For some people, Academy Awards season means it’s time to get caught up on the previous year’s most acclaimed films to see what they missed.
For us here at JAZZ.FM91, it’s also time to revisit the unforgettable jazz soundtracks of film history. Jazz musicians and composers have added their talents to a number of Oscar-recognized films over the years, from the Duke Ellington scores of the 1950s to the Damien Chazelle-led jazz revival of the present decade.
While there are so many essential soundtracks that jazz enthusiasts need to hear, here are seven that deservedly made a splash at the Oscars in years past.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Duke Ellington gave director Otto Preminger’s courtroom drama some added legitimacy with his magnificent score. Sure, the film was based on a best-selling potboiler and boasted a cast with James Stewart, Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden and Lee Remick, but it was Ellington’s music that added a fierce element that let audiences know they were treading into dangerously new territory. Stewart’s father was so offended by the film that he disowned his famous son for appearing in a work he viewed as immoral — of course, that had nothing to do with Ellington’s music, but with the crime flick’s use of words like “contraceptives,” “panties” and “penetration.”
Anatomy of a Murder earned seven Oscar nominations, but no wins. However, Ellington’s score did win three Grammy Awards.
Ellington even made a brief cameo in the film as “Pie-Eye,” the owner of a roadhouse where Stewart and Remick’s characters have a confrontation.
I Want to Live! (1958)
When Susan Hayward’s character first appears on screen in this film noir directed by Robert Wise, your first thought might be, “Here’s a character tailor-made for a jazz soundtrack.” Johnny Mandel’s score amplifies Barbara Graham’s fight for her dignity as she battles against an unjust sentencing.
The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, with Hayward winning for best actress.
Round Midnight (1986)
Composer Herbie Hancock won the Oscar for best music, original score, for his soundtrack to this jazz musical directed by Bertrand Tavernier. Here, Hancock slimmed down on orchestral scores to fully explore the feverish impulses of Thelonius Monk. With both Hancock and Dexter Gordon involved in the music and also starring in the film, you know it’s got to have a great soundtrack — which it certainly does.
Gordon was also nominated for the Academy Award for best actor for his role as the main character, Dale Turner, who was based on a composite of jazz legends Lester Young and Bud Powell. He also won a Grammy for best instrumental jazz performance by a soloist.
La La Land (2016)
Composer Justin Hurwitz is new on the scene but has quickly established himself as one of his generation’s greatest film composers. The film stars Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist and Emma Stone as an aspiring actress, both chasing their dreams in Los Angeles. It took years for Damien Chazelle to persuade studios to produce La La Land, given that it was a jazz musical and therefore seemed “brazenly uncommercial,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. But the film ended up being a big hit and led the way at the Academy Awards with 14 nominations and six awards, including best original score and best original song (for City of Stars). However it infamously did not win the Oscar for best picture.
Before La La Land, Chazelle had already made another jazz film hit with Hurwitz as the composer. The film won three Oscars, including a much-deserved award for best supporting actor given to J. K. Simmons, and was nominated for two more including best picture. Perhaps most importantly, the film boasts some of the best jazz drum solos since The Gene Krupa Story in 1959.
Paris Blues (1961)
It seems outrageous that it was only in 1961 that an African-American composer was nominated for an Oscar for best music. Duke Ellington made it impossible for the Academy to ignore the jazz-infused music in Martin Ritt’s story of American ex-pats etching out a living playing jazz in Paris night clubs in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The film stars Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier, but it’s the inclusion of Ellington and Louis Armstrong that really makes this a film worth watching and a soundtrack worth owning.
Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
This film itself was a hit for Diana Ross, who plays Billie Holiday in this biopic loosely based on her 1956 autobiography. But the film’s soundtrack album is what revived her slipping career and put her back into the limelight where she belongs. As the late Roger Ebert said in his review of the film: “She never tries to imitate Holiday, but she sings somehow in the manner of Holiday. There is an uncanny echo, a suggestion, and yet the style is a tribute to Billie Holiday, not an impersonation.”
Directed by Sidney J. Furie, the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best actress for Diana Ross and best music for Gil Askey and Michel Legrand.
The best of the rest
Here are some other jazz-film favourites that didn’t get recognized at the Oscars, but are definitely worth noting:
Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
Thinking about the collaboration between jazz and film, the first one that comes to mind is director Louis Malle’s stylish Elevator to the Gallows. Malle called on Miles Davis to compose what would become one of the most electrifying, cinema-defining soundtracks ever — and the benchmark for many films to follow.
The Gene Krupa Story (1959)
OK, I’m a sucker for a great drum solo. I like just about everything on this album, and I love just about everything in this movie: It’s over-the-top and hyperbolic at times, and downright jazzy.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
This isn’t just one of my favourite movies, but one of film history’s best jazz scores thanks to the work of Elmer Bernstein, with jazz themes composed and performed by Chico Hamilton and Fred Katz. It was even adapted into a musical in 2002.