THE DOZENS: CRIME JAZZ by Alan Kurtz

Film scholar David Butler reckons that by the early 1950s movie jazz had become “a convenient way to impart specific meanings to the audience.” In particular, jazz served as a cinematic signal for sex and violence. Hollywood habitually associated this music with crime and if not crime then vice and if not vice then at least delinquency or degeneracy of some sort. In movies and TV, jazz accompanied the entire sordid range of police-blotter behavior, from gambling, prostitution and drug addiction to theft, assault, murder and capital punishment.

During the remainder of the decade, Hollywood’s hothouse of havoc cultivated a full-grown (some would say overgrown) musical subspecies. Ultimately, crime jazz was a developmental dead end, one of those branches on the evolutionary tree that led nowhere. Yet this infertile offshoot gave 1950s jazz a notoriety that was impossible to ignore. For jazz, however briefly, crime paid.


Shorty Rogers: The Wild One

Track

The Wild One

Group

Shorty Rogers

CD

Jazz Themes from The Wild One (Bear BCD 16393 AR)

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Musicians:

19-piece band featuring Shorty Rogers (trumpet), Bud Shank (alto sax), Shelly Manne (drums)

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Composed by Leith Stevens. Arranged by Shorty Rogers

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Recorded: Hollywood, July 14, 1953

Albumcoverjazzthemesfromthewildone

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Hollywood's first great biker flick told the semi-factual story of a small California town terrorized by rival motorcycle gangs. Marlon Brando, in black leather jacket with skull & crossed pistons on back, was Johnny, laconic leader of one such pack. To enhance verisimilitude, veteran composer Leith Stevens retained Shorty Rogers, the goateed doyen of West Coast jazz, for an exciting drum-driven title track as unstoppable as rolling thunder—an effect heightened by opening and closing sound effects of actual MC revving. VROOM-VROOM!!! Outraged, one jazz critic demanded, "Hey, Shorty, what are you rebelling against?" To which Rogers mumbled, "Whadda you got?"

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Elmer Bernstein: Frankie Machine

Track

Frankie Machine

Group

Elmer Bernstein

CD

The Man With the Golden Arm [Soundtrack] (Fresh Sounds Spain)

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Musicians:

Large orchestra featuring Shorty Rogers (flugelhorn), Pete Candoli (trumpet), Shelly Manne (drums)

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Composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein

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Recorded: Hollywood, 1955

Albumcoverelmerbernstein-manwiththegoldenarm

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) was the squalid story of a junkie card dealer and wannabe drummer played by Frank Sinatra. Even non-moviegoers made the connection between narcotics and jazz, thanks to this hit single in which Elmer Bernstein's trumpets evoke an urban seediness as unforgiving as a junkie's need. Plus, how's this for spooky synchronicity? Golden Arm was released the same year as Charlie Parker's death, leading to the irony (if that's the right word) of clean-armed Sinatra being nominated for an Oscar, and tracks-aplenty Bird winding up on a slab at the morgue. Man, sometimes crime jazz is just plain criminal.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Ray Anthony: The Peter Gunn Theme

Track

The Peter Gunn Theme

Group

Ray Anthony

CD

Instrumental Gems of the Fifties (Collectors' Choice CCM-080-2)

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Musicians:

Unidentified band featuring Ray Anthony (trumpet) and Plas Johnson (tenor sax)

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Recorded: Hollywood, November 1958

Albumcoverinstrumentalgemsofthefifties

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

When Peter Gunn premiered on NBC-TV in 1958, it was a breath of smoky air. Suave leading man Craig Stevens breezed through the title role of a hip private eye with a sexy, jazz-singer girlfriend. Naturally this clicked with trumpeter Ray Anthony, who knew all about sexpots, having married Mamie Van Doren and costarred onscreen with Jayne Mansfield. Ray's quickie cover of "Peter Gunn" beat Henry Mancini's original to the punch. Oh, Hank gussied his up with French horns, but jazz criminologists weren't fooled. Ray's grittier Gunn had more pop. Maybe it came from hanging out with blonde bombshells. Gussied French horns were no match for Ray Anthony's gleaming trumpet.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Skip Martin: Riff Blues

Track

Riff Blues (theme from Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer)

Group

Skip Martin

CD

Music from M Squad / Music from Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer (Collectables COL-CD-2809)

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Musicians:

Unidentified studio musicians

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Composed by Dave Kahn & Melvyn Lenard. Arranged and conducted by Skip Martin

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Recorded: Hollywood, 1958

Albumcovermusicfrommsquad-musicfrommikehammer

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Man, that Mickey Spillane. Talk about your hardboiled crime scribblers! Mickey turned trash to cash faster than the mug what invented landfill, and spent it, too. Never spotted in public without which a flashy dame was draped around each arm. "Riff Blues" gets it right, with brassy bluster and silky saxes followed by a romantic interlude of flute and tinkling piano to keep the girls interested, then a big swell with kettledrums to wake up the goodfellas, all done with the slow sway of a savvy stripper sashaying down the runway. Highbrows call this ambience. Lowbrows, knowing better, call the ambulance. Either way, it's made music.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Count Basie: The M Squad Theme

Track

The M Squad Theme

Group

Count Basie Orchestra

CD

The Complete Roulette Studio Recordings of Count Basie and His Orchestra (Mosaic MD10-149)

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Musicians:

16-piece band featuring Count Basie (piano), Benny Powell (trombone), Frank Wess (flute), Sonny Payne (drums)

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Composed by Count Basie. Arranged by Frank Foster

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Recorded: New York, September 9, 1958

Albumcovercountbasie-completeroulettestudiorecordings

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)


Count Basie, photo by Herb Snitzer

Pound for pound, the toughest 1950s TV cop was Lt. Frank Ballinger of Chicago PD's M Squad. No, the M didn't stand for Lee Marvin, who played Ballinger. M stood for murder. During its first season the show's theme was nondescript. Then the producers sprang for 2½ minutes of mayhem by Count Basie and his mob of heavies blasting away like the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, aided and abetted on the soundtrack by squealing tires and gunfire. Go ahead, listen if you have the guts. Just don't go runnin' your mouth when the coppers pump you. You never heard of me. Got it?

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Miles Davis: Au Bar du Petit Bac

Track

Au Bar du Petit Bac

Artist

Miles Davis (trumpet)

CD

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Verve 836305)

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Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), Barney Wilen (tenor sax), René Urtreger (piano), Pierre Michelot (bass), Kenny Clarke (drums).

Composed by Miles Davis

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Recorded: Paris, December 4, 1957

Albumcovermilesdavis-ascenceurpourlechafaud

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

As director Louis Malle projected scenes from Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1958), his film policier (released stateside as Elevator to the Gallows) about the perfect crime, foiled by imperfect luck, Miles Davis and four Parisian jazzmen sat in a darkened studio, watching Louis's loops and improvising per Miles's deliberately sketchy instructions. Most film scores take weeks to prepare and days to record. This took four hours. Trusted to work his own way, Miles repaid Malle's respect tenfold with a sparseness that accentuates the film's starkness. Most crime jazz blows you away with a bang, but Miles's hit-man silencer is equally deadly.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Gerry Mulligan: Theme from I Want to Live!

Track

Theme from I Want to Live!

Artist

Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax)

CD

I Want to Live! Soundtrack (Ryko RCD 10743)

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Musicians:

Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), Art Farmer (trumpet), Frank Rosolino (trombone), Bud Shank (flute), Pete Jolly (piano), Red Mitchell (bass), Shelly Manne (drums).

Composed by Johnny Mandel

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Recorded: Hollywood, 1958

Albumcovergerrymulligan-iwanttolive

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

I Want to Live! (1958) is the true story of three lowlifes who, after murdering a disabled widow during a botched robbery, are executed in San Quentin's gas chamber. This intentionally ugly film about the sordid lives of revolting people in seamy settings is the cinematic equivalent of being dunked in a vat of slime for two squirmy hours. Moviegoers must've begged I Want to Leave! The only reprieve was an all-star jazz combo smokin' onscreen in a smoky Frisco bar and, for a standalone album, reprising the bluesy theme featuring Shank's atmospheric flute, Mitchell's lyrical bass and Mulligan's fulfilling baritone. Great jazz; grim movie.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Modern Jazz Quartet: No Happiness for Slater

Track

No Happiness for Slater

Group

The Modern Jazz Quartet

CD

Odds Against Tomorrow (Blue Note CDP 7 93415 2)

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Musicians:

John Lewis (piano), Milt Jackson (vibes), Percy Heath (bass), Connie Kay (drums).

Composed by John Lewis

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Recorded: New York, October 9, 1959

Albumcovermodernjazzquartet-oddsagainsttomorrow

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) was the best heist film since The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Singer Harry Belafonte plays a hip, blues-singing vibist who's also a compulsive gambler and aspiring bank robber. In other words, your typical modern jazzman. John Lewis's music is more pensive than pandemonium, as in this 16-bar blues tailored to Milt Jackson. It's telling that whenever Hollywood hacks ran the show, crime jazz was loud and blustery. When sophisticates such as Miles Davis, John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan called their own shots, crime jazz turned as calmly calculated and coolly effective as a heist with a clean getaway.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Buddy Morrow: Staccato's Theme

Track

Staccato's Theme

Artist

Buddy Morrow (trombone)

CD

Crime Jazz: Music in the First Degree (Rhino R2 72912/DRC1 1669)

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Musicians:

Buddy Morrow (trombone),

other musicians unidentified

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Composed by Elmer Bernstein

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Recorded: Hollywood, 1960

Albumcovercrimejazz-musicinthefirstdegree

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Staccato (1959-60), starring John Cassavetes, eliminated the middleman between jazz and TV gumshoes. Based in a Greenwich Village nitery, pianist Johnny Staccato, like so many real-life musicians, doubled as a streetwise private eye. Elmer Bernstein's theme, recalling his earlier crime jazz classic The Man with the Golden Arm, is déjà vu all over again. Same bunco-squad tempo, jailbird shuffle beat, stiletto-in-the- eardrum trumpets and oversexed saxes. Given Hollywood's passion for formulas, which exceeded Mme. Curie's, crime jazz became so self-referential that everything started blurring together. What are you watching, dear? Mickey Spillane's Wild One With the Staccato Golden Gunn. That's nice.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Henry Mancini: My Manne Shelly

Track

My Manne Shelly

Group

Henry Mancini

CD

More Music from Peter Gunn (RCA 74321 29857 2)

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Musicians:

Pete Candoli (trumpet), Dick Nash (trombone), Victor Feldman (vibes), John Williams (piano), Joe Mondragon (bass), Shelly Manne (drums),

Bob Bain (guitar), Ted Nash and Ronnie Lang (unspecified saxes)

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Composed by Henry Mancini

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Recorded: Hollywood, February 17, 1959

Albumcoverhenrymancini-moremusicfrompetergunn

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Henry Mancini was the sincerest man in Hollywood. Donning different styles like a bald man trying on toupees, Mancini purloined other people's music as smoothly, efficiently and utterly without shame as a pickpocket. A favorite mark for his Peter Gunn TV series was Count Basie, whose Neal Hefti arrangements Mancini counterfeited weekly (and weakly). The best was "My Manne Shelly," filched from Basie/Hefti's "Cute" (1958). When, during Episode 27 ("Breakout"), Shelly Manne—playing Himself, as the credits used to say—performed this showcase onscreen, Mancini's role in bringing 1950s jazz's favorite drummer to prime time became exculpatory. Shelly was da Manne.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Shelly Manne: Fallout

Track

Fallout

Group

Shelly Manne & His Men

CD

Shelly Manne & His Men Play Peter Gunn

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Musicians:

Shelly Manne (drums), Russ Freeman (piano), Monty Budwig (bass), Victor Feldman (marimba).

Composed by Henry Mancini

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Recorded: Los Angeles, January 19, 1959

Albumcovershellymanneandhismenplaypetergunn

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

On his two albums of Peter Gunn music, Shelly Manne's streamlining was to Henry Mancini's hulking originals what California hot rods were to their Detroit assembly-line progenitors. Not merely an esthetic improvement, but reconstituted vehicles for individual expression. Manne doesn't just redo Mancini's material, he rethinks it. "Fallout" is a salient example. Victor Feldman's mallets were all over Mancini's music, but always on vibes. In those days the marimba was a rara avis, being spotted only on field trips to exotica. But Feldman's playing is striking (ouch), as he interlaces with Shelly's trademark melodic tom-toms for a crime jazz safari to Shangri-La.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Freddie Redd: O.D.

Track

O.D.

Group

The Freddie Redd Quartet (with Jackie McLean)

CD

The Music from The Connection (Blue Note 84027)

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Musicians:

Freddie Redd (piano), Jackie McLean (alto sax),

Michael Mattos (bass), Larry Ritchie (drums)

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Composed by Freddie Redd

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, February 15, 1960

Albumcoverfreddieredd-musicfromtheconnection

Rating: 84/100 (learn more)

The New York Times called Jack Gelber's off-Broadway play The Connection (1959) "a farrago of dirt, empty talk and extended runs of cool music." Dirt and empty talk aptly described a stage full of scruffy addicts awaiting their heroin dealer. The Times was wrong, though, about "cool music." Freddie Redd's score (no pun intended) was hard-core hard bop performed by onstage jazzmen. Sadly, Jackie McLean, his understudy Tina Brooks, and Dexter Gordon in the L.A. production were true-life junkies cast to type. Having once accompanied fictitious felons, crime jazz now supported real ones. If this be progress, progress be damned.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


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