Ten jazz takes on film music that prove the interconnectedness of the two art forms.
Jazz music has long expressed its capacity to borrow from various, sometimes contradictory sources in order to create something which in every sense transcends the original elements. Since the earliest days of jazz as a musical form, it has been inspired by military and funeral marches; has stylishly interpreted popular songs; and even brought the classical intricacies of Wagner into the domain of swinging brasses and reeds. This multiculturalism and eclecticism of jazz likens it to cinema which, in turn, has transformed pop culture motifs into something close to the sublime and mixed ‘high’ and ‘low’ artistic gestures to remarkable effect.
In the history of jazz, the evolution from ragtime or traditional tunes, to discovering the treasure trove of Broadway songs was fast and smooth. The latter influence was shared by cinema, as the history of film production quickly marched on. The emergence of ‘talkies’ in the United States meant rediscovering Broadway, its stars and directors and above all its musicals and their songs. In the 1930s, jazz became the incontestable rival of cinema in extracting tunes from the American theatre and transforming them into immortal standards. Both arts, film and jazz, used popular songs as a structuring framework, around which band leaders, musicians, directors and choreographers could develop more sophisticated and daring ideas.
Just as the emergence of television began to make itself felt at picture houses across the States, where declining attendance figures reflected a shift in the culture, jazz experienced a similar deadlock which contributed to the decline of the big bands. The effects of the war for returning Americans, and the new possibilities for enjoying entertainment in the home gave rise to very different strategies of survival: The film studios began to produce more sumptuous, glossy and costlier motion pictures to overshadow television, while jazz bands were downsized, becoming more intimate – or “indie”, if you like. Instead of big bands, modest outfits of three to six musicians was jazz’s answer to the times. In this respect, one might find the origins of John Cassavetes and 1960s independent cinema not only in Hollywood, but in Coleman Hawkins Quartet.
Cinema, for a very short time, managed to beat the odds with the help of Cinemascope, stereophonic sound, majestic scores and other gimmicks which expanded the affective potential of the big screen. After the invention and popularity of 331/3 rpm discs, releasing film music on LPs became a good source of income too. This market blossomed in the 1960s; in some cases, it was not only music but dialogue from the films that were presented on record (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Romeo and Juliette). Jazz labels took note, and saw no reason to deprive themselves of such guaranteed success. Soon the themes from films were added to an expanding repertoire. Bringing film music to jazz wasn’t only a trend in keeping with the change in the public’s taste, but also a challenge for the musicians’ creativity in harmonic innovations and free improvisation – the way it had started two decades before, with Broadway songs.
The ten jazz takes on film music that I have selected here, rather than being a case of one art form riding the coattails of the other, prove the interconnectedness of the two and a motivating force that they both passionately share: creating images.