by James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 31, 2017
I’ve been swept up into a new musical genre called Jazz Noir. Others call it Dark Jazz or Crime Jazz. There’s no listing for it in Wikipedia, which implies the size of its fandom. I didn’t know the genre existed until recently but have been loving music from it for over fifty years. I guess others like me who resonate with this kind of sound have finally named it. The music is slow and moody, and is usually found on soundtracks for film noir movies of the 1950s, but has modern equivalents, including video games like L. A. Noire, which has captured the essence of the genre perfectly.
My wife thinks jazz noir conveys a sense of depression, but it instills philosophical contemplation in me. The music is not jazz in the traditional sense, although many old jazz albums have songs that fit the genre. I assume people call it jazz because of the horns and saxes, and maybe the atmospheric piano playing.
The music feels like it comes from late at night, and it’s easy to imagine the music used in certain scenes in films. I discovered Jazz Noir from an ad on Facebook from TCM selling the 6-CD collection of 7 film soundtracks Jazz on Film: Film Noir and Jazz Noir a 3-CD anthology.
Here’s an example of a modern musician playing what fits into the genre.
Notice the feel of this piece is similar to the L. A. Noire cut, and they both run nine minutes, but I like this one even better because it’s slower and moodier. Both might have been inspired by Miles Davis and his playing for the soundtrack of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud from late 1957.
Wikipedia claims Miles was asked to create something for the soundtrack like what Modern Jazz Quartet had created for Roger Vadim’s Sait-on jamais (Lit: ‘Does One Ever Know’, released as: ‘No Sun in Venice’). I’m including it here to show how jazz noir evolved out of traditional jazz.
Many jazz noir enthusiasts hark back to Henry Mancini classic TV soundtrack to Peter Gunn, a favorite of mine. Back in the 1960s, I got into soundtracks for spy movies like From Russian With Love, The Ipcress File, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Our Man Flint. I called it spy music back then. Some of the slower cuts are now identified as Jazz Noir tunes. Many love “Royal Blue” from the soundtrack to The Pink Panther.
But my favorite Mancini track is “Dreamville” from Peter Gunn. I haven’t seen it on any of the many Jazz Noir playlists, but I think its mood fits perfectly.
I’m not sure there is a precise definition of jazz noir. It’s one of those definitions you know it when you see it, but in this case, when you hear it. I’m afraid many fans have identified a very narrow style, mostly built around soulful plaintiff horns. Here’s a modern soundtrack, The Black Dahlia, with the cut “No Other Way” by Mark Isham. To someone who doesn’t care it will sound the same, for those who do it will be very different.
I got my wife to listen to a Jazz Noir playlist in the car and she tired of the sound rather quickly. I, on the other hand, find much to explore in infinite variations on a theme. However, let me include some playlists to see what I mean.