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Jazz and Cocktails

Jazz and Cocktails
Rethinking Race and the Sound of Film Noir

With insightful analyses of the contributions of jazz composers such as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Chico Hamilton, and John Lewis, this book considers the complex roles of jazz and race in classic film noir.

March 2017
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176 pages | 6 X 9 | Hardcover has a printed case, no dust jacket | 51 b&w photos |

Film noir showcased hard-boiled men and dangerous femmes fatales, rain-slicked city streets, pools of inky darkness cut by shards of light, and, occasionally, jazz. Jazz served as a shorthand for the seduction and risks of the mean streets in early film noir. As working jazz musicians began to compose the scores for and appear in noir films of the 1950s, black musicians found a unique way of asserting their right to participate fully in American life.

Jazz and Cocktails explores the use of jazz in film noir, from its early function as a signifier of danger, sexuality, and otherness to the complex role it plays in film scores in which jazz invites the spectator into the narrative while simultaneously transcending the film and reminding viewers of the world outside the movie theater. Jans B. Wager looks at the work of jazz composers such as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Chico Hamilton, and John Lewis as she analyzes films including Sweet Smell of Success, Elevator to the Gallows, Anatomy of a Murder, Odds Against Tomorrow, and considers the neonoir American Hustle. Wager demonstrates how the evolving role of jazz in film noir reflected cultural changes instigated by black social activism during and after World War II and altered Hollywood representations of race and music.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Permissions
  • Introduction: Nostalgia for the Lush Life
  • Chapter 1: Pie Eye’s Juke Joint: Jazz and Its Interpretations
  • Chapter 2: The Porters and Waiters Club: Jazz, Movies, and Ogden
  • Chapter 3: Studio Jazz from Harlem to Acapulco
  • Chapter 4: The Blue Gardenia, Club Pigalle, and Daniel’s: Charting the Alienation Effect in Film Noir
  • Chapter 5: From Elysium to Robards, from Real to Reel
  • Chapter 6: A Paris Bar where Miles Innovates
  • Chapter 7: "All the Very Gay Places": Ellington and Strayhorn Swing in Northern Michigan
  • Chapter 8: Cannoy’s Club: “All Men Are Evil”
  • Chapter 9: “Jeep’s Blues” and Jazz Today
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index 

Salt Lake City, Utah

Wager coordinates cinema studies and is a professor of English and literature at Utah Valley University. Her previous books are Dames in the Driver’s Seat: Rereading Film Noir and Dangerous Dames: Women and Representation in the Weimar Street Film and Film Noir.



Nostalgia for the Lush Life

The title of this volume pays homage to “Lush Life,” the melancholy jazz song by William “Billy” Stray-horn, written when he was in his late teens or early twenties. Strayhorn, a jazz composer, arranger, and pianist, a social activist, and a gay man, worked closely with Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, including collaborating with Ellington on Anatomy of a Murder (1959), which I discuss in chapter 7. The song opens with the lines, “I used to visit all the very gay places, / Those come what may places / Where one relaxes on the axis / Of the wheel of life / To get the feel of life / From jazz and cocktails.” Some read the lines, “I used to visit all the very gay places, / Those come what may places,” as indicative of Strayhorn’s homosexual lifestyle, but David Hajdu, in his biography of Strayhorn, notes that the young musician “would not have been likely to use the word gay to signify same-sex romance in 1933.” My favorite version of the song, and likely the most famous, is on the album Lush Life, which features Johnny Hartman’s smooth singing and John Coltrane’s saxophone. For me, the song evokes the nostalgic mood, smoky clubs, and endless doomed love affairs of many noir films. In fact, my interest in jazz came after my obsession with film noir.

The tough guys and equally tough, beautiful female protagonists, the hard-boiled dialog and plots, the black-and-white cinematography, the feeling of postwar ennui that infused films noirs—all this presented a seductive visual and narrative alternative to the rest of the Hollywood fare from the 1940s and 1950s, and it continues to fascinate film lovers today. Listening attentively to the music in these films never occurred to me, except when the music insisted, as in Rita Hayworth’s performance of “Put the Blame on Mame” in Gilda (1946). I started to hear film music only when I turned my scholarly attention to jazz, which resonated with me as an adult listener. I started with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, then Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon on my turntable, and as I became more interested, I began to expand my repertoire. As an aficionada, not a scholar or musician, I read about the musicians, about their relentless artistry, and about how racism shaped their lives. Only then did I begin thinking about jazz in film noir. As Kathryn Kalinak notes, my lack of real awareness of film music ties precisely into “the transcendent power of the image and the dependence of the soundtrack.” Because music functions primarily as amplification for the narrative, it is easy not to notice the auditory as much as the visual. And film noir’s visual attractions, with its gorgeous and dangerous femmes and hommes fatals, abound.

Classic film noir resists Hollywood’s drive for heterosexual romantic unions. Although good had to triumph over evil, thanks to the industry’s censorship board, the Production Code Administration (Pca), the triumph was fraught with ambiguity. Spectator sympathy often resided with the alluring, embattled, and criminal characters rather than the law-abiding ones. Nevertheless, the music in classic film noir hewed closely to classical Hollywood scoring practices. Like Kalinak, Claudia Gorbman suggests that in most Hollywood films, music “is subordinated to the narrative’s demands,” and relegated to supporting the emotive content. Jazz and Cocktails will suggest that, especially in late classic films noirs, the musical discourse of jazz intensifies and magnifies intellectual values, sometimes in conflict with the emotional values embedded in the cinematic narrative. Jennifer Fleeger, discussing jazz and opera in early Hollywood sound film, contradicts the notion, common to theorists such as Kalinak and Gorbman, of the subordination of sound to image in classical Hollywood. For Fleeger, the early film spectator already knew jazz and opera as popular music, and this background awareness helped the viewer accept the innovative presence of sound in the cinema. Fleeger goes on to suggest that “opera and jazz are not mere kernels of recognition but . . . shape the score and can derail the authority of the gaze.”

So a spectator might hear film music actively as a separate discourse from, or as an adjunct to, the visual narrative. This depends on the viewer’s experience of the movie and prior experience of the music. As I note, at first I saw more than I heard film noir. But in late classic film noir, the soundtracks implicate the social and cultural context of jazz music and composers, adding a revolutionary, if short-lived, element to late classical Hollywood filmmaking practice. I am arguing for a theorized spectator who might be active, knowledgeable about jazz, and capable of reading a film’s music separately from the narrative, but I am aware that paradigm does not describe all spectators. I explore jazz as a discourse that works both ways, as suturing element, implicating the spectator in the narrative, and as an element that separates itself from film narrative. I start and end with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, and travel through Utah, Mexico, Paris, New York, and Los Angeles, “all the very gay places.”

Using actual jazz clubs or their representations in film as an organizing principle for my exploration, I begin with Pie Eye’s Juke Joint: Jazz and Its Interpretations. Pie Eye is the name of Ellington’s character in Anatomy of a Murder. I explore the meaning of jazz in early classic film noir and suggest how that meaning changed from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. I introduce two possible ways to hear and see jazz in late classic noir, Afromodernism and the alienation effect. Afromodernism allows a reading that focuses on black activism and the use of innovation and integration to achieve artistic goals in white Hollywood. The alienation effect suggests a more general understanding of the type of disruption within established codes that jazz offered to Hollywood soundtracks. In chapter 2, “The Porters and Waiters Club: Jazz, Movies, and Ogden,” I use Utah to establish a non-Hollywood context for my study. I explore how the state in which I currently live and work—just west of middle America and located on the east–west train lines during the noir years—served as a stopping-off point for many jazz greats as they traversed the country. Utah also served as home to African Americans, including jazzman Joe McQueen, cousin of saxophonist Herschel Evans, and Betty Moore, cousin of trumpeter Art Farmer. I consider what made Ogden, Utah, a viable residence for Joe and Betty. Joe played with Charlie Parker, helped to integrate the clubs in Utah and Wyoming, and still plays a few times a month at a local Ogden club as well as Salt Lake City clubs. Joe’s skill as a saxophone player supplemented his other employment as a mechanic and porter at the central train station. Betty—whose husband, a former Harlem Globetrotter, was, until 2013, a barber on Twenty-Fifth Street in Ogden—was an avid moviegoer throughout the noir years and speaks about both the draw of the movies and the humiliation of attending movies as a black woman in the 1940s and 1950s. These individuals add vibrancy to the world of jazz and movie-going in the noir years.

In chapter 3, “Studio Jazz from Harlem to Acapulco,” I consider how jazz works in Out of the Past (1947) and seek to discover how and why the working script changed from overtly racist in representing a Harlem jazz club to not at all racist in less than two weeks. I examine the production of the film, including the censorship files from the Production Code Administration. I also look specifically at Mexican sequences, in a cantina, a gambling establishment, and a bar, focusing on the attention paid to the portrayal of Mexican nationals, a type of representation explicitly controlled by the censors. In chapter 4, that examination of the treatment of race continues as I discuss the extended use of jazz and the jazz club sequence in The Blue Gardenia (1953) and the nuclear-noir Kiss Me Deadly (1953). I contrast those complex treatments with Collateral (2004), a neonoir made and set in the present, which uses jazz as a generic noir feature and disempowers black artistry and jazz.

Next, I interpret various films noirs from the late 1950s whose jazz soundtracks were composed by working musicians, sometimes including appearances by those musicians on screen. I consider the narrative, the filmmakers, and the music, focusing especially on how jazz affects the film. Chapter 5 explores how Chico Hamilton and Fred Katz of the Chico Hamilton Quintet scored the music for Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Their contributions were replaced by music composed by Elmer Bernstein; however, the Hamilton Quintet appears on screen, and fortunately some of their compositions do make it onto the soundtrack. Chapter 6 discusses Miles Davis, composer of one of the first complete jazz sound-tracks for a film noir. Unlike the other films discussed here, Elevator to the Gallows (1957) is French. Davis often turns up on soundtracks, as he does in Collateral, where the jazz legend is a plot point, but here Davis composes a full score. Ever the innovator, he also uses the cinematic assignment to explore a new interest in modal music, pursuing his own artistic agenda within the confines of the film work. Here, as David Butler notes, jazz gains an association with the “privileged non-diegetic space.” This privileging—providing music not specifically connected with the sight of a band or musician and therefore capable of abstract commentary and improvisation—changed how jazz worked in film.

Once composer and innovator Davis had composed a complete sound-track for a film that had solid commercial success, Ellington and his collaborator Strayhorn managed to land a composing gig for Otto Preminger in Anatomy of a Murder. This is explored in chapter 7, “ ‘All the Very Gay Places’: Ellington and Strayhorn Swing in Northern Michigan.” Although a courtroom drama, Anatomy features murder, sex, and ambiguous motivations and morality. Ellington and Strayhorn’s sophisticated and swinging sound supports the drama, occasionally commenting overtly, but mostly providing subtle and complex observations on the action. Jazz helps raise Anatomy to the level of film noir. In chapter 8, “Cannoy’s Club: ‘All Men Are Evil,’” I consider Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), a late classic noir that takes an overt but nuanced look at race and racism. The soundtrack is composed and conducted by John Lewis and features the Modern Jazz Quartet (mJQ), as well as other musicians. While the film is didactic, it offers moments of rare cinematic beauty and narrative sensitivity. The soundtrack adds emotional content, as Hollywood music usually does, but extends beyond the story to offer a searing commentary on the world the movie depicts. The Lewis score exemplifies how jazz allows and provides that level of abstract commentary.

Soon after, in the early 1960s, other forms and styles of music take over in Hollywood. But jazz still appears in film soundtracks occasionally, such as in the recent American Hustle (2014), which I discuss in the final chapter.

For me, Odds Against Tomorrow, Anatomy of a Murder, Elevator to the Gallows, and Sweet Smell of Success illustrate a vibrant and fleeting moment when Hollywood film noir and jazz made remarkable and unique meaning together, a moment when the primacy of the visual relinquished a measure of dominance to aural interpretations. Fleeger argues effectively that the aural potential of opera and jazz in early sound cinema always offered the possibility of active hearing to the spectator. I suspect that as the jazz and operatic voice fell away from common usage in early cinematic sound, so did the potential for spectators to hear the music as separate from the narrative. The sound of jazz in late classic noir might reactivate a sense of “connections both within and outside the text” for the spectator.9 Before we get to those films, a historical look at jazz in film noir and jazz and movies in Utah starts this exploration.


“There is no other book like this one. It makes a strong contribution to film music studies but will also be of interest to specialists in jazz studies, cinema studies, and American studies. And because Jans Wager has an engaging prose style, it is ideal for buffs.”
Krin Gabbard, Columbia University, author of Better Git It in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus


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