The 20 Best Jazz Soundtracks in Movie History

13. Knife in the Water (1962)

Krystof Komeda composed some great jazz works. His music was an Eastern Euro approach to American jazz sounds. He even ventured into avant garde jazz in great works such as Astygmatic (1965). And, as a bonus, he created one of the most scary and evil music ever: Rosemary’s Baby Theme.

In this milestone Roman Polanki’s movie, his jazz serves as a background for a dispute between the new and the old man. This conflict of generations and rivalry disputes was a great representation of European Cinema; it had the innovations of Nouvelle Vague with an American eye, plot twists and tense atmosphere.

That even caused the addition of some dialogues supporting the Communist regime that controlled the censorship and disliked the “Western” style of the movie. Later Polanksi went to the US, where he directed two absolute masterpieces of Cinema (Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown).


12. The Last Tango in Paris (1973)

Gato Barbieri became famous worldwide through this sexual and provocative movie by Bernardo Bertolucci. An Argentinian musician, Barbieri started his career playing in the band of Lalo Schifrin, the greatest Argentinian soundtrack composer of all time.

In the 60’s he played with some musicians influenced by Free Jazz: Don Cherry and Charlie Haden. His soundtrack for Last Tango in Paris mixes the roots of Tango music (including some heavy Latin percussion) with sax riffs very influenced by the late works of John Coltrane and the Free Jazz movement started by Ornette Coleman.


11. Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Sweet Smell of Success is a brilliant movie that portrays with excellence the tabloids and gossips of mass communication. Tony Curtis is at his best playing Sidney Falco, an ambitious two faced public relations who tries to do favors for JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster, a stone cold figure, a villain much more frightening than most ones in horror movies) in order to get some space in his newspaper’s column.

Hunsecker wants Falco to end up his sisters’ relationship with a jazz musician who plays in Chico Hamilton’s band, The Chico Hamilton Quintet.


10. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

“The King of all, Sir Duke”. That’s how Stevie Wonder refers to Duke Ellington, one of the first jazz masters. The Duke was a piano virtuoso who influenced a generation of musicians like Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner.

In this Otto Preminger’s murder mystery, Ellington soundtrack captures the somehow light atmosphere unusual for a trial movie. James Stewart plays a lawyer trying to prove his client innocence in a murder case. Funny, intricate and groovy, Ellington’s soundtrack matches perfectly the tone of the movie. Sir Duke can be seen playing the piano at a bar in a scene of the movie.


9. La Dolce Vita (1960)

Nino Rota was the ideal partner for Federico Fellini. His songs incorporated the same elements that were displayed on his movies: burlesque, fun, bittersweet and nostalgic. They worked together in movies like Notte di Cabiria, Il Viteloni, Amarcord, Casanova and 8 1/2.

Rota’s work was a mixture of Italian, Classical, Circus and Jazz music. La Dolce Vita is the jazziest of them all, dialoguing with the glamour and gossip circus of Italian paparazzi.


8. Chinatown (1974)

Chinatown is undoubtedly the best Neo Noir movie ever made. Directed by Roman Polanski, written by Robert Towne and played by Jack Nicholson, it was a brilliant masterpiece with a lot of plot twists, intrigues and unforgettable dialogues. The Soundtrack is also a masterpiece.

Composed by the eclectic Jerry Goldsmith, the score to “Chinatown” features a highly unorthodox instrumental lineup: one trumpet, four pianos, four harps, two percussionists and a string section. It mixes jazz noir melodies with modernist classical music, including abrupt noises. It can be considered a Neo Noir Jazz Soundtrack, incorporating new elements to the esthetic of Noir jazz.


7. Touch of Evil (1958)

This masterpiece is considered to be the last of noir movies from the golden era of the genre (1941 – 1958). Orson Welles was a genius in various forms, including a classical piano player. Henry Mancini said that “Orson Welles had a perception of everything in the film, including the music. He knew. He truly understood film scoring. …Touch of Evil was one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

Mancini was an inventive soundtrack composer, mixing jazz, classical and pop music into a unique blend of music. His work for “Touch of Evil” can be described as a living part of the script. It changes according to the environment: Latin jazz at Mexican joints, rock ‘n’ roll at American bars and cabaret orchestras. The sound is intended to be a representation of a border area, contrasting American and Latin rhythms.