Ghosts of Old Prague

In February and March of 2014, I had the good fortune to spend an extended amount of time in Prague, one of the great towns in the world for strange and spooky stories. The following long-form article has been assembled from travel dispatches written while roaming the winding streets of Prague in search of of ghosts, goblins, and golems. Prices and hours of operation are reflective of the time, and have most likely changed.

On the Golem’s Trail

Prague’s history is tailor-made to appeal to a vast number of my personal obsessions, among them my fascination with the history of magic and alchemy and the story of Rabbi Loew and the golem. Modern Prague has not failed to capitalize on this history of mystery and magic, as places like the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians prove. Fans of weird and mystical history owe a debt of gratitude to Emperor Rudolf II, the 16th century Holy Roman emperor who, because of his own obsession with the occult, turned his home base of Prague into the capital of European mysticism and alchemical pursuits. Rudolf II’s endless quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, as well as his craving for a potion of immortality, brought such notable alchemists as Edward Kelley and John Dee to the city, not to mention Jewish mystic Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel.

Born sometime in first quarter of the 16th century (sketchy records place the year somewhere between 1512 and 1526), Loew was from a successful family. His uncle Jakob ben Chajim was Reichsrabbiner of the Holy Roman Empire, sort of the liaison between Judaism and the Holy Roman authority in Europe. Loew’s brother was a well-respected rabbinical scholar as well, but Judah Loew himself never received any official or organized religious training, rising instead through the ranks on the might of his own keen intellect and appetite for study. Aside from holding several positions of authority within Jewish communities, he became a notable commentator on The Talmud, as well as on other philosophical discourses and studies of the books that form the basis of the Jewish faith.

But it was his knowledge of Jewish mysticism — the Kabbalah (not the version that sold magic water and bracelets to gullible celebrities in the early 2000s) — thought brought him to the attention of Emperor Rudolf. In 1592, Rabbi Loew had an audience with the superstitious emperor, who counted the well-known Jewish leader among the great alchemists of Europe. It is his association with alchemy and Kabbalah that also resulted in Loew’s name being attached to one of the most famous legends in Prague, and around the world.

The Old New Synagogue

Visitors to Prague can today trace the history of Rabbi Loew through the still existent monuments, sites, and buildings associated with him. The Old New Synagogue, where Rabbi Loew presided, still stands. Loew’s grave is in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery. And a statue of the legendary rabbi — a naked woman draped around his leg, because why not — stands watch outside of the Prague City Hall, along with one of Prague’s other great legends, the Iron Knight.

Your tour begins at the oddly named Old New Synagogue. This where Rabbi Loew presided, and as the legend goes, the golem was hidden in the attic of this temple. Completed in 1270, it is currently Europe’s oldest continuously active synagogue (older ones have been demolished, though, at least one is older but did some time as a Christian church) and draws its ungainly name from either one of two sources. As the one story goes, it was originally called the New Synagogue, but once it had been around for a long time and newer temples had been constructed, it pulled the holy equivalent of a 1960s pop band called the Originals discovering there was already a band called the Originals, and so deciding to call themselves the New Originals. That is to say, it became the Old-New Synagogue.

A slightly more fanciful tale keeping more in line with the legend of the golem and the mysticism that surrounds Rabbi Loew is that the name of the temple was, in Hebrew, At-Tnay Synagogue, meaning the “conditional synagogue. In this story, the building was constructed using stone from King Solomon’s temple, and eventually the synagogue would be dismantled so those stones could be returned and used in the construction of the new Temple of Solomon. However, the Hebrew word “at-tnay” was mistranslated as “alt-neu,” meaning “Old-New.” Whatever the case, and regardless of whether or not the golem is quietly slumbering in some hidden nook, the Old-New Synagogue has survived a miraculously long time, escaping destruction during both the original demolition of the Jewish ghettos and occupation of Prague by the Nazis during WWII.

Prague City Hall

Prague’s Nova Radnice, or New City Hall (which is in Old Town), is flanked on two corners by two of the city’s most famous legends. Obviously, the one is Rabbi Loew, or we would not be mentioning it in this article. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, the second statue is not the rabbi’s fabled golem (though it is frequently mistaken as such, as far back as 1938 and by a number of publications that should know better); it is, instead, the Iron Knight, an altogether different legend and a curious choice to stand guard over your city hall — though I guess given the curse that was placed on the knight, he has ample free time to keep an eye on things.

Both Rabbi Loew and the Iron Knight statues were designed by Art Nouveau artist Ladislav Saloun and sculpted by Eduard Zvelebil in early 1910s, at the dawn of Czech independence. While other artists working on the city hall building opted for more classical figures, Saloun felt that the Iron Knight and Rabbi Loew communicated the true spirit of Prague. In his own words:

“On the other side, I couldn’t have placed a better figure than that of the learned and mysterious High Rabbi Loew, who incorporated everything that the most noble old ghetto of Prague produced. Rabbi Loew was a symbol of the ghetto to me, and also a symbol to me was the figure of a little girl who is freed from the oppressive fetters of clothing and holds out to her great father a rose, from which breathes the breath of death. For just as this beautiful child caused the death of Rabbi Loew with her fragrant flower, so the new period of freedom unwittingly crushed with the breath of its young life the old relics of bygone days. This also marked the end of the Prague ghetto.”

Although Saloun’s statue does not come to life and defend Prague’s Old Town from drunk Brits stumbling into Thai massage parlors, it did have something of a golem-esque adventure. In 1940, when the Germans swept into young Czechoslovakia and declared it part of their territory, the Nazis demanded that the statue of Rabbi Loew be destroyed. Rather than comply with the order, Saloun spirited the statue away (or as close to “spirited” as you can when something weighs as much as a giant stone statue) and hid it in his home. In 1946, with the Nazis soundly defeated, Rabbi Loew was returned to his rightful spot on the corner of the city hall building, and there he has remained, one of the most famous symbols of Prague.

Old Jewish Cemetery

The bittersweet specter of death that looms around Rabbi Loew’s statue makes visiting his actual grave the obvious final stop in our walking tour of the history of the golem. There are so many legends associated with Loew, so many fantastical tales of wizardry and mysticism and strangeness, that one can easily forget that he really did exist, and alchemy and magick aside, was a noted and revered Jewish scholar. He is interred in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery, which you must pay to enter and photograph, as I mentioned earlier. But of all the sights in Prague’s Jewish Ghetto, the cemetery is worth the price. It is an almost frantic jumble of headstones and sarcophagi dating as far back as the early to mid 1400s. Some 12,000 headstones are crammed into a relatively small footprint, and while there are no hard numbers, because of the layered nature of the burials and the fact that only the wealthy and notable have tombstones, there are an estimated 100,000 people from some seven centuries in the cemetery.

In old racist literature, most infamously the anti-Semitic hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, it was claimed that secret caves and tunnels beneath Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery was where the Jews gathered to discuss their plans for dominating the world. They might have consorted with Catholics and slurped the blood from the slit necks of proper Christian babies down there as well — or maybe that’s Jack Chick. It’s hard and not really worth keeping all those bigoted crackpots clear. Although soundly and unequivocally proven to be a hoax authored in Russia sometime between 1897 and 1903 to stir up anti-Jewish sentiments, everyone from Hitler to modern-day racist blowhards still cite the thing as if it truly was a collection of minutes from clandestine meetings beneath the Old Jewish Cemetery.

Among the most notable, of course, is Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who rests in a stone sarcophagus about 2/3 of the way through the walking tour of the cemetery, right up against the narrow sidewalk that winds through the jumbled gravestones. The cemetery is an overwhelming place, a contradiction, both quiet and contemplative as well as riotous and confusing because there’s just so much. I’ve never seen a place quite like it, and despite the unwelcoming price tag of entering, it was one of my favorite of all of Prague’s on-the-beaten-path tourist destinations. For me, someone who has no Jewish heritage (of which I know anyway — seems like we discover something new every year, though) but plenty of Jewish friends, who lives in a city in which Jews have played a major role in our history, and as one who has been in love with the golem legends since I first saw Der Golem while I was in elementary school, being able to stand there in front of Rabbi Loew and touch his grave was quite an experience (I’m not sure if I was allowed to touch it, actually; tradition says one should write a prayer on a piece of paper and place it near his grave).

My Golem and Me

So how did Rabbi Loew’s name become associated with the legend of the golem? Well, it’s no surprise, really, given how much weird, wizardy stuff is already attributed to him. It seems more or less historically accurate that he spent time as an alchemist in the employ of Rudolf II. Less historically accurate: that he was able to take a pestilence spell cast against the Jews of Prague and throw it back into the face of the villainous sorcerer who first cast it, or that the rabbi constructed a magic castle to which h could teleport for important meetings with heads of state of notable magicians. Attributing the creation of golem to him seems obvious given his role as both a defender of Prague’s Jewish population and a major figure in the history of mysticism and the Kabbalah.

As for the golem itself…who knows where it’s slumbering? When the Nazis entered (but failed to successfully destroy) the Old New Synagogue, they apparently never found the attic in which the golem supposedly slept. And the fact that the Nazis didn’t — or couldn’t — destroy the temple helped rekindle interest in the golem. In Michael Chabon’s novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, one of the characters even seeks out the golem in hopes of reviving it to help fight Nazis. The attic is still there, but the stairway to it is cut short, and no one is allowed up there — to protect the sanctity of the golem’s bedroom, perhaps, or possibly for insurance reasons. There used to be a large golem statue in Prague, but that had to be hidden away thanks to another threat: intellectual property lawsuits, brought by the artist who claimed to own that particular iteration of the golem.

As an alchemical aside, you might also squeeze in a visit to Speculum Alchemiae, the recently opened museum dedicated to an underground alchemists’ lab and network of tunnels leading from Prague’s Old Town to as far as the castle (which I’ll cover in more detail later). Did Rabbi Loew walk those old stone tunnels? Did he ply his wizardly trade beneath the streets of Prague, rubbing elbows with Emperor Rudolf II and his alchemist contemporary, Edward Kelley? Did the golem plod down those dark corridors on its solemn quest to defend Prague’s Jews and inspire the makers of Frankenstein? Following in the footsteps of Rabbi Loew and the golem was an excellent way to pick up histories of Prague, its Jewish population, its most famous legend, and its bizarre history of mysticism.

Prague Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments

I think every city of even modest size in Europe has at least one museum dedicated to the cruel and imaginative ways Europeans tortured one another during the Middle Ages. Prague, being a city that deals quite cannily with tourists, has a few torture museums. I’ve heard that many of the implements displayed in these types of museums were dreamed up mostly for the museums themselves, but I’m no scholar of medieval torture, so I can’t say. They seem believable enough to me, based on the research I’ve done of watching The Witchfinder General starring Vincent Price.

Anyway, of Prague’s multiple torture museums, I selected The Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments (Krizovnicke nam. 194/1, Prague Praha 1, Czech Republic) using the most scientific of criteria: it was near a lot of other stuff I wanted to do that morning, right at the foot of the fabled Charles Bridge. Despite the garish advertising, it’s a fairly sober and “historical” museum, with none of the gory wax dummies you expect and often get from such museums. Still, quite an interesting exploration of man’s dedication to creativity in pursuit of his dedication to inflicting pain on his fellow man (or more often, woman), even if some of the most famed instruments of torture were created for museums of this nature. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the museum. Fortunately, I didn’t see that sign until I was leaving.

Mysteria Pragensia

If Prague’s Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments proves a little too well-behaved and respectable for you, then perhaps you should switch gears a little bit and explore the two museums that make up the Mysteria Pragensia. Tapping into Prague’s rich occult and magickal history, the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians, and its sister museum down the street, The Museum of Ghosts and Legends, offer up all the gruesome wax dummies and delicious strange lore you want from a proper tourist trap museum.

Just across the monument-lined Charles Bridge you will find the first of the two museums. A giant cloaked Grim Reaper beckons you away from your money and into The Prague Museum of Ghosts and Legends (Mostecka 18, Prague 1). There is a lot of reading material in the museum, so if you are keen on standing around a ghost-themed room, reading scrolls about headless Knight Templars, ghostly maidens, drunken water spirits, and other tales of the supernatural, your hunger for such tales will be well satiated. The scrolls are mounted throughout displays featuring mock-ups of graveyards, alchemical workshops, taverns, and other such settings.

After getting your fill of reading and clicking the lights on spooky dioramas, descend a spiral staircase into the museum’s piece de resistance — the Street of Ghosts. There you will get to walk through full-scale displays depicting many of the legends and ghosts you read about upstairs. Gory stumps, green ghouls, and artfully hovering baby dolls highlight your stroll down this supernatural avenue. Yes, it’s totally ridiculous, but amongst all the corpses and bloody stumps and looped audio of clinking chains and moans, I did manage to learn rather a good number of great ghost stories and local legends. Plus, it’s not like I’m morally opposed to museums full of bloody wax dummies.

Just a little ways up the hill you will find the second half of the museum (there is a deal if you buy tickets to both, and I can’t imagine anyone who reads Teleport City not wanting to do both), The Museum of Alchemists and Magicians (Jansky vrsek 8, Prague 1). The structure of the museum is basically the same: the first half is a room (smaller than the one at Ghosts and Legends) with a ton of reading material in multiple languages printed on mounted scrolls. There’s a spooky room full of alchemists and light-up runes, as well as a few other bits of alchemical ephemera. Most of the stories revolve around Emperor Rudolf II, who was obsessed with alchemy much to the consternation of the church of which he was the ruler (among other things he ruled). During his reign, Prague developed its reputation as the magickal capital of the world, and there was no more infamous an alchemist than Edward Kelley (except maybe Rabbi Loew).

The second half of the museum requires a hike up a spiral staircase into a tower, purported by the owners to be the very tower where Edward Kelley (probably) did some of his best alchemical work (or charlatanism; whichever). The tower attic is a largish jumble of alchemical ephemera, most of it fake or recreation but still cool to walk through. Teetering stacks of old books and grimoires, displays of alchemical studies and labs, giant bellows, skulls on desks, and of course, a few wax dummies. Nailed to the wood beams around the alchemist’s tower are excerpts from old guides, which offer sage advise like “be thee careful around the fire of the bellows, especially if thou havest a wooden leg.” Like Ghosts and Legends, you get out of it what you bring into it, and I brought into it the hope to learn a little about alchemy in Prague while being entertained by dioramas and jittering plastic skeletons. I left happy.

And I left happier still because connected to the museum is a tavern, The Kellyxir, where a friendly young woman served me an inexpensive mug or two of Gambrinus and a plate of tasty goulash and bread dumplings. The pub is themed to fit in, with alchemical recipes and rants scrawled on the walls, the ceiling lined with beakers and glass tubes, adn the bar itself lit up with spooky Mario Bava lightning. Well worth stopping in for a half litre and a bite.

Vyšehrad Cemetery

There is a whimsical character in so much of what constitutes Prague, a tendency to find the creative, the artistic, and sometimes the absurd in even the darkest of places. That indomitable creative spirit is most evident in the place where many of the Czech Republic’s creative spirits have come for their final rest. Historic Vyšehrad Cemetery, located on a hill high above Prague and on the grounds of old Vyšehrad Castle, was established in 1849 as a cemetery dedicated almost entirely to the dizzying number of musicians, painters, sculptors, writers, dancers, actors, and other artists who made Prague in particular and the Czech Republic in general one of Europe’s most interesting nations.

Like much I did during my visit to Prague, I stumbled upon Vyšehrad Cemetery purely by accident after having stumbled upon the Alphonse Mucha Museum and discovering that his final resting place was nearby. Well, relatively nearby. The next morning, misty and overcast but unseasonably warm, I set out from my hotel on the outskirts of Old Town en route to Vyšehrad Cemetery, an urban hike that took me through neighborhoods I would have otherwise likely not visited. And, of course, it took me past the Toilet Museum, though it was not at that hour of the day open.

The path to the museum itself, when I finally got there, was tricky to find and required cutting across a parking lot to a narrow walkway in between buildings, which then became a path meandering up the steep slopes of the bluff upon which is perched the old fort of Vyšehrad, the Basilica of St Peter and St Paul, and the cemetery to which my favorite artist, Alphonse Mucha, had drawn me. Affording stunning views of the city from a perspective that takes in Prague Castle, famous towers and churches, and the weird Eiffel Tower facsimile across the river Vltava. Through an iron gate flanked by guardian skulls is the cemetery itself, a fairy tale version of what it means to be a cemetery.

I’ve seen gorgeous public park cemeteries, like Green-Wood in Brooklyn and Cave Hill in Louisville, but Vyšehrad is a world apart even from them. Although there are plenty of the moody monuments one expects from a historic cemetery — weeping angels, praying children, Jesus in his “ehh, whadda ya gonna do?” pose (some say it is his “come into my arms, lamb of God, and be forgiven” pose, but I don’t buy into that hokey nonsense)—the cemetery is equally populated by the weird, the offbeat, the spooky, and the quirky. Chrome balls, pyramids, abstract sculptures, lithe forest maidens, lanky ingénues, and plenty of famous visages stare solemnly—and sometimes not so solemnly—at you as you walk the cluttered but meticulously maintained grounds. Partly be design and partly by the happy accident of collecting so many weirdos and visionaries together in one place, Vyšehrad is like stepping into an Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There ideal of what a cemetery should be.

There are three main sections to the cemetery: the grounds themselves, a beautiful riot of colors and monuments arranged in narrow rows; the arcade, a covered promenade full of large tombs and monuments; and the Slavín tomb designed by Antonín Wiehl, a massive monument where are interred many of the country’s most famous artists, including the man I’d come up the hill to see, father of the art nouveau movement and designer of much of the iconography of Czechoslovakia when it first attained independence in 1911, Alphonse Mucha. Although a strange place, and one that invites heavy use of the camera, there remains still an air of quiet contemplation, sly amusement, and an otherworldly sort of journey to a hidden place, as one might find in an Arthur Machen story. Rarely can you say of a cemetery that it winks at you and delivers a clever witticism, but that is certainly the case within the walls of Vyšehrad.

Keeping Mucha company are a host of great creatives and scientists, including the composer Antonín Dvořák, Nobel Prize winning researcher Jaroslav Heyrovský, poet Karel Hynek Mácha, actress Olga Scheinpflugová, and so many other inspiring notables in the world of the arts and science — from a time when the two were not so rigidly and tragically separated as they are today. Hours passed without me noticing as I strolled, lost as I was in a sort of reverie. Eventually, I shook myself out of it, bid farewell to that place full of wonder, and made my way back down the bluffs for a walk along the river. It’s not part of Old Town, and it’s a bit out of the way, but Vyšehrad Cemetery is one of Prague’s less-seen must-see places, even if you’re not an Alphonse Mucha obsessive like me.

I Am Iron Man

In the tale of Rabbi Loew and the Golem, I mentioned the statue of the Iron Knight (or Iron Man) that stands vigil over Prague’s Old Town from a corner in the city hall building. Because the other corner is occupied by a statue of Rabbi Loew himself, and because the legend of the Iron Knight is relatively obscure outside of Prague, an overwhelming number of publications—including many that should be respectable enough to check their facts, like a 1938 issue of Life—misidentify the statue as Rabbi Loew’s golem (a few also identify it as Darth Vader, but what can be done about that?). Of course, it looks nothing like the golem, but with Rabbi Loew hanging around on the other corner, most people assume any strange monstrosity must be his golem.

Which is perhaps why the Iron Knight still hasn’t been able to lift the curse placed on him over four hundred years ago.

The statue, designed by Ladislav Saloun, the same artist who created the statue of Rabbi Loew, and installed in its corner at the same time as well, is of a knight by the name of Jáchym Berka. As the legend goes, Berka left Prague to fight in a war somewhere, and upon returning home heard that the women he’d loved and to him had been betrothed had bedded another man. Enraged and perhaps not thinking clearly, Berka sought revenge in that most classic of ways: by finding another woman and marrying her out of spite. He probably should have checked out the veracity of the rumors about his betrothed before going the whole “grudge marriage” route, however, because the rumors turned out to be lies. She had faithfully awaited his return the whole time. So heartbroken was Berka’s former lover that she drown herself in the Vltava River. Her father, swept up in the shame game, threw himself from a high tower.

When news of this reached poor, dumb Berka he reacted with all the clarity of thought and careful consideration as he had when first he heard the rumors about his betrothed’s infidelity. First, he strangled his new wife because…well…I mean. OK, he strangled her because he was in a rage and kind of colossal asshole. He then went on to hang himself, which is about the only reasonably justifiable death in whole tragic affair.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who thought Berka’s behavior demanded punishment. For his cruelty, the knight was turned to stone. His ghost was cursed to wander Platnéřská Street, with freedom from his spectral fate coming only when he can convince a kindly maiden to sit and talk to him for an hour. He gets his chance at this once every hundred years. It doesn’t seem that tall an order, at least not until you remember this is a guy who grudge married a woman to spite a fiancée who then committed suicide, to which Berka responded by strangling the wife he’d used to mistakenly seek revenge against said fiancee. So I would guess he’s not the greatest conversationalist when it comes to chatting up women on a dark Prague street.

His most famously retold chance at…well, not redemption, since he doesn’t seem to ever redeem himself. Let’s call it his most famous chance at freedom came a couple hundred years ago when a family with young, pure, innocent daughter moved into the home in front of which his statue had been placed. She happened to be nearby when the knight was freed from his bond for his centennial chance at talking to a woman. However, the woman’s mother found out and forbade her daughter from talking to the murderer. When Berka entered the house for his fireside chat and found the angry mother waiting for him instead of the daughter, he irritably complained, “Another hundred years!?!” His most recent chance came in 2009, and by all accounts, he blew it. Maybe he gets mad because everyone opens conversation with him by asking, “Aren’t you the golem?”

Then again, maybe if he just said yes, he’s the golem, someone would stop and talk to him.

Today, the statue of Iron Knight Jáchym Berka stands watch over Platnéřská Street, the road his ghost is said to haunt. How did such a ghoulish character from Prague’s dark folklore come to occupy such a prominent position outside the city hall? It really had to do with the location, and with the artist wanting to incorporate into the building some of Prague’s rich history of magic and legends. Said Saloun, “…on the corner of Platnéřská Street [I created] the Iron Man figure, which was well-known to locals and foreigners, enveloped in myths and a typical feature of not only the picturesque medieval Platnéřská Street, in which the legend took place, but also of the entire Old Town.”

Not well-known enough, apparently, since so many people think doomed, murderous Berka is the golem created by his statuary neighbor, Rabbi Loew. So the next time you find yourself stalking down narrow, dimly lit Platnéřská Street, and someone points to Jáchym Berka’s statue and says it’s the golem, you can push your glasses up your nose, sniff knowingly, and explain to them the sinister tale of the Iron Knight who just loved over-reacting to rumors. Correct enough people about the statue, and I guarantee you your conversation will be as much in demand as Jáchym Berka’s himself.

Speculum Alchemiae

When it comes to spooks and spectres and things that go bump in the night, Prague is undeniably one of the richest towns in the world. Its bizarre history, winding streets, and jumble of architecture spanning centuries’ worth of styles make it the perfect setting for tales of the macabre and unexplained. Most famously, Prague was the center of medieval alchemy thanks to the obsession of its one-time ruler, Emperor Rudolf II, who invited mystics and alchemists and wizards from across the world to come to Prague. Deep beneath the cobblestone streets of this most mysterious of cities, at the Speculum Alchemiae, one can walk the secret passages and hidden laboratories where these sorcerers sought to unlock the secrets of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life.

Also known as the Muzeum Alchymie, Speculum Alchemiae is located inside one of Prague’s oldest buildings, dating from 980 AD and having survived any number of disasters, including the razing of much of the Old Jewish Quarter of which it was once a part. In 2002, when Prague suffered severe flooding, a sinkhole opened and people discovered that the house at Hastalska 1 on the outskirts of the Old Town had another secret: a vast network of tunnels and secret chambers that ran beneath the streets of the city — some as far as Prague Castle, where lived the ruler who commissioned their construction, Rudolf II. Built during the 16th century, many of the tunnels were blocked by hundreds of years of debris and collapse, but the area directly under the old house was relatively salvageable. Ten years after they were discovered, the catacombs that once served as the secret workshops of some of Rudolf II’s most valued alchemists opened to the public in the form of the Speculum Alchemiae.

The entrance to the secret tunnels through the historic house is also the gift shop full of shelves lined with a variety of elixirs. As we waited for the tour guide to arrive, we were told the history of many of the elixirs, their purported powers, and the secret ingredients of old that are no longer permitted to be added to these otherwise ancient recipes (in almost every case, those banned ingredients were high-proof spirits and opium). One suspects that the delicate, ornate glass containers are more miraculous than their contents, but then, when one is in Prague it is more fun to play along (at least until the point of purchase).

Speculum Alchemiae, which translates to “The Mirror of Alchemy,” is a name derived from one of the most important works of alchemical literature. Written sometime in the 16th century and often attributed (without any factual basis) to Roger Bacon, it was the second alchemical manual translated into English. When our tour guide arrived — a lovely young woman slightly out of breath from her dash across town on her bike — we entered the second chamber of the house, a recreation of the home’s study, complete with alchemically significant chandeliers. But it was the secret behind the bookcase that brought us to the museum, and as it creaked open we knew we were going to get our money’s worth, even if this particular museum of alchemy was heavier on historical respectability (the site is a UNESCO World Heritage site) than on creepy wax dummies and sound effects, as was the case at the more frivolous Prague Mysteria Pragensia.

Down a narrow stone staircase we descended into the dusty stone tunnels where once walked the likes of sorcerer supreme (or con man supreme, depending on whose story you believe) Edward Kelley, John Dee, astronomer Tycho de Brahe, creator of the golem Rabbi Loew, and very likely the alchemy-obsessed Emperor Rudolf II himself. The secret tunnels and chambers are a combination of reclaimed original artifacts and recreations (glass and organic matter just doesn’t survive hundreds of years of tunnels caving in on it). The recreations were made based on original sketches and diagrams from the 16th century, and the blend pretty seamlessly. The tunnels run under Old Town and even the nearby Vltava River, to Prague Castle, the Old Town Hall (a building flanked by statues of Rabbi Loew and the Iron Knight), and the military Barracks, though none of these longer passages are open to the public. The tour includes three chambers: a main laboratory, a root and herb cellar, and a glass blowing room and furnace.

Through it all, the breathless young tour guide spun tales not just of what the rooms were used for and the history of alchemy, but also how it was probable that these tunnels and labs gave rise to some of Prague’s more famous ghost stories — thanks usually to smoke, fumes, and noises drifted from the alchemical laboratories up to the streets of Prague. Speculum Alchemia the museum is well worth a visit if you find yourself prowling the mystical streets of Old Prague. It’s a more fact-based experience well-balanced by a same-day visit to the afore-mentioned Prague Mysteria Pragensia — both equally entertaining and informative in their own way. And while Prague Mysteria Pragensia’s Museum of Magicians and Alchemists features the Kellyxir bar, the Speculum Alchemiae is near the highly recommended Prague Beer Museum, itself a more serious drinking place and the perfect spot to relax and grab a pint (or five) after a thoroughly exceptional experience beneath the streets of Prague.

Brass Before Ass: Exploring Swinging London with Deadly Sweet

On Diabolique:

Before Salon Kitty redirected his career toward sex films and before Caligula became the most infamous movie in the world, Tinto Brass was just another idealistic young director looking to capture the zeitgeist of the 1960s. His 1967 film Col cuore in gola (Deadly Sweet, aka I Am What I Am) was inspired and influenced by Antonioni’s Blow-Up but also markedly different.

Clora Bryant: Gal with a Horn

Clora Bryant only recorded one album, but you can hear her trumpet alongside some of the greatest to ever take the stage: Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and her mentor, Dizzy Gillespie. She was a member of the racially-integrated all-women jazz band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Despite being a trumpeter, she later joined the Black female jazz band the Queens of Swing as their drummer. Queens of Swing became the first women’s jazz group to appear on television. She even became the first female jazz musician to tour the Soviet Union, in 1989, after she took the initiative and wrote a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev pitching the idea.

Bryant was born on May 30, 1927, in Denison, Texas—also the birthplace of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Magnum P.I.’s Higgins, John Hillerman. Her mother died when Clora was only three. She was a choir girl at church, and when her brother left for the military, she picked up the horn he left behind and decided she wanted to learn how to play. Before long, she was part of the high school marching band. When she left to attend Prairie View College, she joined the Prairie View Coeds and went on tour with the band, even playing at New York’s esteemed Apollo Theater in 1944.

In 1945, a group of whites accused her father of stealing paint. The Bryants were run out of town, all the way to Los Angeles, and Clora transferred to UCLA. In L.A., along the city’s jazz epicenter of Central Avenue, she first heard the radical new sounds of bebop. “If I knew there was going to be somebody there,” she remarked about hanging around LA’s jazz clubs, “I’d have my horn with me, because I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to try to learn something.” Fellow trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie heard her play and was so impressed that he took her under his wing, showing her the ropes of the business and playing alongside her. The two developed a friendship that would last a lifetime.

The Central Avenue jazz scene was interested in her gender as much as it was in whether she could play. And man, could she. “Nobody ever told me, ‘You can’t play the trumpet, you’re a girl,’” she told Jazz Times interviewer Don Heckman. “Not when I got started in high school and not when I came out to L.A. My father told me, ‘It’s going to be a challenge, but if you’re going to do it, I’m behind you all the way.’ And he was.”

She became a staple of the west coast scene and often performed with touring artists, including Billie Holiday, as part of the house band at the jazz club Alabam. In 1946, she joined the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a swing band composed entirely of women, and the first to integrate different races. The Sweethearts, formed in 1937, were the ambitious idea of the principal and a group of students at a school for impoverished Black children. After leaving the Sweethearts, she joined the Queens of Rhythm, where she played trumpet and the drums—occasionally at the same time, much to the delight of crowds.

Clora departed the Queens to give birth, and later she joined big band leader Ada Leonard, who had cut her teeth conducting all-male bands and wanted to form an all-women orchestra. Unfortunately, the spirit of integration did not extend to audiences, many of whom demanded that the Black woman (not the term they used) be kicked off the stage and out of the band. She was.

In 1957, she recorded her first and only album, Gal with a Horn, for Mode Records. As if she had anything further to prove beyond being a spectacular trumpet player and drummer, she also took the opportunity of the album to prove she was a great singer—though this was not by choice. The record label insisted upon it. Female artists, the conventional wisdom went, were easier to accept as singers.

Clora may not have wanted to sing on Gal with a Horn, her sole album, but that didn’t stop her from being great. Her vocals bridge a certain gap, somewhere between Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. But of course, the trumpet is what really brings the listener, and naturally she excels. The album’s eight songs are meant to recreate one of her live sets, and they alternate between bouncy and ballad, strutting and soulful. There are some inventive arrangements—she even gives “Tea for Two” a Latinesque cha-cha spin—and even though these are standards, she makes each song her own. Each song packs in solos, both for Clora as well as the rest of the performers. It’s a fantastic collection, and while it’s a shame it’s all there is of Clora, we can be awfully happy with what we got.

She continued to perform and tour throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, often alongside her brother, Melvin, and as the leader of a combo called Swi-Bop. She played on blues singer Linda Hopkin’s 1983 album, How Blue Can You Get? She didn’t let up until 1996, when a heart attack forced her to give up the trumpet. She responded by doubling down as a vocalist—when she wasn’t lecturing at colleges,teaching music to children, or working as an editor on books about jazz history.

Although jazz history focuses with too mypoic a view on male artists, Bryant carved a place in music history for herself. Having cut her teeth in a big band orchestra but fallen in love with bebop after hearing trumpeter Howard McGhee, her style reflects the duality of her influences. Although Bryant chafed at being referred to as a “lady trumpet player,” she also recognized the importance of her role and the limitations society put on women. “I’m sitting here broke as the Ten Commandments,” she told interviewer Irene Davis, “but I’m still rich. With love and friendship and music. And I’m rich in life.” Los Angeles Times columnist Dick Wagner wrote, in 1992, “When Bryant plays the blues, the sound is low, almost guttural, a smoldering fire. When she plays a fast tune, the sound is piercing — the fire erupts.”

In 2002, the Kennedy Center presented Bryant with a lifetime achievement award. She was interviewed for Linda Dahl’s chronicle of women in jazz, Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women. She and the rest of the Sweethearts were profiled in the 2013 documentary, The Girls in the Band, directed by Judy Chaikin, and she’s the subject of Zeinabu Irene Davis’ documentary, Trumpetistically, Clora Bryant (1989). In that documentary, her friend and inspiration Dizzy Gillespie described her playing simply and honestly: “She has the feeling of the trumpet. The feeling, not just the notes.”

Journey to Blofeld’s Hideaway

For most of its history, the the story about the making of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service overshadowed the film itself. It was the first Bond film after Sean Connery’s departure from the series. It featured Diana Rigg, one of the most popular actors in Britain and best-known for her iconic role of Emma Peel in the quirky espionage show The Avengers. It introduced George Lazenby as the new 007, an unknown Australian model with no experience, who beautifully conned his way into the role—then left it all behind after a single film to grow a beard and wander the world. And, it was based on the most intimate and harrowing of Ian Fleming’s original novels, with a shocking emotional depth and devastating ending. Although a success at the time of it’s release, Lazenby’s one-and-done appearance, followed. y the return of Connery and then the introduction of Roger Moore as Bond, garnered On Her Majesty’s Secret Service a grim reputation. However, as the availability of the 007 films on home video and streaming stabilized over the past decade, OHMSS underwent re-evaluation, and these days it enjoys a prime stop in the Bond canon, with many people (myself included) naming it among the best of the 007 films.

It was one year ago on this very day (February 20), before the world was thrown into disarray by COVID-19, that I boarded an aerial tramway that whisked me out of a lovely valley and to the peak of the Schilthorn, atop which is perched one of the most famous locations in James Bond movie history: Piz Gloria, the base of operation for Bond’s arch-nemesis, Ernst Stavros Blofeld (played by Telly Savalas in a furry cap). Coincidentally, the plot to OHMSS involves Blofeld attempting to disrupt the world with a virus, so given what happened a few weeks after my return, I guess I was less successful than James Bond in preventing catastrophe during my visit to Piz Gloria.

With the exception perhaps of “James Bond Island” (Khao Phing Kan) in Thailand, the location used in the finale of The Man with the Golden Gun, no location is more recognizable or higher than Piz Gloria on the must-visit list for James Bond fans. It’s location well deserving of its lofty status, surrounded by some of the most famous peaks in the Alps: Monch, Jungfrau, and another mountain made famous by an espionage film, the Eiger. The spot was discovered, still only partially constructed, during OHMSS location scouting throughout Switzerland. Bond film producers agreed to finance the completion of the construction in exchange for using it as a location—and they also insisted they be allowed to build a helipad. Since then, it has remained a popular tourist destination and ski spot.

It’s easy to get to from the nearby cities of Bern and Interlaken (where I stayed). It’s about an hour from Bern to the tram, and about 25 minutes from Interlaken. There’s a Schilthorn tourism center in Interlaken, so if at any point you want the steps perfectly plotted out for you, they’re there to help. Train station agents are also polite and well-acquainted with people traveling to Schilthorn and Piz Gloria, so if you are wondering what ticket to buy, they’ve got your back. The same company that runs the trains runs the trams, so you can take care of the entire trip with a single ticket. From Interlaken, the train takes you to the almost absurdly picturesque town of Lauterbrunnen, with majestic Staubbach Falls serving as the backdrop. The description of getting to Piz Gloria itself can sound complicated, what with the network of trams one has to navigate, but it’s actually simple. In Lauterbrunnen, you have two options: board the aerial tram there and begin your ascent, or take a free shuttle bus to a different station and start there. Why? Different view. Many people like to take one way up and the other down. Either way, you’re going to end up at the top of the Schilthorn.

Once you are on the tram, Bond fans and crowds (at least when there’s not a pandemic) are carried leg by leg up the Schilthorn. The aforementioned transfers happen, because you can only build an aerial to go so far up in a single shot. Navigating the transfers is easy. It’s never a mystery which way you need to go next. Just follow everyone else. The aerial makes a stop in the mountain town of Mürren. Like everything in Switzerland, it’s almost absurdly picturesque. This is the town that struggled to house the sprawling cast and crew during the making of OHMSS; now it has returned to catering to skiers. Another transfer in Birg afford you the opportunity to take a “Thrill Walk” (parts of which are closed during the winter) along a glass—and at times mesh—walkway danging off the side of the mountain. A final tram ride delivers you to Piz Gloria itself.

As tourism has increased over the years, Piz Gloria has not been shy about embracing and promoting its ties to James Bond. Buildings are emblazoned with the official 007 logo. Outside—aside from the awe-inspiring mountain view—is the James Bond Walk of Fame (a bit treacherous during the winter), the helipad, observation decks, and access to some of the best ski slopes in the Swiss Alps. Inside is the James Bond World interactive museum, which recounts the story of the making of the film, including the impact on tiny Mürren when it suddenly needed to host and entertain a massive movie production crew. Many of the exhibits are interactive, in case you ever needed to see what was beneath James Bond’s kilt (a video screen!) or try your luck shooting Blofeld while in a bobsled. There’s also the much-discussed bathrooms, featuring sexy silhouettes, motion-activated dialogue, and in the mens’ room, a sign that says “Shake. Don’t Stir.” The Roger Moore era would have been delighted. Finally, there’s the rotating restaurant in the most recognizable interior from the movie, Blofeld’s mod lounging room. The restaurant serves a James Bond breakfast, or later in the day, a passable (if unspectacular) cafeteria-style burger branded with the 007 logo.

Naturally, you can get a Martini—shaken, not stirred—though if you’re going to be navigating the snowy slopes outside, I recommend going with the lower-alcohol option of a glass of Bollinger champagne.

Travel Notes

First and most obvious: I took this trip in February, 2020, when people were still discussing whether or not COVID-19 was something to really be worried about. It was (and as of this writing, still is). The pandemic has of course impacted travel (which you shouldn’t be doing until this thing is under control), the tourism industry, and restaurants, bars, and nightlife.

If you stay in Interlaken, I can recommend a few restaurants:

  • Chennai Biryani House is a fantastic Indian restaurant that specializes in, shockingly, biryani.
  • There’s great pizza and beer at Ristorante Pizzeria Arcobaleno. Order a glass of local Rugenbräu AG.
  • If you don’t mind a bit of a stroll, Little Thai Restaurant specializes in satisfying Thai food and a rotating line-up of great craft beer.
  • Interlaken sports quite a bit of nightlife, though much of it is of the “EDM DJ and tripping college kids” variety. If that’s your scene, I hope you have a great, late night, but I’m not able to offer much in the way of advice. If you are looking for a slightly more relaxed evening, I suggest Whiskyness Bar & Lounge.

Bahut yaarana lagta hai

Don’t mourn the loss; celebrate the life” is something a lot of people say, but it’s often awkward when you put it into practice. But my family, hollerin’ bunch of weirdos that we are, do truly take the saying to heart, which means our own memorial services are wild, and when we attend memorial services for others outside of the family, we are unintentionally offensive and seen as being overly flippant at a solemn ceremony. But with Todd Stadtman, I know he would not be happy to see me moping about, however much his passing may inspire dark, blue feelings. And so, I’m here to celebrate the life in a loud, bungling, unapologetic fashion. Luckily, Todd makes that absurdly easy.

Beneath everything else, it was a shared philosophy that brought Todd and I together: that, far from being disposable thoughts on meaningless pop culture ephemera, to experience, to write about, and to discuss what was then and still so often is referred to as “trash” culture from a given spot on the globe or population of people, is to bring you closer and closer to understanding the people in the spot or who comprise that population. That pop culture—film, writing, music, dance, whatever form it may take—gives you a window into a culture that is not granted via loftier forms of art. It’s not always pretty, and often it is crude and a little puzzling, but then, that’s human society for you. The one thing that binds us all together, all cultures and all peoples, is how nonsensical and crazy we are.

Pop culture was, for us, anthropology, and we both came at it with a sense of respect and love, if not always seriousness and if not always adoring. We both knew that there would be mistakes along the way—cultural nuances we missed, messages that went over us because we were watching or listening to something without benefit of English subtitles (or with those pale white subtitles where only three words of a sentence are ever on screen)—but that the correction of those mistakes, the filling in of those gaps, brought us, step after step, toward a fuller understanding of the people and the world around us. That excited Todd, and it excited me, because as much as I may seem to some a cynic or even a misanthrope, there is joy, curiosity, and excitement at the core.

I met Todd, I think, in the early 2000s, though it’s possible it was earlier. I remember the passage of time basically in terms of what the visual design of Teleport City was at any given moment, and where I was sitting during whatever day job I had at the time. It turns out this is a terrible way to chronicle one’s life, because my fitful flights of fancy means Teleport City has had more designs than I can remember, and I go through periodic, maniac bouts of deleting vast quantities of my past work for any number of reasons. Also, I just lose a lot of things, and my memory is less like a precise diagram and more like a hasty impressionist painting. So, to reconstruct certain timelines, I find myself spending hours on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine going through the tattered digital remnants of my poorly-managed empire…which, in its way, is a fitting way to remember Todd, since so much of what we bonded over involved us poring through forgotten and poorly-made bits of the internet in search of a single sentence about eldritch subjects such as Harinam Singh, Pearl Cheung, or this one song we both remember from maybe a “Nuggets” compilation.

It was Chor Yuen martial arts movies that first led to us crossing paths. Luchador and old Bollywood action films bound us closer, and well, what else can you say about the firm foundation of a friendship built on long exchanges about Amitabh Bachchan‘s bow ties and our shared love of 1960s girl groups and northern soul and the Pogues’ version of the song “Haunted”?

When we finally met in person, first in New York and later in San Francisco, it was like he had always been there. Rarely has a friendship made such perfect sense to me. As a curmudgeon, I often wonder, at least from time to time, “why am I friends with this person?” But that never happened with Todd. I can’t say it was like meeting my long lost twin, because he was much taller and nicer than me, but it was definitely the feeling of a piece falling into place. From a shared love of films from all over the world, we wove together shared interest in pop music, pulp, cocktails, and punk rock. His vast, voracious appetite for the beautiful and strange art of the world pushed me beyond limitations I would have otherwise settled within. Look at this weird thing I found…oh damn, now Todd is writing about Indian giant monster movies from the 1950s? And Sompote Sands? Who the hell is Sompote Sands? I still have a lot to discover. “I still have a lot to discover” is one of the best feelings in the world, and Todd instilled it in me almost daily.

Todd was so active, so creative, that his Taiwan Noir podcast Kenny B. eventually had to stop asking him what else he was working on, because the list would basically take up the entire podcast. The amount of fun, the amount of art, and the number of people that came into my life because of Todd cannot be fully comprehended in a single sitting. The massive body of work he leaves for the world will continue to be a source of awe and inspiration—I’ll never get tired of reading and rereading his exploration of Taiwanese monster movies, or remembering his pure, undiluted hatred for Magic Lizard—in fact, perhaps my most cherished gift from him is a VCD bearing the hand-written label “Fucking Magic Lizard. Do not watch.”

So while his passing hurts, and hurts big, I am overjoyed that he still has so much out there to share and dig through. I’ll never finish reading Die Danger Die Die Kill, and I think it’s actually physically impossible to finish listening to the vast number of entertaining podcasts he made or on which he appeared. We should all be so lucky as to leave behind such a raucous, fun, worthwhile testament to our life.

Hong Kong films brought us together, so it makes sense that, for whatever type of goodbye this is, I wrap it up with the thing we both understood so well: a sub-VCD quality clip, with superfluous German, of something we both loved.

Tarot Will Teach You

Until this year, I had not touched a tarot deck since high school. That was a long time ago, and I took very few things seriously back then. I guess I take very few things seriously now, but I am at least a more dedicated researcher (often to the point that I never finish whatever project it was I was doing the research for). In the past couple of years, not coincidentally and as part of what has turned out to be a larger social trend, I’ve begun to dust off a number of interests that were either lying dormant or handled in a casual manner. The great cosmic bundle that includes magic, Paganism, mysticism, the occult, magic, and folklore has occupied space in my brain for as long as I can remember, and probably longer than that. My relationship with these things, with the possible exception of folklore, has always been casual, however. I occupied that space of knowing a little bit about a lot of things without ever really knowing all that much.

But, like many, as the human race continues to reel about in its own filth, and perhaps because I’m getting older, I’ve begun to rethink my association with certain customs and interests and take study of them a little more seriously. When it comes to things of an occult (or at least occultish) nature, I find myself in a position that is in no way unique. I am a lifetime atheist. I don’t believe that the Old Gods are actual beings, I don’t believe spells manifest as actual magical powers. I don’t believe that reading tarot cards is a mystical gift. But I do believe in the power of ritual, and I believe in the power of a story. I believe in certain magical practices and rites as a framework for understanding oneself and as a way to structure thought. I believe in spells as a way to take a step back and think about a situation, or as a way to just take a moment to focus. And if at times I find one my interests contradicts another, oh well. I’ll live.

This is how tarot works for me. As a daily ritual that sparks a dedicated period for me to think about what’s been happening, would could happen, what I want to happen, and how I go about dealing with it all. Previously, tarot cards were not much more than a prop, something every spooky goth teenager was expected to have handy. I put very little effort into them, and as a result, they had no real value to me beyond that of a lifestyle affectation. These days, however, I’m much more interested in thinking about the cards, in understanding the message contained in each one and thinking about how it applies to me. Sitting down and digesting a book in one go is only going to give me vague impressions, and details will inevitably be forgotten in the deluge of information. In starting this journey, I’ve found that the best way for me to learn more about tarot is the same way I learn about most things: to jump into the deep end and figure it out as I go, writing about it, and letting my mistakes and missteps be part of the public record and a learning experience.

For example, today, as a low-impact exercise, I pulled a single card from the deck—no ornate spread, no configuration, no complex interpretation of the meaning of multiple cards taken as a single reading. That degree of difficulty comes later for me. Just one card, from the Tarot Mucha deck by Lo Scaradeo because I adore Alphonse Mucha and art nouveau, so I relate to the deck. I got the Two of Discs (or pentacles—more on that later). The card in this particular deck depicts a woman standing on a sandy shore, balancing a pentacle in each hand, with two ships on a a tumultuous sea behind her. To interpret the card, I rely on a few different sources, recognizing that one may differ slightly from another.

The interpretation in the booklet that accompanies the deck trends a bit dark:

“This is a precarious time, and you are standing on shifting sands. Take care to keep your footing as you balance multiple tasks. Be sure you are giving adequate attention to everything that is your responsibility. There is a danger of something precarious being lost simply because you cannot be everywhere at once. No captain can pilot two ships at the same time. Be realistic and cautious. Key ideas: Life out of balance. The need to simplify or delegate. Juggling too many tasks.”

While the Tarot Mucha deck’s Two of Discs depicts a woman on a beach, less artistically specialized decks often use a young man, identified either as a dancer or a juggler, which perhaps communicates the point of the card a little more directly. And depending on who you read, some readings of the cards are a little sunnier, less “a real shit show is coming your way” and more, “you got this.” For me, the reality is between the two, or rather, heeding the warning of the darker interpretation leads to the results of the brighter one. It was an appropriate card for today. I happen to work in higher education, and this was the second day of the new academic year, and of welcoming students and faculty to a truly unique and, for many, stressful new semester. Although the university at which I work did, like many, go remote in March, that was sort of a dressed rehearsal for a more complex fall, as the university attempts to balance both in-person and remote learning with a student body now distributed across the globe and its many time zones.

Academia being what it is and always has been, discussion and “action committees” occupied the time between March and August, and then everything that needed to be done was crammed into the final two weeks before classes began, often with no official direction being given and no real decisions being made. The result is, to say the least, chaos. Chaos and actions that are often being taken with little or no thought behind their efficacy or impact. For me personally, this meant the vacation I’d meticulously planned to happen at a point after the effort of preparation should have been winding down and before some 85,000 students and employees returned (either in person or online) was cancelled, and the five or six things I normally juggle at the start of a new school year became a dozen things, each one claiming to be my top priority and each one of them in a shockingly sorry state.

So the Two of Discs is indeed an apt card for me to have pulled.

No need here to go into the details, but the card inspired me to take a moment to think about the chaos at work, not in a way that felt overwhelming, but in a way that helped me develop a way, both physically and mentally, to manage it. My background is in journalism, and one of the skills I learned in that trade is how to create order (or an article) out of chaos. It’s a mindset that translates to my daily life, as I constantly strive to take a jumbled collection of books, movies, and ephemera and bring some semblance of order to how it is stored and displayed in my apartment. And it helps me juggle the mania at work at what was threatening to be a unhealthily stressful time.

For me, the fact that the interpretation of the card is more of an ominous warning than a gentle reminder works well. I am motivated by high pressure situations, and I respond to constructive criticism better than I do to well-meaning but ultimately empty gentle encouragement. “Get yourself in order and figure it out before you sink” is, for me, a more potent motivator than, “Hey man, it’s all gonna be fine.” Not everyone thinks and works that way, but I do, so I appreciate the tone of the Tarot Mucha being something akin to a stern but competent editor.

Since this journey is about learning as I go, here’s what else I’ve learned from today’s card. A typical Tarot deck contains 78 cards split into two groups—Major Arcana and Minor Arcana. Then the Minor Arcana is split into four “suits,” the names of which vary from deck to deck, culture to culture, but the concepts of which remain the same: Wands, Pentacles, Cups and Swords. The Major Arcana—the King, the Fool, the Lovers, the Hermit, etc.—indicate a major event or change in a person’s life. Minor Arcana cards—which are numbered one (or the ace) to ten plus Knave, Knight, King, and Queen—deal with more detailed, nuanced events in daily life. Each suit of the Minor Arcana focuses on a particular concept. Pentacles, for example—which, in the Tarot Mucha deck are referred to as discs (and Wands are Staves)—represent the base element of earth and involve work, the body and senses, money, home and tangible things. Interpreting the card (or cards) can depend on how you are choosing it and, if you are picking multiple cards in a configuration, where it is in the configuration and which other cards accompany it. But, like I mentioned, at this stage, we’re taking the simplest approach for now and will build from there.

Could I have come upon this moment of reflection and clarity without a tarot deck, without the Two of Discs warning me that I need to find balance, structure my tasks, and if need be, seek assistance? Sure, probably. But I wasn’t going to get to that revelation on my own while the choppy ocean was battering me and I was just struggling to stay above water. But my serious woman on the beach, artfully balancing her pentacles in the middle of the storm, brought me to where I needed to be.

Sci-Fi, Shochiku Style

On the Cultural Gutter, I’m writing about apocalyptic scifi and horror from the normally well-behaved Japanese film studio Shochiku.

Shochiku was most closely identified with shomin-geki, dramas about the lives of everyday people, and the undisputed master of such films was Shochiku director Yasujiro Ozu. But a studio can only exist for so long on movies in which a middle-aged factory worker stares at a plum blossom for two hours and then, upon a single petal falling off, quietly says to himself, “This is a good way to be, even though it is disappointing.” By the 1960s, things were changing

Condorman Flies Again

On the Cultural Gutter, I’m talking Condorman, Disney’s superhero movie that was actually Disney’s Eurospy movie.

By adulthood, I couldn’t even remember why I hated Condorman. I could only remember that I did. That was just too much like those stories where two sides have been killing each other for so long that they can no longer even remember why they are fighting. So I decided it was time to sit my pouting former self in the corner and take another look at Condorman. I mean, it does have Oliver Reed in it.

How Nat Became King: Hittin’ the Ramp with the King Cole Trio

I don’t remember the first time I heard the song “Nature Boy,” but I know I’ve been obsessed with it for a long time. There is something spooky about it, something haunted and haunting. Something very Pagan. I get from it the same feeling as I get from an Arthur Machen story. And when you learn the strange history of the song, written by a long-haired 1940s hippie who was living outside, under the letters of the Hollywoodland sign in the LA hills, the song becomes even stranger, and even more alluring. I was a Nat King Cole fan before that song, but it was always a casual kind of appreciation, the guy who sang some pretty good old songs and a great Christmas song. After “Nature Boy,” my appreciation of Cole became much more serious, and it continues still. Here was a man of incredible talent, as a singer, songwriter, and piano player, with impeccable style and a tragically premature death. He was a pioneer in jazz, one of the earliest performers to make the switch from big band to small group. If you’re looking to set a mood, Cole is the man. Smooth, sophisticated, sentimental, continental, and cool.

Before he was “King,” he was Nathaniel Adams Coles, born in Alabama in 1919 but raised in Chicago, where his father was a minister and his mother was the church organist. He learned music at her side, and began formal lessons when he was twelve. At night, he would sneak out and hang around outside of clubs where the likes of Louis Armstrong were performing. At fifteen, the siren song proved too tempting. He dropped out of school, teamed up with his brother (he had three, all musically inclined, as well as a half-sister), and formed Eddie Cole’s Swingsters in 1936. Among their accomplishments was performing in a revival of the musical Shuffle Along. The important of that play’s original run in 1921 cannot be overstated. Most everyone who was somebody (and many who were nobody) during the Harlem Renaissance named Shuffle Along as perhaps the defining event that kicked off the Renaissance, or at least kicked it into high gear. It was one of the very first all-black shows on Broadway and showcased modern musical styles and dancing rather than the minstrel show vaudeville. It enabled black entertainers to step into the limelight of the Great White Way in front of capacity crowds, and among the performers who appeared in the show, in one capacity or another, were Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall, and Florence Mills.

In 1937, After the revival’s run, Cole married fellow cast-member Nadine Robinson and moved to Los Angeles. There, he teamed with bassist Wesley Prince (and later, Johnny Miller, after Prince was drafted in 1942) and guitarist Oscar Moore to form the King Cole Swingsters, pulling the “King” from the nursery rhyme “Old King Cole.” They soon changed their name to the King Cole Trio right before they began performing on radio and recording. In 1940, the group had their first hit, “Sweet Lorraine.” At the time the Trio formed, Cole was a piano player. Singing wasn’t really his bag. But a small group playing late night LA clubs has to be adaptable, so as the story goes, one night a drunk was hollering at them to sing “Sweet Lorraine,” a song written in 1928 and most recently made popular in 1935 by another pianist, Teddy Wilson, who had performed with (among others and deep breath) Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. Wilson’s version was instrumental, but when the drunk a few years later demanded the King Cole Trio sing the song, and with the Trio having to designated vocalist, Nat took up the mic.

This story is not true. Nat himself admits it’s not true. But he also said it was a good story, so he was happy to have it out there. The truth, however, is not that far off. There was a member of the audience (whether drunk or not is unknown) who requested a song with vocals. Cole was willing but did not know the particular song requested, so he picked “Sweet Lorraine” out of his memory. It must have gone over all right. After that, Nat Cole vocals were a regular part of Trio.

If one is looking for recordings of the Trio, there are several to chose from, depending on just how deep one wants to dig and how much money one wants to spend. There’s also plenty to sample on Youtube. During this era, the Trio cranked out a lot of music for radio transcription services. Groups would get paid to come in and record as much as could be crammed into an hour session. Those recordings would then be sold nationally to subscribing radio stations in need of broadcast material. Although something of a factory style of working, the sessions provided Cole with money and near-constant practice, enabling to continually hone his playing and, as time went on, his singing. Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years (1936 – 1943), released in November 2019 by Resonance Records is probably the very final word on these early years for Nat and the Trio. It’s not Trio exclusive, featuring Nat with some other line-ups in addition to his go-to, but it’s still the definitive place to go for a comprehensive look at Cole’s early days. The massive 7-disc (or 10-LP) collection includes radio transcriptions, studio sessions, and private recordings and shows off the nimble diversity of styles in which the Trio was able to work. You can hear songs that sound like pre-War vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley tunes, hot jazz, riffs, and more,some with vocals, some instrumental, some with someone other than Nat singing. There’s even examples of vocal harmony groups and a few songs that flirt with doo-wop. Most of it is playful (NPR described it as “scampering”), and for those familiar with the Nat King Cole that would emerge in the 1950s, known for lush, string-heavy tunes, this raw, stripped down, high-energy jazz is a pleasant surprise. Heads will bop, and fingers will snap.

Remnants of big band and swing can still be heard, if on a smaller scale, but by the 1940s, that style was starting to fade in favor of smaller combos playing modern jazz—quintets, quartets, and trios, the ensembles that would rise to prominence as big bands disappeared. During the war, the Trio recorded for the Armed Forces Network, which meant that Cole and his crew not only grew popular among Allied soldiers (both black and white) but also among liberated Europeans in places such as Paris, where Django Reinhardt (a major influence on King Cole Trio guitarist Oscar Moore) had been blazing a similar path with his guitar-led Quintette du Hot Club de France since 1934. The King Cole Trio didn’t play the kind of jazz where you sit and think about it (though if you do, there’s plenty to discover). They existed between the big bands and bebop, performing pleasant nightclub and radio songs that work as well in the foreground as they do the background, depending on your mood. The Trio is where we hear the transition from Harlem Stride style piano to modern jazz piano, from street corner vocal group to polished harmony. If it’s difficult to pick a particular song as a stand-out, it’s because it’s all so good without any one thing demanding special attention. It was commercial music, after all, often cranked out quickly but competently. But never is it anything less than enjoyable.

The appearance on some tracks of emerging modern jazz luminaries such as tenor saxophonist Lester Young hint that Cole’s career could have continued as a prominent pianist in jazz ensembles. But in 1943, fledgling Capitol Records came calling. Although it had only formed in 1942, Capitol went for the big time right out of the gate, the first west coast label to punch at the same weight as the established labels on the east coast. It became the home of Ella Mae Morris (whose “Cow Cow Boogie” was the label’s first gold record), Jo Stafford, Tex Ritter, and, in 1943, Nat King Cole. Billie Holiday recorded for Capitol in the 1940s, as did Peggy Lee, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Les Baxter, Billy May, Les Paul, and Sammy Davis., Jr. In fact, Capitol would become home to the entire Rat Pack, as both Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra would join the label and record some of their most enduring material while there. In 1957, Capitol collected recordings Miles Davis had made in 1949 and 1950 for his own label, nonet, and compiled them into the landmark release, The Birth of the Cool.

The Trio signed with Capitol and recorded for their transcription service, as well as releasing a series of hit singles and 10″ records (LPs were not yet a thing). Cole became the host of a national radio show in 1946—the first black man in America to do so. He would repeat this feat on TV in 1953, becoming the first black man in America to host a TV show when The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show debuted on NBC in November, 1956. At Capitol, Cole would eventually transition from part of a trio a solo artist, and his sound would evolve from the down ‘n’ dirty barroom sound of the King Cole Trio into the velvet smooth crooning that would become iconic. Even if you don’t want to shell out for something as massive as Hittin’ The Ramp, any collection of Trio recordings well worth the investment if you are looking for solid, no-nonsense, fun jazz. And although Cole’s fame in the 1950s would eclipse that early style, perhaps even cause it to be forgotten by most people, Cole himself didn’t forget.

Do any research on Nat King Cole in 1956, and one particular incident surfaces. By that year, Cole was one of the top hit makers in America, and he had moved from the jukebox jive sound of the early Trio to the smooth, romantic pop vocal sound for which he is most remembered. Truly he had become King. But in April, 1956, at a show in Alabama, where he’d been born, Cole was in the middle of his third song of the evening in front of a packed, all-white crowd of 4,000. Segregation laws would not permit a mixed-race audience, so another performance for an all-black audience was planned for later that evening, in the same venue—Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium, birthplace of the racist “Dixiecrat” branch of the Democratic party in 1948, led by segregationist Strom Thurmond. But Cole’s popularity meant that he could tour even the deeply racist, segregated part of America and still sell out the show, for both black and white audiences (if not together). However, on April 10, his position as one of the most beloved, most successful performers in the country attracted the attention of the Ku Klux Klan, who decided to make their disapproval of the concert known. It wasn’t Cole’s first encounter with the Klan scumbags.

In August 1948, flush with cash and fame from his work at Capitol, Cole moved into the tony all-white LA neighborhood of Hancock Park. Cole discovered that even being one of the most beloved crossover artists in America, a man with no record of rowdy behavior, wasn’t enough to protect him from racist backlash. He awoke one night to find that the KKK, quite active in LA at the time, has placed a burning cross on his lawn. He was further assaulted by the local property-owners association, which told him they didn’t want “undesirables” in the neighborhood. Nat being Nat, and quite possibly the suavest cat in the country, responded, “Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”

At the concert in 1956—the same year he was judged too dark-skinned to stay at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana—members of the Klan rushed the stage and attacked Cole and his band. Police had been anticipating trouble. As they would later discover, some 100 white men had been part of hatching the plan to assault and very possibly murder Cole, organized by speechwriter organized by Asa Carter, most famous for writing George Wallace’s deplorable “segregation now, segregation forever” speech. Prior to the concert, they had circulated inflammatory flyers depicting Nat with white women, warning that a black man was coming to steal away your white daughters. A mob of 150 vowed to show up at the concert to overpower the band and security. In the end, six showed up. Three were subdued shortly after they clambered onto the stage, but not before they got their hand son Nat, knocking him down and injuring his back. A car loaded with shotguns, brass knuckles, and other weapons was found outside. One of the men arrested, Kenneth Adams, was already linked to multiple cases involving the bombing of churches, the burning of a bus carrying Freedom Riders, and the murder of blue collar worker Willie Brewster (the murder was plotted at a gas station owned by Adams). White supremacist Hubert Damon Strange was eventually convicted for that murder and sentence to ten years by an all-white jury, a landmark decision. However, Strange never served his time; he was killed in a fight while his case was pending appeal.

After the incident, Cole returned to stage to announce that he was done for the night (he’d already been dealing with a front row heckler hurling racial slurs at him through the first two songs) and needed medical attention (though he did return for the all-black audience later than evening). Cole was perhaps more injured by comments he made after the fact, when he wondered in an interview, “I can’t understand it. I have not taken part in any protests. Nor have I joined an organization fighting segregation. Why should they attack me?” This attracted the ire of a number of Civil Rights advocates, who were already sour on Nat for agreeing to play (and continue to play) segregated concerts in the first place. Even Thurgood Marshall took him to task. To Nat’s credit, he listened and learned and woke up, promptly changing his mind about segregated concerts and throwing his support behind the NAACP. The attack garnered national attention and condemnation. Even the normally apolitical industry magazine Billboard cracked its knuckles and joined the fray, publishing an impassioned editorial.

“The regrettable attack on Nat (King) Cole in Birmingham by a band of hoodlums redounds to the everlasting discredit of those who foster race prejudice. By an ironic twist, the incident will ultimately accomplish some good — for it has focused national publicity on the fact that a gentleman of outstanding character and talent may not travel with freedom and safety in prejudice-ridden areas of the country.

The magnitude and brazenness of the incident shocks decent people throughout the land — in the North and the South. It is to be hoped that the incident will not merely be deplored, but will trigger some logical thinking among governmental and community groups who have been apathetic for too long a period.”

Nat’s attackers were sentences to 180 days. As if the year wasn’t already a weird contradiction for Cole, he also played the 1956 Republican National Convention. Later, he would perform during John Kennedy’s inauguration (a lavish affair arranged by Frank Sinatra), making Nat one of the only men, in the span of a few years, to perform for Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, LBJ, and JFK. Also in that year, because the man was nothing if not busy, Nat took a moment to look back to the days when was just Nat Cole, pianist and occasional singer for a jazz trio. Inspired by that, and wanting to pay a little tribute to where he’d come from, Cole got the band back together to record After Midnight, an album released in 1957, featuring the original Trio as well as cast of storied jazz greats.

By 1957, Nat King Cole had been at the top of the American pop game for a decade. His style had developed from the rough and tumble jazz of the early Trio days to the velvet crooning backed by lush orchestration for which he is remembered still. In between the two styles, Cole had proven himself more than willing to experiment a little. Like his contemporary, Eartha Kitt, he recorded songs and indeed entire albums in different languages—most famously Spanish, though years later it was discovered he’d even recorded songs in Japanese—and adapted influences such as conga, easy listening, and even a bit of rock into his repertoire. He’d done so much and accomplished so much that most casual listeners had forgotten that at one time he was playing peppy, poppy hot jazz. Also within that decade, the big band sound that had been ushered out by the likes of the original King Cole Trio had come back in style thanks to the influence of guys like Frank Sinatra and arrangers/composers like Les Baxter, Nelson Riddle, and Billy May.

At the same time, jazz had undergone another major shift. The sound that had defined the Trio was a thing of the past. That sort of charming but disposable jazz had given way to more demanding, more experimental jazz, first in the form of bebop and then as post-bop and, ascendant in the later 1950s, the cool jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. When he decided to reassemble the Trio, Nat didn’t ignore the two decades of change that had occured since they first stepped on a stage in LA during the 1930s. Nor was he going to ignore his own ascendancy as one of the top pop vocalists of the decade. After Midnight showcases a wide variety of styles, sometimes working together, sometimes apart. Nat sings much more often than he did in the past, but he also plays the piano a lot more than he had been doing in the present. There’s even a good many instrumentals. The Trio reworks some of Nat’s more recent hits as jazzier numbers, and they rework some of their own old hits for the more modern jazz sound.

Joining the regular line-up of Cole, Miller, and Moore are guest musicians Stuff Smith, Willie Smith, Juan Tizol, and Sweets Edison. When Stuff picks up his violin, the Trio is at its most “vintage” hot jazz sounding. Smith was born in Ohio but made his name playing first in Texas, and then in New York, during the 1920s. He had his own thing going at the Onyx Club with Stuff Smith and His Onyx Club Boys and scored a big hit in 1936 with “I’se a Muggin’,” which sounds like a bunch of slightly tipsy musicians gathering at an after-after-hours club to cut loose. Smith is the link that connects the Trio to that early blues-meets-rural-meets-city Prohibition-era sound, when a jazz band could be anything from a massive orchestra in a ritzy nightclub to a quartet in the basement of a Harlem speakeasy to a couple of guys in ragged suits and crooked top hats (one of Smith’s signature performance ensemble sin the early days of his career) on the street corner. Like many of the greats of the era, Smith loved to adapt and experiment. Later in his career, he would play with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole of course, and even the otherworldly Sun Ra.

For the most part, the group keeps things mellow. Though the party goes from sophisticated to wild from time to time. “Sometimes I’m Happy” transports the listener back to Hot Club de France, and “I Know that You Know” keeps a speedy tempo that really lets Stuff Smith cut loose. Even Nat gets crazy on the piano during that one. The Trio revisits “Sweet Lorraine,” the song that helped make them, with trumpet player Sweets Edison giving it a modern jazz twist. They do a fantastic percussion-driven version of easy listening/exotica standard “Caravan” and a properly swinging version of “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”

Even when they tip their hat deeper toward Nat’s current sound, as on “The Lonely One,” they mix it up, making it sound less like Nat King Cole in concert and more like Nat Cole, after a concert, taking the stage unannounced and unplanned late at night in some small club full mostly of fellow musicians and nodding cool cats. After Midnight was Nat’s last real hurrah as a piano player, and he misses no opportunity to remind people (or surprise them for the first time) at how adept he is on the keys. The entire album is a joy, one you can sit and listen to with a serious ear or one you can simply put on to enjoy and maybe have a dance to. I love pop vocalist Nat King Cole, but there is something especially charming about this throwback. Nat had already achieved more than most by 1957, and somehow he would go on to achieve even great things in the brief time he had remaining. There’s no one song here I go to as much as I go to “Nature Boy” and some other Cole hits. But it’s the Nat King Cole album I listen to in its entirety most often. It’s pretty perfect. It is a smoky club, a steamy tryst, a perfect cocktail, a shot of whiskey, a wild party, an elegant evening, and an unforgettable night all in one.

Noir & B: Slow Grind Fever Vols. 1-4

The years immediately after World War II saw American product flood a world hungry for something other than slaughter and pain and much left in ruin that precluded them quickly filling the void themselves. French filmgoers, for example, flocked to, among other types of film, American crime dramas. Certain canny observers noticed that the films that had been made before the war were distinctly different than the ones made during and after. In the United States, where the flow of films had been steady, the transformation was not noticeable. But France had been sealed off from the films during the Nazi occupation, so the sudden return after years of deprivation made the changes more evident. The plots were more complex. The characters were more complex, too—morally ambiguous, flawed, even broken. The themes the films explored were darker, even as they were made under the twin yokes of the Hays Code and wartime monitoring of entertainment. In 1946, French film critic Nino Frank gave the new mood a name: film noir.

The late 1940s, leading into the ’50s, was a time of contradiction in the United States. A return to normalcy after the war, an experience so profound that nothing could ever return to the normal that had been in place in the 1930s. A period of financial growth and stability paired with anxiety about the new atomic age and the need to figure out America’s role as a global superpower with an arch enemy. A time of nostalgia and conservatism punctuated by the growing fight for racial and gender equality. America was buttoned up and proper, but sexual experimentation was blossoming, especially among the new suburban population who left the cities in search of space and community and often found a feeling of isolation and alienation. It’s no shock that these sundry conflicting emotions and currents would continue to manifest in entertainment, which was redoubling its efforts to push against censorship.

Noir’s ambivalence toward society flourished in the 1950s, and noirish creative expression wasn’t limited to the big screen. Before and during the war, the dominant style of music in America had been big band jazz and swing, with country only just beginning to make inroads on a national scale. Pop jazz vocalists such as Bing Crosby, Sinatra, and the Andrews Sisters lent the sound its voice. After the war, stretching out into the early 1960s, a new generation of musicians began exploring new forms of expression. Big bands became small quartets and quintets. The Andrew Sisters handed off to sultry femmes such as Julie London, Peggy Lee, and Eartha Kitt (Billie Holiday transcended it all). Music became something you went to listen to, the players someone you went to see, rather than being a backdrop for dinner and dancing. Swing gave way to bebop, and then to post-bop and cool jazz. And somewhere amid the swirl of experimentation, some artists started blending jazz, blues, rural country, and something new to come up with what eventually became known as rhythm and blues; and later, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll.

Like noir, the definition of R&B is nebulous. A huge variety of styles can fall under that umbrella, and you’ll rarely get people to agree on where the porous borders are that separate R&B from rock from blues to rockin’ jazz to exotica, to say nothing of sub-sub genres like Las Vegas grind, popcorn, tittyshakers, crime jazz, and burlesk beat. Who was a crooner, who was an R&B wailer, who was a torch singer? Best to say, rather than lapse into dull debate about genre and technical notes, it’s up to the listener, and it’s more fun to enjoy the music than it is to fret about the label you place on it. Take, for instance, slow grind. Not so much a distinct style as it is a feeling or a mood. You may not be able to say what it is, but you know what it is when you hear it. A style of music that has to do with late hours and smoky joints, close dancing and sweat and something just a little feral. Sinful and sinister. Bars on the county line, at the edge of town. Lyrics that explore dark topics—heartache, lust, loss, violence, drifters (lots of songs about drifters)—without being coy about them. A dark reflection, the underbelly of all that “best foot forward” American optimism which, it turns out, wasn’t being shared by everyone.

The Slow Grind Fever series evolved out of a themed dance night put on by DJs and record collectors DJ Richie1250, Mohair Slim and Pierre Baroni in Melbourne, Australia. Like the French recognizing noir, many of the most dedicated chroniclers of bygone American music are from other countries (where would the history of rockabilly be without Japanese fans and Germany’s Bear Family Records? For the longest time, only Norton Records was keeping the fabulous flame burning in the US), so it’s no surprise that one of the best explorations of this shadowy branch of American R&B has been undertaken by Australians. It’s often easier to see these things from afar. As their slow grind nights gained popularity, they struck a deal with German record label Stag-O-Lee to release some of the music they spun at their events. The resulting series is currently up to 10 volumes, released as separate LPs or two-volume CDs. They are fascinating collections of creepy, crawly R&B in a minor key, some songs and artists obscure, others major hit makers in their day.

Volumes 1 and 2 open with “Whale of a Tale,” a hit from sax player Wynonie Harris, one of the most important early pioneers and R&B and a founding father of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the sounds to follow—minor keys, moaning and wailing vocals, growling sax, and a big, primal beat made for dancing close and dirty. The second track is “Hawk,” a sinister slice from Bill Haley & His Comets, best known for the foundational rock ‘n’ roll song “Rock Around the Clock.” Here, the lyrics frame competition in love as a violent struggle between predatory birds. Ernie Fields, an artist who never became a star but was a staple performer both before and after the war in big bands as well as small groups, turns in “Workin’ Out,” a prowling instrumental that introduces a twangy surf guitar vibe to the rockin’ piano and horns, making it the perfect beachside crime anthem. Lavern Baker is the first woman to step onto the stage, in a duet with doo-wop legend Jimmy Rick’s mega-bass of a voice. Helen Grayco, who was married to and often performed alongside Spike Jones, delivers a scorchin’ prison lament with “Lilly’s Lament (Cell 29)”, and Sylvie Mora brings some sultry exotica with her version of “Taboo.”

Then comes Nina Simone, the “high priestess of soul,” with “The Gal from Joe’s,” recorded for her 1962 album, Nina Simone Sings Ellington. Simone was a controversial artist for all the right reasons. Headstrong, proud of her black heritage, dismissive of the pop recording industry, and always interested in the underground. In the 1960s, she became an increasingly vocal proponent of the Civil Rights movement, culminating (but by no means ending) with her 1964 album, Nina Simone in Concert, which featured the song “Mississippi Goddam,” a reaction to the the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham that killed four black children. Although the tune is deceptively jaunty, the message is clearly one of frustration, exhaustion, and rage. Simone would go on to be one of the great voices of the movement, recording a number of protest songs that also became hits (or were banned in certain places), including “Four Women,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and a version of “Strange Fruit,” the horrifying, haunting song about lynching made famous by Billie Holiday. Even “The Gal from Joe’s” has subversive edge to it.

Wynonie Harris, Nina Simone, Bobby “Blue” Bland.

There are a few songs that became go-to slow grinds. “Fever,” of course, which this volume avoids (it’ll come up later), and “St. James Infirmary,” a grim, depressing number made for nodding to in melancholy contemplation. The origin of the song is lost to the mists of time, but Louis Armstrong made it famous in 1928, and it’s been around ever since, receiving many different twists and interpretations. Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway did it. Betty Boop did it. Oingo Boingo and the White Stripes did it. The version here, from 1961, is by blues legend Bobby “Blue” Bland, who delivers an arrangement powered by blues guitar and, perhaps in salute to Louis Armstrong, a dash of New Orleans jazz.

There’s plenty more scorchers where those came from. Blues shouter Big Maybelle howls through “Rain Down Rain.” Maybelle’s impact on blues and R&B was so great that one scarcely realizes the brevity of her life. She died at the age of 42, another of the many victims of heroin addiction. Scatman Crothers, who became a famous voice actor with roles in the animated TV shows Hong Kong Phooey and The Transformers, reminds people that before all that, he knew how to wail on the grim, bluesy “Dead Man’s Blues.” Dick Dixon & the Roommates’ instrumental “Caterpillar Crawl” brings a raw rockabilly sensibility, sounding like something Link Wray could have recorded. Like all of the tracks on this compilation, it shows the great diversity in style and performer that can still press comfortably up against one another on the dance floor. Barbara McNair was a nice ‘n’ easy vocalist who somehow got seduced into recording the sleaze-beat gem “He’s a King.”

As with many things, from a vantage point so many decades removed, it can be lost on modern audiences how confrontational and revolutionary certain elements of a song once were. Coming off the crisp, clean sound of wartime jazz vocals, where even the most passionate feeling or melancholy reflection was delivered with a certain reserved manner, the naked desire and emotion of R&B and rockabilly was shocking. Even Bing Crosby’s Depression-era lament, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” minds its manners. America’s period of self-denial and reserve was definitely over. That unbridled emotion was always in music—no one could reasonably claim the blues, even in the 1920s and ’30s, was chaste and reserved—but it was R&B that pushed it onto mainstream audiences of varying race. Dee Irwin’s “Anytime” isn’t a deep song judged by the lyrics, but the emotion in the song is fantastic. Jericho Brown’s “Lonesome Drifter” has a finger-snapping beat, but the down-on-his-luck protagonist, with his coterie of ghostly female backing vocalists, is hardly the happy-go-lucky wanderer of “King of the Road.”

Scatman Crothers, Santo & Johnny, Lee Hazlewood (with Nancy Sinatra).

Wynona Carr makes the direct connection between the garden of Eden and getting kicked out of the garden of Eden. She was a famed gospel singer (for which she appended her name with “Sister,” like another legendary gospel rocker, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose contributions to the foundations of rock ‘n’ roll are even more tragically overlooked than Wynonie Harris’) who, despite the religious nature of her day job (and as was the case with many a praying sinner), would slip into slow grind mode from time to time, as she does for the soulful, melancholy “Please Mr. Jailer.” As was said about country music juke joints in the 1940s, the point of Sunday morning was to atone for all the sinning you got up to on Saturday night.

With more spooky background wailing, and another growling lady in the lead, Lorrie Collins’ “Another Man Done Gone” was the young woman’s announcement to the world that she was no longer a child. Collins was part of a popular child duo alongside her brother, but when she turned 17, she ditched that life and married a talent manager whose number one client, Johnny Cash, wrote this song for Collins. Larry O’Keefe also keeps things creepy with his exotica rock spooker “Lover’s Dreams,” full of melancholy and bongos, while Johnny Carroll turns in a ghostly slice of misty night with “Bandstand Doll,” a song title that doesn’t hint at how mysterious and gloomy the sound is going to be. In fact, that sort of “floating through a nightmare” sounds dominates a lot of song songs on the back half of the combined Volume 1 and 2 CD. The mood comes to a melancholy head with the final three tracks: the languid, melancholy “Summertime” by Santo & Johnny (of “Sleepwalk” fame), Lee Hazlewood’s grim prison dirge, “The Girl on Death Row,” and Eddie Miller’s otherworldly country haunter, “Ghost Town.”

It’s a fantastic collection with a lot of styles, all of them possessing that certain darkness, vitality, and sultry danger. Some songs might be better than others, but none are weak, and as a whole, you’d be hard pressed to find a better mood setter, whether you’re looking to slide up against someone in one of those dimly-lit wood-paneled joints, take a lonely drive to nowhere as you contemplate loss, or maybe just figure out what to do with that smoking gun.

It’s sometimes said, though not by me or anyone I’d take seriously, that the early 1960s produced no music of value, that the period between Elvis leaving for the Army in 1958 and the arrival of the Beatles on American shores in 1964 was a creative desert. However, those “lean” years were years of tremendous creativity and experimentation and produced some truly amazing, wild, or at least ambitious recordings. I don’t want to attribute motives to those who dismiss the early 1960s, but it seems like some of them at least were waiting, after the departure of one white rock ‘n’ roll guy, for the arrival of the next white rock ‘n’ roll guy, turning their nose up at the music coming from black and Hispanic America. Anyone who can shrug off a span of years that includes the rise of Motown, girl groups, John Coltrane, Les Baxter, Miles Davis, and Patsy Cline (among countless others) just wasn’t listening very hard.

With more bands than ever starting in attics, garages, and basements across the country, and with more access to inexpensive recording facilities (even if it was just a mic and a mixing board in a gas station), record stores were flush with wild material, much of it recorded by artists with no chance of fame beyond playing a few local gigs. The important thing was that music was being made, and musicians were flexing their creative freedom. In the steamy world of the slow grind, these emerging styles manifested in a number of intoxicating, often bizarre tunes. Volumes 3 and 4 of Slow Grind Fever showcase a wide range of cultural influences. The disc opens with the Notes’ “Cha Jezebel,” a classic slow grind accompanied by Latin flair. If there’s one thing slow grind songs like as much as drifters and fevers, it’s Jezebels.

The second track, the El Torros’ “Yellow Hand,” is the perfect example of the sort of obscure experimentation that was getting a chance. They started back in ’51 as a group thrown together to entertain their co-workers at a baby carriage factory Christmas party. They stuck with it beyond that toss-away gig, played some local spots in St. Louis, and one night caught the attention of Bobby “Blue” Bland. He recommended them to a label, and while they didn’t become chart toppers, they did get to record. “Yellow Hand” is a dizzying mix of tropical exotica, Mexican ballad, and doo-wop with a Native American theme. Where does something like that come from?

Among the big names on this volume are the Isley Brothers, whose career has spanned decades and who have undergone a number of line-up and stylistic changes, from vocal trio to band, from doo-wop and gospel to funk and rock. Their song here, “Teach Me How to Shimmy” is the perfect steamy house party slow grinder, recorded a year before their break-out hit, “Twist and Shout” (a song they recorded with Bert Berns, a successful songwriter/producer who used the session to teach a struggling producer named Phil Spector how to make a hit record). Other big hits on this volume include the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You,” possibly the most recognizable song in the entire “Slow Grind Fever” series. More of a romancer than a grinder, but you still want to dance close to it. It’s one of the great dreamy, late night songs because it was, literally, a late night song, recorded after the singers were roused at 4am.

Jimmy Scott, Lavern Baker, The Flamingos.

Immediately following the Flamingos is “Little” Jimmy Scott, a similarly dreamy, romantic number that hearkens back to the era of crooners but mashed up with doo-wop, and all delivered in Scott’s distinctive contralto voice. Scott had Kallmann syndrome, which kept him from hitting “puberty” until his late 30s, gifting him with both his signature voice and the “little” in Little Jimmy Scott; he was 4’11” until age 37, when he hit his growth spurt. He had one of those voices that, no matter what he was singing, made you believe.

Jay Hawkins before the Screamin’, Howlin’ Wolf, and Elmore James round out the big names on this volume and represent the Chicago style of electric blues that was emerging alongside and often merging with rock and R&B. But as great as it is to hear cuts from these masters, the real joy for me in collections like Slow Grind Fever is discovering the obscure, forgotten, or at least unknown to me artists. Like Donna Dee, for example, doing her best Wanda Jackson snarl alongside a primitive-sounding, stripped-down roadhouse backing band. Or Harlem native Varetta Dillard, who sounds like Patsy Cline at her rockingest (which would be “Love Love Love Me, Honey Do”)—but spicier that Patsy would have ever let her songs be, and with a growling sax coming to hang out with a honkytonk piano. Once again, we are reminded that the roots of most American pop music are common, and the divisions into which it would eventually be forced are often meaningless except for marketing. R&B could have plenty of country, and country could certainly conjure the rhythm and blues.

And the Stone Crushers’ “Crawfish”…who writes a song that spooky and sexy about shrimp? But there it is, with a chorus wailing “crawfish” in a way that ranges from scary to gospel. The hell?

There’s also the two Yvonnes. Yvonne Fair, a protege of James Brown, is backed by Brown’s band on “If I knew,” a classic slice of soul. It was originally released as the down ‘n’ dirty slow grind flipside of a song so good James Brown would eventually record his own version: “I Got You (I Feel Good).” Yvonne Baker was part of a moderately successful doo-wop group called the Sensations. “Eyes” finds them straying away from the classic doo-wop sound and into that peculiar back alley where R&B meets exotica, with a dash of something beatnik.

(Not yet Screamin’) Jay Hawkins, Elisabeth Waldo, The Isley Brothers

Elisabeth Waldo may have not been a star of R&B, but she had a pretty good career in the realm of exotica. A true student of traditional South American music, she released fantastic albums such as Rites of the Pagan and Realm of the Incas which, unlike many of her exotica contemporaries were based more soundly in the traditional music of South American cultures. She may seem an odd fit alongside the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and the Isley Brothers, but her mysterious instrumental “Balsa Boat” is a slice of otherworldly wonder straight from the steamy jungle. It may not be everyone’s slow grind fave, but when you find that someone who will dance to it with you, you know you’ve found someone magical.

Members of the big orchestras of the Harlem Renaissance used to gather after hours for late night/early morning jam sessions, music for musicians, where they could shake off the confines of the swing and show tunes at which they excelled for audiences and go nuts. Cozy Cole was one of those members, playing drums for the likes of Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and later backing up modern jazz pioneers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. “Bad” sounds like something that would have come out of one of those late night sessions. It’s weird, raw, dirty, and all over the place, like a swing band got drunk with a conga band, invited some scantily clad dancers over, and figured, “let’s see what happens.” Tracks like this are a chance for musicians who helped make other musicians to step into the spotlight, softened by smoke and humidity though it may be.

Two of my favorite discoveries on these two volumes are Bobby Rebel and Duane Eddy. No one seems to know much about Bobby Rebel. Unless there’s other 45’s out there waiting to be unearthed, he only recorded once, “Valley of Tears” with “Teardrops From My Eyes” on the B side. As one can guess from those titles, this is a guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve. Another background choir of ghost ladies, along with a twanging guitar and even some strings, lend texture to Rebel’s soulful moaning. Duane Eddy’s “Stalkin'” was probably inspired by the likes of Link Wray, whose signature tune, “Rumble” was released the same year. “Stalkin'” was recorded by Lee Hazlewood, a friend to lush, gloomy songs of doom. To get the exact echo and twang he wanted for the song, Hazlewood recorded Eddy inside an empty water storage tank.

The mood isn’t always as dark on volumes 3 and 4 as it was on 1 and 2, but you do need that diversity of mood, don’t you, for it to be a memorable night? It can’t be all skulking in the shadows and animal lust in the hallway. Or, it can, but it doesn’t hurt to pepper that with mystery and romance. The first four volumes of Slow Grind Fever are the soundtrack for the perfect night, from rowdy house party to cramped juke joint to that shady strip club to a moonlit rendezvous in the wee small hours. Are you there to kiss or kill? Or kiss and kill? Doesn’t matter. Either way, there’s a song for you on this collection. In 1964, the Beatles would hit America, and every band was suddenly young kids plucking out Brit Beat covers. Fun enough, but it washed over one of the most interesting, most bizarre, and most diverse (musically as well as racially) periods in American pop music, when songs about killers and hustlers and strippers, heartache and murder and loss, sex and lust and love, and yes, drifters and Jezebels, occupied the uneasy American mind.

On a Sinister Note: Film Noir Jazz

A shadow cast against a plume of steam billowing from a manhole in the middle of a potholed, rain-slick street. Neon light imprisoned in puddles of rainwater. The shadow emerges from the steam, becomes the form of a man wrapped in a khaki military trench coat—one of two souvenirs he still had from the war. The other souvenir was tucked into the waist of his pants. A city this big is rarely quiet, but this street, at that hour, only whispered quietly like wind in a graveyard. The heels of his shoes echoed off the brick of the buildings straining toward the black, murky sky. He pulled the brim of his hat lower against the mist of rain and turned down a narrow alley. Here at last was sound. Faint, strange, seeping out of a beat-up metal door at the end of the street. One last glance around him, one more breath. He pulled the door open and the mad sound of a raucous jazz quintet suddenly came tumbling out like a mass of brawling drunkards. The air inside was humid, smoky, and smelled of booze. He nodded at the bouncer, who nodded back almost imperceptibly, and scanned the crowd as the door closed behind him. A well-heeled bunch, dressed to kill, black and tony mostly with a few white faces scattered here and there. It wasn’t hard to find her. She was alone, at a table off to the side, sipping what looked from across the room to be a Manhattan. As the trumpet player launched into a wandering solo, he made his way toward her…

In the 1950s, film began to move away from romantic or bombastic orchestral scores and toward a more varied landscape. One of the styles that started making its mark on cinematic soundtracks during this period was jazz. Jazz was no stranger to film. Hell, the first talkie was called The Jazz Singer. Early hot jazz, big band, and swing made frequent appearances in film during the 1930s and ‘40s. However, much of the time, jazz on-screen was presented as a performance rather than as an integral part of the score, which was more times than not the tried-and-true orchestration that had served film so well since, the medium moved beyond “whatever the piano player in the movie house knows.”

It wasn’t until the post-war era that jazz began to migrate to the score, to become both diegetic and non-diegetic within the context of the film. Among the genres that would become most defined with jazz was film noir, those morally ambiguous crime dramas spawned by the ennui lurking beneath the surface of wartime America. Ask anyone to describe “film noir music” and you will likely get a description of cool jazz, the sort of sound pioneered by Miles Davis. And that’s with good reason. It’s hard to say in retrospect whether cool jazz sounds like noir because we’ve spent so many decades identifying it as such, or whether it just really does sound like film noir, whatever that may mean. Moody, blue, haunting, but also capable of wild abandon and fits of musical violence. Listen to “Blue in Green” off Miles’ 1959 album, Kind of Blue, and you will hear the very essence of film noir.

Which, as a genre, was pretty much over by 1959. Nothing like “Blue in Green,” nothing like any of what we would think of as quintessential “noir jazz” ever appeared as part of the score for a film noir from the classic period. No one can agree on when film noir emerged; no one can even agree on whether it’s a genre or a style or a mood of film. But for the sake of picking something, the default position is that noir kicks off with The Maltese Falcon (1940). There is no jazz in the score for The Maltese Falcon, nor in any film noir from the first half of that decade despite the fact that Duke Ellington and Charlie Strayhorn were swinging and musicians such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk were tucked away in dark, mysterious nightclubs inventing bebop, the jazz style that would eventually birth Miles Davis and cool jazz. Jazz doesn’t really take the stage in film noir until 1946, when Robert Mitchum walked into a jazz bar in Out of the Past. Even then, it’s diegetic—the source of the music is a performance on-screen. It’s not part of the film’s soundtrack, which like almost all noir sticks with the classic Hollywood sound derived from European orchestral music. When jazz does make an appearance in the noirs of the 1940s, it is usually in this fashion, as a temporary soundtrack provided when the white hero or heroine walks into a club, signifying either they are on dangerous ground or are just cooler than the other white people in the movie.

By the 1950s, the hot jazz, big band, and swing styles of jazz that had been the dominant form of the music since the 1920s was fading, and jazz musicians were drifting toward a more intimate, experimental, and complex style. For all their musical genius, when you went to see Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway, you weren’t just there for them. You were eating, dancing, or watching others dance. As jazz moved out of the band stands and into smaller clubs, the musicians started to assert that you were there to listen to their music. It was the focus, not just accompaniment and background music. The new sound was more unpredictable, better suited for a dimly-lit, smoky bar than the bandstand at the Cotton Club. You sat and watched (and listened to) Monk and Parker, and later to Davis and Coltrane. The new style and new way of thinking about performing also attracted the more innovative luminaries from jazz’ previous generation. Ellington is always going to be around, always learning, always evolving. Although it didn’t happen as early or as often as people today may think, film noir, or at least crime film, was still one of the first cinematic styles to integrate jazz into the score. It made sense for a genre so tied to nightlife, to the streets, to after-hours clubs, and above all, to a certain mood and atmosphere, to tap into a similarly moody, similarly difficult to describe, style of music.

It wasn’t until 1958 that the style of jazz we think of as “noir jazz” was fully realized on screen, as the score for a film noir. It was, of course, Miles Davis who provided the score—but the movie wasn’t American; it was the French noir Elevator to the Gallows. Before that, the signature musical style of film noir was, at best, fleeting found in film noir and very rarely provided by dedicated jazz musicians. When it did surface as part of the score—non diegetic—it was usually in a movie that was controversial in more ways than just its musical preferences and put together by a composer well-versed in classical Hollywood music but looking to try something a little more daring. So it is fitting that Jazz on Film: Film Noir, a 5-disc box set exploring the jazz soundtracks of seven crime dramas from the 1950s, should open with Alex North’s score for Streetcar, even if you consider the film itself tangential to noir. Compiled by Jazzwise writer and “cinematic jazz” aficionado Selwyn Harris and released by Jason Lee Lazell’s boutique label Moochin’ About, Jazz on Film: Film Noir makes the case, in its well-researched liner notes, for A Streetcar Named Desire as the first major example of crime, or noir, jazz.

Jazz, Lust, and Madness
Alex North
A Streetcar Named Desire

Director Elia Kazan’s 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the earliest points at which jazz became integral to the aural tapestry of film, even if you consider the film itself only tangential to noir. A Streetcar Named Desire serves then not just the coming out party for jazz as part of a film’s non-diegetic score, but also as the first major example of crime, or noir, jazz. A Streetcar Named Desire isn’t often classified as noir, but noir is a nebulous term, and the case can be made that Streetcar meets more than enough of the criteria to justify considering it and its score film noir and noir jazz. Alex North’s music was as groundbreaking and shocking as Marlon Brando’s brute, naturalistic acting.

Born just south of Philadelphia in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1910, Alex North migrated north (as the case was) to New York, where he sought work as a composer for the theater. He got a gig composing for a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, directed by Elia Kazan. Kazan and his wife, Molly Thacher, were two of the earliest proponents of playwright Tennessee Williams, and together Kazan and Williams mounted a number of successful productions; including, in 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire.

When Kazan left Broadway for Hollywood, he took Alex North with him. In 1951, North collaborated with Kazan on the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring two actors from the stage production: Karl Malden and Marlon Brando. Although revered as a classic today, upon its release Streetcar met with mixed reaction. Kazan kept the film stage-bound to retain the claustrophobia of the play. Many, however, saw this as a step back in time to an era when movies were little more than filmed stage performances, an archaic approach at a time when film was opening up, moving off of the sound stage and toward more location work.

Whatever criticism might have been leveled at Kazan’s approach ultimately proved moot. Streetcar was nominated for twelve Oscars and won four. One of those nominations was for Alex North’s score. He lost to Franz Waxman’s lush, more traditional music for A Place in the Sun. Over the course of his career, North was nominated for fifteen Academy Awards—none of which he won. Those nominations include one for best original song, “Unchained Melody,” and scores including Spartacus, Death of a Salesman, and Cleopatra, among others.

For Streetcar, North turned to this new style of jazz emerging from the clubs of, among other towns, New Orleans, where the story is set. “Lowdown basin street blues,” as North described it. This being one of the earliest examples of jazz as a score, North still plays nice with classical orchestration, and much of the music is a comfortable, intoxicating mix of languid romanticism fueled by strings and aggressive sexual modernity powered by brass. The opening theme is like Bernard Herrmann strolled into a seedy bar at two in the morning and decided to collaborate (granted, Herrmann wouldn’t really make his mark on movie music for a few years yet). Sweeping, sinister strings give way to bass, drums, and a creeping trumpet, creating a sound that would, in time, become the very definition of “crime jazz.” “Four Deuces,” is a much purer expression of jazz without additional layers. It’s sultry, smokey, flirtatious in spots, and just a little bit menacing.

North said in interviews that he wanted to write music for moods and mental states rather than actions, an approach in keeping with Streetcar as a study in tumultuous personalities and one that also exemplified the attitude of many jazz musicians.. If you know the setting and general tone of the story, you can interpret the mood of the scene by the music, without having seen the movie itself. “Belle Reeve” sounds like a faded plantation, a place of crumbling former glory, forlorn people, and wasted dreams. Listen to “Blanche” with its mix of whimsy and melancholy and you can tell a great deal about the character for whom the song was written. “Mania?” Yes, that’s pretty much what mania sounds like. The combination of jazz and romantic orchestral music even reflects the film on a more meta-textual level, as the modern, naturalistic “method” acting of Brando plays off the classical, stylized acting of co-star Vivian Leigh.

Although the constant shift from jazz to classical might keep this score from being thought of by some as pure jazz (in much the same way the film itself isn’t quite noir), it’s still a landmark work. Never had jazz, in any capacity, been so integral to the structure of a film. Take it away, and Streetcar is not the same movie. North ran into problems with censors, who thought his music was in some places, too sexual. He was forced to revert to less-suggestive orchestration in some scenes—the most famous moment being the much-referenced “Stella!” scene. Actress Kim Hunter’s reaction to Brando’s tortured howling was cut because Hays Office censors found it “orgasmic,” and North’s music was similarly disapproved of for the same reason. In the cases when he was required to compromise, however, North didn’t half-ass it out of spite. His orchestral compositions might not be as groundbreaking as his jazz pieces, but they are expertly written and drenched in mood. There’s a reason that well over half a century later, Alex North’s work on A Streetcar Named Desire is still written about, analyzed, and re-released.

Jazz in Hell
Leith Stevens
Private Hell 36

One of the next instances of jazz as a film noir score is Leith Stevens’ work on Private Hell 36 (1954), directed by Don Siegel and starring Ida Lupino, who also wrote the screenplay. Lupino’s dream when young had been to be a writer, but she came from show folk who wanted her to perform on-stage. She had a pretty good career as an actress, but her creative spirit was restless. She eventually moved into the roles of producer, writer, and director, eschewing the established studios with which she was frequently feuding and founding her own production company along with then-husband Collier Young.

Lupino intended to direct Private Hell 36, casting her third husband, Howard Duff, in one of the lead roles. When it came time to shoot the film, however, Duff and Lupino had separated. Lupino thought it would be awkward for her to direct her estranged husband, so she hired Don Siegel, fresh off the grim Riot in Cell Block 11, to take over. Nothing went the way he wanted. Siegel claimed the cast spent most of the production drinking. He and Lupino clashed constantly. Into this mix, throw notorious hard-drinker Sam Peckinpah, who was hired to punch up the dialogue. The end result was a “could have been” picture that never quite lived up to its potential, a footnote in noir history, memorable for two reasons: the cinematography by Burnett Guffey, who had just won an Academy Award for his work on From Here to Eternity; and the score by Leith Stevens.

Stevens is less interested in the orchestral sound of previous decades and dips into some of the more eclectic avenues down which jazz was wandering. He began the 1950s composing music for producer George Pal’s big-budget science fiction spectacles. In 1952, he worked with Ida Lupino on Beware, My Lovely. In 1953, he composed the scores for The Bigamist (directed by and starring Lupino) and The Hitch-Hiker (directed and co-written by Lupino). He also did the score for The Wild One starring Marlon Brando, so he was riding pretty high when Lupino asked him to compose for Private Hell 36. Perhaps because it was a low-budget independent film, or, perhaps because the production was so booze-fueled and out-of-control, no one was paying attention to Stevens, which meant he had a lot of freedom. Working with trumpeter/arranger Shorty Rogers, one of the creators of “west coast jazz” and Stevens’ collaborator on The Wild One, Stevens delivered a brassy, confrontational jazz score that sees crime jazz come to its fruition. All the pieces are in place. This score would influence crime dramas for years to come.

The opening theme evokes the grimy, shadow-shrouded “dark city” of film noir. Ever-evolving thing jazz was, there are some new elements added to the mix, including xylophones, that give the music a “skulking in the alleys” feel. “Havana Interlude” incorporates Latin rhythms. “Easy Mood” is exactly the song you need when you slink into a nightclub on a foggy night. “Private Blues” is exactly the song you need when you spend the rest of that night sitting alone, staring into your glass of whiskey before you walk out into the waning darkness to an ominous fanfare. The music is about mood, and Leith Stevens knows his stuff. The film, while good, is no forgotten classic, but the soundtrack certainly is.

Heroin and Horns
Elmer Bernstein and Shorty Rogers
The Man with the Golden Arm

The controversial Frank Sinatra film, The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), like A Streetcar Named Desire, skirts the boundaries of noir. The score was written by Elmer Bernstein, who became one of the titans of film music. However, his career was almost derailed just as it was taking off. After a promising start composing for Saturday’s Hero and Sudden Fear, young Bernstein was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which demanded he out any Communists he might know in the picture business. Bernstein refused to comply, insisting that despite having written music reviews published in a left-leaning newspaper, he wasn’t a Communist, had never been to a Communist meeting, and didn’t know who was or was not a Communist.

For his refusal to cooperate fully, he was blacklisted by the major studios. Unable to capitalize on his previous success, he found work on independent B- and C-pictures, including Robot Monster and Cat Women of the Moon (both in 1953). His return to the big time was orchestrated in 1955 by Otto Preminger, the confrontational director of The Man with the Golden Arm. It was a film that seemed designed from the ground up to anger moral watchdogs. Based on a novel by Nelson Algren, The Man with the Golden Arm is about a talented but crooked card dealer (played by Sinatra) who, upon his release from prison, wants to go straight. Unfortunately, he’s surrounded by bad seeds and, even worse, has never quite been able to kick his heroin addiction, which leads him right back into the sleazy Chicago underbelly from which he thought he’d escaped.

Depictions of drug use and addiction were forbidden under the Hays Code that oversaw the content of American movies at the time, and the associated Production Code Authority (PCA) refused to issue the film a seal of approval. With no seal, it would be next impossible to get screened in any major theater. Preminger, never one to back down from a fight, persisted, with the backing of United Artists—which hoped the PCA would reconsider based on the fact that the film depicts drug addiction as bleak and harrowing. Preminger was fighting another battle at the same time, with Nelson Algren. Algren had been contracted to work on the screenplay, but he and Preminger clashed constantly. Algren was eventually fired and replaced with Walter Newman. Preminger and Newman reworked Algren’s screenplay to the point where they felt justified in refusing the author a screen credit. Algren sought an injunction against the film but, Algren being a novelist and all, he didn’t have the money to pursue it any further.

The film was eventually completed and, as had been warned, failed to secure a PCA seal of approval. Preminger and UA forged ahead nevertheless, and their campaign for the film bore fruit. In a rare moment of dissension among America’s most powerful censors, the Catholic League of Decency—which had been the spearhead of so many crusades to ban art it deemed taboo—parted company with the Hays Office and “passed” the film as “morally objectionable” rather than the more damning “condemned.” Theater chains that would previously have refused a film lacking PCA approval decided to book the picture anyway, noting the artistry and important message it contained. When some exhibitors objected to the controversial poster design by Saul Bass, Preminger threatened to pull the film from circulation, a bold gamble which, once again, paid off. The Man with the Golden Arm was one of the first films to push back against the PCA, and as a result the Code became increasingly anemic and was more often ignored. Filmmakers insisted on greater freedom, and film goers insisted on more mature, complex fare than had previously been allowed.

The Man with the Golden Arm is also one of the first films to present modern jazz as a part of the plot in a capacity more integral and complex than Jimmy Cagney or Jack Oakie needing to pull off a big variety show. Sinatra’s character, Frankie Machine, dreams of going straight by getting a job as a drummer in a bebop outfit—an ironic profession, given the reputation of jazz musicians, for a guy looking to kick his smack habit. By the mid-1950s, Sinatra had been a major presence in American entertainment for a couple of decades, enough time to have had a few different fades and comebacks and to have kicked around during the big band and swing eras. His career was on an upswing in the 1950s, both as a recording artist and as an actor. Frank was looking to be taken seriously on the big screen, and his role in From Here to Eternity did a lot to advance him toward that goal. He lost a plum role in On the Waterfront to it-boy Marlon Brando, which steamed Frank to no end and inspired him to triple down on his efforts to steal the role of Frankie Machine out from under Brando, who was the leading contender for the gig.

Sinatra got his revenge and harbored a grudge against Brando—who he referred to as “Mumbles” and disparaged as “the world’s most overrated actor”—for the rest of his life. That grudge was exacerbated when they starred together in the 1955 musical Guys and Dolls, in which Brando, who could neither sing nor dance, was cast as Sky Masterson, a role Sinatra decided he wanted only after it had gone to Brando. Brando’s acting style and attitude on set was utterly incompatible with Sinatra’s policy of “no rehearsals, no Method, speak clearly, and just one take” philosophy. Realizing this, Brando would reportedly execute his scenes with Sinatra perfectly…until the last line, which he would purposely blow, forcing them to redo the whole thing and driving Sinatra batshit insane. Perhaps Frank channeled that rage into The Man with the Golden Arm’s detox scene.

When it came time to score The Man with the Golden Arm, Preminger made a decision that was as confrontational as everything else he’d done. He hired blacklisted Elmer Bernstein. It was the perfect opportunity for blacklisted Bernstein, who was afforded great freedom by two notorious control freaks in Sinatra and Preminger. Though Sinatra sat in on some of Bernstein’s sessions, he didn’t involve himself in the recording of the music, concentrating instead on his acting. Like Leith Stevens on Private Hell 36, Bernstein collaborated with arranger Shorty Rogers. Free to go nuts in a film that was spoiling for a fight on pretty much every front, Bernstein unleashes a defining jazz score.

The movie’s theme song is powered by urgent, in-your-face brass and a driving tempo. Like Alex North’s work for A Streetcar Named Desire, Bernstein doesn’t shy away from orchestration. The theme associated with Frankie’s crippled wife begins as a melancholy piece centered on strings and clarinet. Toward the back-end it gives way to forlorn, brooding jazz. Subsequent tracks continue to work this combination, sometimes shockingly so. “The Fix” begins like another slice of traditional “suspense” orchestration, but it veers suddenly into a wild jazz crescendo and then keeps wandering between the two styles. Even when Bernstein is playing in the more traditional end of the pool, he frequently opts for a challenging, discordant style of orchestration that recalls depression more than sadness (if that makes sense), desperation, and on occasion, a delirium nearly equal to that which he’s able to conjure when his jazz compositions are at their maddest.

A Cookie Full of Arsenic
Elmer Bernstein and Chico Hamilton
Sweet Smell of Success

Upon its initial release, Sweet Smell of Success (1957) was met with mixed reaction, with many critics (and audience members) finding it too caustic, too nihilistic—which is quite an accomplishment for a film noir with no murders, no gangsters, and only the mildest of criminal activities. Rather than plumbing the world of cops and criminals, it’s about gossip columnists and publicists and the all-night hustle it takes to make or break someone in the cutthroat world of New York entertainment. Elmer Bernstein is composing once again, and his score is brash, swaggering fury that captures both the hyperactive hustle of Tony Curtis’ publicist, Sidney Falco, and Burt Lancaster’s smug, venomous gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker. It encapsulates the atmosphere of excitement, fear, and energy of Manhattan’s 52nd Street when it was Swing Street and all the kings and queens of America congregated there to see, be seen, make deals, break deals, and get rip-roaring drunk while the leading names of the jazz ages both past and present tore up the local nightclubs.

The score for Sweet Smell of Success was a collaborative effort, with part of it done by Bernstein and part of it by the Chico Hamilton Quartet, a popular jazz outfit that also plays a role in the film. Whereas jazz plays a small role in the plot of The Man with the Golden Arm, it’s more front and center in Sweet Smell of Success (though still not central)—and this time, the jazz band actually includes black members. Hunsecker’s younger sister is in love with a musician (once again ironically, given the bad rap of musicians, they are the only decent guys in a movie full of scheming scumbags). Overprotective, possessive J.J. pressures Sidney into ending the relationship in the only fashion Hunsecker can imagine: by utterly destroying the young kid’s life.

Hamilton and his group appear throughout the movie’s many scenes set at New York hot spots, which include real-life locations Toots Shor’s and the 21 Club. Hamilton was a West Coast guy who cut his teeth as a drummer alongside musicians including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Charles Mingus; and vocalists such as Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, and Billie Holiday. In 1955, he struck out on his own and formed a quintet that was notable for its inclusion of a cello, an instrument that rarely made an appearance in jazz ensembles. Bernstein understands what Hamilton is doin,g and the two are able to complement one another. Hamilton plays it cool and modern while Bernstein mixes up dark classical compositions and big band-era bravado. Without a properly annotated track list, it can sometimes be difficult to tell when one composer’s work ends and the other’s begins. The result is a sinister, sultry affair that reeks of cigarette smoke, booze, and something to do with rage and hopelessness, ambition and withered dreams, aggression and impotence.

A Cocktail of Crime and Corruption
Henry Mancini
Touch of Evil

People who have never heard the name Henry Mancini will probably still recognize some of his most famous compositions, which includes, among others, the theme from the film The Pink Panther, a song so ingrained into our collective pop culture consciousness that almost everyone knows it even if they don’t know its origin. Mancini is most closely identified with the scores he wrote for a string of films during the 1960s that became the definition of modern sophistication, elegance, and refined cool; films like Charade, Arabesque, and towering over them all, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Mancini’s playful, lush compositions became the de facto sound of the cocktail era. It’s difficult to imagine, then, that he could write something as raw, eclectic, and down ‘n’ dirty as the music for Orson Welles’ border town noir Touch of Evil, a score that draws on Latin-flavored and Beat jazz and combines it with the new sounds of rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll.

But then, it’s never wise to underestimate Henry Mancini, a guy who, in addition to becoming one of the most versatile and prolific composers in cinema history, attended Julliard and then spent WWII kicking Nazi butt and liberating concentration camps. This was not a man who lacked life experience.

After the war (he was also part of the Army band), he joined the Glenn Miller Orchestra when it was being led by Tex Beneke, then parlayed his success there into a contract with Universal Studios. Like Elmer Bernstein, he cut his teeth writing songs for genre pictures. Unlike Bernstein, Mancini worked primarily on higher-profile films, including Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came from Outer Space, Tarantula, and This Island Earth. Oh, and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, of course. In 1954, he was nominated for his first Academy award, appropriately enough for his work on The Glenn Miller Story. He would be nominated eighteen Oscars during his long career, winning four times, his first victory coming in 1962 for Best Original Song, “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Sandwiched in between those two films, and released the same year Mancini became an enduring crime jazz legend by writing the “Peter Gunn Theme” (perhaps even more recognizable and more often referenced than the “Pink Panther Theme”), he got work on a doomed B-grade noir. The director was Orson Welles, and the film was Touch of Evil. Like many of the early crime films to adopt a jazz-influenced score, Touch of Evil was dismissed upon its initial release, and like most, it was a tumultuous production.

As one version of the story goes, Orson Welles was aching for a vehicle to get him back into Hollywood after spending years in Europe begging for financing to get a movie, any movie, made. After his controversial but celebrated debut, Citizen Kane, Welles struggled to get another film off the ground, often coming to loggerheads with studios who demanded the right to recut his films after they were finished (if indeed they were finished). As stressful and uncertain as those times had been, they did produce a slew of films that were, at their worst, great, including The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai. But in 1951, after the completion of Othello, the wunderkind found himself shut out of Hollywood. He scraped by with television work, made the rarely-discussed Confidential Report in 1955, and found himself in the office of producer Albert Zugsmith looking for a movie to re-prove himself (yet again) to Hollywood.

Welles supposedly looked at a pile of scripts on Zugsmith’s desk and said he’d take whichever script Zugsmith thought was the worst and would turn it into a masterpiece. The script he got was Badge of Evil, based on a book of the same name by Whit Masterson. Welles rewrote the screenplay, cast himself in the role of a corrupt American cop on the U.S.-Mexican border, and took on the directorial duties for free.

Yet again, nothing went smoothly. Final cut was taken away from Welles, who was furious and disowned the movie, issuing a detailed memo citing every change the studio made. Universal regarded the film as a failure before it was even released. They slapped it onto the bottom half of a double bill with The Female Animal starring Hedy Lamarr and George Nader. Despite a cast that included Welles, Charlton Heston playing a Mexican guy, Marlene Dietrich, Janet Leigh, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, the film didn’t do much business and was quickly forgotten in the United States. In France however, where the term “film noir” had been coined, and where study of these grim crime dramas had become an obsession for a generation of young film scholars and filmmakers, Touch of Evil was much more highly regarded. The film’s reputation in the United States also improved over the decades. In 1998, it was re-edited to conform to Welles’ original cut based on that cranky—and useful—memo. It’s now heralded as a classic, the last great film noir, and while the talk is always about Orson Welles, his struggle, his directorial flare, and the fact that Charlton Heston plays a Mexican guy (whatever; he’d played an Egyptian in his previous movie), it’s worth noting that Henry Mancini’s score is similarly groundbreaking work.

Elvis had it the scene by 1958, shifting the center of cool away from jazz and sophisticated adults and toward rock ‘n’ roll and teenagers, who suddenly found themselves with disposable income and a greater degree of personal freedom than they’d had since the country had been founded. In 1960, the focus of mainstream cool would shift almost entirely to youth culture, specifically London, where photographers like David Bailey, models like Jean Shrimpton, and musicians like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were about to make even Elvis seem square. Jazz, as it had been doing since the 1910s, continued to innovate, becoming more experimental down one avenue and, down the other, getting integrated into the sort of jazz-funk cocktail lounge sound that typified Italian soundtracks of the era. In fact, the defining youth culture movement of swinging London, the mods, derived their nickname from their love of modern jazz.

Henry Mancini, oddly enough, was at the forefront of this seismic shift in pop culture, when he used Touch of Evil to create a diverse and modern score that reflected the transitional times. Welles’ only decree to Mancini was that the music should be diegetic—that is, within the context of the movie, it should have an identifiable on-screen source, such as being broadcast on a radio, or spilling out of a club—and that it should reflect the sort of music one would expect to come from whatever location and whatever character happened to be playing it. Touch of Evil’s location meant that Mancini could explore a rich tapestry of musical styles, from straight jazz to R&B to primitive rock to Latin beats. The result is a soundscape, almost a field recording, as much as it is a score. The opening theme begins with a blast of brass that sets you up for what had become, by 1958, a standard crime jazz theme. Then the congas kick in and something altogether more swinging emerges, almost a return to the big band era, but by way of Latin-influenced exotica and seedy strip club “burlesk beat” music.

This song accompanies perhaps one of the most famous tracking shots in cinema, which means the music can get lost as one is struck by the virtuosity of the shot. But the shot wouldn’t be the same without Mancini’s theme. It rises and falls as the camera drifts over the film’s border town setting, fading altogether at times, and at others being replaced by a different song as a car drives by or the camera meanders past an open doorway or window. Other songs are more straight-forward teen beat garage rock, the kind of guitar and sax driven boogie woogie numbers that often accompany scenes of twistin’ kids in cardigans and poodle skirts or leather jackets and Capri pants, depending on your gang.

“Reflections” brings things back into the realm of smoke-filled piano bars an hour after last call, while “Tana’s Theme,” heard in the apartments of Marlene Dietrich’s fortune-teller, is practically an old-time saloon number. “The Boss” is the sort of driving mix of jazz horns, guitars, and bongos that in the coming decade would become known as “spy jazz,” a style most closely associated with John Barry’s brawny James Bond scores and the subsequent work of Italian masters on the wild Eurospy films that cropped up in Bond’s wake.

Those looking for a more traditional crime jazz score—ironic, given that just seven years earlier, any jazz score was the epitome of non-traditional—will find fewer morsels in this smorgasbord than they might want, as it really is driven by rock, R&B, and the next era’s cocktail jazz. But regardless, as a soundtrack it’s a phenomenal, trend-setting example. Mancini’s compositions are inextricably tied to the film, so often is the source of the music on-screen, but it works on its own despite this close diegetic relationship. Alternately menacing, raunchy, ridiculous, and rockin’, like the movie it accompanied, it wasn’t appreciated for its true value when it was released, but from a vantage point looking back, we can now see what an important work, both cinematically and musically, was Touch of Evil.

Return of a Legend
Duke Ellington
Anatomy of a Murder

Anatomy of a Murder stars Jimmy Stewart as a jazz musician and lawyer working to prove the innocence of a man who, whether he’s innocent or not, is kind of loathsome (played by Ben Gazzara). The score was composed by Duke Ellington, the only old-school legend of jazz to make a major mark in film noir. Ellington, who taught himself to compose music before he could read music, and who honed his trade while sneaking into billiards halls as a kid, cut his teeth in the speakeasies and nightclubs of Harlem Renaissance-era New York. As leader of the house band at the storied Cotton Club, he became one of the most successful, most important artists of the big band era. When he wasn’t commanding the stage live, he and his orchestra frequently appeared on radio shows, variety revues, and movies, often as themselves but rarely more integrated into the plot than having the star walk on stage and say, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra!”

Few are the jazz men who aren’t also adaptable and innovative. It was a style that demanded innovation, after all. So as the post-War trend drifted away from big bands and toward smaller combos, Ellington was quick to respond, working with his own groups while also collaborating with some of the artists who emerged during the 1940s and ‘50s, including Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Davis may have nailed “film noir jazz,” but if you are looking for a similarly sophisticated soundtrack for your own personal noir, pour yourself a whiskey, claim the most shadow-shrouded stool at the bar, and throw on Ellington’s The Complete Ellington Indigos. Despite one of the most storied careers in jazz, Anatomy of a Murder represents Ellington’s first credit as composer on a film (it wasn’t work he would pursue much afterward). Collaborating with Billy Strayhorn, who wrote the cool jazz standard “Lush Life” decades before cool jazz was a thing, Anatomy’s score is a blend of styles—the cool jazz that emerged during the ’50s, the swing music that Ellington helped invent, and like Mancini’s Touch of Evil score, an occasional flash forward to the sort of cocktail jazz that would become common in the ‘60s.

It was among the first non-diegetic scores for a mainstream Hollywood film by a black American, and once again, the film was a controversial product of mad genius Otto Preminger. It was one of the first films sine the pre-Code silent era to frankly discuss rape and sex in terms forbidden by the Hays Code, which by 1959, was finally fading. Preminger, as well as Kirk Douglas, would claim a large portion of the credit for putting the final nail in the Code’s coffin.

Ellington’s music is fantastic, without there being any one particular standout, though “Flirtibird” comes close. It’s a perfect melding of the Duke Ellington of the 1930s with the Duke Ellington of the 1950s. It’s not as confrontational as some of the other noir jazz scores, nor as challenging to convention as the film in which it appears, but not everything needs to be a duel.

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
John Lewis
Odds Against Tomorrow

John Lewis’ excellent score for the underseen Odds Against Tomorrow closes our examination of noir jazz. Odds is a racially-charged heist film starring Harry Belafonte, one of the pre-eminent figures in music at the time, as well as a firebrand civil rights advocate. Belafonte was instrumental in pushing for the desegregation of nightclubs, hotels, and casinos. He was a friend and confidante to Martin Luther King, Jr., and often was the man providing the cash to bail activists (including King himself) out of jail. Like Duke Ellington, who used his popularity in the 1920s to push for at least a little integration of the crowd at the Cotton Club, and Frank Sinatra later at the Copacabana, Belafonte turned his popularity into power. Where black people were welcome as performers but not guests, Belafonte would stride through the front door, use the swimming pool, and otherwise demand his just due at a time when many thought his “just due” should be a lynching. The man most famous for the novelty calypso song “Day-O” was one of the most fearless crusaders of the era, and he fought that crusade with his own life on the line, over and over.

Like Sinatra, Belafonte was keen on being looked at as an actor when he acted, not as a musician, so he doesn’t have anything to do with the score for Odds Against Tomorrow (although he does play a nightclub entertainer), unless you’re talking about the score from a bank robbery. He’s thrown together with a disgraced cop (Ed Begley) and a racist ex-con (king of film noir heavies, Robert Ryan, who could turn a viral video about kittens into a tense, nail-biting drama). Not a recipe for a successful heist, but then, heist crews are built for dramatic, rather than heist, success. Seriously, just knowing Robert Ryan is in a film starts one feeling nervous.

Pianist John Lewis, of a younger generation that grew up with parents who loved jazz, played in an Army band before heading with his Army mate Kenny Clarke to New York, where they fell in with Dizzy Gillespie, then neck-deep in the first big revolution in jazz since the start of jazz itself caused a revolution: the move from big band to bebop. He later teamed up with Miles Davis (and would go on to arrange several songs on Birth of the Cool). In 1951, Lewis joined a group soon to be known as the Modern Jazz Quartet, formed to move away from the sound of bebop and toward something less focused on solos and more on a collective whole. Although a jazz lover, Lewis was also just as passionate about traditional classical music.

The style he and the Modern Jazz Quartet specialized in almost brings noir jazz full circle, back to Alex North’s work on A Streetcar Named Desire. Where that score was jazz-tinged classical, Lewis’ score for Odds Against Tomorrow is classical-tinged jazz and an excellent way to bring full circle a musical evolution that inspires one to rethink (or at least think deeply about) the role of jazz, and of music in general, in cinema, as well as the role of black Americans in the history of film music (a role, like the role of many minorities, often under-discussed or ignored entirely).

As the final notes of John Lewis’ “Postlude” drift from the hi-fi, the evolution of film noir jazz, has taken the listener on one hell of a musical journey through one of the most exciting times in American pop culture, during which a country full of misfits emerged as the most powerful country in the world with the coolest music in the world; when the social conventions of the past—sexual, racial, cinematic, musical—were being more consistently and more successfully challenged with each passing day. By the end of the journey—and the beginning of “neo noir” in the 1960s—black artists are collaborating with other black artists to score major Hollywood pictures. Two decades of reliance on traditional European chamber music was upended and replaced by a nimbler, more modern approach to scoring a film that integrated current sounds not just as acts on a stage, but as an integral part of the structure of a film.

By the 1970s, as elements of noir were ported into what became known as “blaxploitation” cinema, popular composers such as Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and Isaac Hayes dominated both the screen and the radio with music that drew from jazz, soul, R&B, funk, rock, and classical. “Film noir jazz” from any era is just perfect to listen to, whether you are at home in the dark, at the bar at three in the morning, or on a bus to nowhere, one step ahead of your past.

Les Baxter: Music Out of the Moon

One of the first examples of what would become known, in the 1950s, as “space age pop,” Music out of the Moon was a collaboration between arranger Les Baxter, composer Harry Revel, and theremin player Dr. (of podiatry) Samuel Hoffman, fresh off the success on his work for the Alfred Hitchcock film, Spellbound. Revel wrote most of the music for this release, which was originally a box set of three 10-inch records, but Baxter—still a rookie as arranger and composer—was given considerable freedom in how he executed Revel’s compositions.

Baxter began his musical career at the Detroit Conservatory, where he studied piano, before enrolling at Pepperdine College to study music. Throughout the 1940s, he worked for a number of swing bands and famous performers, including vocalist Mel Torme and clarinetist Artie Shaw. He eventually moved into arranging and conducting, working at Capitol Records. It was in this capacity that Baxter was assigned to work with composer Harry Revel on something of an experimental record, Music out of the Moon, featuring theremin player Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman.

In 1947, people were still emerging from the nightmare of World War II, and while many of the world’s major countries were in tatters, the United States had suffered to destruction of its own cities and infrastructure. Thus, the country was poised to enjoy a period of historic prosperity and assume the role of one of the world’s great leaders. The optimism of the era is reflected in much of the music that was produced throughout the next ten-to-fifteen years—as is the melancholy that persisted underneath the good times—the phantom of wartime loss of life, PTSD, the creeping alienation as populations moved to the suburbs.

All of this is reflected in Music out of the Moon, a joyous celebration that sometimes allows itself to sound haunting, even a little sinister. One of the goals of this style of post-war big band was to show off the capabilities of new audio technology, both in the recording booth and in home hi-fi systems. As a result, artists were encouraged to spread their wings and even get eccentric, as long as it showcased the dynamic range and stereophonic capabilities of new equipment. As such, Baxter was allowed to pull out any stop he wanted, including those breathless harmonies, wordless choruses, and soaring strings that would become the defining features of space age pop, which here, despite being one of the earliest examples of the style, is very nearly fully formed right out of the gate thanks to Baxter’s genius as a conductor.

The first song in the collection, “Lunar Rhapsody,” remains perhaps the defining song of space age pop, putting Samuel Hoffman’s theremin front and center and backing it up with a dreamy choir, harp and other strings, and piano. The second track, “Moon Moods,” is one of the most recognizable slices of space age pop, referenced constantly and containing the “do dee do zap de zu!” vocals that would achieve their zenith under the guidance of Juan Garcia Esquivel a few years later. The song also adds guitars, and xylophones along the theremin and the the rest of the orchestra. It brings a sense of quirky playfulness.

The middle portion of the collection settles into a slightly less eclectic rhythm, though there’s still plenty of quirk. Just when something seems to be a fairly routine bit of easy listening jazz, in wanders Hoffman and his otherworldly electronic instrument to remind that while, yes, this is a song of tender romance and dancing, it’s also taking place inside a geodesic dome station on the moon. The weirdness picks back up with “Mist o’ the Moon,” into which Baxter throws a surprising flirtation with more modern jazz and a slightly more hectic pace than the languid cruising that typified the songs before it. The collection closes with the dreamy mood indigo of “Radar Blues.” Another night comes to a close on the moon, and you in your silver spacesuit are slow dancing with a partner in the haze of lingering cigarette smoke—because back then you could smoke in space stations—and the bartender pours one last tumbler of space scotch before you get in your hovering pod and head home to your bachelor(ette) pad in space.

Music out of the Moon is a gorgeous record and an amazing accomplishment for young Les Baxter. He takes myriad styles and strange sounds and somehow weaves them into a lush, romantic, and indeed space agey whole. The record set was a smash, and still holds the enviable position of “best-selling theremin record of all time.” It was so perfect a record that, some two decades and change after it was released, Neal Armstrong brought a tape version of it with him on the Apollo 11 mission and played it on their way back to earth.

Having hit upon a good thing, the gang was back less than a year later with more of the same on1948’s Perfume Set to Music, another ethereal foray into theremin-tweaked space pop that really helped solidify the style. As a way to feel transported, as a way to set the mood, and as a way to show off the capabilities of your expensive new stereo system, space age pop became one of the go-to niche genres, once again reaching its crescendo in the work of Esquivel. But everyone who worked in the style, whether as a true believer or as dabbler needing to make a fast buck, owes a debt to Les Baxter. Revel and Hoffman made a third record in 1949, Music for Peace of Mind, in what, along with Moon and Perfume forms a sort of trilogy, but for that one they worked primarily with conductor Billy May.

Les Baxter would himself return to space age pop some years later, on 1958’s legendary Space Escapade. But for the bulk of that thrilling new decade, the 1950s, Baxter would spend his time inventing, and then perfecting an new variation on what he helped pioneer with Music Out of the Moon. Only this time, rather than looking to the far reaches of space for inspiration, he would look to the far corners of the globe. Misty jungles, moonlit beaches, ancient temples. Not exactly the music from far-off places, but an impression of what Baxter—and most Americans, at a time when international travel (other than when it relates to war) was a dream—thought sounded like these far off places. In short order, this new style would be given a name—exotica—and Baxter would be recognized as one of the genre’s titans.