Murderous Jazz

December 31, 2013

Many fellow jazz fans have told me that they also like 1940s American film noir; I can only guess if fellow fans of film noir like jazz but I’d happily make a fairly safe bet that rather more do than don’t. Those wonderful, bleakly atmospheric films, shot in dramatic monochrome in shadowy rain-swept street or on sets built like those of 1920s German Expressionist cinema, were peopled with tough loners whose hard-boiled behavior was darkly brooding and often not overtly heroic. This was quite unlike the nature of the leading men in the preceding wave of Hollywood films, the gangster films of the 1930s in which the hoodlums were dark and the cops or private eyes shiny-bright. This new breed of hero, still idealistic, courageous and moral but not in the least larger than life, marched to a different drum beat, and perhaps that accounts for at least part of the appeal to jazz fans. They understand this because they, too, are a few steps outside the rest of the society of which they are notionally members. Not that they thought then or think now that they are close to the heroes of films noir. After all, these men were often doomed by a film’s end to unhappiness, if not death, usually through misplaced love (or as often as not, misguided infatuation) for a glamorous yet malevolent woman. Unusual these characters might be, but not too many jazz fans of my acquaintance fully fill that bill.noir-1

The storylines of classic films noir are often set in a gritty world caught uneasily between polite society and the gutter. The leading actors of these films are not the glamor boys of 1930s Hollywood but tough yet ordinary-looking men who effortlessly capture the brooding cynicism called for by the scripts. Actors like Dan Duryea, Richard Widmark, Humphrey Bogart, Richard Conte, Dana Andrews, Glenn Ford, Dick Powell, Robert Ryan, and, by my reckoning the best of the breed, Robert Mitchum. Okay, I cannot seriously make a case for any jazz fan I know matching those archetypes (although most of them probably hold secret hankerings and have been known to inadvertently strike a pose or use an epithet in a noir-ish manner). As for the women these men fell for, often literally femmes fatales, they included Barbara Stanwyck, Lizabeth Scott, Veronica Lake and Jane Greer.noir-2

As you will have gathered by now, I have been fascinated by film noir for a long, long time, and it is perhaps not at all surprising that when I began writing books this was a subject I was eager to tackle. Yet in that book, the Edgar-nominated Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror, I barely touched on the jazz connection even though my love for jazz dates from pretty much the same point in time. Perhaps I’m trying too hard to make a connection and am in danger of becoming self-conscious and that would most definitely be the wrong way to go. Part of the appeal of these films lies in their lack of self-consciousness. Indeed, most of the best were made before their makers had even heard of the term, film noir. That came when film critics in France spotted kinship between films flooding into Europe at the end of World War Two and novels and short stories by writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, W.R. Burnett, James M. Cain and, especially, Cornell Woolrich. Many works by these writers, whose stories were the basis of numerous films, were simultaneously appearing in France thanks to Marcel Duhamel’s Serie Noire. Among the directors of these films were Edward Dmytryk, John Huston, Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Jacques Tourneur and Billy Wilder, some of whom had fled Germany after working on Expressionist films. (The use of the word, noir, in French literary circles pre-dated all of this, having been applied to 18th and 19th century German and British gothic novels.) By the mid-1950s, film noir was changing; to my mind the genre never really adjusted to the shift from black and white into color. Mainly though I think they became self-conscious and that dimmed the magic.noir-6 Several creditable examples appeared in following decades but only recently has the genre passed all the tests I would apply and this has largely been a result of the exceptional skill of the brothers Ethan and Joel Coen, whose films (which they jointly write and direct) include Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (with its notable use of early country music, folk, gospel and blues, masterfully assembled by T-Bone Burnett), and 2008’s Oscar winner as best film, No Country For Old Men.

But back to jazz, which came into film noir most often by way of the soundtrack. Jazz-y scores abounded, especially with brooding or wailing saxophones, and bluesy themes. Not that the composers were necessarily jazz musicians; mostly, they were Hollywood studio men, some of them heavyweights, who were not resistant to the influence of jazz. Among them Adolphe Deutsch (The Maltese Falcon), Miklós Rósza (Double Indemnity), David Raksin (Laura), and later Bernard Herrman (Cape Fear), Henry Mancini (whose most strikingly jazz-influenced work came with his score for the television series Peter Gunn), and John Barry (Body Heat). Occasionally jazz appeared on the screen, although usually confined to the background of a nightclub scene. The reason for this use of music is fairly obvious. A musical motif can instantly evoke a mood, literally strike a chord of recognition, and save a whole lot of exposition. In more recent years, filmmakers have sought to do this by playing records on the soundtrack rather than have a composer write original music in a suitably evocative style. Back then, this was rare, perhaps even non-existent (although several songs that became popular originated in or were at least strongly promoted in films). Jazz style was ideal for creating an aural image that helped define the time and place – and the mood – of many of these films. But although jazz made an aural mark on film noir, it was never central. I wonder why? All the other elements of the genre are present in the jazz life – at least in Hollywood’s idea of the jazz life – including the central theme of murder.noir-4noir-5

Murder in the jazz world? Yes; by no means a rarity, a comment that can be supported by just a few, off-the-cuff examples. Pre-jazz though he was, James Reese Europe was a major figure in the development of black music. On 9 May 1919, in Boston, Europe and his drummer, Herbert Wright, argued, then fought and Wright stabbed Europe to death. Europe was already important and was poised to become a major figure who might well have dominated popular music in general and jazz in particular through the 1920s and beyond. Then there is the case of Wardell Gray; it is tempting to list him as a murder victim but reality suggests that the clouded circumstances of his death might conceal alternatives. This outstanding bebop tenor saxophonist’s body was found in the Nevada Desert outside Las Vegas. Reports suggest that his neck was broken although the official cause of death was a drug overdose. There was no autopsy, and rumors persist that Gray was murdered. A suggested motive is his failure to pay gambling debts, thus raising the specter of organized crime. Other suggestions, rumors really, include that he was having an affair with another man’s woman, or that he was simply a random victim of racial violence. The distinguished American crime writer, James Ellroy, has stated in interviews, such as that with Robert Birnbaum, that he was told by jazz tenor saxophonist (and, by the way, Oscar-nominated Best Supporting Actor) Dexter Gordon that Gray really did die of a drug overdose.

Universal Records

Universal Records

Gordon and others, afraid that they would be in trouble with the law, took the body out into the desert. Conflicting with this version is the view that Gray appears to have been an outspoken critic of drug users. Whatever the truth, surely there is enough there for a film version of his fate; although the Nevada desert is a long way from a true noir setting.

Another outstanding bebop musician, trumpeter Lee Morgan, certainly suffered substance abuse problems in his life. He was helped towards recovery by a close personal friend, Helen More, who was probably his common-law wife, but they quarreled and on 19 February 1972, she shot and killed him at Slug’s Saloon, the New York nightclub where he was performing. Singer Eddie Jefferson is another bebopper to die in a shooting incident; in his case this came when he was appearing at Detroit’s Showcase. He died on 9 May 1979, just a few days after he was filmed in performance at the club.

Sony Legacy Records

Sony Legacy Records

Then there is the remarkable Jaco Pastorius, who played bass with Weather Report. He was another victim of excessive use of stimulants, sometimes becoming incapable during performances. On one such night he fell off the stage at a club in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but decided to pursue his drinking elsewhere. He went to the Midnight Bottle Club where the bouncer was martial arts expert Luc Haven with whom Pastorius had previous unpleasant history. A scuffle ensued and Pastorius suffered injuries to an arm, an eye, general disfigurement and brain damage. He died two days later, on 12 September 1987. Haven was charged with second degree murder, sentenced to a prison term, and served four months.

Many years earlier, pianist Clarence ‘Pinetop’ Smith died after a shooting at a club on 15 March 1929. Officially, Smith was declared an unintended victim but some believe that he was the intended target of the jealous third side of an emotional triangle. Blues icon, Robert Johnson (the Devil at the crossroads tales notwithstanding), was another victim of a jagged love triangle, apparently being poisoned by a jealous husband while appearing at Three Forks, Greenwood, Mississippi, on 16 August 1938. Then there was bandleader Jimmie Lunceford, one of the giants of big band jazz, who died either from a heart attack or from food poisoning (maybe the one brought on by the other) in Seaside, Oregon, on 13 July 1947. Rumors spread that the poisoning was the deliberate act of a racist restaurateur.

And Latin jazz percussionist Chano Pozo, shot during a drug-related encounter at a Harlem nightclub on 2 December 1948; bop trumpeter Al Killian, shot and killed on 5 September 1950, by the landlord of the building where he had his apartment. Mystery surrounds the death of tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler, doyen of the avant garde, who is believed to have jumped from a New York ferry boat crossing to Liberty Island in November 1970. His body was not found for almost three weeks. Some claim that he had a bullet hole in the back of his head however unlikely it might be that the authorities didn’t spot this and rumors persist of foul play. There are other deaths in what might be termed ‘doubtful circumstances’, including pianist Avery Parrish, composer of jazz standard After Hours, who spent the last 17 years of his life in seclusion following injuries received in a bar fight when he was still in his early twenties; he died inexplicably in New York on 1 December 1959.

Wax Time Records

Wax Time Records

There is also, famously, trumpeter-singer Chet Baker, who went to his death from a window in Amsterdam on 13 May 1988. Did he fall or did he jump? No one seems to have suggested a third possibility so perhaps he should not be included here in this murderous list. Then there is the death of multi-instrumentalist Jaki Byard, shot in his home in New York on 10 February 1999. Was it merely an intruder – a burglary gone wrong?

Perhaps most suited for the storyline of a film noir is the life and death of the notable guitarist Lenny Breau. The son of country singers Hal ‘Lone Pine’ Cody and Betty Cody, he was an amazingly gifted child and played guitar from age seven joining his parents’ act, where he was billed as ‘Lone Pine Jr. – The Guitar Wizard’. He switched from country music to jazz in the early 1960s and made some exceptionally good records in the 1960s and 1970s. Several of his recordings can be heard on Randy Bachman’s Guitarchives label. Sadly, Breau’s life was erratic, scarred as it was by extensive substance abuse. On 12 August 1984, Breau was found dead in the swimming pool at the Los Angeles apartment building where he lived. The coroner’s verdict was death by strangulation but no one was ever charged with the crime. Breau’s biographer, Ron Forbes-Roberts, suggests that Breau’s wife, Jewel, who was suspected by the police, might well have known more than she ever revealed. Journalist Adrian Chamberlain, of the Victoria Times Colonist, has quoted Forbes-Roberts as saying: ‘I don’t know that she was the person who put her hands around Lenny’s neck. Let’s just say there may have been someone else involved. She had connections to a very seamy side of the Los Angeles criminal world.’

Guitarchives Records

Guitarchives Records

Musical genius or not, Breau’s life and death are filled with all the ingredients of film noir: alcohol, drugs, misguided love, and an unsolved murder, to say nothing of a brilliant jazz soundtrack. I wonder why no one has picked this up for a modern film noir? If the Coen brothers are reading this, please start cranking.

Of course, it isn’t as simple as that; not least among the problems are how we choose to define the term film noir and the word jazz. Both have been seriously misused over the years. The word noir is tacked onto promotion material for films that are nothing of the sort; maybe the ad writers think it’s cool (another misappropriated word). As for jazz, today it is no longer a dirty word and is happily used by admen seeking to promote artists who are not jazz musicians by the standards some of us grew up appreciating. Come to think of it, nowadays the word jazz is used by just about any damn thing from toiletries to basketball teams to automobiles.

Oh oh, I’m starting to sound grumpy . . .

 

Soundtrack Factory Records

Soundtrack Factory Records

Moochin' About Records

Moochin’ About Records

Giant Steps Records

Giant Steps Records

Most of the films mentioned here – and the hundreds that are not – are available on DVD and, of course, there are CDs by all of the artists. There are also soundtrack collections, like the three shown here.

As always, CDs like these can be found at Amazon. You might even track down my now out-of-print book on film noir through the same source (as well as my also out-of-print book Mitchum: the Film Career of Robert Mitchum).

noir-3Those of you who have a serious interest in film noir have endless opportunities on the web. Among these are the Film Noir Studies and Film Noir Foundation sites, and you can download free films at Open Culture.

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