Monday, September 1, 2008

Jazz Noire

Blanchard's theory of genres begins with the axiom that there a platonic idea at the bottom of every genre. With horror, it's the idea of evil made physically manifest. With science fiction, it's the idea that the physical laws that govern the ordinary world can or soon will make the fantastic possible. Some genres depend largely on a coherent image or set of images. Give me hats, horses, and handguns, I'll give you a Western. Musical genres are harder to pin down, largely because the "language" of music isn't really language and doesn't translate into language.

It is very helpful, then, when a musical genre is somehow tied to a story-telling genre. Jazz is rather closely tied to the Noire genre, the school of film making that arose out of the collision between German cinematography and the "hard-boiled" American crime novel. And I would argue that the idea underlying the film noire is very simple: it is the idea of human loneliness and fear in a world without piety. Film noire characters are distinguished by the fact that they live without believing in anything. The police and politicians (higher levels of social organization are rarely mentioned) are corrupt. Goodness is possible; indeed, it frequently shines like a torch in a hero like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. But the hero is almost inevitably jaded, and with good reason. In the long run, his heroism is entirely hopeless. The most he can achieve are small acts of justice and mercy. Like everyone else, he lives without piety; but he has to go on living, and what makes it possible is observing. He finds his satisfaction in seeing things just the way they are.

Jazz is born and grows in pretty much the same time period as the noire genre, and I think it springs from much the same existential stance. Classical music is unthinkable without God or (what is much the same thing), an orderly universe. It's landscapes are those of the day, even if the sky is full of dark clouds. And while it may be played in Paris, it frequently finds itself recreating the countryside. Jazz begins and perhaps ends with lonely human beings, walking down a city street at night under no illumination other than that of a neon sign. I am of course exagerating my case. To be sure, a lot of jazz is happy and a lot of classical music stirs up existentially ambigous currents. But I think I get the two genres right in general.

One of the best examples of the marriage between jazz and film noire is the French film Ascenseur pour l'echafaud, or Elevator to the Gallows. A young man commits a murder but gets stuck in an elevator while trying to leave the scene. His gorgeous accomplice and lover walks the streets of Paris, increasingly convinced that ... Watch it! Miles Davis created the soundtrack, playing while he watched the film projected on a wall. If you get the DVD, you can see a short clip of Miles in this process. Behind Miles was a group consisting of Barney Wilen ts, Rene Urtreger p, Pierre Michelot b, and Kenny Clarke d. Here is a clip from the CD.

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A more recent example of jazz noire is Terrence Blanchard's marvelous disc, Jazz in Film. All of the numbers are soundtracks, most of them from straight noire films. Having listened to it a dozen times recently, I now find myself looking for the DVDs. Here is a clip from the disc: a Duke Ellington composition for the film of the same name.

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Terrence Blanchard t, Donald Harrison as, Steve Turre tb, Kenny Kirkland p, Reginald Veal b, and Carl Allen d. Both discs are excellent, so if you like the clips, buy the whole thing.

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