By Geoff Wills

Troubador Publishing. 121 pages. £13.99. ISBN 978-1-80514-377-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I suspect that most people pay little attention to the music on movie soundtracks, by which I mean the music that backs up what is happening on screen. Obviously, there are movies where music is part of the action, and so may be more open to being remembered. And sometimes a dominant theme that occurs regularly throughout a movie may become well-known when it is extracted and made into a popular song, An example from the 1940s is “Laura”, with the melody composed by David Raksin for the 1944 film of the same name and with words later added by Johnny Mercer.  It was recorded by numerous bands and singers over the years. But then, how many of those hearing it on the radio or at a dance would necessarily associate it with the film?

Laura, now usually included in lists of classic film noir, is mentioned in Geoff Wills’ fascinating and detailed study of how the saxophone, and in particular the alto-saxophone, became an integral component of movie music. I was tempted to say “film noir” music, but as Wills is quick to point out, if we see the late-1940s as a key period in film noir history then it’s a “retrospective illusion” to think that jazz inclined music spotlighting saxophones predominated. It didn’t and it was more likely to be a fact that what were heard were large-scale scores played by full orchestras. The influence of  nineteenth century middle-European romanticism was evident in the music written for films like Double Indemnity (1944),   Spellbound (1945) and The Killers (1946). And think of Humoresque (1947) as Joan Crawford walks to her death in the sea while intense orchestral music swells in the background.

I’m not suggesting that saxophones were completely absent from 1940s films. Wills provides a number of examples, such as the 1949 Tension, where “a classic femme fatale theme ......Languid, provocative, insinuating and bluesy.....stated by alto sax” can be heard.  And in another low-budget movie, the 1945 Detour,  the saxophone “exhibits lowlife associations”, while a similar setting is evoked in Max Steiner’s music for the 1948 Key Largo, when “An alto saxophone echoes the despair of a gangster’s alcoholic ex-singer girlfriend.”

It was in the 1950s that the saxophone began to come more to the fore in terms of being used to emphasise certain forms of movement on the screen. And it has to be accepted that, in many cases, there was an inclination to use the alto saxophone in situations suggesting seduction, sex and sleaze.  Wills refers to Franz Waxman who wrote music for three films he looks at : Night and the City (1950), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and A Place in the Sun (1951). With regard to the latter he’s of the opinion that Waxman “created one of the all-time great alto sax movie themes”. And he adds that “In these three films Waxman perhaps drew on his Weimar experience, and used the saxophone to  create sounds that presaged doomed ambition and romance”.

Wills says that “The release of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951, with a score by Alex North, represented a landmark in movie soundtracks”. The reason being that it was the first to employ “sustained and explicit jazz elements” by using “a number of saxophone solos, mainly on alto”. According to Wills, North believed that jazz was the best music to express the ‘sensuous sexual undercurrent’ in Streetcar”. So, even as movie music began to change in  style and move away from the symphonic confines of nineteenth century-style compositions, it would appear there was still an assumption that jazz and saxophones had  somewhat dubious reputations and together were inevitably associated with sex, urban settings, and offbeat attitudes. In an informative aside, Wills says that the Catholic League of Decency objected to a scene where a female character steps down a staircase to the accompaniment of an alto-sax. Alex North had to rescore the music for French horn and strings.      

With titles like Hot Rod Girl (1956)  and Stakeout on Dope Street (1958) it’s clear that many people were continuing to link jazz to loose living and low life. But at the same time it seemed that there was a greater willingness to sometimes let jazz be itself and not just heard as fragments within a wider arrangement. The opening of Hot Rod Girl  had a soundtrack which featured a spirited jazz performance, with Georgie Auld (tenor sax), Frank Rosolino (trombone) and Bud Shank (alto sax) all taking what were, for a movie, extended solos. My own experience of encountering jazz in movies has usually been that long solos were often not heard or were broken up by fading them into the background while conversations carried on.

I’m being selective in my choice of references and Wills surveys many more films than I’ve suggested and inspects them in greater detail. He says that it was decided to have jazz as the soundtrack for I Want to Live (1958), in which Susan Hayward played Barbara Graham who was executed for murder in 1955. Graham was a jazz enthusiast so the music was relevant, but again it inferred that it went along with her “disreputable lifestyle”. The West Coast manner of modern jazz – some would call it “cool” - was also featured in The Subterraneans (1960), based on Jack Kerouac’s novel and set among the San Francisco Beat community. The thought occurs to me that jazz, like the beatniks, in some people’s eyes, was still seen as slightly subversive around 1960, so it could be that the link in the film had a certain logic to it.

“Big band influenced scores had become de rigueur, with alto sax solos accompanying scenes of seduction or deception”, comments Wills, considering films of the late-1960s such as Casino Royale (1967), Fathom (1967), and  In Like Flint (1967) , all of which I recall as slick and glossy. Perhaps some of the music was much the same, apart from when a saxophone solo came in to heighten the interest. Tracking down the movies to revive memories isn’t always easy, though I have to say that Wills has certainly done an impressive job when it comes to the number and range he’s seen.

Reed Rapture is a book full of insights into both films and music. Wills notes that prior to around 1960 there were few black musicians involved in providing music for films. There were one or two exceptions, notably the alto saxophonist Benny Carter who not only played on the soundtrack of The Sun Also Rises (1957) but also appeared in a scene in it. And he was seen or heard in other films like An American in Paris (1951) and The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952). Wills asserts that “During this period his sweet, fluent style epitomised the soundtrack saxophone sound”. It’s true to say that on the whole the saxophone sounds apparent in films around this time had their roots mostly in the swing music of the 1930s and early-1940s.  The bebop innovations of Charlie Parker were nowhere within earshot, nor would they be for some years.

It may have been  a couple of minor independent films which introduced modern black jazz to film audiences, though they had limited distribution. I can recall having to travel to find cinemas showing Shadows (1959) and Pull My Daisy ( 1959), neither of which were likely to appeal to most filmgoers. Shadows was directed by John Cassavetes and spotlighted the tenor saxophonist Shafi Hadi while Pull My Daisy, a short Beat entertainment, had the alto and baritone-sax player Sahib Shihab on the soundtrack. Both were products of a period when bohemianism and Greenwich Village were experiencing something of a revival and bebop and cool jazz were the sounds linked to its lifestyle.  A third film which can be placed in this category was The Connection, based on Jack Gelber’s stage play and with alto-saxophonist Jackie McLean and other musicians in the cast and playing solos. But it was unlikely to have appealed to those who wanted their jazz to be “respectable”. The connection to narcotics and offbeat behaviour was apparent in the film’s title and content. 

There is probably less jazz in movie scores now, but Wills carries his survey into the 1990s and even beyond to 2019 and the “neo-noir Motherless Brooklyn”.  All in all, he’s produced an extremely useful piece of research which will appeal to fans of movies and jazz. He knows both the movies and the music and, whenever possible, names the musicians involved, as when he says that Ronnie Lang was “arguably the most prolific alto sax soloist in the history of movie soundtracks (he played the solos on, for instance, the soundtracks of Farewell, My Lovely (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), and Body Heat (1981)”.

Reed Rapture had me hunting around YouTube to see which old movies were available. The book is an invaluable source for locating the obscure or the forgotten. Thanks to it I watched Two for the Seesaw (1962) for the first time since I originally saw it over sixty years ago, and listened to the “sad, haunting main title theme “with solos by trumpeter Uan Rasey, trombonist Dick Nash, and alto sax from the ubiquitous Ronnie Lang” as Robert Mitchum wandered through the streets of New York.