Scoring Cross-Town Traffic

Black Holes on the Soundtrack Part 1

published in The Wire No.166, December, 1997, London

Blackness. From Andre Williams to Sun Ra, from John Coltrane to Blow Fly, from Roland Kirk to Bohannon - we now have an endless supply of musical ebonomic documents whose hi-res bit-mapping engraves the grooves of blackness in all its potpourri complexity. The isolation and segregation of 'race music' in America through the first half of this century has to a large degree been retrospectively stitched together by so many CD re-issues, granting responsive ears the luxury of repeated listening to get closer to those outer satellites of the black planet. Most would agree that to ignore this history when it is so readily available amounts to aural discrimination. Yet what of blackness on the movie soundtrack? The recouping of a black sensibility in the cinema has been and remains far more difficult.

Historically, cinema is arguably the mutant offspring of the Recording Industry, genetically created by cross-fertilizing music publishing with motion picture technologies. The mutation effect lies in the ways in which cinema had attained a monstrous degree of normalisation by the 20s, generating populist mythologies faster then the pacing of its pop fiction. The visual became monstrous. Pop tunes from the Tin Pan Alley era could become infectious and whistled across America, but the audio-visual burn of fusing music with images in so-called silent movies left many psycho-social scars. Anonymous yet broadly interpreted tunes were tyranized by image codes and socially acceptable standards of what could be depicted and what was deemed unsuitable for exhibition or documentation. The result was a leaning toward a visual homogeneity, thickened by successive layers of conventions, icons and cliches. Racial, ethnic and regional differences which musically could thrive as characteristic stylings were either rendered absurd or harshly suppressed when images had to be tracked to their recordings. Where the sound of blackness enjoyed a pervasive presence through its invisibility as music, it consequently paled on the white screen - and would continue to do so for many decades to come.

Yet blackness - as much a virulent, adaptable amoeba as a clear, potent essence - can be felt as muted sub-sonic waves on the soundtracks of Hollywood's classical cinema. From the smeared jazz of gangster movies to the mottled R'n'B of Broadway musicals, African-American musics squirm like dancing insects under Hollywood's Euro-Caucasian blanket of fiction. Rather then be dismissed as unauthentic tracings of 'true' black music, the irksome pseudo-jitterbuggery which peps Hollywood film scores through the 30s and 40s should be regarded as Hollywood's inability to suppress the sono-musical swell that is black music: offensive to the cultured taste-drums of the time yet too impressive to be aurally absented.

Blackness first oozes from its suppressed depths through the cracks deliberately engineered in social conscious cinema of the late 50s and early 60s. Reflecting a developing black consciousness that equally affected black and white America, Quincy Jones' score for Sydney Lumet's THE PAWNBROKER (1965) is among the first dark drops which would eventually become a gushing sea of shiny, funky oil. Jones' background as a band arranger and studio producer is integral to his combining of an urban black sensibility with a studied and perfected European-style mode of orchestration. Moments in THE PAWNBROKER deftly slide between the two. While there are tonal shades highly reminiscent of the brassier moments in Duke Ellington's breathy and powerful score for Otto Preminger's AN ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959), Quincy Jones composes and conducts his score like an unwelcome alien, an ill-fitting being. Ellington's score is a seamlessly woven R'n'B/jazz text which embodies the film's narrative wholly. Jone's score - like a Jew in Spanish Harlem (a la Rod Steiger's character) or a black on the Hollywood soundtrack - declares its displacement clearly. The main title's use of vibes, celeste harpsichord and harp tantalisingly cast semi-jazz clusters against a monophonic semi-blues line played by thickened strings. It's like hearing Ellington and George Gershwin simultaneously. It's black and it's jazz and all the space between.

In another sense, it is also funky. Not as in the percolating rhythms which mix erotic down beats with lazy syncopation into those pulsations we normally associate with funk music, but 'funky' as in a heady brew of extreme contrasts and polyglottic textures which celebrates Otherness. Throughout THE PAWNBROKER, that 'melting pot' of which American culture is so proud (so long as they don't drink from it themselves) sweats and breathes. Latin percussion, fusion-style alto sax solos, be-bop double bass, freestyle drum kit bursts, atonal organ lines - all played by authentic players of Jones' choice - capture the mulatto melodiousness of the real and mythical New York street. No aural homogenisation is apparent; multiple instrumental voices are allowed their distinctive presence in the arrangement and the mix.

Along with THE PAWNBROKER, other scores by Quincy Jones like MIRAGE (1965), THE SLENDER THREAD (1966), IN COLD BLOOD & IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (both 1967) form a cluster which typifies the emerging 'sound of the city' as a brash, harsh, violent urban environment where racial and/or criminal tension is tauter than any violin a soundtrack could record. Strains, glimmers and blasts of soul, R'n'B, blues, jazz and funk are blended into a beautiful African-American sonorum which mark Jones as a key - yet ignored - figure in wrenching the film score from its Wagnerian cave and slamming it down in the midst of cross-town traffic. And just in case you can't hear it on those soundtracks, just listen to Jones inimitable theme for the first hip 'street crime' TV show, IRONSIDE (1967), complete with synth and squealing trumpets copied in numerous TV shows and films throughout the 70s.

Did someone mention the 70s? Try 1971. Academy Award for Theme Song - Isaac Hayes' penultimate SHAFT (1971, directed by Gordon Parks). Some may find it hard to listen to this score devoid of the retro revisionist parodies based on the iconography the score so perfectly stylized. Try it, anyway: you'll hear that the score embodies many of the urban traits Jones had developed throughout the 60s. Hayes himself had enjoyed an impressive career as arranger, producer and composer prior to this score, and his funky and soulful sensibilities are articulated with care and ease in the many moods and colours encapsulated by the ornate sectioning of the main theme as it rolls along the wah-wah wickey-wacky of its sexy rhythm.

The flutes, trombones, hi-hats, guitars and piano of SHAFT crop up in the explosive sound of the black city that is Blaxploitation: a rapaciously anti-white world imaged by and predicated on a black experience of the collapsed metropolis which no Mr-Brady-in-a-frizz-hairdo could architecturally set right. But listen up: this isn't the spooky black-of-night where noir meets crime in the meld of pulp fiction. The domain of Blaxploitation is brightly lit, loudly coloured, sharply focussed and garishly situated. Clothes are vulgar, dialogue is grotesque, comedy is offensive, sex is delicious, speed is noisy, guns are desirable, drugs are food, money is oxygen. And the music is so black, so funky, so potent that it is hard to find a more aggressive period in the history of film scores. This is not a ground-breaking view: listen to rap music from the fifteen years and the it is painfully apparent that Hip Hop is an urban musical culture projected through the dark prism of Blaxploitation in all defiant irresponsibility. The excessiveness in the audio-visual carnivals of Blaxploitation movies are a jubilant celebration of image being returned to sound - imagery which Hollywood had commenced suppressing in the 20s. Blaxploitation movies carry the intensity of blackness in high detail and sharp relief, shining like ebony under arc lights, ignited by the chants of "Burn, Hollywood! Burn!"

The scores are too numerous to list in full (my research indicates around 115 Blaxploitation films were made between 1971 and 1977) but it is worth noting that key soul and funk artists threw their grooves into the melting pot after the explosive success of SHAFT: Quincy Jones (HONKY, 1972); James Brown (BLACK CAESAR, 1972 & HELL UP IN HARLEM, 1973); Curtis Mayfield (SUPERFLY, 1972); Solomon Burke (COOL BREEZE, 1972); Marvin Gaye (TROUBLE MAN, 1972); Bobby Womack & Peace (ACROSS 110TH STREET, 1972); The Impressions (THREE THE HARD WAY, 1973); Osibisa (SUPERFLY T.N.T., 1973); Isaac Hayes (TRUCK TURNER & TOUGH GUYS, both 1974); Willie Hutch (FOXY BROWN, 1974). Screaming fuzz-wahs on every instrument and killer beats all over the place - by the middle of the 70s the action film soundtrack had been recolonised by a deafening blackness that could only be ignored through prejudice. It is embarrassing to note how much this period was actively dismissed and is still today presumed separate from the realm of 'real' film scores (prejudices against which Quincy Jones fought for most of his tenure in Hollywood). Yet if one tracks the consequences of ignoring this, one will inevitably follow the funky soundtracks that thrive despite such critical segregation - from the racially reclaimed orchestrations of Spike Lee's films to the carnal throb of Hip Hop on the soundtracks to new skool Blaxploitation movies.

Text © Philip Brophy 1997. Images © respective copyright holders