Spy Jazz

by David Smay

I blame my wild misconception of jazz on TV, specifically, the syndicated reruns of 77 Sunset Strip. Growing up as a pathetic suburban schlub, I found this sophisticated detective jazz irresistibly intoxicating, a potent cocktail of swaggering brass, shimmering vibes, bossa nova hipsway, sultry sad-eyed sinners, beat bopping bongos, soul-wrenching sax and twangy, lurking, skulking electric guitar.

Imagine my surprise on finally buying a Charlie Parker record and finding exactly zero twangy guitars in the James Bond mode. Ditto on the bongos. Ditto on the moody moods. Real jazz pummeled me with tedious artistry, working me over like a KGB goon squad.

Years of tortuous self-education fostered some appreciation for the real thing. I learned to love Johnny Hodges’ creamy sax tone and Coltrane’s Ballads cultivated a perfectly pitched melancholy. Dizzy Gillespie’s bongos and congas fell short of the Beatnik ideal I craved, however, hampered as they were by authenticity. Still, MJQ poured out vibes in liquid, effortless improv and I finally even found some twangy jazz guitar by Bill Frissell.

But what about the debased studio jazz I’d loved in the first place? That strictly-arranged version of the much-slighted West Coast Cool school of jazz. I wanted the jazz-candy of Brubeck’s “Take Five”- but in an 8-hour loop, a perpetual soundtrack to enhance the suave quotient in my life. Joe Strummer’s ad-libbed outro on London Calling haunted me: “Bongo Jazz a speciality!” “Yeah, but where do you get Bongo Jazz?” I wailed. Was there such a thing? “Lars,” I said to my friend Lars, “I need bongo music.” His reply, “Then you need Henry Mancini’s Touch of Evil soundtrack.”

Jackpot! Bongos galore. Bongo chase scenes. Bongos rattling to cue sudden alertness or menace. Creeping-around-corner arrangements. Brawling brass section P.I.on-the-case themes. Ominous anxiety-provoking basslines (so this is where Morphine stole its licks for flix). Honking instrumental grime rock. Flashing neon-light saxophone blues. Vivacious nightlife fake mambo music. Touch of Evil covered all the bets. It wasn’t difficult, challenging or inaccessible. It was shallow, cheap and so very satisfying. In short, it wasn’t jazz/art it was jazz/pop. But without the instinctive scorn triggered by lite jazz.

I discovered that, like any great covert operation, the Spy Jazz influence was both pervasive and invisible. High school bands bleat out “Peter Gunn” unmindful of the show that spawned it. The “James Bond Theme” still generates a trebly jolt of anticipation. The mind-control mastery of Spy Jazz is so complete that it is virtually impossible to flip past a channel while Lalo Schifrin’s Mission Impossible theme plays, or to skim over the surging, boat-leaping, frogman-bashing music of Jonny Quest. [Nomenclature Note: The immutable laws of phrase-making dictate the use of “Spy Jazz” to slur over two distinct but related genres: the jazz material associated with TV detectives of the late-Fifties and the rocking reverb guitar and organ instros that scored the spy craze of the mid-Sixties. “TV Detective Jazz”– cumbersome, jizzless. “Spy Rock”- simply uncool, conjuring such misfires as Freedom Rock and Cop Rock]

I had to do some legwork to uncover this coolly corrosive conspiracy, this secret undercurrent in my pop unconscious. I followed a lead in Incredibly Strange Music and turned up Mickey McGowan praising the virtues of private eye jazz. He cited composers like Mancini, Pete Rugolo, Kenyon Hopkins. At a record swap I scored a copy of More Music from Peter Gunn from Jack Diamond, a DJ at Foothill Junior College with a regular show on — Spy Jazz! (Jack Diamond and the House of Games, skimming the creme off all the essential instrumental pop genres, Sundays 9 a.m.-12 noon, 89.7 KFJC-FM in the Bay Area.) We talked about John Barry’s soundtrack for Beat Girl, and after trading e-mail with Jack I got him to cough up a list of Spy Jazz classics:

Jack Diamond’s Top 20 Spy Jazz Scores

  • Johnny Staccato- Elmer Bernstein… I Want To Live- Johnny Mandel …
  • Richard Diamond- Pete Rugolo… Sweet Smell of Success- Elmer Bernstein
  • More Music From Peter Gunn- Henry Mancini…
  • The Nervous Beat (Lonelyville)- Creed Taylor Orch./Kenyon Hopkins [not a soundtrack]
  • Music From The Wild One- Leith Stevens… Music For Cops and Robbers- Leith Stevens
  • Man with the Golden Arm- Elmer Bernstein… Bullitt- Lalo Schifrin
  • TV Action Jazz Vols. 1 & 2- Mundel Lowe All Stars
  • Poe for Moderns- Buddy Morrow Orchestra… Johnny Cool- Billy May
  • Seven Golden Men- Armando Travajoli
  • Music for a Private Eye- Ralph Materie [not a soundtrack]
  • Impact Vols. 1 & 2- Buddy Morrow Orchestra
  • Themes for Secret Agents- Roland Shaw and his Orchestra (on Phase 4)
  • In Cold Blood- Quincy Jones
  • Touch of Evil- Henry Mancini (released on CD by Varase Sarabande)
  • The 10th Victim- Pierro Piccioni

And my personal picks.-

  • Beat Girl. The John Barry 7. Packaged with Barry’s Stringbeat on the import CD — a must for fans of EZ pop pizzicato string plucking. Surf bands looking for a ripe cover, take note: “Zapata” = high grade faux Morricone.
  • Dr. No. Arguably the best of the Bond soundtracks. Primo guitar instros: “Dr. No’s Fantasy,” the immortal “James Bond Theme,” “Twisting with James.” Whatever happened to Monty Norman?
  • 77 Sunset Strip soundtrack
  • TV’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2. “Courageous Cat” covered by the NY Dolls(!), “I Spy,” “The Avengers,” “The Saint,” “Jonny Quest.”
  • Hawaiian Eye soundtrack. Notable for its mix of Spy Jazz and Exotica, a combination usually reserved for bongo albums.
  • Batman. Neil Hefti. Available on CD. Not really Spy Jazz, but interesting organ-based rock. Includes the ominous “Mr. Freeze,” plus you can do “The Batusi.”
  • Man from U.N.C.L.E. Both volumes available on one German import CD. Like the Batman soundtrack, this is mid-Sixties material, mixing jazz and rock elements. * Notable composers: Jerry Goldsmith, Lalo Schifrin, Morton Stevens. The cuts “Run Spy Run,” “Jungle Beat,” and “The Invaders” rank with the very best in Spy jazz, while “Ilya” betrays a strong Shadows influence.
  • Then I discovered Buddy Morrow’s albums, Impact and Double Impact. Buddy covered a slew of themes from obscure private eye shows of the Fifties and Sixties that I’d never find in a lifetime of record-bin scouring: “Riff Blues” from the original Mike Hammer, “M-Squad” (composed by Count Basie, starring Lee Marvin), “Staccato’s Theme” (starring a young John Cassavetes as Johnny Staccato private eye/jazz pianist), “San Francisco Blues” from The Lineup or “Bourbon Street Beat.” Plus, both Impact albums contain curiosities like the otherwise forgotten Western “Black Saddle,” the stirring martial beat of “Men in Space,” and Buddy’s outrageously Esquivelian arrangement of “Hawaiian Eye.”
  • An added virtue of TV detective soundtracks of the late-Fifties and spy movie soundtracks of the mid-Sixties is that many of these records spike their scores with instrumental rock. The Touch of Evil soundtrack has at least three cuts that ought to be covered by Southern Culture on the Skids: “Leasebreaker,” “Son of Raunchy,” and “The Big Drag.” (Laika & the Cosmonauts have a special fondness for spy music, covering “Get Carter,” “The Avengers,” “Mission Impossible,” and * * “The Ipcress File,” and writing secret agent man rockers like “S.P.Y.D.A.s Web” and “The Man from H.U.A.C.”) More Music from Peter Gunn contains a menacing guitar instrumental titled “Spook” that’s begging for the attentions of a Link Wray acolyte. John Barry’s Beat Girl soundtrack is rife with rock.

On the prowl for Spy Jazz? Dig in where you shop for vinyl: used record stores, record swaps, garage sales. E-Z listening bins cough up some finds (often among the compilations), but most of your scores will be in the soundtrack section. Don’t neglect the jazz bins, though. I found The Nervous Beat under “T” in jazz (Creed Taylor Orchestra). Look for specific composers (Mancini, Rugolo, Bernstein, Hopkins). Look for West Coast studio jazz musicians; Shelly Manne on drums is always a good sign. Check out the instrumentation: lots of strings? Be wary, but don’t dismiss it out of hand. Vibes? Yes! Do the individual titles intrigue? “Blues for Beatniks,” “Goofin’ at the Coffeehouse,” “The Teaser,” “77 Sunset Strip Cha Cha,” “Martini Built for Two,” “Poker Game,” “Juan Coolisto,” “Greenwich Village Rumble,” “Kookie’s Caper.” Keep an eye out for the soundtracks to grim, realistic movies that promise: “A shocking look at one of the most pressing problems in society today!” Spy Jazz record jackets tend to favor angular graphics and action-posed silhouettes.

Spy Jazz didn’t come into vogue until the very end of the Noir cycle (most Noir films had a classical European-style score, if they had one at all). Investigate movies and TV shows from the late-Fifties through the mid-Sixties, focusing particularly on the years ‘59 and ‘60. Any soundtrack recorded near the Spy Jazz epicenter (1959) can yield a fascinating gem like Fred Katz’ jazzy little soundtrack to Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors (which Rhino re-issued in the eighties), or The Jazz Soul of Dr. Kildare.

Don’t shy away from titles that promise near approximations of other composers’ work or you’ll miss Music to Read James Bond By (its classic cover displays a recumbent gold-dusted nude browsing through her Ian Fleming collection). Remember, these were recorded when a spicy new arrangement was practically as good as a new composition. If you’re willing to pay extra for cult TV shows or movies, check out the record stores that advertise “We specialize in hard-to-find and out-of-print soundtracks” in the Yellow Pages.

As always, Mr. Phelps, satisfying the atavistic hunter/gatherer instinct requires tracking through the elusive yard sale score. Labor intensive sure, but one Staccato is worth flipping through dozens of boxes filled with Ferrante and Teicher. Just starting, or only mildly curious? Pick up one of the cheap Mancini compilations that include his Peter Gunn work, or grab Dr No (calypso/surf/spy jazz). Should you accept this obsession, arm yourself with a ready wit and exotic weaponry, disavow any knowledge of the subject to fellow collectors (why give them an edge?), and stock your bar with Bombay Sapphire. The music itself will provide you with that lethal air of savoir-faire that distinguishes both cat-suited spy girls and gin-soaked P.I.s everywhere.