In Jazz Noir, David Butler writes, “Film noir provides an alluring range of images, situations and meanings with which a potential audience for jazz can attempt to interpret the music.”
This association is, however, largely retrospective. Classical film noir, the film noir of the 1940s, rarely featured jazz prominently.That aural association between private detectives and wailing saxophones came somewhat later, with the TV ‘tecs of the 50s: Johnny Staccato and Peter Gunn.
The first P.I. movie that I ever saw was Harper (1966), and I’ve loved Ross Macdonald ever since. Go figure. I must have been about nine years old and, while Paul Newman’s cruel blue eyes and short-sleeved shirts stayed with me, I misremembered the music.
For years afterwards, I was certain that the film’s theme tune was Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. It must have been Arthur Hill’s glasses that misled me.
A few years later, when I got Harper on video, I paid close attention to Johnny Mandel’s brassy, swinging score. I would whistle it on the way to school, hoping that some of Harper’s cool would rub off on the gawky teenage me (it didn’t). Listening now, Mandel’s music is perhaps a little too self-consciously trendy, a little too eager to draw in the sophisticates (ditto the film’s poster). But I still love it – that West Coast bluster is modish but still fun, nicely evoking the movie’s corrupt sun-drenched world. And when I whistle it, it still makes me want to be Paul Newman.
Thinking about the music of Harper led me to look up John Williams’ music for The Long Goodbye (1973). Very different in terms of glamour, I think Newman’s Harper and Elliot Gould’s Marlowe occupy similar roles, both moving through their mysteries one step removed, both bringing their mysteries to arresting and unexpected conclusions. Gould’s shabby chic is certainly a more achievable look – I was once flattered/appalled to be compared to him by a university friend. Trust me, I’ve cleaned my act up since then.
The throaty growl of Jack Sheldon is such a perfect match for the mood of this movie, all wet neon and dry scotch. He provides the vocals here, but he was a noted trumpeter in his day. And it’s no surprise that Sheldon featured as an instrumentalist on two Tom Waits albums: Foreign Affairs and One from the Heart. Those rambling rhymes with which Sheldon closes seem like a blueprint for the young Waits. However, unlike Waits’ drunken troubadour schtick, this isn’t performance or pastiche; it’s the essence of experience.
A notorious hell-raiser, Sheldon fits the stereotype of the hard-living jazzman to a tee. Born in 1931, he was part of the West Coast scene of the 50s, playing with Art Pepper, Stan Kenton, Wardell Gray, Curtis Counce and Gerry Mulligan, amongst others. Two parts musician, one part raconteur, Sheldon also carved out a career on TV, following an eccentric path that took in Dragnet, The Merv Griffin Show, Schoolhouse Rock and Family Guy. He even had his own short-lived show in the late 60s: Run Buddy Run. He was also a notorious hellraiser.
In 2008, his crazy life was the subject of a documentary entitled Trying to Get Good. I think I need to lay my peepers on that baby, oh yes I do… (fadeout on trumpet and double bass)