Family Ties

By Brantley Thompson Elkins


This is the story of a family tree, but it’s got nothing to do with my genealogy, or yours, or anybody else’s. It’s about a musical family tree, and a mystery. There’s a kind of music often called “film noir jazz,” from its association with film noir movie themes. It’s a slow, moody sort of jazz, usually with a trumpet solo. You’ve probably all heard it from seeing the movies themselves, or from soundtrack albums. Here are a few examples posted at YouTube.


David Shire, Farewell My Lovely, 1975:


John Barry, Body Heat, 1981:




Angelo Badalamenti, Fire Walk with Me, 1992:


You’ll recognize the family resemblance in these themes, but there’s a mystery here. Where did film noir jazz come from in the first place? Not from the first generation of noir films in the 1940’s, as witness the main theme from the first adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic hard-boiled detective novel, which was co-written by Leigh Brackett (a pioneering woman writer of science fiction and hard-boiled mysteries; Howard Hawks hired her on the basis of her first hard-boiled novel No Good from a Corpse) and starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall:


Max Steiner, The Big Sleep, 1946:


I’ve been a movie buff and a music buff (mostly classical, but some pop) all my life. I’ve always been obsessively curious about whatever interests me, such as science fiction (I’m an independent scholar in that field.). I even bugged Shadar back in the day about where the Aurora Universe came from. Like paleontologists searching ancient cave rock strata for the origins of human and other life, I’m obsessed not just with what things are but where they came from. In a book about movie director David Lynch, a friend of mine had characterized Badalamenti’s theme for Fire Walk with Me as a sort of modal jazz, a form neither major nor minor, neither happy nor sad. It turned out that she was relying on a friend of hers who taught music, and that what he had in mind was Kind of Blue, Miles Davis’ groundbreaking album that was the fountainhead of modal jazz. So I gave Kind of Blue a listen:


Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, 1959:


Good, but very definitely not what I had in mind. Moreover, the point of modal jazz, at least to my friend who wrote the book about Lynch, was to be emotionally neutral – whereas film noir jazz is fairly dripping with emotion. I was really bugged about this, but I was butting my head against the wall. Ordinary Google searches for “film noir jazz” led nowhere at the time. And then, years later, it occurred to me to try searching YouTube for “film noir jazz.” Here’s the first thing that came up, headed “Tribute to FILM  NOIR:”


Miles Davis, Frantic (Ascenseur pour L’Échafaud), 1958:


And there it was. After a decade of frustration, I’d found it. It was Miles Davis, after all, but not from Kind of Blue, but rather from the main theme (“Générique”) for a French film noir directed by Louis Malle. It was released here as Frantic, but the original French title translates as Elevator to the Scaffold. You’ll notice that the YouTube video features stills from noir films of the 1940s, including Bogart’s, that used entirely different kinds of music.


I mentioned this “discovery” to another long-time friend, who’s a fan of hard-boiled detective stories and noir films, and it turned out he’d known about it all along. I guess I must have never asked him about it, although it should have occurred to me to do so. And since I came across the “Tribute to FILM NOIR” video a couple of years ago, I see that somebody has put up a link to Davis’ “Générique” that popped up at the top of a Google web search for “film noir jazz.”


I touched on this story in 2008, in my own tribute to Angelo Badalamenti here at The Bright Empire. A number of the links there have gone dead since then, and I’m not sure if I can find substitutes for all of them. But what I’m aiming at here goes beyond the subject of Badalamenti; it’s part of my fascination with cultural turning points. When we think of turning points, we usually think of the strictly military and political: Hiroshima, the Stonewall riot and the like. But there are other turning points just as decisive.


Not long ago, Velvet and I saw the movie Coco and Igor, which has to do with a love affair between Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. A supposed affair, actually, since biographical entries on both indicate that any such relationship was only rumored. In any case, as seen on the screen, the affair seems rather tepid – Stravinsky comes across as a cold fish, and Chanel as rather shallow. She’s a lot more interesting when she’s heading up the research and development operation that created Chanel No.5. And Stravinsky – well, the movie starts with a re-creation of the near-riot at the 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring, an event that changed classical music forever, just as Beethoven had changed it a century earlier. It also changed ballet forever. The film’s version of the riot is online, but the screen image is tiny and the sound quality poor (except for the commercials!). A better version below is from a BBC documentary, Riot at the Rite:


The Joffrey Ballet’s recreation of the original ballet, without the riot, is here:


There have been cultural revolutions that utterly failed. Serial music never caught on except with a small band of elitists, just as so-called experimental fiction never made it past the little magazines. But Stravinsky did catch on; you can recognize his impact in the work of composers as diverse as Bela Bartok and Silvestre Revueltas – as you can tell from a performance of the latter’s “Sensemaya:”


“Sensemaya” is a very original work, not a mere pastiche of The Rite of Spring – and yet it would never have been composed in an alternate history where Stravinsky was never born or his ballet never happened.


Alternate history – a science fiction idea. Has it ever been applied to something like this?