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Sir John Dankworth talks Film Scores
with Frank Griffith


We are grateful to saxophonist and bandleader Frank Griffith for suggesting that we share here his interview with the late Sir John Dankworth. Writing jazz for film scores has its particular problems.   In this interview Frank discussed with John the aspects of Jazz in 1960s British New Wave Cinema.


Introduction – The Development of Jazz Writing for Film Scores.

Sir John Dankworth, the eminent English composer, conductor, bandleader and jazz musician, has written in many genres, including over twenty film scores.   Of these, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Criminal (1960), The Servant (1963) and Darling (1965) in particular, played a major role in bringing about a new sound in British film during the 1960s.

The first major jazz-influenced score was penned in 1955 by Elmer Bernstein for Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm.   To the composer himself, the kind of music needed was obvious.   As Bernstein put it:

Also worthy of note is Johnny Mandel's score for Robert Wise's I Want to Live! (1958) which featured Gerry Mulligan, Pete Jolly, Bob Frank GriffithEnvoldsen and other fine LA jazz players.   The distinct feature of that score was that it actually used improvisation and the jazz was linked into the movie.   It was a dark story, based on the actual case of a woman framed for murder, and helped to establish the frequent association of jazz with crime and the urban.

Frank Griffith

It was not surprising, then, that at the end of the 1950s, when a new wave of contemporary urban realism hit Britain, directors there too looked for modern sounds to match the mood and drama of their films.   And what better music to underscore this reality than jazz, with its cachet as the music of the oppressed?   When directors sought someone who could fulfil their need for this new music, John Dankworth, already Britain's leading modern jazzman, was playing the right music at the right time.   Indeed, throughout the 1950s, his group, the Johnny Dankworth Seven which included vocalist Cleo Laine, had been paving the way for modern jazz in Britain.

FG - (Frank Griffith) Who were you influenced by when you first started composing film music?

JD - (Sir John Dankworth) Funnily enough, before then I didn't really rate film music and I didn't really listen carefully enough to it or study it closely enough to know of anything I would like - anything I would say that I approved of very much.

FG - You said in an interview in Jazzwise magazine in 2004 that at the end of the 1950s movie producers were looking for something new, for different sounds for films, and that jazz just happened to be around.

JD - Yes, I think that Elmer Bernstein's score for The Man with the Golden Arm worked so well that almost every movie director or producer was looking in that direction to see whether something similar would suit their film equally well.   I guess that's probably why Losey and Reisz approached me.   I was at that time the sort of number one.   I mean, if a non jazz person was thinking of jazz in this country, probably my name would have come up in their minds before anybody else's.   The Humphrey Lyttletons and Chris Barbers were of the other sort of jazz [trad], but they were definitely not looking for that.   They were looking for something more contemporary.

FG - Your first two scores involved a fair amount of improvisation, which I think is a real sign of a jazz piece.   Many jazz film scores did not use improvisation, including some of your later ones.

JD - Well, it does have its problems because a director wants each take of the music to be virtually identical, and that's difficult when something is improvised.   Or maybe it doesn't quite synchronise, so you go back and do it again but paced slightly differently.   Or the director might say 'could we have that little rising note?' or 'I did like that instrument that came on there.   Can we have a bit more of that?'   But if you're improvising, you've got little or no control over those things.   However, for chases, and for music where you religiously record and hope that every note is right and examine it carefully before you okay it, when you finally hear it mixed with sound effects and dialogue it's sometimes turned down so low, you can barely hear it!


Initial Involvement in Scoring for Films.

FG - In 1959 Karel Reisz invited you to compose the score for his documentary We Are the Lambeth Boys and the following year you scored his groundbreaking film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.   Could you describe how you originally met up with Karel Reisz, and how you started composing for films in the first place?

JD - Well, I can't remember exactly how he contacted me.   When he first approached me I knew his name but I had no idea of what he was like.   I always imagined movie directors in those days to be sort of cigar-smoking Americans, well groomed and dressed in Sir John DankworthRodeo Drive stuff.   Only much more formal in those days, I guess.   So, when I went to meet him in an Italian restaurant in Soho, I was all dressed up with a collar and tie, whereas I usually wore something much more casual; and he usually, apparently, dressed up with a collar and tie but had dressed down quite casually.   So there was me looking formal and him looking casual, instead of the other way around, and we got on together.   In fact, we had quite a long friendship.

Sir John Dankworth

Karel obviously was a person who wanted to create new styles, rather than follow existing styles.   He'd made a documentary, and someone had written a score which he didn't like it and which he rejected.   I don't know what he did after that, how he replaced it.   But he played this film, or part of it, to show me the sort of music that he didn't like.   It wasn't at all bad, but it was traditional in that it used the sort of effects and sort of music you would expect.   It wasn't trashy in any way, but 'that's what I don't want', he said, 'I just want you to sit in front of this film and think of something'.   But he certainly wasn't a particular jazz fan.   He may simply have heard my records and liked what he heard.

Up to that time I'd had no interest in doing music for movies at all.   Rather the contrary.   I thought it was a compromise, in the same way We are the Lambeth boysthat I also felt to some extent that opera and ballet were a compromise, in that something was distracting the audience when they should be listening to the music.   So I wasn't very keen, but he persuaded me to see the film, which was called We Are the Lambeth Boys. I watched it on a clattery old Moviola which made more noise than an aircraft taking off, so it disturbed your train of thought till you got used to it.   Anyway, I looked at it and, all of a sudden, something happened in my head, and I started hearing music which I could never have imagined myself doing before.   The scene was so descriptive and the way it was shot, and the way the story was being told, was so sympathetic to these rather sad kids, who were never actually enjoying themselves even at work.   But something hit me, and just made me feel that I could write something that was different.   So I did, and I was very pleased with it.

Karel was right at the beginning of his career then.   I remember that we recorded the whole soundtrack in one session at the National Film Theatre on the South Bank.   I can distinctly remember Karel going to his car and getting out the microphones and bringing them in.   It was all done on a shoestring even though Ford sponsored it and you would have thought that they had plenty of money.


Here is an extract from The Lambeth Boys with the score coming in at about 2.12 minutes.




FG - Karel Reisz has described your music for We Are the Lambeth Boys as 'having a joyful astringency'.   In your book Jazz in Revolution you state that you felt that your best collaboration with Reisz was in the documentary, and that Saturday Night and Sunday Morning didn't quite recapture the same magic of the marriage between the music and the movie.   I gather that Reisz wanted to feature an accordion in the score, and that you weren't very keen.   However, you integrated it very effectively into a jazz group and the accordion works well as a musical protagonist, expressing both the sentiments of the main character and all that goes on around him in a wide spectrum of moods.

JD - I don't know why Karel specified it.   However, he did, so we had to have it.   I would have never chosen an accordion, but I didn't have that sort of breadth of imagination.   I was a bit too much of a blinkered jazzer, who wouldn't use an accordion if I didn't think was the best possible instrument to use there.   I'd have probably used a Miles Davis-style muted trumpet, a tin mute, or something like that, which wouldn't have quite done the trick like the accordion did.   It became the theme instrument at various moments in the film and helped in that way to point up certain aspects of the plot.   I still don't know why it works, but I've got to admit that it does work in a way in the context in which it's used.   Incidentally, although Karel wasn't a jazz fan, Albert Finney, then an unknown actor, really loved jazz, and often used to come to gigs before we did this film.


This opening scene from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning gives a taste of the film score.




Working with Joseph Losey.


Listen to Cleo Laine singing Thieving Boy.




FG - In The Servant you used a device similar to that of the accordion in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, except here you have a very interesting juxtaposition of string quartet and saxophone quartet.   They're almost like two sides of the same coin.   They played the The Servant Movie postersame theme, that four-note theme that you introduced in the opening sequence, when you see Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) walking over to the house of his employer Tony (James Fox) to introduce himself and start his first day of work.   You have the theme playing which is initially brought in by string quartet, and then you reintroduce the theme again with the saxophone quartet.

JD - Yes, it changes on the interior of the house.   I wasn't happy with the way the leader of the saxophone quartet played.   He was very highly regarded, but somehow, though, the way he played it didn't sound like what I wanted.   So, I then re-recorded it with the Michael Cryon Saxophone Quartet, and then I got just what I wanted out of it.   I didn't want it to be too sweet, but I didn't want it to sound too sort of po-faced either.




Listen to All Gone with video clips from The Servant.





FG - Pinter's lyrics have to do with the movie, but and the words could easily have been changed and the song transferred to the popular canon as a jazz ballad.

JD - I asked Harold whether he would consider rewriting the lyric in a way that it could be performed separately from the film.   As you say, the lyrics directly relate to the film and the tawdry things that happen in it.   He said: 'No.   For what reason?'   I said: 'Just so it might get more performances and you might be a more famous lyricist than you are at the moment', or something trivial like that.   He never came up with anything, but there again I can't imagine what lyrics a Nobel Literature Prize winner would come up with!

JD - What happened was that he entrusted me with the score, as a' director does in the first place, but obviously tried to explain the sort Darling movie posterof effect he was trying to get for any particular scene.   One of the most important bits of music was when Julie Christie gets upset and runs through the set discarding her clothes and ends up sobbing on the bed.   The camera followed her all the way through, and that's where I had Kenny Wheeler on the session.   I particularly wanted him to be featured on this.   However, I guess I probably overwrote myself, or got a bit 'Gil Evans-ed' up, or whatever.   Anyway I thought it worked out quite well.   I'm not sure if John was there when I actually recorded it, but when he heard it, I could see he wasn't happy with it.   I realised then that I'd somehow overwritten it, which you should be very careful about if you're a film composer, as it's a bit show-offy to do that.   Some of the best film music shouldn't be heard or noticed at all, it should just be part of the experience.

Anyway I realised he wasn't happy, so I said: 'Well John, I'm getting the sort of texture that you want now, but can you just tell me a little more about it?' So we looked at it on the Moviola and when he started trying to explaining to me what he wanted, I said: 'John, why don't you just sort of moan, or say syllables, or something, just to give me an idea where you feel things should happen'.   So he made various sounds as we watched, and I did get from him the idea that the music had to be very thin, sad and isolated and that the great layers of sound that I'd given it, a sort of organ type accompaniment, were not what he'd wanted, and weren't going to work either , so we redid it all again.

Kenny Wheeler did the repeat, but instead of using the flugelhorn, he used a tin mute trumpet, and it got thinned down until it ended up being almost inaudible at the end, just a single instrument.   So that was a case where a director who was very interested in music, but not musically literate, was able by sounds and noises to give me a road map of what he actually wanted to hear, and so we both ended up with the same sort of product, and with me converting into musical terms what he had in his mind.


Here is the trailer for Darling with part of the Julie Christie scene mentioned above.



Defining the requirements of the score.

FG - You mentioned in your memoirs that Reisz would have like to have written the scores himself, whereas Losey trusted you for the several movies you did with him.

JD - Well, I think that might have been a little unkind to Karel.   I think it was just that he felt that with his knowledge of music he could explain to me better what he wanted than if he expressed it in abstract terms like 'exciting' or 'dreamy' or whatever.   He had little wisps of music that he knew in his head, so he would suggest a Debussy4ike thing, a Wagnerian fanfare or a bit of Bach, and all that.   Which, of course, was only his way of trying to explain, it didn't mean a series of pastiches of all these composers by any means.

Losey, on the other hand, was someone who picked people for their ability, and unless he felt very strongly that they were on the wrong track, he would just let them get on with it.   He respected their specialised skills and powers of discernment, and only on one occasion did I see him step in. I remember with James Fox in The Servant that, at one point, Losey felt that on the earlier takes his voice was too highly pitched and should have been a bit more in the lower register.   So Fox had to redo all those passages.

FG - I read that you turned down the score to Blow Up (1966).   You said that you weren't keen initially because it was not the sort of film you would normally do, or were not comfortable with in some way.

JD - It's not quite true to say that I turned it down.   I was phoned and asked if I was interested in doing it, and I said I wasn't; anyway they might not have chosen me even if I'd gone to the interview.   At that time I was doing a lot of film scoring and I think they really would Cleo and John bookhave liked to have used me if I'd wanted to do it.   So, I never really got into the subject matter or whether it was a suitable film for me at all.   I just felt that I was doing a few too many films at that time and that I'd better turn down something and make life a bit easier.

Cleo and John by Graham Collier

FG - Yes, you've said that, after The Servant, the offers started coming in.   Once The Servant established you as a film composer, did that enable you to exercise more creative freedom as a composer, as someone who could do your own thing within the context of the movie?

JD - I think that if you are approached, rather than you approaching them, then you must have some sort of standing in their eyes, so you do get a certain amount of freedom in any movie, but any film composer has to remember that he is one of a team.   You've got to do what's best for the team rather than display your own music at the expense of everything else in the film.   But obviously, if they want to cut out a piece of music because they think that the scene doesn't need it, or to cut out a whole scene that's-got a bit of music that you love, you can't exercise any control over that.

FG - You have said that jazz composers work well in the film context because of their versatility and their ability to make last-minute adjustments.   Do you think that's maybe one of the reasons why so many jazz composers flourished in writing for films in Hollywood and London during the 1960s?

JD - Well, maybe.   It could be the fact that when you are hired to do a film as a jazz composer, you inevitably come to certain portions of the film where jazz just won't do; maybe it's just source music - you see a violin and cello and piano playing in a cafe, and you have to adapt.   There's always something there that isn't jazz, and that's a very good learning process for jazz composers, who were a bit more tunnel-visioned when they started.   In the same way you very quickly find that the technical requirements of writing for films are to work to a stopwatch.   People make that out to be some sort of mystique that only a few chosen people can ever understand, but, of course, we all know it's as easy as hell, isn't it?   Particularly in jazz, if you select a metronome speed and you've got cues of say 12.8 seconds and you fit it at 120 beats per minute, so you know that every bar line and so on.   People say: 'I wonder how you ever get those things together', and you pretend that's it very difficult because you don't want too many jazz composers coming in and being competitors

FG - Are there any current plans to do any more film scores?

JD - At the moment, no.   I've not been considered for anything since Gangster No 1 [Dankworth's score of 2001].


Here is the trailer for Gangster No.1 which starred Malcolm McDowell, David Thewlis and Paul Bettany.




FG - If you were invited to score again, are there any particular directors or film figures that you would like to work with?

JD - Well, I can't say that there are, really, because I don't really want to do any more, unless they came out with a very strong case and said that they wouldn't go ahead without me, or flattered me enough to make me feel that the music was going to play a very big part in the film, and said that they wanted me ahead of anybody else.   Other than that, I must admit that I cast my mind back to the pleasures of doing it but also the headaches that are often caused by internal politics, where people involved in a film are manoeuvring and countering each other.   I felt I couldn't go through all that again.   I much prefer to be in as total control as possible of music, and there are lots of ways of doing that without having to go into the movies.

FG - If you look back at the scores that you've done, do you have a particular favourite, one that really stands out?

JD - I think that the one that hangs together the best is The Servant.   I thought it did the best service to the film and worked very well with it.   But I'm also quite proud of in isolation, so to speak.

FG - It has been said that since the 1970s many movie scores have been bitten by The Graduate bug, which is to say that they consist of popular songs specifically written for the movie or that they use existing popular songs.   Thus movie scores gradually started incorporating more popular music as opposed to original music.

JD - That's right, and it still applies a lot today when you see a list in the credits as long as your arm of 25 other pieces of music.   That's the one thing that displeased me about the way film music was going.   Maybe the reason why I like The Servant is because I don't think that there's one example of that in the film.   I had to write whatever had to be the music for the film.   I think that what it amounts to is that you get rather offended when they want to use a record of someone else.   You think, no doubt unreasonably, that you might be able to do something that would work better.


Click here for our Profile of Frank Griffith. Click here for Frank's website where you can find this interview and the references from which Frank has drawn.

There is a DVD by John Dankworth and his Orchestra Movies 'n' Me from which we can listen to Return From The Ashes from the 1965 J. Lee Thompson directed thriller starring Maximilian Schell, Samantha Eggar and Ingrid Thulin.




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