Jazz, Cocktails, and the Overlooked Players of Film Noir

by Brice Ezell

7 June 2017

A noir protagonist usually finds himself encountering a new danger around each corner. A jazz musician, in venturing into the throes of an intricate composition, must also anticipate the unknown.
Anne Baxter and Nat King Cole in The Blue Gardenia 
cover art

Jazz and Cocktails: Rethinking Race and the Sound of Film Noir

Jans B. Wager

(University of Texas Press)
US: Mar 2017

You know it, even if you haven’t taken the time to parse out its implications. When you watch an old-school film noir and take in all the things that make the genre indelible—shady men in suits, femme fatales, smoking guns, whiskey glasses rarely empty—one stylistic feature stands out as central to noir’s appeal. Rarely will there be an old-school noir that doesn’t in some way feature jazz, usually performed by black musicians.

The characters in noirs like Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Out of the Past (1947) regularly stroll into swanky nightclubs with cigarettes dangling in their mouths, and it’s not long before they’re seated at a table, drink in hand, watching the coolest of American musical idioms unfold in front of them. The historical co-terminus of jazz and noir couldn’t have happened any other way: just like noir, jazz predicates its sonic experimentation on uncertainty and the unexpected. A noir protagonist usually finds himself encountering a new danger around each corner. A jazz musician, in venturing into the throes of an intricate composition, must also anticipate the unknown.

English professor Jans B. Wager joins a small but significant crop of scholars who have studied the interrelation of jazz and noir with her latest monograph, Jazz and Cocktails: Rethinking Race and the Sound of Film Noir. The premise of Wager’s book is simple, even as its implications are profound: what if, in thinking of noir, we treated the background with the same depth as the foreground? For Wager, “Jazz adds a dusting of complexity to Hollywood films noirs, and the additional presence of the jazz musician in the film ensures the complexity cannot be ignored” (18).

Superficially, the films that Wager considers in Jazz and Cocktails—the prenominate Sweet Smell of Success and Out of the Past, in addition to Elevator to the Gallows (1958) and modern neo-noirs like American Hustle (2013), among others—employ jazz musicians and jazz clubs as background dressing, a means of spicing up a scene. (The older noirs are the source of Wager’s strongest readings; contemporary films like American Hustle are given a rather cursory treatment of only a few pages.) This undoubtedly holds true at a basic level: much of noir’s appeal is in its surfaces, and there’s nothing quite like a beautifully photographed jazz club, as much of Jean-Pierre Melville’s filmography evinces. (That Melville’s Le samourai [1967], which centrally features a black jazz pianist, was not included in this volume is a bit of an oversight.) But for Wager, the surface is not enough; the use of jazz in noir involves far more depth than most let on.

In Wager’s account, jazz in film noir intersects with the growing civil rights movements of the mid-20th century and all the various social issues involved with those causes. Wager’s readings of numerous noirs spans nine chapters, and in each case, she aims to bring to the forefront what is typically perceived as classy background noise. For Wager, Nat King Cole’s brief presence in the B-noir The Blue Gardenia (1953) functions as far more than a simple celebrity cameo and instead illustrates a microcosm of how black performers like Cole were expected to perform in society.

Jazz musicians in Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Jazz musicians in Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

In one of the best chapters of Jazz and Cocktails, Wager unspools the complicated musical politics of Sweet Smell of Success. The film features diegetic music performed by jazz drummer Chico Hamilton and Fred Katz, which is then contrasted with a jazz-inflected score by Elmer Bernstein. This conflict, argues Wager, reveals that “jazz music, composed and played by black and white musicians on screen, invests the film with elements beyond those overtly taken up by the narrative” (62). These and other readings of noir films in Jazz and Cocktails operate on a premise central to film music, which Wager phrases succinctly: “...music sometimes refuses subordination to the images” (78). This is a point I have argued for elsewhere on this magazine (see Should Film Music Stand Alone? 10 July 2014).

Wager’s argument for jazz’s significance in noir relies on both historical contextualization and a tricky theoretical framework. With respect to the former, Jazz and Cocktails lays out numerous historical factoids that will be of use to both jazz and noir aficionados. “Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955, the same year Kiss Me Deadly first appeared in theatre” (58), she writes of Robert Aldrich’s classic noir. In tying together the numerous points of overlap between jazz and noir, Wager “argu[es] for a theorized spectator who might be active, knowledgeable about jazz, and capable of reading a film’s music separately from the narrative”, while conceding “that paradigm does not describe all spectators” (2). Put simply: Wager’s book presupposes there are people capable of and interested in seeing jazz’s role in noir the way she does.

Wager’s keen historical eye for the complexities of jazz and noir’s interplay makes Jazz and Cocktails a rewarding read for those who work in or are interested in numerous scholarly disciplines, including film studies, film music studies, noir, and race, to name a few. Where her argument gets murky, however, is in its conjuring of a “theorized spectator”, and that spectator’s relationship to Wager’s invocation of Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, or “alienation effect”.

One of the ways Wager accounts for the important role of secondary jazz scenes in noirs like Sweet Smell of Success is to argue that such minor scenes typify Brecht’s alienation effect, in that their presence “arouses attention and potentially leads to social action and engagement rather than numbing or deadening the spectator to that potential” (18). Employing Brecht in this fashion is odd, given that the alienation effect is not meant to be employed piecemeal, used only for one sliver of the plot of (in Brecht’s case) a play or (in noir’s case) a film. As originally conceived by Brecht, a play like Mother Courage and Her Children as a whole is meant to shatter that famed 19th century invention, “the fourth wall”, and stir in the audience a drive toward Marxist politics. This alienation is complemented by a style of acting wherein characters are presented, rather than embodied—the distinction between miming a character and “living the life” of a character a la Daniel Day-Lewis. By presenting a character, an actor reminds his audience: You’re in a play, now don’t forget it.

A scene from Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947)

A scene from Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947)

These elements of the alienation effect do not exist for the films that Wager reads in Jazz and Cocktails. What her argument effectively shows is that, if one pays attention to the jazz scenes in many noir films, she will see numerous subtextual political and social issues that inform those films. This does not in any way require the theoretical apparatus of the alienation effect. Describing the black jazz musician character Steve in Sweet Smell of Success, Wager writes, “When a black man appears as the coolest and best man in the movie, some questions are raised in the mind of the spectator. The alienation effect takes hold” (75). This is an enormous leap, one that overcomplicates a point that could be made more directly.

Wager’s point about the use of jazz in Sweet Smell of Success highlights that jazz operates in a subtle but significant way, but it does not align with numerous other facets of the alienation effect. She does not exhibit how the characters in the film exemplify Brechtian acting—a critical component of the alienation effect—nor how the film as a whole operates as a work of alienation. Political and social subtext in one plot does not give a whole text an alienation effect. Wager even concedes that “the film allows Bernstein, not Hamilton and Katz, the last musical cues”, signifying that the film’s Hollywood techniques do at times overpower the more intriguing implications of its sub-plots. Jazz and Cocktails is a fine historical re-framing that has no need for such a theoretical lens.

One theoretical lens that does make sense of many of Wager’s readings is Emile Durkheim’s notion of a “collective conscience”, a kind of societal state of mind comprised of shared beliefs. At one point, Wager cites the work of Chinen Biesen on the effects of the Production Code, a mid-century set of censorship standards in American cinema: “As the cultural climate became more hard-boiled and pessimistic, film noir did as well” (40). In applying this line of thought to the issue of race and noir, one can trace a far simpler and more compelling argument than the pseudo-Brechtian readings Wager often advances: as America’s collective conscience (“cultural climate”) evolved on the matter of race, so too did the representations of black jazz performers in film, particularly in noir, where jazz was an understood stylistic element of the genre. Wager’s theorizing becomes far clearer when it strays from the complexities of the Brechtian actor-audience relationship and emphasizes the gradual political and social shifts that parallel the secondary but critical jazz scenes in noir.

Yet even as Wager’s thorough research and lesser-known historical details (such as a lively account of a Utah jazz club in the first chapter) trip over Brechtian alienation, they nonetheless provide a deep account of jazz’s valuable contributions to noir that go above and beyond providing a background score to set the scene. Her clear prose maintains an academic level of sophistication while not isolating non-specialists with jargon and excessive extra-textual references.

Credit is also due to the University of Texas Press for publishing Wagner’s volume in an affordable and accessible paperback edition, rather than the impossibly expensive hardcover format so common to academic presses. Anyone interested in just what else is going on with the jazz scenes in Sweet Smell of Success, Out of the Past, and other films like them would benefit from Wagner’s research. Some theoretical bumps in the road don’t mitigate the value of Wagner’s ultimate point: like the detectives in classic noir pictures, we the audience must look past what appears to be nothing more than musicians playing on a stage to see what else is going on behind the notes.

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