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Dialogue - Frank Griffith talks to Sir John Dankworth Print
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Dialogue - Frank Griffith talks to Sir John Dankworth
2. Initial involvement in scoring for films.
3. Working with Joseph Losey.
3. Defining the requirements of the score.
4. Potential for creative freedom.
5. Notes and References.

dankworth_john_5_100.jpg Writing jazz for film scores has its particular problems.   Frank Griffith discusses the aspects of Jazz in 1960s British New Wave Cinema with Sir John Dankworth

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Intro – The development of jazz writing for film scores.

Sir John Dankworth, the eminent English composer, conductor, bandleader and jazz musician, has written in many genres, including over twenty film scores.   Of these, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Criminal (1960), The Servant (1963) and Darling (1965) in particular, played a major role in bringing about a new sound in British film during the 1960s (Note 1).

The first major jazz-influenced score was penned in 1955 by Elmer Bernstein for Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm.   To the composer himself, the kind of music needed was obvious.   As Bernstein put it:

  • 'There is something very American and contemporary about all the characters and their problems.   I wanted an element that could speak readily of hysteria and despair, an element that would localise these emotions to our country, to a large city if possible.   Ergo -jazz' (quoted in Prendergast 1977:109).

Also worthy of note is Johnny Mandel's score for Robert Wise's I Want to Live! (1958) which featured Gerry Mulligan, Pete Jolly, Bob Envoldsen and other fine LA jazz players.   The distinct feature of that score was that it actually used improvisation and the jazz was linked into the movie.   It was a dark story, based on the actual case of a woman framed for murder, and helped to establish the frequent association of jazz with crime and the urban.

It was not surprising, then, that at the end of the 1950s, when a new wave of contemporary urban realism hit Britain, directors there too looked for modern sounds to match the mood and drama of their films.   And what better music to underscore this reality than jazz, with its cachet as the music of the oppressed?   When directors sought someone who could fulfil their need for this new music, John Dankworth, already Britain's leading modern jazzman, was playing the right music at the right time.   Indeed, throughout the 1950s, his group, the Johnny Dankworth Seven (see picture, right), which included vocalist Cleo Laine, had been paving the way for modern jazz in Britain.

FG - (Frank Griffith) Who were you influenced by when you first started composing film music?

JD - (Sir John Dankworth) Funnily enough, before then I didn't really rate film music and I didn't really listen carefully enough to it or study it closely enough to know of anything I would like - anything I would say that I approved of very much.

FG - You said in an interview in Jazzwise magazine in 2004 that at the end of the 1950s movie producers were looking for something new, for different sounds for films, and that jazz just happened to be around.


The Johnny Dankworth Seven c 1950s.
JD is at centre; no prizes for naming the other musicians...

JD - Yes, I think that Elmer Bernstein's score for The Man with the Golden Arm worked so well that almost every movie director or producer was looking in that direction to see whether something similar would suit their film equally well.   I guess that's probably why Losey and Reisz approached me.   I was at that time the sort of number one.   I mean, if a non jazz person was thinking of jazz in this country, probably my name would have come up in their minds before anybody else's.   The Humphrey Lyttletons and Chris Barbers were of the other sort of jazz [trad], but they were definitely not looking for that.   They were looking for something more contemporary (Note 2).

FG - Your first two scores involved a fair amount of improvisation, which I think is a real sign of a jazz piece.   Many jazz film scores did not use improvisation, including some of your later ones.

JD - Well, it does have its problems because a director wants each take of the music to be virtually identical, and that's difficult when something is improvised.   Or maybe it doesn't quite synchronise, so you go back and do it again but paced slightly differently.   Or the director might say 'could we have that little rising note?' or 'I did like that instrument that came on there.   Can we have a bit more of that?'   But if you're improvising, you've got little or no control over those things.   However, for chases, and for music where you religiously record and hope that every note is right and examine it carefully before you okay it, when you finally hear it mixed with sound effects and dialogue it's sometimes turned down so low, you can barely hear it! 'next', at right, to read on.....

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