Sunday, August 14, 2011

25 Best Jazz Motion Picture Scores

Last autumn I wrote a rather long piece on Jazz as film score, for Iranian Film Monthly, and also in that issue I made a list of my favorite 25 (or more precisely, 25 important) jazz soundtracks in history of cinema. Struggling with myself to omit some favortites and stick to the number of 25, I returned to the films, and also to the records. These films are my selection of jazz sound on big screen from 1950s (when they started to use jazzy compositions in films, thanks to people like Elmer Bernstein) to the contemporary cinema. There is no doubt that a great majority of titles come from late 1950s and early 1960s, when jazz was the soundtrack of modern world and radical changes, not only in cinema, but also in lifestyles. Late 1950s is a very important time for spreading the jazz sound in films, exactly the time when modern jazz found it way to European cinema, and especially French films.

David Meeker, author of Jazz on Screen, the ultimate encyclopedia of jazz and movies (which I owe him all the discographical details of this piece), points out that the cultural, sociological and technical histories of jazz and motion pictures have run in parallel, sometimes intersecting, lines ever since both forms emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, and he says "neither [of these art forms] found it easy to be accepted as a legitimate form of personal or artistic expression. The early days, spent at the very fringes of respectable society, were difficult in each case. Film grew up in vaudeville houses, traveling fairgrounds, and penny arcades, jazz in the lower depths of New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. Few supposedly respectable people dared to be seen at screenings and performances in those first years. In the 1920s jazz and film both faced the tremendous challenge of the electric recording revolution. They slowly and painfully adapted themselves, eventually growing to freedom, maturity and respectability until finally they were acknowledged to be two of the most important and influential cultural forces in our civilization."

In this respect, and with a history of almost 80 years, there are many films to remember. There are some undiscovered territories in jazz motion picture score where one can find many great names working for forgotten directors and obscure films. I remember Gerry Mulligan's score for a very beautiful French film called Menace (directed by master of French neo-noir, Alain Corneau), and many simillar films and musics. No doubt, there are so many European films, good and bad, with jazz scores, or a jazzist cameo, and other forms of having jazz on celluloid, but I tried to mainly focus on American cinema. This attitude had some benefits (like making me able to see the connection between different periods of American film, and different styles of jazz), and of course, like any other limited criteria caused the loss of remembering some amazingly well arranged works by Johnny Dankworth in British films, or as I mentioned before, jazz score in French policier, and even a very curious case of Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), a jazz score from Japan, composed by Toshiro Mayuzumi.

During my writing I noticed that all history of jazz scores in cinema can be seen in two major poles: one, the tradition of modern big bands (Ellington, Bernstein, Mancini, Jones) and second, the format of quartet which John Lewis introduced in the soundtrack of film noir Odds Against Tomorrow. For instance, all Melville films, and some odd entries like When a Woman Ascends the Stairs directly come from that very tradition. The concept, instrumentation, the sound, arrangements, timing, counterpoint - everything which is used magnificently in Lewis's score, is repeated by many followers after him.

Here is 25 favorite, important, and great jazz film scores in history of cinema (click on the pictures to see the details and have the sample audio tracks)

25 Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959) Duke Ellington
24 Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958) Henry Mancini
23 In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967) Quincy Jones
22 Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) Bernard Herrmann
21 Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957) Elmer Bernstein/Chico Hamilton

20 Le Cercle Rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1971) Eric Demarsan
19 Mickey One (Arthur Penn, 1965) Stan Getz/Eddie Sauter
18 Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski, 1962) Krzysztof Komeda
17 À bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959) Martial Solal
16 The Last Tango In Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972) Gato Barbieri
15 Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 (Roger Vadim, 1959) Art Blakey & Barney Wilen
14 Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1958) Charles Mingus & Shafi Hadi
13 Farewell My Lovely (Dick Richards, 1975) David Shire
12 All Night Long (Basil Dearden, 1962) Philip Green
11 A Song Is Born (Howard Hawks, 1947) Emil Newman/Hugo Friedhofer

10 The Man With The Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955) Elmer Bernstein
9 The Five Pennies (Melville Shavelson, 1959) Leith Stevens
8 The Benny Goodman Story (Valentine Davies, 1955) Henry Mancini/Benny Goodman
7 I Want to Live! (Robert Wise, 1958) Johnny Mandel
6 Round Midnight (Bertrand Tavernier, 1986) Herbie Hancock
5 Pete Kelly's Blues (Jack Webb, 1955) Ray Heindorf
4 Bird (Clint Eastwood, 1988) Lennie Niehaus
3 Alfie (Lewis Gilbert, 1965)  Sonny Rollins
2 Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, 1959) John Lewis
1 Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Louis Malle, 1957) Miles Davis


  1. Hi there, Ehsan --

    Thanks for this splendid list of jazz soundtracks. -- There are two, I would like to add: Freddie Redd's "The Connection":

    And "Sweet Love Bitter", with Mal Waldron's music:

    Both soundtracks are available on CD; I have them on the original LP's.

    RE: "Eastwood's "Bird", which I personally wouldn't consider, being a really good jazz soundtrack, and it's not a very good film either.

    I simply don't like it. -- With the exception of Red Rodney, it simply sounds weird, all those filtered solos with a super-mixed studio group, playing behind Bird.

    One example: When he plays laid back, they get slower, and so, they are taking away the rhythmic tension of the original "Parker's Mood". (Backing it with strings is another no-no; sorry, Mr. Niehaus!)

    Some of Bird's later recordings sounded good enough (also most of his Savoy dates), and with a little remastering they would have worked perfectly.

    And why not just taking the original "All Of Me" with Lennie & Klook instead of this - in my opinion - brutal execution of Bird's wonderful sound?

    Have a great weekend.

    Best wishes,


  2. Bruno,

    You're absolutely right about Connection. I love both the film, and the score, and I've written in two different occasion about that (one, in the entry of Shirley Clark, its director, for a film encyclopedia in Farsi, and the other on Richard Sylbert who designed the sets in a chapter of my own book, Celluloid Architecture).

    Unfortunately I haven't seen the Sweet Love Bitter, but I love to. And I'm sure Mal can always deliver a great piece of work.

    About Bird, again you're bringing many right angles to the story. I can't say that I don't like Bird, but I don't think it's a masterpiece either. The real Bird is so amazing that one, naturally, expects many thing from a biographical film on his life. My main problem with Eastwood's film is its fascination with American life, rather than American music.

    You have a great weekend, too
    We have three days off, thanks to bank holiday Monday!


    1. yeah, Bird has to go. Can't you just rethink and revise? It's not in the same category (a remixed compilation of old recordings)...

  3. Hello,

    I missed "Sweet and Lowdown" from Woody Allen. I work on a german version "jazz on film". I checked over 200 films in jazz. For me is this film number 1.

  4. Klaus, I'm a fan of "Sweet & Lowdown", too. But don't forget that the rules of my game are "originally written or originally arranged pieces of jazz music for a motion picture." Wasn't Allen's film a mere reproduction of Django pieces? I haven't seen it in years, maybe you could correct me if I'm wrong.

  5. Hello,

    two titles in the film are new. "Unfaithful woman" and "3:00 AM Blues" (written by Dick Hyman, the musical director of the film). The most other titles are only new arranged and for the film new played.

    Thanks for the "25 List". The list is excellent.

  6. Thank you for this wonderful collection. Is there a place from where I can listen all this?

    Also I wonder why the music from Good Night and Good Luck does not figure in this list?

    1. Milind, click on the cover images and you will be directed to a new page on which you can listen to sample tracks.

  7. That was very useful Ehsan.

    Is it that the tracks in the film "Good night and good luck" do not fall in the category of above discussions hence you did not include the film?

    I just loved the film with the music, the atmosphere, the whole romance of it. Diana Reeves was absolutely beautiful to hear.

    1. Although I enjoyed the film, the soundtrack didn't particularly single out itself. My general problem with more recent examples of "jazzy score" is that all sound like replicas of great pieces of work from decades before. However, a good recent example could be Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. It is fresh, simple and effective.

  8. A very interesting read, and I'll be checking out Menace, so thanks in advance.

    If I could raise a voice for John Barry's soundtrack to The Iprcess File, a great piece of subtle but distinct variations on a menacing but insouciant theme. The film also has a great put down of military bands. I much prefer it to Alfie, as it lacks Cila Black...

  9. The earliest real jazz background music for a US film is, I believe, Leith Stevens and Shorty Rogers' score for THE WILD ONE in 1953.

  10. I would love to know the name of the songs in each of these movies.

  11. Jazz music can be interesting in some movies but sometimes they over do it, but that happening for every music in movies.

  12. Lalo Schifrin's soundtrack for Bullitt?

  13. I think the soundtrack of Leaving Las Vegas is an awesome album.