Jazz Score: Second Set

First published in Film Score Monthly Online
Vol. 13, Issue 6, June 2008

In FSM’s continuing look at “Jazz Score,” this summer’s celebration of jazz in film at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), this month we focus on two special evenings—a concert tribute to Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda and an evening of animation from Academy Award-winners John and Faith Hubley.

A Concert Tribute to Krzysztof Komeda
On May 19, “Jazz Score” presented the first-ever concert teaming of Polish trumpeter/composer Tomasz Stanko and American saxophonist Billy Harper. The evening offered a rare opportunity to hear two legendary improvisers in a program consisting of Stanko’s own compositions as well as a celebration of the film music of Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda (1931–1969).

Until his untimely death at age 38, Krzysztof Komeda (born Trzcinski), widely credited as one of the founding fathers of the modern jazz movement in Poland, wrote music to over 40 films, working with such legendary Polish directors as Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda. Polanski would use Komeda’s music in almost all of his films over the course of the next decade, including his 1968 American film debut, Rosemary’s Baby.

Though he studied music from an early age, Komeda began his career as a doctor. It wasn’t until he met bass player Witold Kujawski that his initiation into jazz began. However in 1950s communist Poland, there were no public performances of jazz. Because jazz represented “freedom, Western culture, a different way of life,” musicians had to perform clandestinely at dance parties or in living rooms and cellars. According to Komeda’s official website, jazz was regarded as “cheap, suspect, night-club music,” and he used the pseudonym “Komeda” to hide his passion for music from his co-workers.

In 1963, as a young, 21-year-old recent graduate of the Kraków Music Academy, Stanko joined Komeda’s quintet. According to Stanko’s website, much of his musical direction and his own compositional style were influenced by the composer: “The lyricism, the feeling of playing only the essential, the approach to structure, to asymmetry, many harmonic details—I was so lucky that I started out with him.” The Komeda Sextet is widely credited with paving the way for modern jazz in Poland. Stanko toured for five years with Komeda, appeared on 11 albums with him, and also made contributions to all of the films scores that Komeda composed in Poland.

Stanko’s whispery trumpet provided some dicey pitches during the concert, especially when in unison with Harper, but in larger numbers, such as “Night-time, Daytime Requiem,” written in response to John Coltrane’s death, both soloists seized the opportunity to demonstrate their improvisational skills. No caveats however for the young musicians from Stanko’s quartet—Marcin Wasilewski (piano), Slawomir Kurkiewicz (bass), and Michal Miskiewicz on drums—who played with energy and solidarity throughout the evening, providing rock-steady backup when needed, as well as shining in their own right as solo performers.

Though the concert also featured some of Stanko’s own compositions, many of the selections were taken from Litania, Stanko’s 1997 CD tribute to Komeda. For our purposes, we will focus on two films represented in the exhibit—Knife in the Water (1962) and Le Départ (1966).

Though Komeda had composed scores for numerous features and shorts, including Polanski’s first film (and Komeda’s first score), the 1957 short, Two Men and a Wardrobe, it was Roman Polanski’s feature film debut, Knife in the Water (1962), that put composer and director on the map. Knife in the Water was Polanski’s only film shot in Poland in his native language before leaving for the West. Polanski co-wrote the script with two film school colleagues, Jakub Goldberg and future director Jerzy Skolimowski, in three days and nights of continuous work. The three-character film deals with the rivalry and psycho-sexual tension between an older man, his wife, and a young hitchhiker aboard a sailboat.

Leon Niemczyk, who played the husband, Andrzej, was the only professional actor out of the three leads. Jolanta Umecka, a music student who had never acted, was chosen to play the wife, Krystyna, because she was physically right for the role. Though Polanski originally announced that he would play the part of the young hitchhiker himself, the head of the State film unit, Kamera, said he would delay the film if Polanski played the role (even though the director reportedly stripped naked to plead his case that he was “handsome enough” to play the part). Zygmunt Malanowicz, a drama student, was cast instead. Though he looked the part, he was an inexperienced actor, and Polanski dubbed all of the character’s dialogue himself. He also had another actress dub Umecka’s lines. Though Knife in the Water was criticized by the Polish government upon its initial release, claiming it showed an unflattering portrait of Poles and had no social relevance, the film landed Polanski on the cover of Time and was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (losing to Fellini’s 8 1/2).

Komeda’s score is orchestrated for a small quartet of tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums. Among the musicians on the recording is Swedish saxophonist Bernt Rosengren. Komeda was a fan of Rosengren’s playing, and invited him to take part in the session. However, according to Zofia Komeda, the composer’s wife and manager, “Getting agreement for this in the communist Poland of the 1960s was something absolutely unprecedented, but thanks to Komeda’s stubbornness and the goodwill of the head of the KADR film studio, and after many attempts at persuasion in the offices of the Ministry of Art and Culture, the film authorities, and the management of the National Bank, I managed to arrange it.”

The music offers a refreshing counterpoint to the film’s claustrophobic setting and intrusive camerawork. The languorous main title ballad perfectly captures the sun-soaked atmosphere lounging aboard the boat. The carefree saxophone further offsets the tension of the characters as Andrzej and Krystyna invite the Young Man to come aboard the boat and later as he “walks on water.” Polish audiences in 1962 were unprepared for Komeda’s jaunty score, so unlike much of the music they were used to hearing in their films. The main tune, “Ballad for Bernt” (in honor of Rosengren), is one of Komeda’s most famous charts and displayed some of Billy Harper’s finest playing during the concert.

Following his script work on Knife in the Water, Jerzy Skolimowski turned to directing and subsequently hired Komeda to score his 1967 comedy, Le Départ. The film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and stars Jean-Pierre Léaud as a young hairdresser’s apprentice, whose frenetic attempts to beg, steal or borrow a Porsche for a car race wreak havoc on everyone around him. The music combines the free-wheeling style of Léaud’s character and the manic energy of racecar driving. Komeda’s frenetic score is featured prominently in the film with many of the driving sequences set entirely to music, as Léaud’s scooter winds through the streets of Paris. The music is as energetic as the film’s young star, but Komeda does provide a tender love theme for Léaud and his girlfriend (Catherine Duport), sung over the opening credits by Christiane Legrand.

Komeda’s influence can be felt even today. In addition to Stanko’s championing of the composer’s works, the Swedish pop band, Komeda, is named in honor of the composer, and the jazz quintet, the Komeda Project, is charged with “bringing Krzysztof Komeda’s wondrous music back to life.” Bravo to MoMA and to Stanko & Co. for further resurrecting Komeda’s music.

“A Marriage Made in Heaven”
In our original interview, curator Joshua Siegel said he found it important “not simply to include feature films [in the exhibit], but to include experimental films, documentaries and animation.” And on June 2, “Jazz Score” devoted a special evening to the animation of Academy Award–winners John and Faith Hubley.
“There’s a remarkable connection between animation and jazz,” Faith once observed. “There’s something about jazz’s bending of time within a rigid format that also applies to animation. Film time is different from regular time, and animation time is even further removed from film time. It stretches and bends, the same as it does in music and particularly in jazz. That’s why they work so well together. It’s a marriage made in heaven.”

John Hubley (1914–1977) began his career at Walt Disney Studios in 1935 at age 22, painting backgrounds and layouts for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He became an art director and designed layouts for Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo, and the Rite of Spring sequence in Fantasia. After quitting the studio during the 1941 strike, he co-founded United Productions of America (UPA). As creative director, he created Mr. Magoo and supervised the animation on the Academy Award-winning Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950). Hubley was later fired from UPA after he came under fire from the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1955, he and his wife, Faith (19294–2001), a former editor and script clerk, established Storyboard Productions as a commercial firm, allowing John to work anonymously.

The Hubleys made it their mission to make one “personal” film per year. And on those pet projects, they took a unique view of working with music. “I feel that the composer has to have freedom and I think that the music has to go first,” Faith once remarked. “Then the artist isn’t burdened with having to do everything to the split second. So the first thing we did was throw the click-track in the garbage and let the composers work the way they used to when they created the great scores in film history. We would do a storyboard first—or sketches for the storyboard—and then talk to the composer. If something felt musically that it should be a little longer, or something great was happening, we had the flexibility to open it up and take advantage of it.”

“A Marriage Made in Heaven” featured eight Hubley classics, including one of their three Oscar winners and two prints newly restored by the museum. The evening was introduced by Emily Hubley (John and Faith’s daughter and a filmmaker in her own right), discussing how her mother and father, great aficionados of jazz music, were drawn to jazz because they responded to its “free improvisation and depth of feeling.”

The first half of the program was devoted almost exclusively to shorts featuring music by legendary trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie. The first, The Hat featured music and dialogue improvisation by Dizzy and Dudley Moore on piano as they play two soldiers on either side of a line in a still-relevant discussion on the absurdity of war and the arms race. The second, 1958’s Date With Dizzy, mixed live action and animation as Dizzy and his quintet arrive at the studio to compose a score for an “Instant Rope Ladder” TV commercial. Featured in the film are earlier jingles produced by John Hubley, including Heinz 57 Worcestershire Sauce and E-Z Pop popcorn.

Though Dizzy had appeared in dozens of films over the years, almost all of the music featured performance footage or source cues. It wasn’t until 1974’s Oscar-nominated Voyage to Next that he had the chance to compose an original score. “Although this was a new process for Dizzy, I don’t think there was anything Dizzy couldn’t do,” said Faith. “He was half-magician, half-genius. We had a wonderful relationship. He knew the content of this film because he helped create it.”

The film was created for the Institute for World Order (now the World Policy Institute), and the animation mixes African American and Native American influences, reminding me of LP covers from the era. The film stars Dizzy as Father Time and Maureen Stapleton as Mother Earth discussing environmental issues and the sad state of the human race.

Dizzy’s score contains much more funk than most of the other entries that evening as he flirts with elements of jazz fusion. Dizzy’s main Latin theme holds a conversational counterpoint with Frank Wess’ languid flute solo, while Dee Dee Bridgewater’s scat singing contributes further counterpoint. Later, Dizzy and his then-20-year-old trumpet protégé Jon Faddis engage in some wild improvisation. The look and sound of Voyage to Next are definitely products of their time, yet the film raises questions that are still, unfortunately, all too relevant.

The Hubleys also enjoyed a particularly productive partnership with legendary saxophonist Benny Carter, totaling eight shorts in all. “John and Faith had a great deal of sensitivity to music,” said Benny in an earlier interview. “They were very good at conveying what they wanted to the composer. And they knew right away if they were hearing what they wanted.”

Carter’s widow, Hilma, and Ed Berger, Professor of Jazz Studies at Rutgers, introduced the second half of the program, which began with a world premiere and the musical highlight of the evening—the museum’s newly restored print of Adventures of an * (1957). Out of all the scores that evening, Benny Carter’s score for Adventures comes the closest to a full-fledged film score. Telling the story of an asterisk (the symbol used for a baby) as he grows into a man, Lionel Hampton’s vibraphone solos perfectly capture the precocious playful quality of the character. Lawrence Brown’s trombone punches out a three-note motif for the father, and Hampton and Brown often converse in humorous ways as the animation moves from amorphous shapes to characters and back again. As the boy grows into a laidback teen, the Hubleys capture his attitude and attempts at being “cool” as Carter’s big band kicks into high gear. The film and Carter’s score are utter delights, visually and aurally conveying the emotions of an entire life from childhood through adolescence and fatherhood in nine minutes. The film also plays in constant rotation in the museum’s theater lobby across from a colorful display of the complete storyboards.

Carter contributes another memorable score for Urbanissimo (1966), as the line drawings of a farmer fight against the allure of encroaching urban development in the form of an ever-moving, colorful city on legs. Carter’s score features a catchy theme and variations that would have sounded right at home in any number of TV series from the period. Once again, Carter employs such legendary musicians as Harry “Sweets” Edison (muted trumpet), Ray Brown (bass), Pete Jolly (piano), Shelly Manne (drums), and high trumpet work by Maynard Ferguson.

The Oscar-winning Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Double Feature (1966) seemed to be the audience favorite of the evening, perhaps because the music was so immediately recognizable. “Spanish Flea” was first on the bill with the little bugger wreaking havoc on animals and humans alike, while “Tijuana Taxi” portrays a satiric slice of life with colorful mobsters and molls set against a white background and pastel line drawings.

The evening ended with the Oscar-nominated Of Men and Demons (1969), in which a farmer’s tranquil life is threatened by industrialization, pollution, and the gods of fire, sun, and rain. Quincy Jones’ music represented a departure from earlier scores of the evening as it combined synthesizer and other electronics, along with Richard Boone’s mumbles and Jean-Luc Ponty’s electronic violin, to create a variety of percussive effects.

But the visual highlight of the evening came at the very beginning with the world premiere of the museum’s newly restored print of The Tender Game (1958). The Hubleys were influenced by modern painters such as Picasso, Matisse, Klee and Miro, and nowhere was that more evident than in the color-saturated storyboards that frame this delightful boy-meets-girl tale. Set to Jack Lawrence and Walter Gross’ song, “Tenderly,” Ella Fitzgerald’s vocals accompanies the wistful beginning, while Oscar Peterson’s piano improvisation (with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis) creates the perfect musical backdrop as the limbs of a flower seller and street sweeper twist and elongate, performing a dance of courtship, all accompanied by the classic tune. A near-perfect combination of music and image, The Tender Game is, dare I say it, a work of art.

Four of the scores (Urbanissimo, Voyage to Next, Adventures of an *, Of Men and Demons) are available on the 1996 Lightyear CD, Journey to Next, including three scores from other Hubley shorts. All of the films featured in “A Marriage Made in Heaven,” as well as many others, can be found on the DVD, John & Faith Hubley: Art and Jazz in Animation. Though the quality of the transfers leaves much to be desired, it offers over four hours of outstanding animation and great jazz music.

* * *

For all you hep cats looking for a place to hang, “Jazz Score” continues to show film rarities that are made in the shade.

–FSM

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