Sunday, November 24, 2013

Duke Ellington's Anatomy Of A Murder: Flirtibird

Duke Ellington's Flirtibird (which also shows up in a variation called Almost Cried, another Anatomy Of A Murder theme, which put the same melody in the trumpet rather than the alto sax) is the theme played virtually every time that Lee Remick's character, Laura Manion, makes an appearance. When you see the film (it looks like someone posted the entire thing at ), you will notice that Remick is dressed relatively conservatively compared to today's trends; chalk that up to the fact that the movie was made in 1959, and at that time the fact that Laura Manion meets Attorney Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart) wearing pants rather than a long skirt was controversial in and of itself! Regardless, Manion quickly proves herself to be a “Flirtibird,” and there's no better musical representation of that sort of character than the most seductive saxophone in the history of jazz, Johnny Hodges.

The lead character in Anatomy Of A Murder is Paul Biegler, an amateur jazz piano player, freshwater fisherman, and former District Attorney who lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. For those of you not from the Midwest, think of the U.P. as Michigan's sportsman's paradise--the part of the state where fisherman and hunters feel as at home as jazz musicians. Marquette, Michigan might as well be a universe away from Detroit and Chicago. Somehow, Biegler manages to find time to maintain an extensive library of jazz recordings (which, his secretary informs him, the attractive Mrs. Manion took a long listen to while waiting for Biegler to arrive at his office one day) and sit in at “Pie-Eye's,” a roadhouse where piano player Pie-Eye (played by Duke Ellington) and his band (Ray Nance and Jimmy Hamilton) entertain a loud crowd at all hours of the night.

Today, we would not think anything of using a major world-class musician to score a film. Indeed, Duke Ellington had been in any number of films prior to Anatomy Of A Murder. However, in all of those films (one of the earliest examples being the unimaginably awful Amos & Andy: Check And Double-Check, the only redeeming moment of which is three minutes during which Ellington plays some of his hits at a dance, see 35:06 of the video at ), Ellington was on-screen playing music, or someone was playing a record of his music, etc. Ellington had never before been asked to write or record the score to a film, in which he would (for the most part) not actually be seen playing. Here is what critic Gary Giddins has to say about the score, from a short documentary on the Criterion Collection edition of the film:

“One of the amazing things about Anatomy Of A Murder is that—it's a long film, it's almost, I think, three hours—but it doesn't play that way. It's perfectly made. I think it's Preminger's most perfect film. One of the reasons it's so compelling to us is that, in a way, we have caught up to the score. Now, a lot of people liked the score when they first heard it. But the score is even more uncharacteristic of this kind of a film than having Jimmy Stewart play an ambiguous figure. In fact, in some ways, it's parallel. Because jazz, at that time, had been used in a number of movies, in the mid-50's. I Wanna Live was the big breakthrough in that a jazz composer wrote the score. But usually, when jazz was used in a movie, it was a diagetic thing, where you can see the—there were musicians on the screen playing it. Or, somebody's playing a record. Or, it's on the radio. You see the source of it. It's not the score per se. But in the 50's, this began to change.

“Jazz was very popular with grown-ups. It was the alternate music to rock 'n' roll, which was considered strictly for kids. Ellington, who had a long history in the movies, had never actually been asked to write a score, and he was delighted with the opportunity. Preminger sent him the script, and we don't really know what his response was to the fact that this is about a lawyer who is in the upper part of Michigan. When jazz had been used in other movies, they were urban films, it made sense; there were nightclubs, there were streetwalkers, there were pimps, and gamblers, and gangsters, and all kinds of revolting people. And it was always New York City or Chicago. Here we are in trout-fishing country! But Ellington is the great American composer. Everybody in the country is listening to Duke Ellington. It just makes perfect sense. But people didn't see it at the time. They thought it was counter-intuitive, which in 1959 it was.

“The fact that [Otto Preminger] is from Europe, the fact that he's Viennese, probably contributes to his idea that jazz is American music, which Americans never quite got! People are going to the film now, partly, because they want to hear what Ellington's score is. And Preminger's use of it is, I think, ingenious.

“Ellington became famous, he was about, what? Twenty-seven, twenty-eight years old when he played at the Cotton Club, went in there in 1926. By 1927, people knew that there was this remarkable composer who wrote music that was like nothing they had ever heard. So in the 1930's, he became a major figure. And a lot of people who were hip to what was going on there wanted him in their movies. Mae West used him in a movie. He was in the Amos & Andy movie Check And Double-Check, which movie is mostly regarded as offensive, not just racially but because it's one of the worst movies ever made, by any standard. It's almost—it is—unwatchable, except for the two and a half minutes where Ellington is. And one of the ironies is that the little money that the movie made—it did make money—was mostly in black communities, because people wanted to see Duke Ellington. In those days, that was the only way—you'd heard about him, but now you could walk into a theater and wow! This was not the kind of black figure that you saw in the movies; there was nothing servile, there was nothing minstrel-like about this extraordinary man. He was handsome, he was confident, he had authority, the music was thrilling. Those two and a half minutes probably did more for Ellington's career at that moment than almost any recordings he had made to that time.

“And by the 1940's, he's extremely highly regarded in the classical world and the jazz world, and his records are among the best selling in the country. It all began to fall apart for him at around '44, late '43, when all the big bands started to die off. And most of them did die off—they just, they couldn't, the players had been drafted, dance halls had to deal with a cabaret tax, so a lot of them just bought extra chairs and tables and put them over the dance floor, converting them into nightclubs. Small bands had come into vogue, and they were so much cheaper to get around the country, and to hire, and to put on smaller bandstands. For all these reasons, things just seemed to get worse for a long time.

“And then in 1956, everything turned around when they did come back, and Ellington had this amazing performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, where he played the Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue, Paul Gonsalves played a legendary 26, 27 chorus blues solo, the audience went crazy, somebody from Time magazine was there, they finally—finally!—put Ellington on the cover. So from that point on, he's at Columbia Records, he's making very successful records, especially the Ellington At Newport, which was brilliantly produced by Ellington and George Avakian, fixing things in the studio, making it even more exciting on disc than it was live, it's really an amazing achievement in, in just in producing an album and creating the illusion of a live performance, and keeping all the excitement.

“With Anatomy Of A Murder it is very exciting music, it's got this great opening theme that—Peggy Lee later wrote a lyric to it, it's a very hard-driving kind of blues theme. Then it has a 32-bar part. It's got a great back-beat on the third beat...

“In terms of Hollywood, in terms of the film community, jazz is the music of lowlifes. Just as an example, a terrible cliché in film music throughout the 1950's: every B noire film, there's some moment where you see, I don't know, Dorothy Malone or Jane Greer, one of those or some femme fatales, in a tight dress, up to no good, or else you're just in a bad part of town, and on the soundtrack—Andre Previn just stomped us into the ground, every film he was ever involved in—you'll hear this alto saxophone playing this kind of glissando. Well, the ultimate glissando genius was Johnny Hodges. I mean, he is the most popular soloist in the Ellington band and he's associated with this wonderful rhapsodic sound, which he gets in part because his, his embouchure is so sure that he can play a glissando that goes to two different octaves, he can actually phrase so that he goes from one octave to another without the glissando! And the sound is totally sensual. So it's not that big a leap to go from sensual to sexual, if that's the point of the piece.

“One of the great moments of the score is the first time you see Lee Remick, she's leaning against a car. The band goes into really sensual—high sensual Ellington mode—which is part of his music going all the way back to the Cotton Club, where he played behind very sexy dancers. The reeds—the reeds are the sexy part of the orchestra. And then, just right as you see her, you hear Johnny Hodges play one of these glorious glissandos that you would think would just shame every other score Hollywood composer from ever using that cliché again, because there's nothing more to be said about it! So there's a certain wit involved there, and at the same time, it's like... damn! It's like, you know, she's in stereo! Because the way Hodges is playing, and the way she looks, it's just a perfect match...”

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