Jazz Dramatique

Over at the Lonely Beat I discussed the Naked City, the version of the modern American city in the post–War popular imagination.  And how a singular form of American commercial music, in time referred to by collectors as “crime jazz,” would converge in the late 1950s as a sort of jazz shorthand for the all images, clichés and motifs of the city.

This week we dig a bit deeper into a particular subset of crime jazz.

Never mind that these selections’ tie-ins with actual crime thrillers is vague (“Jazz Dramatic”), if non-existent (“Lili’s Theme”).  Recorded between the late ‘50s and the early ‘60s, and inspired by bestsellers like Henry Mancini’s Music from Peter Gunn, Warren Barker’s 77 Sunset Strip and Pete Rugolo’s Music From Richard Diamond, these have all the hallmarks of a golden era of crime soundtrack music.

But the three selections are more than just the sum of their jazz atmospherics, walking bass lines and bursts of brass, organ and strings.  These share a peculiar theatricality with other jazz-based themes of the era – themes that, during opening credits, foretold ninety minutes of intrigue and high-stakes thrills.  These selections embody the spirit of DRAMATIC ACTION.  The sense of danger, justice and dark, moving forces is flamboyant, even hysterical.  Sometimes it’s not enough for music just to be listened to.  Sometimes it has to kick down the door and scream at you.

Paul Dunlap, Lili's Theme from "The Rookie” (Capitol 4293)1. Paul Dunlap, Lili’s Theme from “The Rookie” (Capitol 4293)
Born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1919, Dunlap started out young in music, his aspirations eventually bringing him to the University of Southern California for advanced studies in music in 1940.  Through a family connection his compositions caught the attention of the influential director Samuel Fuller – a propitious moment for Dunlap, as it led not only to a series of film scores written for Fuller (starting with 1950’s The Baron Of Arizona), but a professional career spent largely in Hollywood as a film and television composer, conductor, director and arranger.

Though he wrote scores until 1980 (his final contributions were for that year’s Gorp), Dunlap’s most prolific years were in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  Dunlap composed for many genre and B-movies – science fiction and fantasy pictures, comedies (including several ‘60s-era Three Stooges movies), Westerns, detective thrillers and horror movies.  Among this run were cult notables like 1957’s Blood of Dracula, 1958’s How to Make a Monster, 1959’s The Angry Red Planet, 1959’s The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake) and 1963’s Shock Corridor.  And, along with Fuller, Dunlap’s associations with writer and producer Herman Cohen (beginning with 1957’s cult classic I Was a Teenage Werewolf) and director Harold D. Schuster (beginning with the 1953 Western Jack Slade) would also prove quite fruitful.

In his later years, Dunlap wrote opera and choral pieces, and expressed some ambivalence about a legacy so identified with the cinema. 1   The composer passed away in 1990 in Palm Springs.

Dunlap was hardly a household name.  Few composers were, aside from obviously marketable entities like Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones or Bernard Herrmann.  He was a professional, though, and despite the constant pressure of limited resources and preparation time his use of stark moods, dissonance and jazz elements elevated the low-budget productions they scored.  The innovative electronic effects of 1959’s Invisible Invaders and the beatsploitation jazz of 1959’s The Rebel Set come to mind here.  As does this selection, also from 1959.

Full of gritty angst, the arrangement on “Lili’s Theme from ‘The Rookie’” is quite inspired, a dramatic swirl of strings, organ and electric guitar that evokes the crime jazz aesthetic while avoiding some of its more formulaic motifs.  (European film music fans might also notice the distinct organ stabs that neatly anticipate later work by Italian soundtrack legend Piero Piccioni.)  I haven’t seen The Rookie – an obscurity, even among comedy fans – but haven’t found any reason to doubt that this side transcends the movie.

Sources: Be sure to read Randall D. Larson’s great 1983 interview, where Dunlap discusses his process for composing film music extensively, among other subjects.

Det Moor Orch., “Jazz Dramatic” (Gallant GT-3004)2. Det Moor Orch., “Jazz Dramatic” (Gallant GT-3004)
Credited to the Det Moor orchestra, this selection is the handiwork of composer, arranger and conductor Bob Mersey.

Born in 1917 in New York City, Mersey began his professional career in Los Angeles.  An arranger and composer from the start, Mersey’s arrangements started appearing on releases by Abe Lyman and, most notably, Woody Herman’s Orchestras in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s.

Mersey joined NBC radio as a staff arranger after World War Two, a stint in Europe scoring film productions following that.  Returning to the states in the ‘50s, he released some easy-listening singles in the late ‘50s under his own name as well as under nom de plume Spencer Ross (Ross’s “Tracy’s Theme” was a minor instrumental hit in 1959).

Mersey’s catalog ran deepest during the ‘60s.  His string of contributions as staff arranger, composer, conductor and producer at CBS television, Columbia Records and Columbia’s Colpix Records division included work on Andy Williams’ “Moon River” and Barbra Streisand’s “My Name is Barbra,” not to mention recordings by big sellers like Aretha Franklin, Johnny Mathis,  James Darren and Nina Simone.  Mersey’s Columbia and Colpix recordings tend to overshadow the rest of a not-inconsiderable body of work, though, including credits on a number of different labels (arranging for Dion, Johnny Nash, Frankie Avalon, among others).

This body of work most definitely includes Mersey’s album Great Jazz From Great TV and its crucial track “Jazz Dramatic.”  Released in 1962, the album is one of Mersey’s most obscure releases, and one of his finest efforts.  Comprised entirely of his compositions, Great Jazz From Great TV has all the right stylistic archetypes – cool club sequences, chase dramas, lonesome midnight nocturnes, etc., and all the right titles – “Club Cool,” “Flutesville,” “Forever Frantic,” “Call Girl,” etc.  The Det Moor orchestra, according to the album’s liner notes, were an uncredited group of European studio musicians, but the entire album sounds every inch a hip ‘50s Los Angeles studio jazz orchestra.   It’s a pitch-perfect suite of crime jazz.

The session itself was recorded a year or two prior for Sam Fox Music, a long-running clearinghouse for studio production music, and saw its eventual commercial album release on Gallant Records, a short-lived record label operated by Sam Fox, his son Fred Fox and New York City music industry insider Hal Dennis.  Its tracks could be heard individually as incidental music and cues in an array of shows throughout the 1960s, including Route 66, Ben Casey, Manhunt, My Three Sons and, later, the Doris Day Show, Gumby and Spider-Man.

Alvino Rey and His Orchestra, “The Bat” (Capitol F 4239)3.  Alvino Rey and His Orchestra, “The Bat” (Capitol F 4239)
“King of the Guitar” Alvino Rey was a bandleader and pioneering electric guitarist with a long career that extended beyond his swing-era heyday.

The specifics of Rey’s biography are better documented elsewhere (check these overviews for a start: Marc Myers’s Jazzwax and Smithsonian Magazine), but, briefly, Rey (born Alvin McBurney in 1908) started on banjo while growing up in Cleveland; barely out of his teens and playing professionally, Rey adopted the electrified steel guitar, then largely seeing use in Hawaiian music.  He followed several years in the late ‘20s as journeyman guitarist with a long spell of national exposure in Horace Heidt’s Musical Knights, where he helped pioneer the lap steel in swing music.  Rey formed his own group, the Alvino Rey Orchestra in the late ‘30s, and this group, which included not only the Four King Sisters – themselves formerly of Heidt’s group (Rey was married to one of the sisters, Luise King) – but also young jazz modernists like Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and fledgling arrangers like Neal Hefti, Ray Conniff and Billy May, established themselves as a big attraction in Los Angeles, scoring hits in the early ‘40s like “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” “On the Alamo” and “Music ‘Til Dawn.”  Rey formed a new orchestra in 1946 after returning from World War Two service in the Navy, and would enjoy more success – “Cement Mixer,” “In An Eighteenth Century Drawing Room” and “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover” were hits – for a time with this much larger group.  The guitarist had a recurring role, and national exposure, again between 1965 and 1968, alongside the King Sisters on The King Family Show.  Alvino Rey led small groups after that, including a long spell at Disneyland, and eventually settled in Salt Lake City, where he died at age 95 in 2004.

While a household name at mid-century, Rey deserves to be better known these days, if for nothing else than for his early embrace of electronic technology.  Perhaps it was that he never had the fortune of having an iconic guitar named after him like fellow bandleader, guitarist and inventor Les Paul, or that his earliest guitar showcases didn’t always transcend electronic novelty.   But Rey was one of the earliest to push the boundaries of the electric guitar and electronics in the swing era, making his instrument sing and “speak.”  Not to mention the equipment he hand-built and hand-wired from an early age, or his development of the pedal steel guitar and the proto-vocoder electric “talk box.”

It didn’t help that for a time after World War Two Rey tied his fortunes to large jazz orchestras, whose prospects for success in the post-War years were diminishing rapidly.  Either way, Rey’s career was shifting from leading groups to lucrative behind-the-scenes session work during the ‘50s, and, to my ears, it’s this part of his discography that holds up the best.  Represented to a certain extent on Rey studio albums like Ping Pong and My Reverie, it’s his prominent guitar work on a series of bandleader Juan Esquivel’s late ‘50s and early ‘60s records for RCA and Reprise that are most exemplary.   Rey’s splashy playing – various swoops, runs, screeches, squiggles, futuristic accents – were a captivating and instantly defining feature of the swank stereophonic sound of Esquivel’s orchestra, with albums like Other Worlds Other Sounds and Exploring New Sounds in Stereo channelling mid-century America’s manic, Googie-esque sensibilities with a matching confidence.

“The Bat,” recorded and released during Rey’s golden period, reflected something of the same space-age production aesthetic, though, as the eponymous theme to the 1959 Vincent Price movie, it forewent cocktail perkiness for something much grittier.  Rey owns the side, his ascending slides adding an unusual and otherworldly quality to textbook crime jazz bombast.

  1. “I can only hope that I will be remembered for my piano concerto, or my choral piece, Celebration, and not the inferior movies I was forced to be associated with.” imdb.com
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