Monday, July 20, 2009

Jazz Soundtracks — Part 10

The following are excerpts from the book Film and Television Scores, 1950-1979 (McFarland, 2008) by Kristopher Spencer, founder of

Before blaxploitation came into being, African-American Quincy Jones equaled Schifrin’s effort in introducing funk to movie audiences in the mid to late ’60s. Q — as he’s known to many — made his reputation in the ’50s and early ’60s as a talented arranger and composer for jazz legends such as Lionel Hampton, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie, and for such singing stars as Frank Sinatra, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. Beginning in the early ’60s, Q composed numerous big budget crime movies, including four starring Sidney Poitier, Hollywood’s original, black leading man.

Jones constantly experimented with style, incorporating swinging jazz, cool bossa nova, funk, soul and pop into big band or orchestral settings. His classic crime jazz highlights of the period include “Harlem Drive” and “Rack ’em Up” (from The Pawnbroker), “Blondie Tails” (from The Deadly Affair) and “Shoot to Kill” (from Mirage).

Although it is in no way a blaxploitation film, the Academy Awards®-winning In the Heat of the Night (’67) was influential because it features not only a black actor in the leading role but also a score infused with black music. The most telling example is the Ray Charles-sung theme song, which is soulful, funky and swinging.
Tracks like “Peep Freak Patrol Car” and “Cotton Curtain” feature an unexpected blend of orchestral tension, bluesy piano fills, moaning Ellington-esque horns, throaty flute squeals and vocal scats; their funk is as potent as moonshine. On “Where Whitey Ain’t Around” a mean wah guitar solo joins an already volatile vibe. Elsewhere, Jones displays his great versatility with passages of pure orchestral movie music (“Shag Bag, Hounds and Harvey”). Taken in its entirety, Heat is but one of Jones’ proto-blaxploitation outings, and not a pure example of what would be heard in the ’70s.

Two other Jones scores from this period also qualify as proto-blaxploitation: the heist flick The Lost Man (’69) and Heat’s sequel They Call Me Mister Tibbs (’70) — both starring Poitier.

The Lost Man theme blends African percussion, an angular melodic motif and a singsong chorus of chanting children to mysterious, hypnotic effect. The theme’s disconcertingly unresolved scraps of melody resurface in more satisfying form on “Main Squeeze” and “Up Against the Wall,” where complicated experimental arrangements are propelled by funky rhythms and electric instrumentation. On ‘Slum Creeper” a funky clavinet keyboard pushes the rhythm forward with slow deliberation as electric guitar competes for the sonic turf. The most straightforward track on the album may be “Sweet Soul Sister,” a catchy mid-tempo number featuring a smooth vocal performance by Nate Turner with backing vocals by the Mirettes.

While The Lost Man remains Jones’ edgiest score, his work on Tibbs proved much more popular. Although the movie isn’t considered pure blaxploitation, its theme created the template for many title tracks to come, including Hayes’ Shaft and Schifrin’s Enter the Dragon. Its hard-driving rhythm section, screaming organ blasts, punchy brass, chicken scratch guitars and vibrato-colored keyboard line set the standard for cinematic funk in ’70. Elsewhere in the score Jones continued to exploit the electric charge he’d harnessed on the theme song. “Fat Poppadaddy,” with its catchy organ lick, screaming guitar solo and fatback drum break, pushed the funk harder and faster. He busted out the blues on “Side Pocket,” with its saxophone solo and call and response between the organ, guitar and horns. Tibbs, like Heat and Lost, is chuck-full of intense, virtuoso arrangements that call upon funk, blues, soul and jazz. Without Jones’ influence, the blaxploitation sound might never have come together so quickly and so potently.

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