The 20 Best Jazz Soundtracks in Movie History

6. Shadows (1959)

John Cassavetes is the father of Jazz cinema: his movies are composed in many times by improvisation scenes leaded by actors who are told only the main idea and a direction to go, leaving space for them to express themselves in a freely way.

In Shadows, Cassavetes portrayed the Beat generation in the form of a racial tense jazz movie. His first choice for the soundtrack was Miles Davis, but when the director heard that Miles had signed with Columbia Records, Miles was traded by a more “independent” musician: Charles Mingus.

Mingus and Cassavetes shared a lot of similarities. They were inventive geniuses who leaded workshops for jazz musicians and actors. And they both were insufferable characters with dictatorial manners. The recordings were difficult and sometimes the music produced was, according to Cassavetes “less than a minute worthy”. There were a lot of anecdotes of the recording sessions.

The most famous on tells about the payment accorded between Mingus and the director. The jazz master didn’t want money; he just wanted some people to clean his house, which was infested by cat poop everywhere. When Mingus saw the house cleaned, he said “I can’t work in an environment like this, it’s too clean”.

Complications were an important part for both artists. At the end, the final soundtrack had only parts composed by Mingus and a lot of others composed by his band mates Danni Richmond and Shafi Hadi. Well succeed or not, the partnership between Cassavetes and Mingus is a historical landmark for cinema and music, opening the doors for a more improvisational and intuitive style.


5. Round Midnight (1986)

Baptized in honor of the great jazz standard, Round Midnight is a tale in the jazz environment. The legend Dexter Gordon plays Dale Turner, a jazz musician that lives as an expatriate in Paris. Along with Gordon, Herbie Hancock also plays the part of the band’s pianist. Director Bertrand Tavernier loosely based the story on the life of Francis Paudras, a French musician.

Arranged by Herbie Hancock, this soundtrack works as a great recollection of jazz music in 20th Century, serving as a nostalgic homage to the greatest artists of this genre.


4. Elevator to The Gallows (1958)

Miles Davis was Louis Malle’s choice for composing the soundtrack for his crime flick Ascenseur pour L’échafaud. Miles was a cool and mystical figure. His soundtracks reflect the tone of his work at that time, changing the cool jazz into modal jazz, as it would be clearer in the classic Kind of Blue. Ascenseur pour L’Échafaud shows a more urban sound than Miles Davis’ previous works, influenced by the Bebop movement.

Miles had learned everything from Dizzy and Bird. In the end of the 50’s, he was ready to start his own movement. Composed in just one night session, this soundtrack also indicates the path which Miles will follow the next year: improvisational music, made in long jam sessions with talented musicians.


3. Bird (1988)

Clint Eastwood is a longtime jazz aficionado. He is famous for his participations in documentaries and movies made for jazz icons such as Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck. He once said jazz and westerns are perhaps the only truly American art forms. As a young man, he saw Charlie Parker perform several times, which later influenced his decision to make Bird.

Parker was, maybe, the best saxophone player this planet has ever seen. His technique and creativity is incomparable even with legends like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Charlie Parker enthusiasts circa 1950 often declared him the jazz equivalent of Stravinsky and Bartok. Along many interesting anecdotes of his life there is one related to Igor Stravinsky.

The Russian modernist genius went to a Parker gig at Birdland. Trumpeter Red Rodney recognized him and told Bird, who avoided eye contact with him and asked the band to play “Koko”. In the middle of the song, Bird started to play the notes of “Firebird”, one of Stravinsky’s most famous compositions. The Russian composer got so excited he spit his whisky into his glass again.

Another famous Bird story is one that is told both in this movie and in “Whiplash”. As a young saxophonist, Parker joined a queue of players waiting to jam onstage at Kansas City’s Reno Club. It was a special occasion. A guest star in the rhythm section was Jo Jones, drummer for Count Basie’s Orchestra, one of the biggest swing bands in the US.

Charlie Parker thought his moment had come. But he blew it. He blew it so bad that the drummer threw a cymbal in his direction. Well, it seems that Bird got over it.

The Soundtrack is a collection of Parker songs re-recorded by Lenny Niehaus (the longtime jazz composer that collaborates with Clint Eastwood) and a band including legendary bassist Ron Carter. It is a very good introduction to the work of Charlie Parker, the most influential jazz musician in the 20th Century.


2. Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

Woody Allen can be described as the exact opposite of Clint Eastwood in physical, psychological and political terms. But, in the democratic field of jazz, both are absolutely the same: Freaks. Allen plays clavinet in a New York based band and that is to him a fair reason not to go to the Oscars.

In this tribute to the great Django Reinhardt, Sean Pean does a very good job as Emmet Ray, which is a fictional character (sort of a Django Reinhardt from some Parallel Universe). The tracks show how unique the sound of Reinhardt was. His jazz guitar was a twisted, complex and funny sound, very influenced by gypsy music.


1. The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

Otto Preminger was always a lucky man when it came to the crew that was involved in his movies. Starting by the designer responsible for the wonderful opening credits of his classics: Saul Bass. In music, Preminger had composer David Raksin in many movies like “Fallen Angle”, “Daisy Kenion” and “Laura”. Besides David Raksin, Preminger had the masters Dimitri Tiomkim and Alfred Newmann as collaborators in his always dense soundtracks.

After the success of “Laura” theme, which was played by many musicians, the first movie to achieve musical success for Preminger was “The Man with the Golden Arm”, with a soundtrack composed by Elmer Bernstein. Bernstein also became famous for the soundtrack of “The Ten Commandments”, and even recent movies such as “Natural Born Killers” and “The Age of Innocence”.

Bernstein was a visionary when he got together with the heads of the “West Coast Jazz” (the drummer Shelly Manne and the trumpet player and arranger Shorty Rodgers) to make this soundtrack an obligatory item for a good jazz collection. All “West Coast” musicians were members of Stan Kenton’s Orchestra, who didn’t participate in this soundtrack, but had a lot of influence due to his fusion of afro-Latin music in arrangements with a dissonant eye for traditional jazz and blues.

In the astonishing “Zolly”, “Molly” and “Sunday Morning”, Elmer Bernstein makes the audience cry with his Ravel-esque and Debussy-esque textures. On “Breakup”, he uses elements of the intellectualized jazz of Lennie Tristano and Gil Melle, contrasting with a more traditional second part, similar to Woody Hermann and Count Basie.

“The Cure” mixes a writing based on the Russian school of Shostakovich with a drum solo by Shelly Manne. Manne also taught Mr. Blue Eyes (Frank Sinatra) some drum lessons for his part in the movie.

Author Bio: Luis Bevilacqua is a Teacher, Language/Literature student, Movie Freak and frontman of Brazilian band Bola 8.