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