Thoughts On Jazz, Chico Hamilton, New York & Sweet Smell Of Success

Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 film Sweet Smell Of Success has become an American classic in the years since its initial release.  Much has been written about the films dark themes, James Wong Howe’s cinematography, Ernest Lehman’s script, and of course Burt Lancaster’s iconic performance in the role of J.J. Hunsecker.  So there seems little left for me to discuss.

However, few people to my knowledge have written very much about the films musical score.  I don’t mean the music of Elmer Bernstein, I’m referring to the cool jazz sound of The Chico Hamilton Quintet.  The band appears in the film, despite the fact that a feature length score by Hamilton had been rejected by the films distributor United Artists.  Fortunately, the score Hamilton composed and recorded is available on record.  The B-side to this treasure is a twenty minute long improvisation by the group on the themes established in the tracks on side A.

Hamilton’s score is fresh, and pulses with Big Apple energy, just as Sweet Smell Of Success does.  Unlike his contemporaries, such as David Amram, Hamilton’s work for film is not reliant upon orchestrations or lavish productions.  The arrangements in Hamilton’s score are sparse, aggressive, and ultimately direct.

There seems a clear correlation between Hamilton’s score for Sweet Smell Of Success and John Lurie’s jazz scores for the early Jim Jarmusch classics Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, and Mystery Train some twenty five years later.  It’s become an established tradition in American cinema to accompany a New York based drama with a jazz score.  Is there any medium of music better suited to express the metropolis?

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Spring 2012

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