From the archives

Ge­of­frey Smith en­joys Duke Elling­ton’s sound­track to the Hol­ly­wood crime drama Anatomy of a Mur­der

BBC Music Magazine - - Jazz -

In 1959, the en­ter­tain­ment world was in­trigued to learn that the Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer Otto Preminger had com­mis­sioned a full-scale sound­track from Duke Elling­ton. Anatomy of a Mur­der ( Sound­track Fac­tory 606373) was a psy­cho­log­i­cal crime thriller set in a bu­colic Michi­gan town, based on a best­seller and boast­ing a starry cast headed by James Ste­wart. But it had noth­ing to do with jazz, ex­cept for a cameo ap­pear­ance by Elling­ton as a lo­cal band­leader named Pie Eye. For the first time ever, Hol­ly­wood was hir­ing a jazz mu­si­cian not sim­ply to be ‘jazzy’ but to com­pose a score like any other top-flight pro­fes­sional – al­beit one who also hap­pened to be Duke Elling­ton.

Elling­ton rel­ished his chance ‘to do back­ground mu­sic fit­tingly, im­mers­ing him­self in the script and cre­at­ing a kind of a ducal com­men­tary on the story’s ac­tion and at­mos­phere. Elling­to­nian touches abound: the main ti­tle se­quence, a kick­ing mi­nor-key blues waltz, seethes with en­ergy and ten­sion, while the provoca­tive theme ‘Flirt­ibird’, in­tro­duc­ing the film’s femme fa­tale, is made for Johnny Hodges’s come-hither alto sax­o­phone. ‘Way Early Subtone’ frames a melan­choly clar­inet with snap­ping fin­gers and Elling­ton and Billy Stray­horn evoke ‘Mid­night Indigo’ on pi­ano and ce­leste.

But per­haps the score was too Elling­to­nian. In the event, most of his sound­track never made it to the screen which is why the reis­sue of the full ducal score for Anatomy of a Mur­der is par­tic­u­larly wel­come. Here is ev­ery­thing he wrote, per­formed by that unique in­stru­ment, the Elling­ton band, which, in 1959, was in one of its vin­tage pe­ri­ods. All the dis­tinc­tive ducal voices – Johnny Hodges, trum­peter-vi­o­lin­ist Ray Nance, tenorist Paul Gon­salves – play their parts in bring­ing Elling­ton’s Anatomy of a Mur­der alive. De­spite its episodic na­ture, it’s a com­pelling ex­pe­ri­ence, full of Duke’s al­lur­ing har­monies, mix­ing dis­so­nance and in­sou­ciance, ro­mance and irony. Ex­tras in­clude an in­ter­view, in which you can hear his plea­sure at his cin­e­matic ad­ven­ture, which won him three Grammy awards and at least a footnote in Hol­ly­wood his­tory. The great­est jazz play­ers and their mu­sic are ex­plored in Ge­of­frey Smith’s Jazz, a weekly pro­gramme broad­cast on Satur­days from 12am-1am

In the ac­tion: Duke Elling­ton (front) with Billy Stray­horn and Otto Preminger

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