Call and response: The reciprocal influence of jazz and film

02 June 2011

Jeanne Moreau and Miles Davis on the set of Elevator to the Gallows
Guest feature: Phil Hogan is based in Atlanta, GA

Jazz and film are both art forms that came about in and help to characterize the twentieth century. Like jazz, which is a combination of various musical styles and tradition, cinema is a medium that takes inspiration from previous ones. Because films are visual, they have roots in photography, painting, and various past forms of visual art. Novels and short stories influence the dialogue and plots behind films, and stage plays also have an influence on the story, set design and overall presentation. When the invention of sound technology diminished the need for silent films, the “talkie” generation was born. The first film to usher in an inventive use of sound was aptly titled The Jazz Singer. Released in 1927, the film introduced audiences around the world to pictures with sound; with the first sound being Al Jolson’s now taboo jazz renditions. Since then, jazz music continued to appear in films, but not always accurately. There would come a time when cinema and jazz would cross the same evolutionary bridge and have a mutual influence.

By the late 1950s, many films coming out of Hollywood that incorporated jazz music showcased more of a west coast cool jazz style, something that proved an anachronism to many of the plots and settings of the films. One example is 1962’s Walk on the Wild Side, a film partially set at a New Orleans brothel in the early 1930s. The film features a jazz band performing more in the then current west coast jazz style, as opposed to the more identifiable sound of New Orleans jazz that might have been heard at the time of the film’s setting.

 Even though the more mainstream films released during this time were not the best examples of the various evolutions jazz had taken by the 1950s, there were a number of productions, both independent and international, that did feature prominent and innovative jazz artists of the time. These films left these players free to their experimentation to not only help shape the films that they were scoring, but continue the evolution of their own sound and style. One of these examples, according to Thomson (2002), comes from France in 1957. Louis Malle, who would reach American success by the 1980s with films like Atlantic City and My Dinner with Andre, was a young French co-director trying to make his big break when a project he co-wrote got the green light, Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows). Like the many French New Wave films that it preceded, Malle’s debut was heavily inspired by American cinema, and in particular, the film noir genre (p. 554).

To acquire an even greater feel of urban decay and loneliness expressed in those Hollywood film noirs, Malle turned to Miles Davis to develop a jazz score for the film that could capture that night-in-the-city feeling. Davis had just finished some collaborations with Gil Evans, a departure from his usual style that was an early showcase of his unpredictability and evolving face in the jazz medium. In France, according to Cole (1974), Davis had just been written about in high regard by musicologist André Hodeir in Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, and had enjoyed visiting and performing in Paris ever since his first visit to the city in 1949. Before returning to the United States, he agreed to score Malle’s first film (p. 72).

The plot of Elevator to the Gallows involves a young scandalous couple committing a murder and attempting to rendezvous at a café before sunset and head out of the city together. The male returns to the scene of the crime to retrieve some evidence and ends up getting stuck in the now shutoff elevator. Meanwhile, his lover fears something awful has happened, and she begins to walk the night time streets of Paris, illuminated by neon lights and the lonely sounds of Davis’ horn. According to Devaux and Giddins (2009), Malle asked Davis to improvise the score at one late-night session, simultaneously watching the film and creating music cues with bop drummer Kenny Clarke and three Frenchmen brought in just for that session. When developing the score, Davis improvised on scales instead of chords, simplifying the music harmonically and increasing the emotional content with slow, drawn-out phrases. The score is mostly in a D minor scale (p. 417).

Elevator to the Gallows went on to become an international success, influencing French New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut and continuing the celebrity of its star Jeanne Moreau. As well as those admirations, the improvised jazz score provided by Davis received enormous praise, and is often cited for the reason the film’s depiction of aimless nighttime urban wandering still holds up today. The movie inspired a variety of films with scores by or featuring jazz stars, but Davis returned to the studio after this, with what some argued was a new sense of improvising after his experience working on the film. According to Rafferty (2006), “That impromptu session has since acquired a certain historical significance as an early instance of Davis’ interest in the modal approach to jazz composition – the approach that culminated, less than two years later, in the classic album Kind of Blue” (p. 3). While it is forever uncertain if the Elevator to the Gallows session was on Davis’ mind when in the studio recording Kind of Blue, it no doubt played an influence in the direction of jazz that he would be going into, and even though Davis did not contribute on many more film scores, it played an even bigger part in his diverse musical persona.

Shadows, 1959

Despite the misrepresentation of jazz music in most Hollywood films throughout the 1950s, jazz had reached an equivalent in literature with the 1957 publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The novel, along with other works by writers like Allen Ginsberg, showcased a form of writing that felt loose and free flowing, inspired in part by jazz improvisations and experimental solos of the bebop, soon to be Beat, generation. Still, not everyone in Hollywood could ignore these progressive innovations of expression happening in literature and music. According to Fine (2005), John Cassavetes, a twenty-eight year old rising actor from New York City, had his sights set beyond the glossiness of Hollywood pictures, and wanted to direct films in a style that was an extension of improvisation found both in the acting workshops he taught and in the jazz music that he and others of his generation admired. He would go on to helm a movement of independent cinema in the United States that continues today, conceived to the improvising solos of jazz music (p. 83).

In 1957, Cassavetes, along with a crew of students and friends, hit the streets of New York City and shot the first version of what is often considered the first independent film, Shadows. Two years later, Cassavetes reshot some scenes and the film was given a limited release. There are two major aspects of Shadows structurally and plot wise that relate to the core elements of jazz music. The first is the spirit of improvisation, something already prevalent in the style of the Beat writers, now being transferred to film. The validity of Shadows was often called into question at the time of its release because of Cassavetes’ assertion that the film had no script and was completely improvised. While this is not true, the film was shot with a lot of improvisation. When preparing for a particular scene, Cassavetes would have the actors use the foundation of the scene and characters, but have them improvise the dialogue, and often times would encourage them to deviate from the page and take the scenes into completely different directions (Fine, p. 90). This style of direction appears directly influenced by the improvisation approach to a jazz performance, starting with a foundation of sound and soloing away to unknown destinations.

The second major aspect of Shadows that relates to jazz music involves its plotline. The story of the film is pretty meandering, mostly involving a couple groups of friends in New York City and their social encounters day and night. One of the dramas unfolding is a growing relationship between an African American woman and a white man, something extremely taboo in American culture at the time and something that was not depicted in American movies in the late 1950s. Though most likely inspired by the then current Civil Rights Movement that was raging, Shadows is still like jazz music in that it was an early bridge in entertainment that ignored taboos of race and collaboration. Even during heavy times of racism and segregation, African American artists in the jazz community would often find solidarity among their white contemporaries, even though audiences could not yet handle them all playing on the same stage together. Into the 1950s and 60s, especially with some of the work by John Coltrane, jazz music was seen in some circles as a parallel to the Civil Rights movement and African American freedom and expression.

Before he had even finished editing the first version of Shadows, Cassavetes prepared a rough cut to show to jazz composer Charles Mingus in hopes that he would do an improvisational score. Mingus has just established himself the previous year with the release of his first album Pithecanthropus Erectus. Cassavetes felt that what he was doing with improvisation in Shadows was on the same artistic wavelength as Mingus with jazz; making it up as they went along. Mingus, being a Juilliard-trained musician, was more interested in the opportunity to compose a film score than throw away the chance in a one night improvised jam session. After six months of working on compositions, Mingus met with Cassavetes and played him several ideas. Cassavetes encouraged Mingus that day while they were in the studio to improvise, with Cassavetes recording the three hour session. Afterward, Mingus was not satisfied with the results, and Cassavetes only used a few minutes of music for the first version of the film (Fine, p. 97).

When Cassavetes reassembled the film in 1959 with new scenes and a different running time, he wanted Mingus to come back and record again. This time, Mingus was unwilling to contribute to the project. According to Giddins (2004), “The irony of a world-class improviser notating the score for a film otherwise afloat in improvisation may have been lost on Cassavetes” (p. 13). Cassavetes instead turned to alto saxophonist Shafi Hadi, who had frequently collaborated with Mingus and had just gotten done playing on the landmark album Mingus Ah Um. The saxophonist was paid $100 by the first time director to spend a couple of hours improvising in the studio while watching the film. With Hadi, Cassavetes got his wish in an improvised jazz score for his supposedly improvised film. Though his directorial vision would be compromised at times in the future, Cassavetes would continue to devote himself to his unique style of filmmaking and would win later acclaim with films like Faces and A Woman Under the Influence, as well as acting recognition in The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby. The independent film movement that he pioneered, and that would inspire filmmakers as diverse as Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh, was rooted in the free flowing improvisational sensation of jazz music.

Blowup, 1966

By 1966, the worlds of both motion pictures and jazz music had changed drastically, and the future for both entities was uncertain. The film industry in Europe had reached a new high in the late 50s/early 60s with different editing techniques and a disregard for narrative, traditional film structure, and censoring sexuality. But by the mid 1960s, the new wave movements were growing stagnant, with many filmmakers experiencing their first flops and critical failures. In Hollywood, the old studio system was dying and their films were unappealing to young audiences disillusioned by the assassination of JFK and the Cold War (Thomson, p. 67). Similarly, the jazz world was being threatened by an American youth that was turning more and more away from clubs like Birdland and musicians like Miles Davis and closer toward venues in places like Haight-Ashbury and musicians like Bob Dylan and The Beatles.

One filmmaker, Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, observed these changing trends and generational shift, and wanted to depict it in a film like none before. He had already established himself in the world markets with his controversial 1960 film L’Avventura, and his films soon developed the reputation of bluntly depicting sexual dissatisfaction and emptiness in a modern world preoccupied by lust and greed. In 1966, he developed Blowup, filmed in London and financed mostly by the American studio MGM. Not only was it Antonioni’s first time working with a Hollywood studio, but it was also his first film in English. The plot centered on an arrogant young fashion photographer, drowning in vanity and desperate women, who may or may not have witnessed a murder. The film served as a denouncement of the growing ‘Free Love’ generation, and was controversial at the time for featuring drug use and the first time full frontal female nudity was shown in a widely financed/released movie (Thomson, p. 24).

Antonioni, who would later go on to use Pink Floyd for a film well before they were famous, took special interest in the score and overall use of sound in his films. To compose the score for Blowup, a film that prominently featured a rock n’ roll concert in its story and its subculture, the legendary director chose jazz pianist Herbie Hancock. Hancock was already established in the jazz world at the time, and was currently enjoying success as a member of Miles Davis’ Second Quintet. According to Unterberger (2007), Hancock first traveled to London after the shooting wrapped in 1966 to record the score. After a short period of time, Hancock rejected the results from the London sessions, and returned to New York to record the soundtrack with several famous jazz artists, including Freddie Hubbard, Joe Newman, Phil Woods, Joe Henderson, Jim Hall, Ron Carter, and Jack DeJohnette. Because the film depicts the rock n’ roll subculture of London in 1966, Hancock composed the album instead of improvising, experimenting with different elements of rock music and mixing it with his fast piano playing and a more traditional jazz flow. The theme for the film begins like a bubblegum surf rock instrumental, with repeated simple guitar riffs. However, once it gets a minute in, the composition changes gears and gets darker, incorporating piano and horns reminiscent of the sounds of soul jazz.

Blowup was released in Europe in December of 1966 and in the United States early the following year. The film was not only a groundbreaking critical success, but was also met with an unusual amount of financial success, eventually contributing to the collapse of the Hays Code in Hollywood that had been censoring film content since the 1930s. Though Hancock’s score for the film was acclaimed, it was the appearance of the British rock n’ roll band The Yardbirds, with a rare performance by then members Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, that had most people talking in regard to the film and music. Hancock’s score, aside from the opening, is mostly diegetic, appearing mainly on radios or in the background of most scenes. It was as if this new popular rock n’ roll music was purposely used to overshadow a jazz score regulated to appearing only in portions, outdated and out of touch.

Just as Blowup played a part in changing the way films were made, Herbie Hancock would soon take part in changing the shape of jazz, mainly through his work with Miles Davis and embracing the sounds of rock n’ roll, the flipside to the Blowup soundtrack. After Davis broke up his second quintet in 1968, Hancock began taking his music in a different direction. He collaborated with Davis again on several of his early jazz rock fusion albums, including In a Silent Way in 1969 and On the Corner in 1972, as well as recording his own interpretation of fusion. The following year Hancock formed the fusion band The Headhunters, whose first album would become a cornerstone release of the jazz rock fusion era. Hancock also continued doing film soundtracks, including the soundtrack for the 1986 film Round Midnight, about a fictional jazz musician struggling with addiction in 1950s Paris. Hancock won a Grammy as recently as 2008 and continues to be one of the active living jazz legends.

In the past thirty five years, jazz music has managed to make very little advancement in its sounds, reverting back to a reactionary form of bebop in the 1980s and developing very little in the 1990s with the commercial smooth jazz and the self-consciously eclectic acid jazz movements. After the 1970s, American cinema reverted back to the brainless blockbuster, and seems to have been stuck at an interesting place between art and commerce ever since. With the advancement of internet technologies, there is no telling where the future influences of cinema and jazz lie, but there was a time in the middle of the twentieth century where the two art forms could not only coexist, but also help to influence and shape one another.

Cole, B. (1974). Miles Davis: A musical biography. New York City, NY: William Morrow & Company, INC.

Deveaux, S., & Giddins, G. (2009). Jazz. London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Fine, M. (2005). Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the American Independent Film. New York City, NY: Miramax Books.

Giddins, G. (2004). 'Shadows: Eternal Times Square'. The Criterion Collection, 3(251), 06-14.

Rafferty, T. (2006). 'Elevator to the Gallows: Louis Malle on the Ground Floor'. The Criterion Collection, 1(335), 02-05.

Thomson, D. (2002). The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. New York City, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Unterberger, R. (2007). Blow-up. Reviews, 17(8), Retrieved from