Movies And Jazz

It’s Jazz Part 6


The first successful “talkie picture” (movie with sound) was “The Jazz Singer” in 1927. And ever since then, jazz and the movies have been getting together; a lot more than people realize.

In fact, jazz has become one of the most frequently used kinds of background music for films and television.

The well-trained jazz musician offers a movie director a special flexibility. He can improvise music that exactly suits a moment of screen activity. He can write or play a score that fits every necessary moment of a film. And there is an economic consideration as well since a jazz player or a jazz group will not be a costly as hiring a full orchestra and composing a score with dozens of separate parts for each instrument.

The result is that jazz has become a frequent sound in films and television, but a sound we often don’t hear.

Music that’s meant to be invisible

Very often, the purpose of background music is to be sort of invisible. If is often designed not to intrude on the plot or characters, but to cue us in to how we should feel and respond to the screen action.

Jazz’s role in films and television thus tends to be ignored. David Meeker, a film and jazz scholar, wrote a groundbreaking book about this in 1977, “Jazz in the Movies,” in which he documents a staggering 3,724 detailed examples of contributions made by jazz musicians, generally without credit, to film.

There is an unhappy side to this. When music is created to serve a secondary purpose; the support of dramatic action, its impact can be diminished resulting in cliches, musical ideas that have been repeated so often that they seem tired and worn out.

This has happened to some jazz music in films. They have become musical ideas we are bored with. Among the cliches you might recognize: the pluck-pluck-pluck of a bass fiddle behind a suspenseful movie scene (as when someone is walking down a dark corridor); the bluesy saxophone or trumpet drifting in behind a sexy scene; the running, breaking zigzag sounds of a saxophone when a policeman is chasing somebody on the screen.

Nevertheless jazz has given movies and television some of their most memorable scores, some of their freshest supporting ideas and some of their most famous theme songs.