Jazz and film have a long intertwined existence. They contrast each other in that jazz is characterized by its often improvised execution as opposed to the drawn-out deliberate process of filmmaking. But film and prose have often borrowed from jazz’s free-spirited compositional approach through the work of poets such as Jack Kerouac and directors the likes of John Cassavetes and Jen-Luc Godard.
Back in the day, jazz had a fixed place in the world of film, catering for a vast number of soundtracks varying from the gritty to the mass-appeal flicks. Big names such as Barbieri and Hancock lent their talents to film scores with ease. But nowadays, jazz has released it’s grip on popular culture, save for a few select films such as those by Woody Allen.
In tribute to these two wonderful art forms, I would like to revive the long gone spirit of jazz soundtracks by revisiting 10 of the best moments of jazz in film.
- Shadows (1959): A low-budget film by Cassavetes about an interracial relationship, the film is characterized by naturalness and spontaneity, more so in its soundtrack which was originally intended to be by Charlie Mingus. The film was eventually released with a soundtrack featuring Mingus’ saxophonist Shafi Hadi.
- Breathless (1960): Another film characterized by improvisation, specifically because it had no script. The actors are actually “riffing it”, much like jazz musicians would. Even the camera work was an exercise in spontaneity based on very few rehearsals. Godard’s film follows a cop killer who connects with his girlfriend as he tries to elude the law.
- Jammin’ the Blues (1944): A little over 100mins long, this film directed by Life Magazine photographer Gjon Mili and photographed by Robert Burk, captures a studio jam session featuring such giants as tenor players Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet in peak form. The cinematography here is as delightful as the music itself, each image perfectly framed and lit.
- The Sound of Jazz (1957): This film brings back an era when jazz musicians did not feel it “uncool” to visibly express joy. Jack Smight brings us in stark, cinematic black and white, the performances of an unbeatable line-up comprising Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, Count Basic’s key players and a number of young stars from the cool jazz scene.
- Round Midnight (1986): This film by French directo Bertrand Tavernier is fictional but draws its inspiration from the tragic stories of Lester Young and pianist Bud Powell. It follows a fan who attempts to help his tenor-playing idol who is physically ill. The lead character is played by the great saxophonist Dexter Gordon. The supporting players are actually real musicians.
- Bird (1988): In this film, director Clint Eastwood captures the spirit and challenges of the music scene of the 1940′s and tells the store of Charlie Parker. Understanding that Parker’s music sounded best during his unofficial live performances due to his daring approach, Eastwood used a bold new technique to take some of Parker’s live recordings (some of them lo-fi), clean them up, and have musicians re-record the backing tracks to bring them to life.
- Paris Blues (1961): This film by Martin Ritt features two musician friends and an underlying theme recalling the problem of racism. The score features Duke Ellington, while Louis Armstrong makes an appearance in the film as a trumpeter by the name of Wild Man Moore. Make sure you don’t miss this, if only for the “battle of the bands” scene featuring Satchmo’s trumpet.
- Lift to the Scaffold (1958): This French new wave crime story by Louis Malle hires Miles Davis to improvise for the score. This has to be one of the greatest film scores in the jazz film genre.
- Look Back in Anger (1959): Tony Richardson’s 1959 film based on John Osborne’s hit play, portrays trad jazz as the music of the rebellious youth of the 50s. The opening scene ignites vividly with an angry young man playing his horn to a cellar full of finger-popping hep cats.
- Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959): Aram Avakian and photographer Bert Stern capture the performances of singer Anita O’Day and Mahalia Jackson (among others) in the Newport Jazz Festival.
Sergeo Kozak is the founder of Edictive and True Hero Studio who make film production management applications for mobile, tablet and web platforms.
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