The rapturous reed: saxophone in the cinema

    Saxophone features in fewer films-noir than might be thought, but movies gave regular work to players ranging from Benny Carter to Tom Scott

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    Benny Carter - one of the first African American musicians to work extensively on film and television soundtracks

    On a night-time New York street, a taxicab emerges from a cloud of vapour. The camera focuses on the eyes of Robert De Niro, and a haunting, yearning alto saxophone melody is heard. This is the opening to the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver (1976), and it provides a significant example of the use of the alto saxophone on movie soundtracks. The solo alto saxophone (it’s usually the alto – the soprano sax is sometimes an alternative, followed by the tenor, and, rarely, the baritone) has become ubiquitous over the years on movie soundtracks, and it’s just one of the tools that the film composer uses.

    Sonority and tone colour are the key elements contributing to the unique power of the sound of the (mainly) alto sax in movies. Urgent, immediate, plangent, sweet, seductive, intimate and erotic, the sound isn’t confined simply to romance: it can also be gently mischievous, quirky and humorous, eerie and ominous, or desperately frightened and sad. Classically, it’s a sweet, swing-era sound showing the influence of saxophonists like Benny Carter, Jimmy Dorsey or Johnny Hodges, and it’s cushioned by a lush orchestral backing, usually with strings. Just to take a few random examples from Hollywood’s classic era, there’s Hugo Friedhofer’s Fred And Peggy theme from The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946), Alex North’s music behind Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and David Raksin’s theme for Kirk Douglas in The Bad And The Beautiful (1952).

    Although the movie saxophone has a long history of “lowlife” associations, being connected in the public’s mind with sensuality, sleaze and corruption, it’s been effective in many contexts, appearing in, for instance, cartoons (Walt Disney’s Music Land, 1935), historical dramas (Captain Blood, 1935) and comedies (Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, 1936). It started to be heard on Hollywood movie soundtracks from 1930 onwards, and although the sound of the classical film score was heavily influenced by late 19th-century romanticism, many of the eminent composers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, including Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Roy Webb and Dimitri Tiomkin, had worked in Broadway musicals or in vaudeville. Symphonic jazz, notably George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, with its Love Theme section originally played by a group of alto-dominated saxophones, was very influential. In Alfred Newman’s music for the 1931 film Street Scene saxophones are apparent in the musical mix, and the main title theme became an iconic piece of music that was re-used in a number of later films, including I Wake Up Screaming (1941), Dark Corner (1946), Kiss Of Death (1947), Cry Of The City (1948), Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950) and How To Marry A Millionaire (1953). So on early soundtracks, the idea of using saxophone probably came not directly from straightahead jazz, but via symphonic jazz, Broadway and dance-band music.

    The first important use of the solo alto saxophone in a film’s underscore occurred in The Informer (1935), directed by John Ford and with music composed by Max Steiner. The alto is used in the theme for Katie, a prostitute and the main character’s girlfriend, and the sound is wistful, minor and slow. Another important movie from this period was the Marlene Dietrich vehicle The Blue Angel (1930), made in Berlin. Dietrich was accompanied by the Weintraub Syncopators, saxophone-oriented and influenced by Paul Whiteman. The pianist with the band was Franz Waxman, who later moved to Hollywood to become an acclaimed movie composer, and arguably the most eminent advocate of the solo alto sax, in films like The Philadelphia Story (1940), Sunset Boulevard (1950), A Place In The Sun (1951), Rear Window (1954), Mister Roberts (1955) and Crime In The Streets (1956).

    Benny Carter was one of the most important saxophonists in the history of movie soundtracks: after settling in Los Angeles in 1944, he was one of the first African American musicians to work extensively on film and television soundtracks, as a soloist, arranger and composer. He can be heard on the soundtracks of, for instance, Panic In The Streets (1950), An American In Paris (1951), The Snows Of Kilimanjaro (1952) and The Sun Also Rises (1957). During the late 1940s and early 1950s his sweet, fluent style epitomised the soundtrack saxophone sound.

    In the minds of many people, the sound of a bluesy alto saxophone is synonymous with film-noir and femmes fatales, but this is what David Butler, in his book Jazz Noir, refers to as a retrospective illusion. Very few films-noir of the 1940s featured a soundtrack saxophone, and only around 30% did in the 1950s. Whatever trend there was in this respect was probably given a boost by the 20-year-old André Previn, with his alto theme for femme fatale Audrey Totter in the film-noir Tension (1949).

    The saxophonists who regularly played solos on movie soundtracks had often worked with swing bands in the 1930s and 1940s, and then became members of the orchestra of a particular film studio. A noteworthy example is Gus Bivona (1915-1996) who, having worked with the bands of Bunny Berigan, Benny Goodman, Les Brown, Tommy Dorsey and Bob Crosby, became a member of the MGM studio orchestra in 1947. He is responsible for the alto-sax work in The Bad And The Beautiful (1952) and Butterfield 8 (1960). Jack Dumont (1918-1985), former Ray Noble alumnus, was at United Artists, and is heard on the soundtracks of Pickup On South Street (1953), West Side Story (1961), and Walk On The Wild Side (1962).

    Elmer Bernstein’s Stan Kenton-influenced “anxiety jazz” score for The Man With The Golden Arm (1955) was hugely influential, and was also notable in that it used non-swing style alto solos played by Bud Shank, sounding not unlike Lee Konitz. The Kenton influence was also apparent in Henry Mancini’s breakthrough score for Touch Of Evil (1958), although the soundtrack alto solos, here by Ethmer Roten, remained in the sweet swing style.

    Mancini was also the main influence in what came to be known as TV crime jazz, with his music for Peter Gunn, also 1958, featuring alto sax solos by Ted Nash. Other notable TV shows at this time included M Squad, with music and alto solos by Benny Carter, and theme music by Count Basie, and Johnny Staccato, with music by Elmer Bernstein and alto solos by Ted Nash and Ronny Lang. As previously mentioned author David Butler said: “It was television and the music of Henry Mancini that would standardize the presence of jazz in film scoring and the popular consciousness… The combination of streamlined jazz with these crime shows is probably where the jazz and film-noir connection became firmly rooted.”

    The firm rooting of jazz in film scores was consolidated by Johnny Mandel’s music for I Want To Live! (1958), with alto solos by Bud Shank and Joe Maini and the baritone of Gerry Mulligan, and the first full-length score by an African American composer, Duke Ellington, for Anatomy Of A Murder (1959), featuring Johnny Hodges’s classic Flirtibird alto solo. Moving into the 1960s, the vibrant alto of Phil Woods was a key feature of the Paul Newman vehicle The Hustler (1961).

    Meanwhile, in the 1950s a number of movies featuring soundtrack saxophone were released outside the United States. Crime dramas became common in France, influenced by American film-noir, and jazz, which had been banned by the Nazis, started to be heard on French soundtracks. Rififi (1955) had a moody main-title theme featuring alto sax, while Barney Wilen’s tenor was heard on the Miles Davis score for Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud (1958), and Martial Solal’s score for Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout De Souffle (1960) showcased the alto of Pierre Gossez.

    Progressing through the 1960s, there were interesting new developments heralded by the work of British composers John Barry and John Dankworth, both with a penchant for the soundtrack saxophone. The tenor sax gained more prominence, with the landmark sound of Plas Johnson in The Pink Panther (1963), while the playing and composing of Sonny Rollins for Alfie (1966) emphasised the acceptance of jazz as a respectable art form.

    From the early 1970s the saxophone appeared with increasing frequency in crime or spy thrillers and “capers”. Composer Dave Grusin and saxophonist Tom Scott began to make regular contributions, as in Three Days Of The Condor (1975) and the fantasy romance Heaven Can Wait (1978). Neo-noirs like Farewell My Lovely (1975), Taxi Driver (1976) and Body Heat (1981) showcased the sweet alto of Mancini stalwart Ronny Lang, arguably the most recorded soundtrack sax player of all time. And Round Midnight (1986), featuring Dexter Gordon, and Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988) gave audiences the opportunity to hear genuine modern jazz saxophone at length.

    The solo saxophone has now become ubiquitous on movie soundtracks. For instance, in the 2019 neo-noir Motherless Brooklyn, the soprano sax of Ted Nash (nephew of the Ted Nash who was integral to the original music for Peter Gunn) is heard. The solo saxophone is just one of the tools at the film composer’s disposal. As such, it will undoubtedly remain part of the movie soundscape.


    Geoff Wills’ book Reed Rapture: The Saxophone on Movie Soundtracks is due to be published by Troubador on 28 May 2024.