It’s Jazz Week here at The Retro Set! Put your glad rags on while we cut a rug, because from August 3rd through August 8th the Retro Set is diggin’ that swingin’ beat of some of the greatest jazz musicians in history as we look at the role jazz music has played in film. Today it’s all about the great Duke of Jazz, Duke Ellington, and his impact on the art of film composition. (Anatomy of a Murder, anyone?)
While Duke Ellington’s sumptuous score for Otto Preminger’s 1959 courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder is without question the most famous of Ellington’s contributions to cinema, it is hardly his first. It was in fact the second time Hollywood commissioned a score from Ellington, the first being for the 1935 Symphony in Black, which was also one of many on-screen cameos made by the maestro who had been appearing on film with regularity since the dawn of sound. The 1929 short Black and Tan starred Ellington as a struggling bandleader married to a talented-but-doomed Cotton Club dancer (played by the extraordinarily beautiful Fredi Washington in her screen debut).
Ellington’s music painted pictures and told stories; his orchestrations were sophisticated and layered, most of which is lost to the crudity of Black and Tan’s sound technology (which was, to be fair, an equal opportunity offender in 1929) and, of course, the suffocating racism of its day. Variety’s review of the film described its Harlem setting as “always a novelty,” reminding us of the difference between the faddish exoticism that the Harlem nightlife was to white audiences, as opposed to what was mainstream and more massly appealing. Still, it’s a thrill to watch the artist as a young man (he’s all of 30 years old here) and he cuts quite a dashing figure alongside the stunning Washington:
The 1935 short Symphony in Black is a major improvement. Ellington’s music serves as the narrative rudder of the film, as well it should, and the movements of his “A Rhapsody in Negro Life” are used to paint life as a Negro in modern America, amplified by the woeful beauty of Billie Holiday’s vocals. The film was the first to be written by an African American that reached mainstream modern audiences—it even won the short subject Academy Award for the year. Symphony in Black is representative of the ingenious creativity that makes Ellington one of the most important composers of the 20th century and is a necessary step toward what would be Ellington’s most lasting contribution to the art of cinema: his score for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder.
Anatomy of a Murder is based off a best-selling novelization of a real life murder trial and tackles some very serious material, even for 21st century audiences. Jimmy Stewart is a jazz-loving, homespun lawyer tasked with defending a young army lieutenant accused of murder. The victim? His wife’s alleged rapist. The courtroom drama that unfolds, therefore, is all about one thing and one thing only: sex. It becomes clear to Stewart that there’s much more to the case than initially meets the eye and he finds himself in the middle of a moral quandary, questioning the true motives of the lieutenant, played by Ben Gazarra, and his notoriously flirtatious wife, Lee Remick.
Complicating things further is a downright lethal prosecutor played by a young George C. Scott who, even in this, his second film, is already terrifying. As you can imagine, this was a highly controversial film in its day, given its frank, adult discussion on the topics of rape and sex, and it faced some backlash both from fans, some who were shocked to see wholesome Jimmy Stewart talking about such things on screen, and from censorship boards which banned the film in a number of cities. But the press surrounding the film translated into box office success, and it went on to be nominated for seven Oscars including a nod for Stewart. And while the film’s controversy has been tamed by the passage of time, it’s still about as fiery a courtroom drama as you can hope for, thanks to the solid cast and unflinching direction by the great Otto Preminger.
And yet, all else equal, the fiery acting and passionate direction would not be nearly as effective were it not for the dissonant jazz score created by Duke Ellington. Working with a jazz legend in his own right, Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s complex orchestrations mirror the complexities on film and it remains one of the finest soundtracks to have ever been recorded. The score is enormously important in the history of African American cinema as well: it was the first time an African American artist scored a full-length motion picture. It’s also the first time that the focus is not on the black artist’s visible presence for entertainment purposes, (aside from a Ellington’s fun cameo) but rather the focus is on the art of the music itself which, again, is not there to entertain but to explore and expand the characters onscreen.
Seemingly insouciant, Ellington’s non-linear arrangements are provocative and cuttingly smart. The music is used with sparsity to enhance its impact (Max Steiner this isn’t) and at times even uses instrumental cues to portray characters. Lee Remick, for example, is given an alto saxophone—perfect for a femme fatale—and Ellington’s “Midnight Indigo” is used to examine the depth of her character’s loneliness. His “Flirtibird”, too, is evocative and downright sensuous, in keeping with Remick’s salacious persona.
This is not meant to infer that jazz scores were not already popular in film. Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm is a fantastic example of a jazz score as a supporting character. Preminger had also toyed with the idea of using Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady for the theme song to Laura. (Pause on that one. It could have worked…) So it’s not terribly surprising that Preminger thought of Ellington to score one of his films. What is surprising is that Ellington thought a jazz score would befit a film set in rural Michigan. He also insisted on Ellington being on hand, on location. “Usually,” Preminger said, “a composer is hired when the film is over and he writes the score for a few weeks. But I hire a composer before I begin shooting.” Preminger wanted to have a good relationship with his composer, but also wanted him to absorb the atmosphere of the film.
This Ellington understood. “I like playing with music and its relationship to the theater, particularly in the supporting role,” he once said. “Doing the score for a picture really calls for being along with the action and absorbing all of the atmosphere [of] everything taking place in the picture.”
Not that there was much atmosphere in rural Michigan. But having the great Duke Ellington on hand held some enviable fringe benefits for the cast. Eve Arden, who plays jazz-loving Jimmy Stewart’s long-suffering secretary, recalled that “at night after dinner, we gathered at the inn and told stories and played games … there was one wonderful evening when they were shooting the roadhouse scene [wherein Stewart and Remick have a confrontation, and Duke portrays the roadhouse piano player, Pie-Eye]. Duke Ellington and his band [were] filling out requests between the scenes.”
Stewart had a similar memory: “He played for us in the dining room at night until 10, 11, which was great fun for us. But then Otto heard about it and said to Duke, ‘Now these kids have to get up in the morning to act and I don’t want them to stay up til midnight.’”
As mentioned earlier, Jimmy Stewart’s character is a jazz fan and Ellington did actually ghost play for Stewart when he sat down at the piano, several times throughout the film.
Ellington’s score was released as a soundtrack album and won the Grammy’s at the 2nd Annual Grammy Awards , including Best Soundtrack Album. (He would eventually garner nine more.) It’s still available, sounding better than ever thanks to a remaster, and remains a standout gem within Ellington’s already glittering canon.