Jazz Score: Intermission

First published in Film Score Monthly Online
August 2008

This month in our continuing look at “Jazz Score,” we focus on three legendary performers—arguably the three most public faces of jazz in the 20th Century—who took a break from their regular gigs to parlay their love of jazz into composing for the screen.

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To this day, the name Duke Ellington (1899-1974) is synonymous with the best in American jazz. In a career that spanned over 50 years, Ellington performed in over 20,000 concerts and composed some 3,000 songs, many of which have become standards. Beginning with the 1929 short, Black and Tan Fantasy, Ellington and his Orchestra appeared in films throughout the 1930s and 1940s. But it wasn’t until 1959 that Ellington, at the ripe old age of 60, was offered the opportunity to compose his first feature film score for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. The film starred James Stewart as a small-town lawyer hired to represent a soldier (Ben Gazzara) accused of killing a local bar owner who had raped his wife (Lee Remick).

Preminger felt that hiring Ellington would “produce a freshness which an experienced film composer might no longer possess.” When asked in an interview why “a man of your long standing in the motion picture world” hadn’t composed for the screen, Ellington replied, “I believe most people think of me as a bandleader and at the same time they sort of remember and recognize the fact that I’ve had good fortune with some hit songs, but I think primarily they think about me as a bandleader and when they think in terms of doing for a show or a picture or something like that, they feel that, well, Ellington’s got his band and I am sure that he wouldn’t give that up for anything, you know. And that’s it and they just leave it that way.” But “I love the idea” of composing for film, he said. “I like playing with music and its relationship to the theatre—and particularly in the supporting role.”

But Duke’s score was certainly no mere supporting player. “Anatomy of a Murder is music made when Duke and the band were very mature,” wrote Wynton Marsalis in his essay for the 1999 soundtrack reissue. “They made music to represent an adults-only movie…There are very advanced harmonic conceptions present. For Anatomy of a Murder, Duke refined his harmonic language to a very high point.” In addition to the background score, jazz plays from Stewart’s fingers on his broken down upright piano, as source music on his turntable, and in performance by Ellington himself in a cameo role as Pie Eye, the bandleader at a local roadhouse.

Ellington’s music captures “the sound of sex,” wrote Marsalis. He composed what he called his “number one theme,” “Flirtibird,” around Lee Remick’s hip-swinging femme fatale, perfectly captured by Johnny Hodges’ sinuous alto saxophone solo. “[Lee] was the picture,” said Ellington, “I mean it was a thing with her eyes and she absolutely appeared to be, you know, sort of flirting all the time which could easily be mistaken by someone and it was.” “Flirtibird” also serves as the root for the second main theme, which represents Stewart’s “Polly.” Ellington runs the theme through a number of variations (and soloists) throughout the score. Marsalis points out “‘Polly’ and ‘Flirtibird’ are not exactly the same; there’s even an element of playing it backwards and forwards between the two. But they’re the same.”

In addition, Ellington wrote a laidback clarinet theme for Eve Arden’s no-nonsense secretary. “Happy Anatomy” is based on “Flirtibird” and is played by Pie Eye and the band at the roadhouse as Polly catches Laura (Remick) working her charms on the men at the bar. Ellington modestly called his theme (sometimes called “Pie Eye Blues”) “gutbucket,” and as played over the main titles, it sets the tone for the whole film. The theme was released as a single in two separate versions.

Stanley Crouch called Anatomy of a Murder “one of Ellington’s grandest accomplishments.” Ellington won three Grammy Awards for the music—Best Performance by a Dance Band, Best Musical Composition First Recorded and Released in 1959 (More Than 5 Minutes Duration), and Best Sound Track Album.

For his second film score, Ellington collaborated with an unbilled Billy Strayhorn on Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues (1961). The film stars Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as American expat jazz musicians who must choose between their passion for music and their love for vacationing schoolteachers Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll.

Ellington was approached to write the score by photographer Sam Shaw, the man responsible for Marlon Brando’s torn-shirt photo from A Streetcar Named Desire and Marilyn Monroe’s blowing-skirt stunt from The Seven Year Itch. Author Harold Flender converted Shaw’s discussions of artistic expression in Paris into a 1957 novel. Ellington agreed to do the film because of the novel’s mixed-race relationships and the fact that the film celebrated the “freedom to play and compose in a romantic atmosphere where the first consideration was artistry.” However, when the cameras rolled, the original story had changed: Newman’s crisis became the choice between writing a “serious” jazz concerto and Woodward’s divorced schoolteacher, while Carroll’s civil rights issues were pitted against Poitier’s aversion to “Negro causes.” “When he arrived in Paris and discovered the switchover,” said Mercer Ellington, the composer’s son, “he was very disappointed and firm in his belief that they should have stuck to the original version.”

Whatever the concessions made to the tenor of the times and the Hollywood censors, Ellington’s music remains front and center. Ellington classics such as “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Mood Indigo” were re-orchestrated for performance by Newman’s onscreen band. Entire scenes were given over to Ellington’s background score, including “Paris Stairs,” which accompanies the free-wheeling pairs of lovers as they cavort through the Paris streets. Filtered throughout the score are snippets of Newman’s jazz-concerto-in-progress, titled “Paris Blues.” James Lincoln Collier, in Duke Ellington: The Life and Times of the Restless Genius of Jazz, called the theme “a wonderfully evocative piece of music,” and the tune permanently entered Ellington’s repertoire at concerts. The highpoint of the film and the score is the impromptu jam session between Louis Armstrong’s Wild Man Moore and the members of Newman’s band. As Moore challenges each instrument—guitar, saxophone, and trombone—to top him, the improvisations get wilder and more intricate until the joint is jumping with unbridled musical joy.

In his biography of Billy Strayhorn, Lush Life, David Hadju described Paris Blues as an artistic progress from Antomy of a Murder, which was “essentially a song score,” partly because Ellington and Strayhorn “found more areas of commonality in Paris Blues.” “They felt close to the characters,” Shaw was quoted in the book, “like they were part of them—black artists in a foreign, white world.” The film earned Ellington an Academy Award nomination for Scoring for a Musical Picture, though it lost to Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal for West Side Story.

Ellington would compose only two more film scores: the rarely seen Assault on a Queen (1966) and Change of Mind (1969). And though he lost the Oscar, numerous awards continued to pour in throughout the rest of his career. He was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, and the French Legion of Honor in 1973. At the 1965 Pulitzer Prizes, the three-member music jury originally recommended a special citation for Ellington, but the Pulitzer advisory board rejected the recommendation. Two of the three jury members resigned in protest. Ellington was finally awarded a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1999, 25 years after his death, to commemorate the centennial year of his birth. It was 34 years too late, but as Duke quipped in 1965, “Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young.” He was 67.

* * *

Inheriting the Ellington torch, Wynton Marsalis (b. 1961) has led successful careers not only in jazz, but in the classical arena as well, winning nine Grammy Awards over the two genres. His jazz career began as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and he later toured with Herbie Hancock’s quartet. He has worked with a veritable “Who’s Who” of jazz greats, including Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry and Sonny Rollins. His compositions have enriched the dance world with commissions for such noted choreographers as Garth Fagin, Peter Martins, Twyla Tharp and Alvin Ailey. In addition to a rigorous performing schedule, Marsalis also serves as the director of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

For his only film score, Tune in Tomorrow… (1990), Marsalis pays homage to Ellington. When director Jon Amiel transposed Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, from Peru to 1951 New Orleans, he turned to one of the city’s own to score the film. Peter Falk stars as a devilish writer who finds sensational dialogue for his radio soap opera by eavesdropping on the budding affair between his protégé (Keanu Reeves) and his protégé’s older, twice-divorced aunt (Barbara Hershey). “What was especially appealing to me about this project,” says Marsalis, “was that the characters were so varied that I was afforded the opportunity to work out themes for them and for various scenes while calling upon my own memories and impressions of New Orleans. Whenever I think of New Orleans I think of so many things and of so many different kinds of people. It was quite a thrill to work on this movie and to put the story’s emotions into music.”

Marsalis’ score combines Ellington’s lush orchestral sound and traditional New Orleans jazz in over-the-top underscoring for the radio drama and in performance source cues for Marsalis and his band in restaurants and clubs. As Marsalis says of Falk’s Pedro Carmichael, “Trouble is his middle name, but always in the name of fun (at your expense).” Marsalis composed two motifs for the character: a “mysterious” baritone sax theme and an “evasive” two-note clarinet theme. One of the highlights of the score is musically following Reeves infatuation for Hershey from over-confident wooer to serious love affair.

In the liner notes for the soundtrack album, Stanley Crouch wrote, “This splendid score makes obvious the fact that Wynton Marsalis has a talent for composition that may someday equal—if not exceed—his unprecedented instrumental gifts.” Though Marsalis continues to compose—his Blood on the Fields received a 1997 Pulitzer Prize (a first for a jazz work)—Tune in Tomorrow… remains Marsalis’ only film score to date.

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He was there at “the birth of the cool.” Through his groundbreaking nonet, two legendary quintets, and a career that spanned over 45 years, Miles Davis (1926-1991) changed the face of jazz, took it electric, courted controversy, and brought it to a new generation of music fans.

With his first film, Elevator to the Gallows (1958), Miles broke with tradition, composing the first fully improvised score. Lovers Florence (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien (Maurice Ronet) agree to murder her husband and make it look like a suicide. When Julien gets trapped in an elevator trying to retrieve an incriminating piece of evidence, Florence searches for him through the rain-swept Paris streets in an attempt to locate him before the police.

The score was recorded on Dec. 4, 1957, in multiple takes. Davis’ quintet consisted of Kenny Clarke (drums), Pierre Michelot (bass), René Urtreger (piano) and Barney Wilen (saxophone). Miles gave the other musicians an outline of where the themes were to be played, but, as Urtreger remembered in a 2005 interview, “Nothing was written down.” Miles was experimenting with a new form of modal jazz, in which the main theme’s slow-moving notes represent the antithesis of the fast-moving bebop that was so popular at the time. Further experimentation came during suspense cues, such as the one in which Julien tries to escape from the elevator; Michelot and Clarke improvised the scene on bass and cymbals . But bebop wasn’t totally absent from the score: the Highway Theme is a disguised “Sweet Georgia Brown,” improvised by Davis’ trumpet and Wilen’s saxophone.

“The real glory of the music,” Urtreger remembered, “is Miles’ sound, his emotion, his talent, with the rest of us playing in the shadows behind him…It’s Miles who shines.” Jazz critic Phil Johnson described the score as “the loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear, and the model for sad-core music ever since. Hear it and weep.”

Ever the innovator, Miles boasted in December 1969, “I could put together the greatest rock ’n roll band you ever heard.” Many years later, in his autobiography, Miles acknowledged the challenges he encountered in working with rock, saying, “When I started playing against that new rhythm, first I had to get used to it…Playing the new shit was a gradual process.” This “new shit” was jazz fusion, music that combined an aggressive electric sound with jazz, funk, blues and rock, a formula with which Miles scandalized a generation of jazz purists in 1970 with his album Bitches Brew. Miles also used this new plugged-in sound for his film score for Jack Johnson, the 1970 Oscar-nominated documentary of the former American heavyweight boxing champion.

Davis himself was a lifelong amateur boxer and said of the music, “I had that boxer’s movement in mind, that shuffling movement like boxers use. They’re almost like dance steps, or like the sound of a train…That train image was in my head when I thought about a great boxer like Joe Louis or Jack Johnson. When you think of a big heavyweight coming at you it’s like a train.” He also asked himself, “is this music black enough, does it have black rhythm, can you make the rhythm of the train a black thing, would Jack Johnson dance to that?” The score featured such legendary jazz performers as John McLaughlin, Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Billy Cobham, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett.

Recorded as two lengthy tracks, “Right Off” and “Yesternow,” one per LP side, A Tribute to Jack Johnson was released in February 1971, but it was barely promoted by Columbia Records and sank into semi-obscurity amid the success of Bitches Brew and competing fusion albums by other jazz artists. In October 2003 Columbia/Legacy released six hours of music from the original sessions—including four- and-a-half hours of previously unheard material—on a 5-CD boxed set called The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions.

As an accompaniment for the documentary, the anachronistic choice of jazz fusion surprisingly contemporizes Johnson into a hero for the early ’70s. Seen today, what Jack Johnson lacks in visionary filmmaking technique is more than compensated by Miles’ “electric” score.

* * *

“Music is my mistress,” said Duke Ellington. And “Jazz Score” continues to highlight the vibrant love affair between jazz and film.

—FSM

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