PopCult: The Obsessive Journal of Quality Pop Culture

The art of crime jazz (and assorted cool thrillers)

In the ’50s, a fresh style of music was bustling its way into movie and TV soundtracks: jazz. Previously, movie music meant sweeping orchestral themes or traditional Broadway-style musicals. But with the growing popularity of hard bop as the sound of urban cool, studios began latching onto the now beat as a way to make their movies and shows seem gritty or “street.” While jazz was used for all sorts of movies and television shows, it seemed to meld best with stories of danger—hard-nosed detective tales, studies of urban corruption, or spy thrillers.

In some cases, producers hired actual jazz musicians to write intimate soundtracks with small groups, such as Duke Ellington for Paris Blues or Gerry Mulligan for The Subterraneans. More often, they hired young composers who grafted jazz elements into big band arrangements, like Elmer Bernstein and Henry Mancini. Many of them even employed the talents of great West Coast players Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne.

While these soundtracks may not be considered on the same level of artistic expression as the trendsetting jazz of the day, they nevertheless convey the emotions demanded by the shows they backed: moody, mysterious, exciting. (The video above features Mancini’s theme for Experiment in Terror; it may not be as jazzy as other examples, but it’s deliciously creepy—perfect for the dream-like trailer.)

You can search for this music in used record bins (see gallery below for inspiration), but it’s also available in CD form with the out-of-print, two-disc collection by Rhino Records, Crime Jazz.


Coury Turczyn

Coury Turczyn is a concerned consumer of popular culture. Got an interesting story idea or an amazing financial opportunity to share? Contact him at coury@popcultmag.com.

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