We have shared the notion that writers use jazz as shorthand to convey that their characters are cool and sophisticated. Gabriel Macht’s character in “Suits,” John Corbett’s character in “Sex and the City” and, most famously, Ryan Gosling’s turn in “La La Land” are vivid examples of writers using the love of jazz to help mold the image of the character in the minds of the audience. There are some Robert De Niro and Al Pacino roles that also utilize jazz in this way.
Where did this phenomenon start? Certainly, there is a long line of film noir movies that use jazz, but, at that time, jazz was the music of the day. So, the question pending is when was jazz used more as a prop or a theme-builder than as a current soundtrack? Marc Myers, writing for the Wall Street Journal last weekend, suggests that the character Peter Gunn may be ground zero. His article is fascinating. I spent a large part of the Labor Day weekend seeing if I could verify his findings and I concur that Mr. Myers hit it on the nose.
Peter Gunn, both the name of the show and the protagonist, began airing on NBC 60 years ago. The idea was to develop a detective who departed from the stereotype hard drinking, rough and tumble coarse heroes of the 1930s and 40s. Think Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Richard Widmark. The creator of Peter Gunn wanted a detective who was well dressed, without bad habits and debonair — the kind of man that women would love, and men would love to be.
Here is where the story became interesting to me. “Peter Gunn” was the creation of a then-struggling Blake Edwards, who turned to an equally struggling young composer to create the score for the show. The young composer was Henry Mancini and it was Mancini who told Edwards that jazz, both as background music and as a hobby of the character, would go far to selling Peter Gunn as being cool, sophisticated, independent and powerful, a man of his own mind, comfortable in his own skin and ready to take on the world. Imagine if loving jazz could really do all that. We could bottle it, put it on the internet and make a fortune!
In any event, the series was a hit and ushered in an era of sophisticated sleuths like James Bond, etc. Obviously, Edwards and Mancini went on to enormous success as a team and individually. Mancini’s contribution to jazz deserves a separate OUR TAKE and we will do that one day, but I cannot help but believe that the team’s amazingly successful “Pink Panther” series, which features a Jerry Lewis-like bumbling detective (Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau), was their tongue-in-cheek send up of what they created with “Peter Gunn.”
Check out this YouTube presentation of the iconic theme to “Peter Gunn.” Even if you do not remember the series, you will instantly recognize the tune.
Our Take is written by Michael Lazaroff, Executive Director of Entertainment Cruise Productions. Feel free to express your views or pose questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.