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25 Essential Jazz Soundtracks You Should Own

From the first talkie to modern films such as ‘Whiplash’, jazz and the movies have had a fruitful relationship. Here are 25 of the best jazz soundtracks.

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What American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald described as the Jazz Age coincided with the demise of silent movies and the birth of talking pictures in the late 20s. In fact, the very first full-length motion picture with synchronised sound was 1927’s groundbreaking flick The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. Though in musical terms it featured very little of what we recognise today as jazz, it began a long and often fruitful relationship between jazz and the cinema, with many of the best jazz soundtracks now recognised as classic albums in their own right.

When the New Orleans-style jazz of the 20s gave way to the big-band swing era of the 30s, Hollywood reflected the trend in such movies as King Of Jazz (1930), which focused on the music of then “hot” bandleader Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, and Born To Dance (1936), about a Broadway dancer, starring Eleanor Powell and James Stewart. Other notable jazz-oriented movies in that decade included Alexander’s Rag Time Band (1939), featuring the music of noted songwriter Irving Berlin.

But they represented Hollywood’s toned-down version of jazz, diluted for mass consumption by a white audience. A more authentic taste of jazz as performed by African-American singers and musicians could be found in St Louis Blues (a 1929 short starring blues singer Bessie Smith), Paradise In Harlem (1939), Cabin In The Sky (1943) and the lesser-known New Orleans (1947), fronted by Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.

But jazz-themed movies featuring African-Americans in starring roles were the exception rather than the rule, and in the 50s, biopics of white jazz musicians had become all the rage: there was The Glenn Miller Story in 1954, followed two years later by The Benny Goodman Story, while 1950’s Young Man With A Horn, starring Kirk Douglas as a troubled but talented trumpeter, was inspired by the life of Bix Beiderbecke. Another notable pseudo-biopic at that time was Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), which, set in the 20s, also told the story of a fictional horn blower.

The 50s was also a decade when movie composers began to use the language of bebop-influenced jazz to create darker, more intense and highly textural musical backdrops in crime and thriller movies – a genre that inspired some of the best jazz soundtracks of the era. Elmer Bernstein was a master of the 50s film noir soundtrack, and his exceptional work graced two of that decade’s most impactful jazz-influenced movies, The Man With The Golden Arm and Sweet Smell Of Success. These were movies that used jazz in a highly stylised way to create tension and atmosphere, but they also helped to establish an association between jazz and criminal activity, which was also reinforced in Martial Solal’s vibrant score to French director Jean-Luc Goddard’s 1959 classic new-wave film, À Bout De Souffle, about a pathological thief who commits a murder. Homicide was also on the menu in another noted jazz-infused French movie, Louis Malle’s Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud, with Miles Davis on his first soundtrack duty.

When the 60s came along, jazz’s popularity rapidly diminished due to the rise of pop and, later, rock music, but there were still some scores that ranked alongside the best jazz soundtracks, including Paris Blues (with music by Duke Ellington), The Servant (a British movie with a soundtrack by London saxophonist/composer Johnny Dankworth), and the 1966 British blockbuster Alfie, whose score was penned and played by American saxophone heavyweight Sonny Rollins. In the late 60s and 70s, jazz composers such as Lalo Schifrin and Quincy Jones fused R&B and funk with jazz to create a new and exciting kind of action-movie soundtrack that was hugely influential.

Jazz was also used in movies during the 70s to create authentic-sounding and sometimes nostalgic musical backdrops for period dramas, exemplified by Jerry Goldsmith’s evocative score to Polanski’s Chinatown, set in the 30s, and David Shire’s music for the 40s detective thriller, Farewell, My Lovely. And who could forget ex-Supreme Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday in 1973’s Lady Sings The Blues?

You could still find jazz-heavy movie soundtracks in the 80s (The Cotton Club, Round Midnight, Bird, The Fabulous Baker Boys) and 90s (Naked Lunch, Mo’ Better Blues, Dingo, Kansas City, Sweet & Low). More recently, director Damien Chazelle’s award-winning 2014 film, Whiplash (about a young jazz conservatory drummer and his tyrannical tutor), left an indelible impression on audiences around the world. Since then, more high-profile jazz movies have followed, including Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis movie, Miles Ahead, and the Chet Baker biopic Born To Be Blue, with Ethan Hawke as the drug-addicted poster boy of cool jazz.

There have also been several excellent jazz documentaries over the years, which, unsurprisingly, have spawned their own entries among the best jazz soundtracks ever recorded. At the top of most people’s list is Bert Stern’s colourful and impressionistic film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Jazz On A Summer’s Day, while, more recently, What Happened Miss Simone? – a vivid portrait of singer Nina Simone – and Time Remembered: The Life And Music Of Bill Evans, have brought forth a plethora of fully deserved accolades. Another entrant in the pantheon of all-time great jazz documentaries is a brand new film from John Scheinfeld. His acclaimed Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary spawned an accompanying soundtrack CD that includes some of Coltrane’s most famous and influential performances.

What follows is our countdown of the 25 best jazz soundtracks that you should own. This list doesn’t claim to be definitive, but it nevertheless spotlights some of the best jazz soundtracks out there.

25: Various: Whiplash (2014)

Actor JK Simmons deservedly won an Academy Award for his compelling portrait of a bullying music teacher who drives an obsessive first-year drum student to the edge of a breakdown in his pursuit of perfection. Central to the movie was Hank Levy’s funkafied big-band title tune, written in the 70s, which is interspersed with original music composed by Justin Hurwitz, who went on to score Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle’s acclaimed 2016 musical, La La Land. Hurwitz’s original score is leavened with some bona fide jazz classics in the shape of music by Duke Ellington and Count Basie, helping ease it into this list of the best jazz soundtracks you should own.

24: David Shire: Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

From Buffalo, New York, David Shire was a pit pianist in Broadway musicals before breaking into TV scoring in the 60s. It wasn’t long before he graduated to movies, and his sumptuous score for Farewell, My Lovely, director Dick Richards’ adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, came in the wake of two superb 1974 soundtracks, The Conversation and The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three. With its lush orchestration and the haunting melody of its main title cue (aka ‘Marlow’s Theme’), the score crystallises the world-weariness of Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe (played by a 57-year-old Robert Mitchum).

23: Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary (2017)

No surprises that a collection of John Coltrane music amounts to one of the best jazz soundtracks on record. John Scheinfeld’s acclaimed 2017 film about the life, times, and music of John Coltrane, one of jazz’s most iconic and influential musicians, is accompanied by a soundtrack featuring some of the saxophonist’s most important and totemic works – including an excerpt from his magnum opus, 1965’s prayer to The Creator, A Love Supreme; his startling reconfiguration of ‘My Favourite Things’ into a modal jazz masterpiece; the groundbreaking ‘Giant Steps’, with its cycle of chord changes; and his haunting civil-rights protest piece, ‘Alabama’. The film’s release marked the 50th anniversary of Coltrane’s death.

22: Gato Barbieri: Last Tango In Paris (1973)

Arguably the most controversial film of 1973 was Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris, which ignited worldwide wrath from the censors for its brutal depiction of sexual violence. It starred Marlon Brando as a middle-aged widower and focused on his relationship with a younger woman. Argentine saxophonist Barbieri – a former avant-gardist noted for his intense Coltrane-esque tone and impassioned style – provided an authentic tango-oriented score that was sensual and seductive, though, in keeping with the movie’s dark themes, was also tinged with despondency, melancholia and a profound sense of loss.

21: Kenyon Hopkins: The Hustler (1961)

From Coffeeville, Kansas, Hopkins (1912-83) was the undisputed master of jazz-inflected film and TV soundtracks, and rose to fame in the 50s composing the scores to such notable movies as Baby Doll and 12 Angry Men. One of his best jazz soundtracks was for The Hustler, with Paul Newman as the titular character: a small time, two-bit pool-hall conman who dreams of breaking into the big time by taking on a character called Minnesota Fats. Hopkins’ score, with its languorous saxophones, wailing muted trumpets, and glowing vibes, conveys mood, emotion and atmosphere, and, despite the music’s jazz-hued elegance, convincingly etches a vivid sonic portrait of seediness and decay.

20: Dizzy Gillespie: The Cool World (1964)

Based on Warren Miller’s novel of the same name, The Cool World was directed by Shirley Clarke and told the sobering story of a Harlem street gang called The Royal Pythons in a quasi-documentary style. All the music was written and arranged by pianist/composer Mal Waldron, but it’s bebopper Gillespie’s majestic horn that brings the score to life, with sterling support from saxophonist James Moody and a young Kenny Barron on piano. Not only is The Cool World one of the best jazz soundtracks of all time, it was also arguably the puff-cheeked trumpet maven’s most satisfying work of the 60s.

19: Various: Jazz On A Summer’s Day (1960)

Bert Stern was an in-demand New York fashion photographer who went behind a movie camera to film the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, and in so doing produced an undisputed masterpiece called Jazz On A Summer’s Day. It’s a documentary with a difference: there’s no voiceover; instead it relies on a symbiotic marriage of image and music, rendered as an impressionistic collage. Even so, the soundtrack – with remarkable live performances by Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong, Anita O’Day and Dinah Washington – can be enjoyed in its own right. And with such a wealth of talent involved, it more than earns its place among the world’s best jazz soundtracks.

18: Johnny Mandel (featuring Gerry Mulligan): I Want To Live (1958)

Film noir was undoubtedly writer/director Robert Wise’s metier in the late 50s, and one of his most notable works in the genre was I Want To Live, whose story, about a prostitute who is accused of murder, shocked American audiences on its release (the central character was acted by Susan Hayward, who grabbed an Oscar for her portrayal). Composer/arranger Johnny Mandel’s score was one of the bright points in an unrelentingly bleak but watchable picture. Baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan is prominent (as are several other “cool school” West Coast jazzers), his smoky horn enunciating bluesy melodies with a robust vigour.

17: Howard Shore (featuring Ornette Coleman): Naked Lunch (1991)

A cinematic adaptation of William S Burrough’s infamous 1959 cut-up novel, Naked Lunch, about a pest exterminator who gets high on insecticide, was always going to be a challenge, but noted movie director David Cronenberg – the king of cerebral shock-horror – rose to take it on. His vision for the movie was enhanced by Howard Shore’s tenebrous score, on which free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman’s tenor saxophone is framed by brooding soundscapes played by The London Philharmonic Orchestra. In this setting, Coleman sounds magnificent and his presence is a key component in creating the unsettling atmosphere of the film.

16: Herbie Hancock: Blow-Up (1966)

Though set in London during the Swinging 60s, Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni hired American jazz pianist Herbie Hancock – then a member of Miles Davis’ pathfinding quintet – to score the soundtrack for his inaugural English-language movie about a London fashion photographer whose camera captures a murder. Aiding Hancock is a stellar line-up of jazz A-listers, including Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette. This dynamic ensemble recorded one of the best jazz soundtracks of the era, with music ranging from bluesy grooves to freer modal pieces. One distinctive track, a groovy soul-jazz outtake called ‘Bring Down The Birds’, will be recognisable to many after being sampled by Deee-Lite on their 1990 dance hit, ‘Groove Is In The Heart’.

15: Lalo Schifrin: Bullitt (1968)

Argentina-born jazz pianist Boris “Lalo” Schifrin made his mark in Hollywood in the mid-60s after scoring the Steve McQueen flick The Cincinnati Kid and writing the memorable theme music for the popular TV show Mission: Impossible. On the Peter Yates-directed Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen as tough cop who attempts to prevent the Mafia from assassinating a key witness, Schifrin devised a stylish jazz-infused score with a fabulous main theme that was very modern in its synthesis of jazz, blues, rock, funk and Latin percussion elements. The original score (which wasn’t publicly available until 2009) offered much more jazz content than the more commercialised official soundtrack album issued in 1968.

14: Krzysztof Komeda: Knife In The Water (1962)

Unusual for its miniscule cast (just three actors), Knife In The Water was Polish director Roman Polanski’s tenth film but his first feature-length movie. A tale of erotic tension between two men and a woman, largely shot on a boat in a lake, it was enhanced by a wonderful jazz score written by noted Polish pianist Krzysztof Komeda, who tragically died six years later after suffering a brain injury from a fall. His Knife In The Water score, a series of mood-evoking pieces that feature the virile tenor saxophone of Swedish hard bop musician Bernt Rosengren, is arguably Komeda’s crowning glory. He worked on several other Polanski movies, including Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby.

13: Art Ensemble Of Chicago: Les Stances A Sophie (1970)

Israeli director Moshe Misrahi’s film about a free-spirited young woman called Celine was based on Christiane Rochefort’s feminist novel of the same name and is best remembered now for its stupendous soundtrack by US free jazz group Art Ensemble Of Chicago. The group, led by Lester Bowie and augmented by his then-wife, Fontella Bass (of ‘Rescue Me’ fame), were living in Paris at the time and produced music of varying hues for the movie (which they also appeared in). Their memorable soundtrack ranged from searing jazz-funk grooves to quasi-Dixieland romps, African-influenced dirges and disquieting avant-garde soundscapes.

12: Jerry Goldsmith: Chinatown (1974)

A supremely versatile film composer whose soundtracks ranged from eerie sci-fi music (Planet Of The Apes, Alien) to comedies (Gremlins) and erotic thrillers (Basic Instinct), Jerry Goldsmith’s finest score was arguably this jazz-infused one to Roman Polanski’s noir-esque detective thriller set in the 30s and starring Jack Nicholson as a private investigator. Lush and yet tinged with a haunting elegiac quality – mainly due to the sterling work of noted session trumpeter Uan Rasey, whose elegant solo is framed by lush orchestration in the yearning ‘Love Theme’ – Goldsmith’s score was nominated for an Academy Award and was ranked ninth in a list of the Top 25 American film scores by the American Film Institute.

11: Duke Ellington: Anatomy Of A Murder (1959)

Another indispensable entry in this list, Anatomy Of A Murder was written by big-band swing-era maestro Duke Ellington, with his frequent collaborator Billy Strayhorn. Performed by Ellington’s brass-rich orchestra, it proves the perfect accompaniment to director Oscar Preminger’s gritty courtroom drama about a country lawyer (James Stewart) who defends an army lieutenant that murdered a bartender over the alleged rape of his wife. The film was deemed controversial at the time for its sexual candour (it was purportedly the first time the word “panties” had been used in a movie) and this is reflected in Ellington’s colourful score, which is dominated by brash, wailing horns and clenched, throbbing blues rhythms that ooze menace and sleaziness.

10: The Modern Jazz Quartet: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

One of the most significant jazz groups to emerge in the 50s, The Modern Jazz Quartet fused bebop stylings with classical music aesthetics to create a cool and elegant sound that some critics dubbed “chamber jazz”. In 1959, they provided the score to Robert Wise’s noir-esque crime thriller Odds Against Tomorrow, which starred Robert Ryan, Harry Belafonte and Ed Begley as bank robbers. MJQ’s John Lewis wrote all the music, though Milt Jackson’s glimmering vibraphone – arguably the group’s sonic signature – plays a dominant role. Though perceived as something of a forgotten gem in MJQ’s canon, Odds Against Tomorrow remains one of the best jazz soundtracks of the 50s and yielded one of the quartet’s most enduring and popular numbers: the graceful, waltz-time ballad ‘Skating In Central Park’, which they revisited several times.

9: Quincy Jones: The Pawnbroker (1964)

As the man who helped transform Michael Jackson into a global megastar, Seattle-born Jones is renowned for his gleaming, award-winning production work in the pop genre, though he started out as a jazz trumpeter before moving into arranging and production. He also composed music for a raft of movies between 1964 and 1985, and The Pawnbroker, about a survivor from a Nazi concentration camp (Rod Steiger), is one of his very best jazz soundtracks (it was also his first Hollywood score). It blends haunting orchestrated themes with cool jazz, sultry late-night blues, and sizzling, percussion-driven Latin music to create an absorbing and emotion-mirroring musical backcloth to the main action.

8: Martial Solal: À Bout De Souffle (aka Breathless) (1959)

Jazz was the hip musical currency in 50s cinema – and not just in its birthplace, the US, but also in other locations around the world. In France, Algerian-born pianist/composer Martial Solal, who had worked with Django Reinhardt and Sidney Bechet, was just 33 when he brought a pronounced jazz flavour to director Jean-Luc Goddard’s iconic new wave movie, À Bout De Souffle. It starred Jean-Paul Belmondo as an itinerant criminal who kills a cop after stealing a car, and Jean Seberg as his American paramour. Ranging from recurring motifs articulated by piercing brass to portentous piano lines and delicately-etched romantic vignettes, Solal’s music is masterful at conveying atmosphere.

7: Elmer Bernstein: Sweet Smell Of Success (1957)

This, the second Bernstein score in this list of the best jazz soundtracks you should own, also featured West Coast group The Chico Hamilton Quintet in Alexander Mackendrick’s gripping movie about a sardonic newspaper columnist, JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), who uses a ruthless publicist, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), to break up his sister’s romance with a jazz guitarist – which leads to a tragic denouement. Bernstein’s brash, vibrant score reflects the hustle and bustle, as well as the urban angst and dog-eat-dog mentality, of New York, while Chico Hamilton’s group offer contrast and a pronounced sense of jazz cool with their pastel-hued pieces.

6: Various: Round Midnight (1986)

Sixty-three-year-old Dexter Gordon was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of a down-at-heel American jazz musician, Dale Turner, in Bertrand Tavernier’s acclaimed movie, which was loosely based on Gordon’s own experiences with alcohol and substance abuse. Gordon also played tenor sax on the excellent Herbie Hancock-produced soundtrack, which featured jazz luminaries Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, John McLaughlin and Tony Williams, who combined their talents to create a haunting low-key backdrop to the film’s eloquent narrative.

5: Sonny Rollins: Alfie (1966)

Michael Caine had already proved himself as a rising screen actor, first with Zulu (1963), then The Ipcress File (1965), but his appearance as the eponymous happy-go-lucky cockney Casanova in Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie cemented his movie-star status. American tenor saxophone giant Sonny Rollins wrote and recorded the score in London with British musicians, but later re-recorded all of his tunes for the soundtrack album back in the US, with Oliver Nelson handling arranging duties. The main theme, with its easy-swinging gait and snaking but infectious horn line, encapsulated the charm and swagger of Caine’s portrayal of a loveable Lothario. It remains one of the best jazz soundtracks available.

4: Charlie Parker: Bird (1988)

Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed biopic about the short but eventful life of bebop architect Charlie “Bird” Parker (admirably acted by Forest Whitaker, who learned to play alto saxophone for the role and picked up a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival), was accompanied by a soundtrack that, for the sake of high-quality audio, ingeniously recorded new backing tracks to accompany authentic Parker solos. Containing many of Bird’s signature songs – ‘Ko Ko’, ‘Ornithology’ and ‘Now’s The Time’ among them – the soundtrack successfully captured the flavour of the bebop era of the late 40s and early 50s.

3: Michel Legrand: The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

Rarely have moving images and music enjoyed such a harmonious and symbiotic relationship as exhibited in Legrand’s stunning score to Norman Jewson’s 1968 caper about a bored but affluent playboy businessman (Steve McQueen) who plans bank heists just for the thrill of outsmarting the cops. With Jewison’s dazzling visuals and multiple split-screen imagery, the film engraved an indelible impression on many who saw it. The hypnotic effect was enhanced by Legrand’s symphonic jazz score (his first in Hollywood), which not only gave the movie a strong musical identity but also lent a subtle cohesion to the overall feel of it. Nowadays, the score is best remembered for its opening credits song, ‘The Windmills Of Your Mind’ (sung by Noel Harrison), though there are many magnificent instrumental cues where Legrand memorably melds vibrant jazz colour with baroque-tinged music.

2: Miles Davis: Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (1958)

Translating as Lift To The Scaffold (or Frantic, outside of France), this was director Louis Malle’s 1958 movie adaptation of a French crime novel which starred Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as lovers who conspire to kill Moreau’s husband, and then face some sobering consequences. Miles Davis was on tour in Europe during late 1957 and agreed to provide the soundtrack, whose haunting, mostly improvised score was an important component of the film’s groundbreaking exploration of narrative via imagery, action, and music. Miles’ induction into movie soundtracks is not only one of the best jazz soundtracks in history, it was also his first venture into modal jazz and would set the tone for his soon-to-follow albums Milestones and Kind Of Blue.

1: Elmer Bernstein: The Man With The Golden Arm (1956)

One of the quintessential “jazz noir” soundtracks of the 50s was this one, which tops our chart of the 25 best jazz soundtracks you should own. It was scored by the redoubtable Elmer Bernstein, who went on to write the music for The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape in the early 60s. Bernstein (1922-2004) was on the rise as a movie composer in Hollywood when he wrote this jazz-heavy score to Otto Preminger’s movie about junkie drummer Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) and his bid to quit the hard stuff. Its swaggering main theme, complete with ominous, pounding rhythms and almost hysterical, screaming horns, is memorable and spawned cover versions by Billy May, Jet Harris and even glam rockers Sweet.

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. joecrouse

    January 17, 2018 at 5:06 am

    Completely ignores modern works by Yoko Kanno and the seatbelts.

  2. John Greig

    January 20, 2018 at 7:17 pm

    John Cassavetes’ film Shadows concerned the jazz life and interracial relationships. It had a great soundtrack by Shafi Hadi and Charles Mingus.

  3. P Buxton

    January 21, 2018 at 7:52 pm

    Where’s Pete Kelly’s Blues? Peggy Lee singing a rainbow and Ella pouring water on a drowning man. Brilliant. On the subject of Elmer Bernstein, mention should also be made of the best TV theme ever, Staccato’s theme (starring John Cassavetes)
    https://youtu.be/4hddnMwcvmY

  4. Jess MacDonald-Reid

    January 24, 2018 at 3:43 am

    I agree with some. though several notable exceptions. Bird should be the definitive. Other films Danny Kaye ‘The Five Pennies’ which showed Louis Armstrong doing what the white Director wanted. But Charles Mingus ‘Beneath the Underdog’ Art Pepper: ‘Notes from a Jazz Survivor’, ‘Jazz on a Summer’s Day’ George Avakian, musical director. ‘A Great Day in Harlem’ (1994) Ken Burns’ ‘Jazz’ 6 part documentary. and more

  5. Sigmund Finman

    January 25, 2018 at 1:21 am

    Paris Blues – Duke Ellington.
    Madigan – Don Costa.

    Both, not to be missed.

    • Sigmund Finman

      January 25, 2018 at 1:23 am

      Micky One – Stan Getz.

  6. Klaus Huckert

    October 17, 2018 at 3:40 pm

    Sweet and Lowdown by Woody Allen

  7. Bo Leibowitz

    March 7, 2019 at 6:47 pm

    Very interesting. Although not on the list — probably not “jazzy” enough — one of my faves is Umbrellas of Cherboug, music by Michel Legrand.

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