Q&A with Eddie Muller:
The 'Czar of Noir' Talks Music and Film with SFJAZZ

The co-curator of the Jazz/Noir Film Festival, taking place May 19-21 at the Balboa Theater, author Eddie Muller is the man behind the annual San Francisco NOIR CITY film festival, as well as the founder of the Film Noir Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to "rescuing and restoring America's noir heritage." In May, he'll be hosting the Jazz/Noir evening screenings, and also presenting "A Night in Noir City," featuring Charlie Haden's Quartet West in a benefit concert for the Film Noir Foundation.
 More about Jazz/Noir
Film Noir basics (Wikipedia)
Film Noir Foundation

The Art of Noir and other books by Eddie Muller
SF Chronicle archival article on the Noir City Film Festival

SFJAZZ conducted the following interview with Eddie Muller earlier this spring...

Q: As the title of this festival lets on, all six of these Noir classics from the late '50s have something to do with the jazz of the day. What does film noir have in common with jazz?

A: It's fascinating that jazz and noir have become synonymous, because there are no movies from the classic noir era (roughly 1944-1952) that have a jazz score. Orchestral scores in the classical European tradition are predominant. Jazz appeared within the films, however, typically in nightclubs, a setting that's vital to these movies -- it's where the players in the urban American demimonde intersect, and jazz is the sound they swing to. In the forties, jazz in films was representative of two things: sex and the underworld. And both, of course, are essential to film noir. 

Q: Are there any threads you see connecting this particular half-dozen films and their soundtracks?

A: They're all from the 1950s, when cultural changes and studio economics led to jazz being accepted, on a somewhat experimental basis, as viable for film scores. Jazz is an essential component of the films in this series, rather than being used to define one aspect of the mise en scene. As a group, these films disprove that jazz is ill-suited for film scores because of its improvisational nature. Miles Davis's score for Elevator to the Gallows is largely improvised, but Ellington's score for Anatomy of a Murder and John Lewis's "third stream" score for Odds Against Tomorrow are tightly-composed. In general, and in these films specifically, jazz is used to evoke a mood rather than to manipulate the audience to feel a certain emotion. It takes confident directors to do that.

Q: And now, a true 21st-century question: Why should I go to the Balboa Theater to see these films instead of staying at home to watch them on DVD?

A: Movies are society's communal subconscious. We sit together, the lights go down, we share a common dream-state. We may all interpret the dream differently, but seeing a movie in a public venue is as close as we can get to a temporarily shared consciousness. It's an experience. When was the last time you heard somebody say they had an "experience" watching a DVD? Also, I'll be introducing the evening shows, and providing some context. So I guess I'm like the "special feature" on the DVD.

Q: This festival is focusing on jazz in the cinema, but your own Film Noir Foundation is about to present a concert of live jazz—specifically, Charlie Haden's Quartet West—called "A Night in Noir City." How does Charlie Haden's music relate to film noir?

A: Mainly through his love for the films and style of the original era. It's only one aspect of Charlie's immense repertoire, but it's one he feels deeply. The Quartet West albums, particularly Haunted Heart, were designed as the soundtracks to noir films that existed only in Charlie's head. Its partly homage, and partly a re-imagining of period film scores through piano, sax, bass, and drums -- saying, in effect, this is what it should have sounded like. The concert is a benefit, to support the Foundation's effort to rescue and restore vintage noir films in danger of being lost. It's a mission that Charlie relates to on a musical level. He, however, can interpret the originals; once a film is lost, it's gone forever.

Q: On the topic of "Noir City," what do you see as San Francisco's two or three greatest contributions to the Film Noir legacy?

A: It's where Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon, one of the building blocks of crime fiction, and by extension, film noir. Thematically, it's a city people escape to, in order to reinvent themselves — a major noir theme. It's the setting of many great noir films: Dark Passage, Lady From Shanghai, Sudden Fear, Thieves' Highway, Born to Kill, Nora Prentiss, The Lineup, as well as Woman on the Run, a brilliant film that I'm proud to say was resurrected at the first Noir City film festival in 2002.

Q: In your opinion, are there any particular films, or genres of film, in recent years that mix drama and soundtrack music as effectively as the classic films noirs?

A: I'd like to see filmmakers get away from the ingrained notion that the saxophone is the be-all and end-all of the noir sound. I like the scores that Terence Blanchard has done for Spike Lee's crime dramas, Joe Hisaishi's scores for Beat Takeshi, the great moody pieces that Angelo Badalamenti does with David Lynch. He wrote songs for Nina Simone, did you know that? There's much more freedom today in the way a film can be scored, and I appreciate filmmakers who explore that, rather than just filling the soundtrack with pop songs. 

Jazz/Noir Film Festival
Friday-Sunday • May 19-21
Balboa Theater

Important Note: Beginning this Friday, May 19, tickets for the Jazz/Noir Film Festival will only be available in person at the Balboa Theater box office, beginning at 12:30pm each day of the festival. Tickets can only be purchased at the Balboa for same-day screenings.

Last week’s question was:
"Elis Regina," "Maria Rita," and "Rita Lee" are all celebrated names in Brazilian popular music (or "MPB"). Aside from this musical connection, what do the names of these three singers have in common?

We received a number of intriguing and obviously knowledgeable responses from you, our e-News readers (and we would expect no less!), several pointing out that Elis Regina named her daughter, Maria Rita, after Rita Lee. But what all three names of these singers have in common is that they are stage names formed by dropping the women’s surnames: Elis Regina [Carvalho Costa], Maria Rita [Mariano], and Rita Lee [Jones]. And the winner of the Maria Rita CD+DVD set is… Marcia Bennett of Berkeley. Congratulations Marcia!

Now here’s this week’s contest question, kindly contributed by film noir maven Eddie Muller:

In the 1944 film noir Phantom Lady, Elisha Cook, Jr. plays a jazz drummer who tries to impress leading lady Ella Raines by beating out a wicked solo at an after-hours club. Who actually handled the sticks for the recording of this famous scene?

And this week’s contest prize: Two tickets to the SFJAZZ Spring Season’s multi-media spectacular "Fat Albert: Live Jazz + Classic Cartoons" on Saturday, June 3, starring the SFJAZZ All-Star High School Ensemble plus special guest Joshua Redman. This time, the 3rd person to answer the question correctly will take the prize. Good luck!

Email Your Answer (include "Film" in the subject line of your email)

The fine print: Our contest winner will be notified directly by e-mail, and both the winner’s name and the correct answer to the question will be published in next week’s e-News. The following are not eligible to enter: employees and current contractors of SFJAZZ and its seasonal sponsors; past e-News Jazz Trivia Contest winners.

Global groove-fest: "Baaba has a thrilling voice," says the BBC of the Senegalese superstar. "[His]
live performances… are magnificent." Just added to the bill, Algerian-born, SF-based Cheb i Sabbah unites African, Arabian, and Indian sounds in the
premiere of a new ensemble of musicians and dancers in the wake of a new CD.
Baaba Maal podcast on WNYC
Baaba Maal Video (Palm Records)
Cheb i Sabbah Profile & Interview (BBC)
5.19-21 Jazz/Noir Film Festival
6.03 "Fat Albert: Live Jazz + Classic Cartoons"
SFJAZZ All-Star High School Ensemble w/special guest Joshua Redman
6.10 Savion Glover (2 shows!)
6.11 Shelly Berg Trio
6.11 Paquito D'Rivera Quintet
6.16 Baaba Maal/Cheb I Sabbah & 1002 Nights
(Just added to the bill!)
6.16 Kenny Werner and Claudia Villela
Complete Spring Season Schedule


Music and motion come together in a free performance collaboration between the SFJAZZ All-Star High School Ensemble and student dancers from four SFUSD elementary schools on Wednesday, May 24, in the North Light Hall Court of San Francisco’s City Hall.

The festivities get underway at 5:30pm with a reception and opening remarks from SF Mayor Gavin Newsom, followed by the performance at 6pm. This innovative event is the culmination of a partnership between SFJAZZ’s Education Program and the San Francisco Ballet Center for Dance Education, and is presented as part of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services’ ART@MONS Program.

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