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The 20 Best Jazz Soundtracks in Movie History

31 August 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Luis Bevilacqua

best jazz movie scores

“It’s always fun to talk about jazz,” says Clint Eastwood. That’s an undeniable fact. Jazz is amazing and unique genre, which influenced the development of other ones as rock, funk and rap. Despite being labeled nowadays as something “vintage”, Jazz is a “recent” form of music.

It was born in the turn of the 19th Century to the 20th, becoming a popular genre through the hands of Louis Armstrong, the starter of it all. Armstrong helped Jazz integration into American society, due to his acceptance in white audiences.

Jazz had grown so big that it had its own dialectics: avant-garde x establishment, west coast x east coast and white x black. Musicians like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie gave sophistication to an art that then was only considered for “black people”.

The Bebop movement was the revolution that ignited the fire in which Jazz burned, spreading across the world and expanding its horizons over the US boundaries. Jazz was not something exclusive for black and American people. Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck were amongst many white, middle-class male Jazz musicians.

In Cinema, Jazz first became popular for its association with Noir movies. Dark lights, shadows, mystery and underground environment were a perfect context for jazz musique. Elmer Bernstein once said that movies turn to jazz “when someone steals a car”. It’s a genre that was often related to junkies, criminals, potheads, alcoholics, outsiders and black people.

Nowadays Jazz is often linked with clean white people from Woody Allen movies. In Whiplash, JK Simmons refers to it as “Starbucks Jazz”. Another part of the problem is a quote from Frank Zappa: “Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny”. That talk started when Miles Davis was in a huge ego trip in the end of the Seventies. Jazz declined and lost its geniuses one by one. The last one was Ornette Coleman. Is Jazz fading that fast?

It’s hard to tell, but there are living musicians who carry the torch and keep the ball rolling. And movies are an important part of that. John Zorn baptized his hardcore-jazz band Naked City as a tribute to the Noir movie from 1948. He is still alive and making pretty interesting jazz music in his projects. Angelo Badalamenti writes brilliant jazz soundtracks to David Lynch. Jazz is, has been and always will be alive and well. One only has to look for it.


20. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

New Orleans is the birthplace of many jazz , blues and funk artists. And it’s also where the story happens. A city filled with madness and sensuality. The soundtrack of Alex North enhances those feelings into songs filled the swing and malice.

The title track is similar to the classic “I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin Jay Hawkins , with an intriguing range suggesting a crossroads with the devil on the next corner.


19. Breathless (1960)

Jean Luc Godard did the Nouvelle Vague tribute to American cinema and culture. There are many references from Humphrey Bogart to Doo Woop and Lucky Strike cigarettes.

An incredible jazz soundtrack composed by Martial Solal, a French cat that even played with Django Reinhardt once. Very Atmospheric and intriguing, the soundtrack is also a European view about a typical American art.


18. Farewell My Lovely (1975)

The Conversation and Saturday Night Fever are probably David Shire’s most famous works in the 70’s. Both of them have jazz elements, but the former has a huge classical music influence and the latter is based on Disco music. That was not the case in Farewell My Lovely, a new noir production based on Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name. Robert Mitchum plays brilliantly Philip Marlowe, giving a nocturnal voice and adding a cynic sense of humor to him.

David Shire’s soundtrack is the definitive Marlowe soundtrack. This Soundtrack later influenced another neo Noir movie: Body Heat. John Barry took elements from Shire and composed his outstanding soundtrack for the sexy thriller starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner.


17. Smog (1962)

Italian film directed by Franco Rossi. It’s not famous; it’s even hard to find it to buy anywhere. However, despite this, it’s a very original movie. And, above all, it has a superb soundtrack.

Composed and played by Piero Umiliani and Chet Baker. the duo had previously worked together in I Soliti Ignoti (1958), a comedy filmed by the master of Italian humor, Mario Monicelli. In Smog their collaboration reaches its peak in a moody and climatic jazz, representing the beautiful musical production Chet Baker had in his Italy years.


16. Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash may not have the support of purists and diehard fans of jazz music, but it’s a very interesting example of nowadays cinema approach to an art that is sometimes seen as vintage and old-fashioned. Miles Teller tries to overcome his own limitations to turn out to be one of the best drummers in the jazz world. Becoming Buddy Guy in your twenties is not a piece of cake. The harder the stick hits the snare, the harder life ricochets it back.

The soundtrack composed by Justin Hurwitz does a very good job accompanying the frantic rhythm of the movie, as it would be required by the teacher played by J. K. Simmons. There are also standards of old jazz, including Caravan, a composition by Duke Ellington that was recorded with this dream team: Max Roach on drums, Charles Mingus on bass and Duke Ellington at the piano.


15. The Wild One (1953)

Elmer Bernstein once observed that movies turn to jazz “when someone steals a car”. He was referring to the soundtrack of The Wild One, a classic Marlon Brando movie.

Composed by the great Leith Stevens, the soundtrack was played by a band formed by West Coast Jazz cats, including Shorty Rodgers as a trumpet player. This movie was a landmark for Jazz in Cinema, as it puts outsiders and ghetto-esque figures together with Jazz music.


14. Taxi Driver (1976)

Taxi Driver was the last work of Bernard Herrman’s career. Maybe the composer already knew that because he died only 2 hours after finishing the last recording for the movie soundtrack. At that time, his style was different from the one he became famous for, mostly in Alfred Hitchcock movies. The Jazz language was how Hermann spoke back then.

The jazzy soundtrack portrayed Brickle’s unstable mood in a subterranean away. Tracks as “Thank God for the Rain”, “Cleaning the Cab”, “I Still Can’t Sleep”, “They Cannot Touch Her (Betsy’s Theme)” reveal feelings that corroborate their names. Travis sometimes hates hookers, dealers, pimps and junkies.

Other times he thinks about Betsy, his platonic love. But he is always alone. That sense of solitude permeates the whole movie and soundtrack, showing that there is a little Travis Brickle inside of every contemporary man.



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  • Klaus Dannick

    Ornette Coleman’s and Howard Shore’s incredible sountrack for David Cronenberg’s 1991 film version of “Naked Lunch” is fantastic, mind-bending, non-commercial jazz.

    “Good Night and Good Luck” and “Delovely” also come to mind.

  • Ghost of Harry Smith

    Blow Up (Herbie Hancock) and Odds Against Tomorrow (Modern Jazz Quartet)

  • obasaz

    There is no previous ‘jazz noir’ aesthetic that Goldsmith applied to his Chinatown score, of course, as 0% of film noir sound like Chinatown or are scored like Chinatown.

  • Carlos F Trebilcock

    I think you are referring to Buddy Rich not Buddy Guy when you are talking about Whiplash

    • Carlos Schvartzman

      Of course. Furthermore, the “Whiplash” score is pretty poor and so-so played in my opinion. It shouldn’t be side to side with the other films herein mentioned. Listen in YouTube to the *original* “Whiplash” tune by its composer Don Ellis and his stunning big band, which included two electric guitars and a string quartet. You’ll soon notice the ample difference to the benefit of Ellis.

  • Bryton Cherrier

    I remember watching Taxi Driver for the first time, when seeing the Taxi come out of the steam and hearing the buildup to the theme composed by Herrman. I just went “Whoa.” I got the score a few days after I watched the film.

  • Sophiaso

    Ghost World?

  • luke

    Listen to Do the Right Thing’s OST on spotify… THAT should DEFINITELY be on the list…. it was written by Bill Lee, Spike’s father….. this is simply one track :

  • Grace Skerp

    Body Heat, John Barry.

  • makeweight

    Finding Forrester. Some of the very best jazz from the 1970s in there.

  • Carlos Schvartzman

    Regarding N° 12 “Last Tango”. Actually the full score and orchestrations and arranging was done by the great late Oliver Nelson. Barbieri wrote the leit-motiv melody and (probably) the chord changes. The whole bunch of score throughout the movie was Nelson’s.

  • Henrik Öfjäll

    A good list, must say I didn’t see nr 1 comming up, but Hey after some time of thinking I agree. But where are the Japanese, Suzukis movies from the 60’s are really groovy.

  • Neil Anderson

    Just to clarify, Caravan was primarily written by Juan Tizol during the time he played with Duke, great tune though.

  • Steve Holtje

    New York Eye and Ear Control, improvised by Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, et al. while watching Mike Snow’s film Walking Woman.

  • Patrick Hill

    1st thought, and my favorite, ” ‘Round Midnight” and am happy of its placement, solid list.

  • Ted Wolf

    I second Blow Up and thank you for Elevator to the Gallows, great soundtrack and great movie.

  • Mike Adams

    I have to say I expected at least one Woody Allen film to be on this list.

    • Sweet and Lowdown’s on the next page at #2 (irritating that they don’t put them all on the one page).

  • Certainly should have had Naked Lunch in there.

    Also worth a mention is Carla Bley’s work on the 1983 film Mortelle Randonnée (Deadly Circuit) co-written by Jacques and Michel Audiard and featuring the wonderful Michel Serrault.

  • Miguel Valdez-Lopez

    Came here to see if you had COWBOY BEBOP in your list. And you didn’t. And was about to say “your list is incomplete”.

    But then realized its title is “(…) in movie history”.

    So, my bad.

    But then again, you should put in a “Honorable Mention” thingy for COWBOY BEBOP. One of the best damn soundtracks I’ve ever heard.

  • Bartholomew Bakr

    Sonny Sharrock’s Space Ghost Coast to Coast 😛

  • Charles P. Fischer

    Ahem…you left out the soundtrack to “I Want to Live” with theme by Johnny Mandel and arrangements/solos by Gerry Mulligan. Ironic as all of this music (and much more!) is included on the Mosaic Box Set of The Complete Verve Gerry Mulligan Concert Band Sessions, one of Mosaic’s best sets IMO.

  • JazzyJake

    Sideways has a terrific Jazz soundtrack. So do Good Night, Good Luck and Kansas City. Does A Charlie Brown Christmas count?

  • Anthony

    What, no Sun Ra? Ok, but you gotta have Sonny Rollins’ Alfie!

  • Briffits

    Les Stances a Sophie comes to mind for its Art Ensemble of Chicago score and cameo.

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  • this bear is tops blooby

    The Last time I Committed Suicide while not a great movie, had a pretty great jazz soundtrack.

  • Robert

    I know the movie wasn’t great and the soundtrack isn’t probably totally jazz.. but I always loved the soundtrack to Romeo Is Bleeding.

  • tttulio

    You must be joking, Ascenseur pour le Echafaud is not even in the top 25? It should be number one.

  • Demian Efraín

    The animation Metrópolis from the director Rintaro has a very good bebop sound too.

  • Ivan R. Muñoz Rubio

    What about Brother? the Takeshi Kitano film, it has a wonderful Jazz soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi

  • You missed Glengarry Glen Ross. 🙁

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  • Ioannis_m

    And where is “Siesta”? Marcus Miller & Miles Davis.

  • Carlos Muñoz

    What about the music that Duke Ellington composed for Paris Blues (1961)?

  • Slob Zombie

    Good Night and Good Luck has a gorgeous soundtrack.

  • Sutir Comed

    I’d like to add a great one it doesn’t look like anyone has mentioned: Kenyon Hopkins’ score to “The Hustler” (1961). Check it out.

    And I’ll second the mentions of John Lewis’s “Odds Against Tomorrow” and Johnny Mandel’s “I Want to Live.”

    Good list! … but I’d have those on mine and “Elevator to the Gallows” at #1.