Sunday, May 24, 2020

Motherless Brooklyn: A jazz masterpiece

It was inevitable, of course; the moment the ink dries on a project such as this, it becomes incomplete.

Mere weeks after my two manuscripts went to bed last autumn, director/scripter/star Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn hit theaters.

The jazz tapestry is impressively diverse in this compelling and luxuriously atmospheric adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s award-winning 1999 crime novel of the same title. Composer Daniel Pemberton’s alternately agitated and poignant underscore is a treat; the cherry on top is a diegetic jazz club set of iconic covers, by a sassy combo ghosted by Wynton Marsalis and several top-flight associates.

“I wrote the arrangements,” Marsalis explained, “and we used some of our Juilliard students, fantastic young musicians, to play.”1

Lethem’s novel, although contemporary to its late 20th century arrival, has the attitude, atmosphere and plot stylings of 1940s and ’50s pulp detective thrillers. Honoring that style as a jumping-off point, Norton retained the primary character — and very little else — while bouncing him back to 1957, and dropping him into an entirely new story that blends fact, fiction and noir sensibilities in a manner we’ve not seen since 1974’s Chinatown.

Lethem’s intriguing protagonist now clashes with a facsimile of the clandestine, Tammany Hall-style empire ruled by the powerful Robert Moses, the real-world, mid-20th century developer/builder who — by manipulating politicians behind the scenes — ruthlessly transformed New York City into his vision of a metropolis. It’s a fascinating slice of history, which Norton cleverly blends with the character that he also plays in this thoroughly absorbing drama.

Lionel Essrog (Norton) and colleague Gilbert Coney (Ethan Suplee), operatives of a small-time detective agency run by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), tag along when he arranges a meeting with shadowy figures left unspecified. Frank is more than a mere boss to Lionel; he’s also mentor, friend and protector. When Frank winds up dead, this hits Lionel hard, particularly since he’s far from “normal.” He’s obsessive/compulsive and also suffers from an uncontrollable tendency to erupt in nonsense speech: often punning, rhyming and “clanging” against what somebody else has just said. He’s constantly forced to apologize for the “glass in his brain” that prompts such spontaneous outbursts; we recognize this as Tourette Syndrome, a designation not at all familiar to the characters in this re-imagined 1950s version of Lethem’s novel.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020


Welcome to, the companion blog to my two-volume study of this genre — Crime and Spy Jazz on Screen, 1950-1970 and Crime and Spy Jazz on Screen Since 1971 — published by McFarland & Company.

If you've somehow found this blog before first, you can place advance orders via the McFarland links to the right. 

(And if you've arrived after finding the URL in purchased copies of one or both books, you've made a starving author very happy.)

My goal, with these two books, was to provide a contextual survey of action/spy/detective/crime jazz, from its television and film origins (1949 and '50, respectively) to the present day: a celebration of all the cool music by Henry Mancini, John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, Edwin Astley, Quincy Jones, Laurie Johnson, Jerry Goldsmith and hundreds more. Unlike the few existing books on this topic, I wanted to discuss the way in which a score is used within a movie or television show: how and why a composer's efforts helped — or sometimes hindered — the finished project.

And — equally important — the degree to which a director knew how to employ the cues for maximum impact (along with the lamentable cases where a director clearly didn't have the slightest idea how to effectively place music).

This project began not quite five years ago, as a pitch for a single volume not to exceed 125,000 words. (Boy, that was naïve!) After spending months building lists of potential candidates that fit the plot criteria, I wound up with 486 films and 750 TV shows; they were whittled down to 350 and 206, respectively (the others discarded for their lack of jazz scores).

Then came 3-1/2 years of viewing, listening, analyzing and then writing, with the resulting manuscript running just shy of 600,000 words. Okay, fine; first drafts are over-written. Several rounds of judicious pruning later, I wound up with 250,000 words: still far too many. But at this point, I knew that further trimming would have deleted too much of the "good stuff." The text would have been compromised beyond repair, destroying my intent to supply a truly definitive study of this jazz sub-genre.

Fortunately, the kind folks at McFarland agreed with my proposal to re-write the contract for a two-book set, thus preserving every word of that final draft.

Of course, a project of this sort begins to go "out of date" the nanosecond after publication. While it's true that the golden age of jazz scores is decades behind us, with scant few new ones debuting, it's important to acknowledge those that do arrive. That'll be one of this blog's functions: to serve as an ongoing update.

Late 2019's Motherless Brooklyn, to cite a recent example, arrived after these books "went to bed." Its sensational jazz score, boasting considerable work by Wynton Marsalis (among others), will be covered in a future post.

Of equal importance, this blog also will allow me to discuss films and TV shows that I either overlooked — such as 1989's Harlem Nights (and how I missed that one is a mystery for the ages) — or simply didn't know about until recently, such as the 2016 miniseries Four Seasons in Havana.

I also expect to hear from readers demanding to know how I possibly could have forgotten about this movie, or that TV show. All such input is welcome, although please take note of the books' limitations (and mine). Although intended to be a definitive study of American and (to a slightly lesser degree) British output, I had to hold the line at only occasional acknowledgments of international entries from farther afield. As an obvious example, I've no doubt an entire book could be devoted to 1960s and early '70s Italian spy jazz, given all the secret agent knock-off movies that were cranked out, in the wake of '60s Bondmania. Ergo, please don't take it personally if I've omitted one of your favorite films or TV shows, or completely "overlooked" a particular composer. Or two. Or three. Such decisions were borne of practicality, not prejudice.

I hope this becomes a lively forum where fans can help each other empty their bank accounts, in pursuit of ever more sensational jazz scores.

Let's keep on swinging!