Whether you can credit Miles Davis breakthrough album or not, the Fifties saw a great number of directors turn to jazz to underscore their movies. Miles’ classic album represented a shift away from Bebop, which dominated the 40s, and into a more refined era of jazz music, which stressed compositional strength. The recording sessions date to 1949-50, although the album didn’t appear until 1957. Already by this point, you saw the advent of Third Stream Jazz, which drew its inspiration from classical music, while still maintaining an air of improvisation.
This MoMA retrospective credits the breakup of the Hollywood studio system and Elia Kazan’s A Street Car Named Desire (1951) as opening up jazz scoring to a new generation of composers. Miles would get his breakthrough film score in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, also in 1957.
There were many earlier films to picture jazz on film, notably Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927), which began the new era of “talkies” with its synchronized sound, and the fabulous Cabin in the Sky (1943), which featured jazz icons Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne. However, these movies were built more on memorable show songs than moody jazz compositions, which would come to underscore many fine films in the 50s and 60s.
The impact could be felt in many countries, as jazz scores represented modernity. Roman Polanski enlisted the great Polish composer, Krzysztof Komeda, to do the score for Knife in the Water (1962), and Komeda would go on to do several more scores for Polanski, including Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Toru Takemitsu and Masaru Sato would draw on jazz themes in Ko Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit (1956). Antônio Carlos Jobim & Luiz Bonfá wrote the score to Black Orpheus (1959). The MoMA retrospective featured Martial Solal, an Algerian-born jazz pianist who would write the film score for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960).
Eventually, many great jazz musicians would try their hand at film scores. Chico Hamilton teamed up with Elmer Bernstein to write the score for Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Sonny Rollins wrote the score for Alfie (1966). Duke Ellington composed the score for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Charles Mingus and Shafi Hadi wrote the score for John Cassavettes’ Shadows (1959). You can peruse this wonderful list at MoMA.
No one more personified this “cool” new sound than Chet Baker, with his movie star looks and melodic sound. He was one of the leading figures in “West Coast Jazz,” along with Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and David Brubeck. His plaintive music has appeared on many soundtracks over the years, but he also composed scores for such movies as Sexus and Man Outside, both released in 1965. He also appeared in Summer Flight (1963) and a handful of other movies, mostly as himself.
While jazz scores would see a decline in the subsequent decades, there were many directors who still turned to jazz to underscore their movies. Jazz music figured into a number of blaxploitation movies like Cleopatra Jones (1973), with the score written by famed trombonist J.J. Johnson, and Gordon Parks would draw on jazz music as well as funk and soul music in his classic movies, Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972).
In the 80s, Abdullah Ibrahim wrote a wonderful score for Claire Denis’ Chocolat (1988), set in 1950s French Colonial Cameroon. John Lurie put together film scores for Jim Jarmusch, teaming up with Tom Waits on Down by Law (1986). Bertrand Tavernier turned to Herbie Hancock to score his homage to the post-war jazz scene in Paris,Round Midnight (1986), which featured Dexter Gordon. Mark Isham provided a moody Miles Davis-inspired score for Trouble in Mind (1985) with Marianne Faithful lending her voice to the title track. Pavel Lungin explores jazz themes as well as the crumbling state of the Soviet Union in Taxi Blues (1990). David Cronenberg enlisted Ornette Coleman to work with his longtime colleague Howard Shore on Naked Lunch (1991).Read less