The Black Composer in Films - by John Caps


Like so many other arts and industries, the side-craft of film music has been slow to acknowledge and to hire Black composers, believing them to be a specialty act, valuable when, for instance, the setting of a film was ethnically colored or historically specific – but perhaps not right for everyday, mainstream film subjects. What about the Black composer per se, though – the broadly trained musician writing broadly descriptive and widely varied music for films, who just happens to be Black? Should he or she really be limited to providing only scores based in jazz or rap or funk?

Certainly, the use of jazz as a dramatic language in films pre-dates the first Black composers on the payroll. A couple of firebrand producer/directors of the early 1950s – Elia Kazan and Otto Preminger – were the first to bring jazz onto the soundtracks, employing jazz-savvy Jewish composers like Alex North and Elmer Bernstein to mix jazz gestures, harmonies, instruments and improvisation with conventional narrative orchestral music in a few groundbreaking scores that had special ethnically-tinged settings and plots. That was White jazz, though.

Duke Ellington It was that same Preminger, then, who claimed to have commissioned the first nondiegetic music score from an African-American composer, Duke Ellington (b.1899), for his 1959 courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Murder. But was that the first Black soundtrack score? It remains doggedly Big Band music as opposed to dramatic/descriptive scoring most of the time, though it is at least nominally cognizant of the story on screen when, for instance, a jazzy rhythmic driving cue slows and darkens in order to accommodate the mood of the next scene. It is sometimes said that Ellington was actually a fairly late arrival in the history of Black composers on screen -- that the first Black musician in the film scoring busines was Will Vodery (b.1885) who had worked as an orchestrator with the Ziegfeld Follies, then came to Hollywood, working at Fox, and finally graduated to general scoring duties around town. But it is difficult to call him a full-fledged dramatic composer and, anyway, there is a whole history of Black concert music to consider before we turn to films.

First came the ragtime pioneers of the 1900s such as Scott Joplin and Ferdinand (Jelly Roll) Morton. Then there were more classically oriented Black composers in the first third of that century – figures like Will Marion Cook, William Grant Still (whose Afro-American Symphony was first performed in 1931). But let us spotlight one of their colleagues here, Mr. Ulysses Kay who actually moved from successful early concert music into the most early of film scoring.

First Chance for Blacks

Ulysses Kay Born in Tucson, Arizona, Ulysses Kay (b.1917) predates Ellington in screen music by a whole decade: witness 1948's half-documentary, half-dramatized film about a young Black boy's experiences in the US Child Welfare System, titled The Quiet One. Produced by teacher Helen Levitt and directed by Sidney Meyers, the film's first half loosely chronicles 10-year-old Donald's brutal, lonely existence on the streets of Harlem; then, in the second half, it details his daily life once he's been committed to a reform school and how he tests the various counsellors there. Ulysses Kay's music score for the film is built mostly on suspended chords, harmonies straining, posing unanswered questions, tensing and jostling. It's a sound that draws on a previous era's New Deal composers with elements of Copland and of Kay's own classical mentor Paul Hindemith; music that also reminds me of academic American composers of that day like Roy Harris, Marc Blitzstein or Ingolf Dahl.

Ulysses Kay: The Quiet One Suite and more - album cover An ensemble of winds is joined by a string quartet, a solo trumpet, piano and, when action is needed, a snare drum. There are some emotional, leaning harmonies when Donald's absentee mother visits him once; some agitated figures with spikey piano lines when Donald rebels against the unfairness of his whole predicament, and yet a happy cavorting energy for trumpet and bassoon when bright spots appear to give the boy some hope of fellowship with one of the counsellors. Three horns and solo winds seem to suggest a more solid future for Donald late in the film and yet the whole score, like the wary tale we're watching, can only manage a suspended harmonic at the end, still posing rather than resolving the same question of "Who speaks for the quiet ones?"

But now, when would more Black composers get opportunities in film scoring? Who would open that door in the post-war movie world? Otto Preminger was one. Another was the boldly theatrical director Martin Ritt: he hired Ellington for Paris Blues in which Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier portrayed jazz artists of Paris's Left Bank scene. Although there are more isolated set-pieces of Black jazz than dramatic scoring in this film, attention is definitely drawn to the very idea of the Black composer in film (the "Battle Royale" sequence is a stand-out). The score was nominated for that year's Oscar award.

Elsewhere, similarly-unconventional filmmakers like John Cassavetes were hiring Afro-American jazzman like Charles Mingus in 1960 for his radical film, Shadows – improvisatory music for an improvisatory cinema style. And, more famously, horn-great Miles Davis (b. 1926) was said to have improvised his whole score for the 1957 Louis Malle film Ascenseur pour l'Echafaud (aka Frantic) though there is some controversy surrounding that claim as Davis himself has been quoted as saying "Malle wanted me to write the score, but I had never written music for a film before. So, what I would do is look at the rushes of the film and get musical (modal) ideas to write down. Then I worked from there".

At the same time, and also in Paris, the pianist/leader of the popular Modern Jazz Quartet, John Lewis (b,1920), was beginning to score films like Sait-On Jamais (aka No Sun in Venice) using some of his own strikingly original fugal techniques; scoring also Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow with its famous "Skating in Central Park" music sequence – all of it with a chamber-music charm and clarity (piano, vibes, bass, drums). And yet somehow it also had a certain Black-awareness in its choice of harmonies and bent-tones at the end of lines. John Lewis's MJQ had always courted the Black intellectual set, but with his film scoring he found himself attracting all kinds of listeners, just enjoying the universality of it all.

Breaking into Mainstream Hollywood

Quincy Jones: The Cinema of Quincy Jones - album cover Some people are surprised to learn that Quincy Jones (b.1933), composer/arranger for such disparate pop acts as Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, had likewise received the training of a Parisienne intellectual via his year of study with avant garde composer Olivier Messiaen. And yet, Jones's future Hollywood colleague Henry Mancini once told the story of receiving a phone call from some mogul at a big studio who was considering Jones for a first film scoring job: As Mancini described it, "I only gradually realized that I was being felt-out for an opinion about Quincy; and the question was, Did I think a Black man could handle a dramatic picture??" This would have been for the 1965 Sidney Lumet film, The Pawnbroker starring Rod Steiger as a Holocaust survivor living a buried and bitter life in the slums of NYC.

Quincy Jones: The Pawnbroker - album cover Again, the Harlem setting may have been what first suggested a Black composer to the producers of The Pawnbroker. In the end, Jones gave them a roiling, punchy, Big Band score for the scene-setting sections of the film, spiced with the neighborhood's Spanish lingo. But he also keyed the Steiger character's flashbacks of Nazi torture with jangling dissonant chords and effects, while supplying a milder, flowing melody to accompany memories of the pre-war days when the pawnbroker still had a young, unmolested family and his own dreams were of the bright future rather than the dreaded past. The climax of Lumet's film and of Jones's score, though, comes as Steiger bends over the dead body of his young, naïve pawnshop clerk – a neighborhood kid gunned down in the lawless streets. Though we can see the pawnbroker's outrage, his mouth wide open screaming at the sky, we hear no voice: instead, just a shrieking solo trumpet from Jones's score and it is as if the whole world freezes there. (I take this to be Quincy Jones's tribute to a similar scene in a film from ten years earlier -- maybe the most powerful film music moment in all of cinema -- Ravi Shankar's scoring in the Satyajit Ray film Pather Panchali when, as a poor rural family kneels over the body of their teen daughter felled by a virus, the natural sounds of the soundtrack are erased and all we hear is the high, reedy, piercing notes of a tarshehnai pipe from the music score in place of the family's cries.)

An even more demonstrative score was penned by Jones in 1967 for Richard Brooks's chilling black-and-white film, In Cold Blood, about an ordinary midwestern family summarily murdered, for no apparent reason, by two aimless drifters. The score combines unsettling atonal lines, deep bass elements that even the film's sound engineers objected to as being unwieldy, some swagger-beats indicative of the misfit killers, and a whole cadre of tactile sounds: finger snaps, slapped body parts, empty soda bottles tapped rhythmically – all traditionally nonchalant sources of rhythm that seem to mock the intense violence we know is boiling under the surface of these characters.

Obviously, if we just take Quincy Jones as proof, the gifted Black composer can score the same range of sounds and styles as anyone else, without needing to "sound Black". And Jones did his own share of polished mainstream pop scores, too (For Love of Ivy) -- and caper scores (The Hot Rock) – even westerns such as the colorful McKenna's Gold, before growing bored with Hollywood and moving on to his own record-breaking career in records. Anyway, Hollywood was now beginning to notice the money-value of Black music on the pop scene and wondering how to get that very specific energy and spirit onto movie soundtracks.

Isaac Hayes: Shaft - album cover The 1970s began with the perfect vehicle and composer: Isaac Hayes's (b. 1942) Oscar-winning music to the Black detective yarn, Shaft, a mix of funk beat, smooth sexy voices, and sharply written brass/sax punches. It won the award for Best Song but it really was a piece of exciting functional scoring and should have been nominated as such. The film's director, Gordon Parks (b. 1912), had brought Hayes on board and knew exactly what he was getting: a cutting-edge black-as-pitch soundtrack. The interesting thing, though, is to consider Parks away from Shaft. He was something of a polymath – an expert at everything. He had started as an award-winning photographer for Life Magazine, then had written an autobiographical novel, "The Learning Tree," about his own growing up in rural Kansas, then had both written and directed the film version of that book. But what is more, he was also a schooled and resourceful composer in his own right. His conventional orchestral score for the film of The Learning Tree (1969) is full of nostalgic tuneful music, choral hymns, descriptive orchestral passages underscoring a tornado scene, even a playful buoyant vivace for a sequence at the old swimming hole. His main song, "Where Grows the Learning Tree?" is Disney-sweet, made of 4ths and octaves, but then is varied endlessly throughout the film: heard first from a studio chorus; later as a baroque harpsichord piece, then as a mock-dirge during childhood games, still later as a Schubert-like piano concerto paeon to young love and, at last, as a sober andante behind the life-advice soliloquy given by the wise old blind uncle of the main teenaged character. Again, so-called Black music is various.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Most of what we've been recounting here is not what most would consider 'typical' Black music, it is true. The cliched blues notes and bent chords and cool rhythms have not often been in evidence here, but it has been Black-observed music, proving again the obvious: that any literate composer of Black heritage can write in any given genre, and it becomes Black music by virtue of its originator, just as any Frenchman can write a Broadway tune; any symphonist can use a jazz idiom. Technically and meaningfully, those are still Black music, French music, symphonic music.

Terrance Blanchard The various film scores of Terrance Blanchard (b.1962) are fairly easy to spot as coming from a Black jazz background, but they are also carefully structured and classically aware. Blanchard was a student of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, eventually becoming its artistic director. But his trumpet-playing experience in the Lionel Hampton orchestra is whatr brought him to the attention of the recording industry, then of Hollywood where, before long, he would become the favorite composer of director Spike Lee doing soundtracks that knew both how to swing and how to narrate story lines with tension-and-release motifs that framed the characters on screen: films like Jungle Fever, Clockers, the epic bio-pic Malcolm X, and the Oscar-nominated music in 2018's BlacKkKlansman. He's contributed to forty films so far. In 2021, he becomes the first Black composer to have an original opera scheduled at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the ambitious "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" with a libretto by Kasi Lemmons, presented already at the St. Louis opera. In addition, Blanchard has been tapped as visiting professor at the Berkeley College of Music.

And coming along on a similar track, if a generation behind Blanchard, is Baltimore's own versatile keyboardist/composer Camara Kambon (b.1972), a product not only of the Berkeley College but the Baltimore School for the Arts and the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute. "I was not all that competitive as a young kid," he has told us. "I remember going up against my best friend Shawn Peterson (now a successful actor) at a piano recital. What'd I play?...I think it was 'Maple Leaf Rag' and he blew me away! Anyway, it wasn't till Berkeley – that's when I started listening around more to more kinds of music; not just pop and keyboard stuff but Steve Reich and George Crumb and Penderecki and Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny. I'm a fusion of all that". Kambon's entrance into the big time included a lot of experience co-writing and producing radio tracks for divas like Mary J. Blige and rappers like Eminem and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Then came the scoring of several television documentaries from the HBO and PBS networks including the Emmy nominated Malcolm X: Make It Plain.

Camara Kambon - Malcolm X: Make it Plain - DVD cover With himself on keyboards, Kambon scored Make It Plain for six players and used his music more like underlining than as narrative support – a sort of ongoing reflection on the legacy of Malcolm: quick background comments for tenor sax and piano and string bass that sound a bluesy, troubled note as Malcolm's story unfolds. Initially, there is rhythm and determination in the music that opens the documentary, but soon only that skeptical modal tonality is being offered and only in discreet passages that mark Malcolm's milestones: the murder of his father, his prison years and the entrance of Islam into young Malcolm's life, and the launching of his defiant spirit, first within and soon apart from the Nation of Islam mosque. Malcolm's rage at the Black/White impasse of his day, his frustration with the peaceful intentions of the Civil Rights movement, his horror when White supremacists fire-bombed a church in Alabama where four little Black girls were killed, are variously but ever-so-subtly rendered in this score by such compositional devices as trembling string bass figures sparked by snare drum and piano filigree, a high solo soprano sax, and then a flat-out passage of sax blues to a walking beat as Malcolm realizes all at once that he'll probably have to walk his path alone as White liberals, Black Muslims, African intellectuals, and so many of his own friends have begun to think him too radical for his own good, and have begun to turn away. There are also Kambon's ringing, consoling chords on a Fender Rhodes keyboard behind tenor sax as actor Ossie Davis reminisces on screen about "our Black prince , Malcolm". But the modesty and steady sadness of most of this music score seems to be the one element left to sympathize with Malcolm's doomed (but ultimately important) crusade. The end credits of Make It Plain return us to the opening blues rendered by Billy Pierce's sax and Camara's keys.

Theatrical film commissions would follow for Camara Kambon. Director Tyler Perry heard about him and Oliver Stone hired him to score the Al Pacino flick, Any Given Sunday. There followed La Carona about life in the Bogota Women's Prison and Biker Boyz with Larry Fishburn, a sport-racing mystery story. Somewhat like Blanchard, Kambon shows a penchant for the jazz sound-world of his main characters but a full awareness, too, of the dramatic functional grammar that a narrative score needs to have. The main difference between the two musicians is that, whereas Blanchard's trumpet-bias more often manifests in theme lines, Kambon's keyboard background comes out in tonal clusters and complimentary motifs over a chordal base.

Carrying On

Carrying on the perspective of the Black composer in films, if arriving from a different direction, is the young-ish Cleveland USA-native Chandra Dancy (b.1978), a veteran of the indie rock music circuit, having played-in and written for the performance group Modern Time Machines and gaining experience through exposure on YouTube, scoring Wong Fu Productions' ongoing melodrama series, Everything Before Us which, in half-hour episodes, follows the young multi-cultural clients and counsellors of a DEI agency as they officially work to integrate new citizens into the given society but unofficially integrate emotionally and romantically with one another. A scene where a new Russian émigré, Eskra, gives a piano lesson to Randall, her Asian counsellor, using the Chopin Etude Op. 10, #3, seems to give composer Dancy her basis for the ongoing score in future episodes – mostly a piano score as hesitant and laconic as the shy characters on screen. These are mostly brief, polite music cues, except once when certain characters begin to take control of their new lives and relationships, and Dancy, as though on their behalf, spins a baroque allegro on the keyboard – the first real self-conscious scoring we've heard in the series. Piano motifs and arpeggios continue to spot the complicating relationships while, in late episodes, what sound like synthesized string chords, sometimes running backwards, lay behind whole scenes.

Chandra Dancy: Thrasher Road - album cover Being a viewer-controlled medium, YouTube already gives the impression that only fleeting attention is necessary so that Dancy is probably wise not to get any kind of a flowing score going, but one gets the same impression from her other soundtracks as well: they each seem to be fragmentary, though their variety-of-sounds is impressive: Thrasher Road features country fiddling and vocals (Chandra is a violin player, pianist, and sometime vocalist); the horror film Lift to Hell (in which there are five elevators to choose from and you don't want to pick the deadly one!) features spooky washes of orchestral coloring (synthesized again?) lushly harmonized like a John Williams score but never developed or cumulative in nature. Thus far in her career, Dancy's opportunities for scoring have often been for short films or limited-access small screen productions with titles like Killer Cove, Pigeon Kings, and My Teacher, My Obsession. As soundtracks, these are almost completely unaware of any Black cultural influence; unconcerned, too, it would seem, with any sense of personal expression or the desire to make their own statement outside the immediate needs of the plot. In one sense, this sparseness and this modesty is laudable (i.e. 'just serve the story-at-hand; don't try to make a name for yourself'). But in the long term, it's an unnecessary modesty on Chandra Dancy's part because, as a fledgling composer, she has already shown a strong and colorful personal voice – part Black; part universal.

Take, for instance, her seven-minute concert work for orchestra and chorus, Centrifuge: The Powers That Separate Us. It opens with a searching line for solo flute with which other winds blend in increasingly speculative and restless ways. Sections within the orchestra begin to differentiate and bring animation to the work. Brass, used as a block, build a stronger foundation under the woodwinds and, before we realize it, the chorus has entered, first providing sustained harmony, occasionally breaking into shouts and picking up on the animation of the piece's development section. But soon, the mounting energy reverses course; the instrumental forces gradually rescind and we are left with just the solo piccolo repeating what it suggested in the beginning and, although the questions remain, there is the feeling that a discussion has been had.

That very centrifugal shape and dramaturgy of Dancy's Centrifuge makes one wish that she may get some bigger future film commissions where she can feel free enough and driven enough to apply her obviously formidable orchestral skills to some more directly descriptive, interpretive movie music – at once more cinematic and more personally engaged. We look for that day.

In Conclusion (for now)

Certainly, the origins, the culture, the race, even the gender of a composer may each have an influence on what music comes out, but individuality is what's unique; that's what drives creativity. So-called Black music these days must encompass all the genres and resorts we have just been surveying here. In a sense, of course, there must be a Black slant to all this music no matter what idiom the composer has chosen, just by virtue of the composer's birth: when Puccini wrote his American-themed opera, Girl of the Golden West, there was an unavoidable Italian lilt; when Dvorak was moved to write American tunes into his New World Symphony, he brought an unavoidable Bohemian accent to it all; when Gershwin wrote Porgy and Bess there was, inevitably, an ancient Jewish wail behind that music that empathized strongly with the Black suffering in the libretto; a shared humanity.

So, our conclusion is that when any Black composer writes a film score for a specific story on screen, it must, of needs, contain his or her ethnic perspective as well. And they should be proud of that. Film music certainly, and indeed all music, can only benefit from the unique individuality of each writer and each race.

by John Caps

The author: John Caps

John Caps has written on music for High Fidelity/Musical America and the New York City Opera; and on film music for Film Comment, Film International, National Public Radio, The Cue Sheet, and the University of Illinois Press's "Music in American Life" series.