Few of Tinseltown’s directors, writers, cinematographers or creative minds – and certainly none of its soundtrack and television composers – turned a blind eye to opportunism in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Each location or genre came with its familiar set of musical formulas, moods, metaphors and cues. North African epics with their sweeping “Bolero”-style scores, caper movies with their saucy continental themes. And detective movies and crime dramas with their jazz.
The point, and the money, was in indulging audiences’ fantasies, not social realism. In the 1950s, the studios’ hipper soundtrack composers knew a good moment when they saw one. They seized upon the jazz phenomenon, bebop especially. Rippling piano chords registered looming danger. Heart-stopping moments of suspense were followed with lonesome saxophone reveries. Villains’ exploits went hand-in-hand with screaming brass as inevitably as dangerous men would just as soon shoot you. Bop was sophisticated and gritty. Bop could be a bit menacing to those only comfortable with Swing-era big bands.
Consider Latin jazz part of the same commercial equation. Sometimes there were mambos done fairly accurately. Henry Mancini’s Touch of Evil was a masterpiece of the crime genre; the Machito Orchestra could have practically played its main theme. More often there were standard crime charts embossed with a spray of rhumba rhythms and Latin percussion. Leith Stevens’ Private Hell 36 had its “Havana Interlude,” Billy May’s Johnny Cool had its “Juan Coolisto,” Warren Barker’s 77 Sunset Strip had its “77 Sunset Strip Cha Cha,” Stanley Wilson’s Music From M Squad had its “Cha-Cha Club” and so forth.
Like bop, Latin jazz was urbane, if not a bit exotic, and Hollywood arrangers and composers plundered the genre and its popular appeal indiscriminately. Tito Puente’s thundering percussion, the cool vibes of Cal Tjader, the after-hours themes of George Shearing: all were colors to paint an impression of the urban jungle. Any time the hero wandered into El Barrio or across the border? Better cue those bongos. It was utter fantasia, of course, the Latin Quarter one more neighborhood in an artfully typecast Gotham.
1. Neil Lewis with his Quintet, Harlem Nocturn (Gee)
The immortal ”Harlem Nocturne” was conceived by Earle Hagen, who, before his prolific Hollywood career, worked as an arranger and trombonist in the big bands of the ‘30s. Hagen was behind loads of memorable soundtracks and television themes – The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Spy, Gomer Pyle, The Mod Squad, among others – but his ”Harlem Nocturne,” recorded in 1939 during a stint with the Ray Noble Orchestra, is the source of his enduring fame.
“Harlem Nocturne,” big band success and later R&B; instrumental staple, was performed most famously in 1959 by New Jersey’s Viscounts (excerpt here), though hundreds of versions would be committed to record whenever high drama was needed. “Harlem Nocturne” is a crime soundtrack gold standard.
Little seems to be known about Neil Lewis, however, or his fine Latin version of the theme. If names are any indication, Lewis, along with Alfred “Alfredito” Levy and the Harlow brothers, was one of a few non-Latino New York City bandleaders to record in more authentic modes. Lewis recorded a total of four 45s, all released in the mid-‘50s for local labels, all excellent jazzy small-group mambos and cha chas. This would be his second of two 45s on the Gee label, both recorded in 1954.
Lewis’s version is where mood music meets the dissipated side of midnight, its most prominent feature the way it alternates the understated theme with a mambo-driven chorus. Kind of like you alternating whiskey with beer last night. Too bad you drank away all of next month’s rent.
2. Curtis Amy, Bongo Blue (Palomar)
“Bongo Blue” is a sexy blues done by West Coast jazzmen. It’s got style, smoke and atmosphere. It’s got desperate characters nourished on liquor and cinematic cliché. “Bongo Blue” conjures the nightclub tableau that every private eye movie aspires to.
Curtis Amy is one of a select coterie of Texas-born musicians – saxophonists, especially – to distinguish themselves in California’s post-War jazz scene. Born in Houston in 1929, Amy was a clarinetist first and later a saxophonist; after earning a music degree, his early career days would be divided amongst the Army, occasional club gigs and a Tennessee teaching job. Relocating to Los Angeles in 1955, Amy would, after the perfunctory years of R&B; and jazz supporting roles, record a half-dozen excellent LPs as a bandleader for the Pacific Jazz record label in the early ‘60s.
Amy and other transplanted Texans – among them James Clay, Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman and the Jazz Crusaders – defied the cliché of post-War California jazz as a refuge of homogeneous cool jazz. He also happened to be very, very good, a musician with an attractively hard tone and a deft way of infusing the blues into sophisticated post-bebop improvisations. In addition to accompanying his wife – singer Merry Clayton – Amy would remain in Los Angeles, teaching music and appearing on pop and rock sessions. His career as a recording bandleader would essentially be finished by the mid-‘60s, however, his six Pacific Jazz LPs forming the bulk of his recorded legacy. And to that end one cliché was upheld: Curtis Amy epitomizes the forgotten jazzman.
“Bongo Blue” is an obscure 45 recorded with some of the then-vanguard of Los Angeles jazz and Latin jazz: Roy Ayers (vibes), Horace Tapscott (piano), John Gray (guitar), Arthur Wright (Fender bass), Henry Franklin (acoustic bass), Moises Obligacion (conga) and Tony Bazley (drums). Curtis Amy also recorded an uninspired album of current pop hits (The Sounds of Broadway, The Sounds of Hollywood) on the obscure Palomar label, but that effort did not include this mid-‘60s gem, which seems only to have seen release on 45 rpm format.
Curtis Amy passed on, sadly, in 2002.
3. The Embers, Peter Gunn Cha Cha (Wynne)
The component parts of crime music – its bombast, jazzy allure and torrid moods – had largely coalesced when Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn Theme” (excerpt here), one of the genre’s signature pieces, blared forth from a nation of tiny television speakers in 1958.
With its instantly identifiable metallic guitar riff and macho swagger, the “Peter Gunn Theme” told us, basically, that justice was something on the move. The Embers’ “Peter Gunn Cha Cha,” from 1959, might have lacked the original’s thrilling audacity, but it told us that justice was not always tireless. Justice liked to take it easy sometimes, too.
The Embers were a jazzy R&B; instrumental group from, I believe, Philadelphia, and released at least one other fine 45 – the exotic “Alexandria” – on Newtime Records. This selection features the redoubtable Candido Camero, a Cuban-born musician whose Latin percussion graced many bop sessions in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
In 1965, Henry Mancini released a Latin-inspired album, The Latin Sound of Henry Mancini, an LP that included his own exoticized take on the theme, “Señor Peter Gunn.”