welles’ memo as a guideline.
The most obvious change came during the famous opening sequence. A continuous tracking shot follows newlyweds Heston and Janet Leigh along pulsating, garishly lit streets accompanied by a cacophony of voices, sounds and music drifting from the nightclubs, automobiles, storefronts, and hotels. According to the memo, “The plan was to feature a succession of different and contrasting Latin-American music numbers. Loudspeakers are over the entrance of every joint, large or small, each blasting out its own tune. The fact that the streets of these border towns are invariably loud with this music was planned as a basic device throughout the picture.”
In the original film, a traditional set of title sequences distracted viewers from Welles’ precise visual composition behind it, while Mancini’s catchy main theme all but covered the aural landscape dictated by the director. Murch remembered, “Mancini’s music so dominated everything that the sound effects were played at near inaudible levels. The music just used up all the available audio ‘oxygen.’” Murch further argued that having Mancini’s theme dominate the opening sequence proved to be misleading. “The title music told [viewers] that this was a certain kind of detective story. Around the same time, Mancini used an almost identical theme for Peter Gunn…Touch of Evil was actually a kind of anti-Gunn: Welles’s Quinlan is the opposite of debonair.”
In the 1998 reissue, the credits were moved to the end as Welles wanted and Mancini’s theme was excised. Now the theme became what Leeper calls a “musical ghost, peeping around aural corners and snaking in and out of other motifs as diegetic source music,” particularly in Quinlan’s (Welles) gruesome strangulation of his collaborator, small-time narcotics crime boss “Uncle” Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff).
“Touch of Evil was one of the best things I did in that period of my life,” said Mancini. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.” Like most of Mancini’s film music, the original soundtrack for Touch of Evil was first released on LP in a truncated form with radio airplay in mind. In 1993, Varèse Sarabande reissued the soundtrack and Mancini fans finally had the chance to enjoy the full impact of the entire score.
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Quincy Jones is one of the leading forces in popular music, nominated for 79 Grammy Awards, and winning a staggering 27, more than any living artist and second only to classical conductor Sir Georg Solti. Jones (b. 1933) began his career as a trumpeter and arranger for Lionel Hampton and later served as trumpeter and musical director for Dizzy Gillespie. He studied composition with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen, and became the first African-American to hold an executive position in a white-owned record company as a vice president at Mercury Records.
Hollywood called in 1963 when director Sidney Lumet asked Jones to score The Pawnbroker (1965). Rod Steiger stars as Sol Nazerman, a Jewish survivor of the Nazi death camps who, tormented and alone, allows his pawnshop in Spanish Harlem to become a front for a ruthless neighborhood crime kingpin (Brock Peters).
Lumet originally planned to hire John Lewis, the head of the Modern Jazz Quartet. But Ralph Rosenblum, who was editor on the film, protested that Lewis’ music would be “too cerebral” for the picture and suggested Jones instead. But the producers were not convinced. They called Henry Mancini and asked: “We know he’s gifted. But he’s also black. So will he be reliable?” Jones delivered a score that Rosenblum called “a mournful blending of Jewish themes and jazz rhythms.”
Jones emerged from his screening of the film “covered with goose pimples” with notes that he had written on a matchbook. He told Lumet that he didn’t think the film needed music, but Lumet responded, “Oh, yes it does!” It took Jones two months to write the score. With Billy Byers on board to assist with the orchestrations, Jones hired some of the best musicians on the East Coast, including Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard and Oliver Nelson.
The first of two main themes accompany Nazerman’s haunted visions of the past underscored with dissonant classical harp, harpsichord and vibraphone. His present-day alienation and painful awakening to his own humanity are underscored by the urgent jazz rhythms based around a second main theme, which was turned into a song with lyrics by Jack Lawrence (sung by Marc Allen on the album, but not heard in the film).
That theme also caused some controversy in its use at the end of the film. “People have told me, ‘You can’t keep that music at the end because it is so loud,’” wrote Lumet in his autobiography. “I know what they are complaining about but it was a deliberate intent on the part of the composer…and myself. I don’t want anybody to cry; I don’t want that kind of sentimentality on it. The kind of insane joy that starts with the music at the end with its wildness, is joy in the sense that Sol’s alive again…and in my eyes it’s a happy ending! We worked very hard and specifically with that final result, so as not to give the audience the conventional catharsis, not to let them off the hook in the sense of ‘Have a good weep…but now let’s go and have a cup of coffee fellows.’”
One source cue may be jolting to modern audiences. During the sex scene between Ortiz (Jaime Sánchez) and his prostitute girlfriend (Thelma Oliver), “Soul Bossa Nova,” a little known cut from Jones’ 1962 album, Big Band Bossa Nova, plays over the radio. It later gained international fame as the “shagadelic” theme from the Austin Powers films.
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Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) stars Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, a tortured Vietnam vet working the graveyard taxi shift whose loneliness embodies itself in pathological rage against the “animals” and “scum” of Manhattan’s mean streets. “[Bernard Herrmann’s] music is like a vortex,” said Scorsese, “it goes deeper and deeper and deeper. It has a feeling that it never comes to completion, and it starts all over again—just when you think it’s finishing, it starts all over again. It’s kind of like a whirlpool, a vortex, an emotional one, a psychological one—and it has deep psychological power.” The score contains many of Herrmann’s musical and rhythmic trademarks, but it is the sensual saxophone theme (played by Ronnie Lang) that remains the score’s most famous element. However, the theme was only partially written by Herrmann.
Since his own skill in writing jazz was limited, Herrmann asked his assistant Christopher Palmer to adapt one of his pre-existing pieces. Palmer took the first four bars of the soprano solo, “As the Wind Bloweth,” from Herrmann’s 1970 musical, The King of Schnorrers, then continued the melody line in a piece he called “So Close to Me Blues.” Schnorrers lyricist Diane Lampert considered Herrmann’s melody to be the “best he has ever come up with for a single hit potential” and wanted to turn the theme into a song. Under the title, “Pumpkin,” Lampert wrote a set of self-described “streetwise” lyrics: “Pumpkin on the street/ for sale soft and sweet/an angel too good to eat/Pumpkin don’t you know/ that you will lose your glow/and one day your juice won’t flow; Pumpkin juice perfume/ Diana in full bloom/ aroma fills the air/ filling up all my loneliness.”
In the film’s main titles, the snare drum and swelling ominous chords segue to the jazz melody as the camera shifts to a close-up of Travis’ eyes. The official music timing notes for the film refer to the jazz theme as the “melody in the head.” While some critics have complained about the anachronistic quality of the theme, author David Butler explains that “a funk, disco or pop soundtrack, all of which were then in fashion…would have connected Travis to his contemporary surroundings whereas the nostalgic swing of a bygone age distances him and hints further at his alienation.”
At the end of the film, French horns wail a grotesque rendition of the jazz theme as the camera pans over the blood-soaked body of the pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel). “Benny explained that the reason he did it was to show that this was where Travis’ fantasies about women led him,” said co-producer Michael Phillips. “His illusions, his self-perpetuating way of dealing with women had finally brought him to that bloody, violent outburst…I had never thought of it in terms of what Benny had said, but Bobby [De Niro] and I both said, ‘God, he’s right.’ Absolutely. Perfect.”
Herrmann wrote a “sting” to be played in the final scene where Travis looks back in the rearview mirror. When Scorsese complained that it was “kind of obvious,” Benny said “play it backwards.” The result is an eerie sound that echoes Herrmann’s assessment: “You know…he’s going to do it again.”
“If the film is successful,” said Scorsese, “a great deal of it has to do with the score.” When Herrmann came to conduct the recording sessions on December 23, 1975, it was obvious he was ill. It was not difficult to believe music editor Erma Levin’s whispered comment: “Take a good look at Bernard Herrmann. It’s the last time any of us will ever see him.” Herrmann died in his sleep on December 24, just hours after completing the second and final day of recording.
Herrmann was nominated for an Oscar for Taxi Driver as well as his score for Brian de Palma’s Obsession, his first nominations in 30 years since Anna and the King of Siam in 1946. Though he lost out on a posthumous award (losing to Jerry Goldsmith’s The Omen), the final title card for Taxi Driver reads a more permanent memorial: “In gratitude and admiration to the memory of Bernard Herrmann.”
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Discussing his score for Streetcar, Alex North said, “Instead of ‘themes’ for the specific characters, there were mental statements, so to speak.” And whether it’s the mental statements of Frankie Machine, Sol Nazerman or Travis Bickle, “Jazz Score” wraps up its screenings this month having given us all musical food for thought.
Next Month: A recap of the Sept. 17 panel—“Analysis of a Jazz Score”—featuring Johnny Mandel and David Shire, plus a final wrap up of MoMA’s summer-long series.