The Pursuit of Freedom: The New Wave, Jazz and Modernism


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, cinema and jazz were at the forefront of an artistic revolution – one of improvisation, immediacy and invention. Both were born around the turn of the century, came of age in the 1910s and 20s, and attained a ‘Golden Age’ of mass-popularity in the 1930s and 40s. The late 1950s and early 60s, however, saw a convergence of these two artforms that, for a moment in time, shared a common spirit. Both sought to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy, to express what was modern and true about the world, to invent new forms, to re-invent old ones, and to create a language of ‘the now’. For a brief moment, across the world, they stood together against the old guard. Here we’ll look at how they came together, what they stood for, and how they eventually went their separate ways.

Films and Background

In European cinema after World War II there was a conscious effort by filmmakers, beginning with Italian neo-realism, to reinvent classical forms and methods of production, and to create work that better reflected modern society. Jazz music too, began a period of rapid development from the mid-1940s onwards with the emergence of what became known as ‘bebop’, a new, faster style of jazz characterized by complex chord progressions, frequent changes of key and improvisation based on harmonic structure. In both cases, individual self-expression took precedence over mere entertainment, and innovation over traditional forms.

I. France

Sidney Bechet plays for some admirers

In Paris, after the Liberation, jazz enjoyed an enthusiastic following among students, artists and intellectuals who flocked to the smoky cellar nightclubs of Saint-Germain- des-Pres where veteran musicians such as Sidney Bechet held court. Jazz had been popular in France since the 1920s and the country had produced some notable players of its own, including guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli. When modern American jazz musicians began playing in Paris, the audience included young filmmakers who wanted their films to look and sound different from what had come before, and recognised the impact this authentically exotic, yet sophisticated music could bring to their movies. Amongst them were Roger Vadim who hired composer Paul Misraki to create a jazzy, mambo-infused accompaniment to Brigitte Bardot’s sultry dancing in his smash hit And God Created Woman (1956), and Jean- Pierre Melville, whose homage to the American Gangster movie, Bob the Gambler (1956), included a score by bandleader Eddie Barclay, as devil-may-care as the film’s hero. But it was Louis Malle, only twenty-five years old when he completed his first feature, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows, 1958), who demonstrated how film and jazz could be combined to their fullest expressive potential.

Malle had been a devoted jazz fan since his early teens. His student film Crazeologie had featured Charlie Parker’s song of the same name, and at the time of making Ascenseur pour l’échafaud he was captivated by the music of Miles Davis. By coincidence, Davis came to Paris to play in a club for a short engagement while Malle was editing the film, and through his friend, the writer and musician Boris Vian, Malle arranged to meet with Davis to discuss the possibility that he compose the soundtrack for the film. At first Davis was reluctant, because he didn’t have his usual musicians with him, however Malle persevered and managed to convince him to undertake the project. He showed Davis the film twice and they agreed on the parts where they felt music was needed. Taking advantage of the one night off Davis had from the club where he was performing; Malle rented a sound studio, and here, Davis, drummer Kenny Clarke, and three French session players worked from ten at night until five the next morning, improvising the whole score in one night.

Miles Davis improvises the score to Ascenseur pour l’échafau (Elevator to the Gallows, 1957)

The music that resulted from this inspired collaboration did much more than simply enhance the film’s atmosphere; it blended with the visuals in a way that became intrinsic to the film’s very fabric, as Malle acknowledged:

What he did was remarkable. It transformed the film. I remember very well how it was without the music, but when we got to the final mix and added the music, it seemed like the film suddenly took off. It was not like a lot of film music, emphasizing or trying to add to the emotion that is implicit in the images and the rest of the soundtrack. It was a counter-point, it was elegiac – and it was somewhat detached. But it also created a certain mood for the film. I remember the opening scene; the Miles Davis trumpet gave it a tone, which added tremendously to the first images. I strongly believe that without Miles Davis’s score the film would not have had the critical and public response that it had.

In the film’s most original and expressive sequence, Jeanne Moreau’s character Florence wanders the night time streets of Paris in search of her missing lover, while, what one later critic described as ‘the loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear’ plays on the soundtrack. It’s a moment of pure cinema in which music, camera and acting blend in perfect accord.

Jeanne Moreau in Ascenseur pour l’échafau (Elevator to the Gallows, 1957)

Though Jean-Luc Godard never commented on Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, it is hard to imagine that he wasn’t influenced by these tracking shots filmed by cinematographer Henri Decae on the Champs-Élysées from a moving wheelchair. Two years later, Godard and his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, used a similar device to film Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo on location for his debut feature, À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960). Once again jazz music become an inseparable part of the film’s impact – this time courtesy of Martial Solal. Solal had built a reputation as France’s most talented jazz pianists through the 1950s. Jean-Pierre Melville was a fan and suggested Godard hire him to compose the soundtrack for À bout de souffle. ‘Godard had no ideas about the music,’ Solal later recalled, ‘so fortunately I was completely free.’ With the film edited and all but ready for release, a sense of urgency was required, so Solal locked himself in to the studio and set to work. Based around a five-note sequence resonant of the film’s themes of fatality and betrayal, Solal’s score captured perfectly the insouciant recklessness of Belmondo’s character, and the hectic stop/start pace of Godard’s disruptive editing. A dreamy secondary counter-theme, combining piano and strings, provides Jean- Seberg’s character Patricia with a memorable musical introduction, as she strolls down the Champs-Élysées in a New York Herald Tribune t-shirt.

Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960)

Following the success of his semi-autobiographical debut feature Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), Francois Truffaut made Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Pianist), released the same year as À bout de souffle in 1960. Part tender romance, part tragedy, part homage to the American noir thrillers Truffaut loved so much; the film, with its constant changes in both tone and tempo, represented a unique challenge when it came to the soundtrack. Truffaut chose composer Georges Delerue, who, according to Truffaut, understood what to do immediately: “We were at the painful rough-cut stage. Delerue looked and grasped my intentions immediately. ‘Okay! This is a noir thriller treated in the style of Raymond Queneau, I see what to do.’ Raymond Queneau was a modernist writer and critic, whose book, Exercises in Style, was a jazz-like literary improvisation, retelling the same story in different styles. Delerue’s score did something similar musically, shifting abruptly from barroom honky-tonk, to nostalgic French chanson, to jazz, and finally, over the heart-breaking ending, tragic grandeur in the style of Bernard Herrmann.

Charles Aznavour in Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Pianist, 1960)

Other notable jazz soundtracks of the new wave era include Paul Misraki’s late-night, noir-tinged scores for Chabrol’s Les Cousins (1959) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos (1962), and Art Blakey’s dynamic accompaniment to Roger Vadim’s Les Liaisons dangereuses (1959). Most celebrated of all was the music composed by Michel Legrand for Jacques Demy, beginning with Lola in 1961, and including his Oscar nominated scores for Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967). Legrand was something of a musical prodigy, a virtuoso jazz and classical pianist and arranger, who released a series of internationally successful instrumental records while still in his twenties. While visiting the US in 1958, he recorded Legrand Jazz with some of the greatest modern jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans. Along with his work for Demy, he brought this influence to bear on his jazz-inflected scores for Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961), and Godard’s Une femme est une femme (1960).

Anna Karina in Une femme est une femme (1960).

II. Britain

Like the nouvelle vague filmmakers, the leading figures of the British new wave began as film critics with a mission to shake up what they saw as the predictable and unrepresentative film industry of the time. They put theory into practice by making documentaries about ordinary, working-class life under the banner of ‘Free Cinema’. As the exciting, youth music of the moment, jazz played a prominent role in two films that were centred on young people: Momma Don’t Allow (1956) and We are the Lambeth Boys (1959). The directors of these two films, Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, would, along with Lindsay Anderson, form the core of the British new wave. Richardson’s first feature adapted John Osborne’s groundbreaking play Look Back in Anger to the screen. Its rebellious protagonist, Jimmy Porter, played in the film by Richard Burton, is an amateur trumpeter whose enthusiasm for jazz contrasts with his disdain for just about everything else. The following year, British jazz musician Johnny Dankworth’s catchy score for Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) lent the film’s disaffected hero, Arthur Seaton, played by Albert Finney, an appropriately swaggering musical accompaniment.

Albert Finney and Rachel Roberts in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

III. Poland

In Poland, Jazz, which had been popular in the 1930s, was condemned and banned from the radio following the Communist takeover of the country at the end of World War II. The only way for enthusiasts to listen to the latest music was by tuning in illegally the ‘Voice of America Jazz Hour’ broadcasts. After Stalin’s death, cultural restrictions eased and jazz became acceptable once again. As elsewhere in Europe, fans tended to split between followers of traditional and modern jazz. Leading the latter category was the brilliant pianist Krzysztof Komeda who created his own distinct form of European jazz. Komeda’s association with Roman Polanski began on the surreal short Two Men and a Wardrobe (1959), but both reached an international audience with the success of Polanski’s stunning feature debut Knife in the Water (1962). Komeda’s score, with its mournfully romantic main theme and exhilarating variations, caught the mood of Polanski’s psychological power-play. Their successful collaboration would continue on Cul-de-sac (1966) and Rosemary’ s Baby (1968), until Komeda’s tragic early death from an accident in 1969. The composer also composed the scores to other Polish new wave films such as Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers (1960), whose main character was based on Komeda, and Jerzy Skolimowski’s Barrier (1966).

Krzysztof Komeda

IV. America

But what of the birthplace of jazz? Perhaps surprisingly, jazz featured rarely in American cinema up to the mid-1950s, usually only as diegetic source music played in nightclubs, or on radios and jukeboxes. Elmer Bernstein’s score for Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), in which Frank Sinatra plays a drummer with a heroin habit, was a landmark, incorporating a muscular big band sound with classical string textures. Bernstein teamed up with the Chico Hamilton quintet to create another dynamic score for Sweet Smell of Success (1957). For a while jazz become the music of choice for Hollywood filmmakers, especially when it came to contemporary crime dramas. Some outstanding examples were Henry Mancini’s latin-themed score for Orson Welles’s noir masterpiece Touch of Evil (1958), the Modern Jazz Quartet’s work on heist thriller Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), and Duke Ellington’s eloquent soundtrack for Anatomy of a Murder (1961).

But it was actor-turned-director, John Cassavetes, at the vanguard of a new American wave of independent filmmakers, who incorporated a jazz sensibility to the filmmaking process itself. Shadows (1959), Cassavetes’ debut film was shot with a 16mm handheld camera on the streets of New York with a cast made up mostly of actors from the director’s own acting class. The film, for its time, was unconventional in every respect, from its story about the difficulties faced by an interracial couple, to the extensive use of improvisation by the actors. In every respect the film could be described as a jazz film, not only are two of the main characters jazz musicians, but Cassavetes’ very approach to filmmaking has been likened by film scholar Ray Carney, to that of a jazz musician:

Shafi Hadi and John Cassavetes recording the soundtrack to Shadows (1959)

There are profound similarities between Cassavetes’ sense of art and that of a jazz composition, and these scenes have a jazzlike quality to their form even more than they have jazz references in their content. As in a jazz improvisation, there is no seeing where each beat will lead. As in a jazz performance, impulse is not suppressed in order to maintain a straight line of development; in fact, the opposite happens – the pursuit of the impulse becomes the principle or organisation. The purpose of the performance is not to maintain an overall continuity of development, but to display variations. That means that, like the listeners to a jazz performance, Cassavetes’ viewers can only stay vigilant – open to continuously developing possibilities.

To score his experimental film, Cassavetes chose Charles Mingus, the most avant- garde of jazz modernists. Perhaps, inevitably, these two most uncompromising of artists argued in the recording studio and Cassavetes ended up using only parts of Mingus’s work, preferring instead the sparer contributions of his bandmates, Shafi Hadi and Dannie Richmond. One of Mingus’s pieces for the film, Self-Portrait in Three Colors, did, however, find its way on to Mingus Ah Um, a record as radical in its own way as Cassavetes’ film.

Parallel Lines

Having looked at examples of how these two new movements in film and music came together, we can now examine how innovatory techniques and modernist ideas overlapped and paralleled each other in new wave cinema – focusing here mostly on the French new wave – and jazz music during this critical period, roughly from mid- 1950s to the mid-1960s.

I. The Now

Traditionally, it was always the Rene Clair Paris that French films presented, and I took care to show one of the first modern buildings in Paris… I showed a Paris, not of the future, but at least a modern city.

Louis Malle

Bebop was a label that certain journalists later gave it, but we never labelled the music. It was just modern music, we would call it.

Kenny Clarke

Modernism over the years has been defined in multiple ways, but at its simplest it is about inventing new forms and styles to better express the current moment. The directors associated with the French new wave were very much a part of this spirit of ‘the now’. Filming on location in the streets, and in the cafés and apartments of Paris, they attempted to authentically capture the reality of being alive at the time when the films were made. In fact, so unmodified by studio artifice are films such as Francois Truffaut’s Les Quatre cents coups (1959), Jacques Rivette’s Paris nous appartient, Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine, and Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes femmes (1960), that they have considerable documentary value purely as vivid snapshots of the era in which they were made. The urban milieu they depict – of coffee bars and record shops, movie theatres and pool halls, jukeboxes, American cars, pinball machines and poster advertisements – is a world away from the picturesque settings familiar from so many earlier classic French movies. In England, British new wave directors turned their backs on the traditional setting of metropolitan London and filmed stories on location that explored the day-to-day life of working class people in the North of England, while in Czechoslovakia and Poland, the films of new wave filmmakers like Milos Forman and Jerzy Skolimowski featured youthful protagonists with much the same aspirations and concerns as young people in the West.

Milos Forman’s Konkurs (Audition, 1963)

Since its emergence in America in the late 19th and early 20th century, Jazz had always been linked to modernism. According to music historian Lawrence Levine: ‘Jazz was, or seemed to be the product of a new age … raucous, discordant … accessible, spontaneous … openly an interactive, participatory music.’ By the 1940s, however, what had seemed bold and daring in the 1920s and 30s was felt by some to be old-fashioned. A brilliant, new, loose association of individual musicians, among them Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk, pioneered a new jazz sound known as ‘bebop’ whose intensity and restless energy spoke to a post-war audience hungry for ‘kicks’ and transcendent ‘in the moment’ experience as related in Jack Kerouac’s famous novel On the Road. In the 1950s this modern jazz became widely popular, and for many defined the music of the moment.

Charlie Parker

II. Playing with Form

More or less, I am always saying, ‘Give me more. Let’s do what has not been done.’ –

Jean-Luc Godard

They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.

Charlie Parker

It wasn’t only about featuring modern characters and situations, jazz musicians and new wave filmmakers wanted to express themselves in new ways, and for that they needed to invent new styles. Starting out as fanatical cinephiles, and in many cases as film critics, the principle French new wave directors were well-versed in the conventions of classic cinema. They favoured technically inventive directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks, and they disdained the French ‘tradition de qualité’ films, which relied on the work of screenwriters for their impact. For directors like Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard, the way in which a story was told was often more important than its content. They made a virtue out of low budget necessity, rebelling against what Geoffrey Nowell Smith has described as ‘the false perfection’ of the studio film,23 by shooting on location despite technical imperfections such as harsh lighting or background noise. Their films were full of movement, and included both fragmented short scenes and long takes of uninterrupted dialogue. Certain directors – Jean-Luc Godard in particular – took this disregard for convention a step further by deliberately breaking traditional rules of continuity while filming, and introducing effects such as the jump cut during editing. By creating art using methods previously considered amateurish, Godard drew attention to the conventions of classic cinema, revealing them for what they were, merely conventions.

Jean Seberg in a key jumpcut sequence in Breathless (1960)

Like the new wave filmmakers, the bebop innovators of modern jazz reacted against the mainstream – in their case the commercial style of the dance bands that proceeded them. First and foremost, they were interested in broadening the vocabulary of jazz even if that meant alienating the audience. Their music was both faster and more complex than the swing bands and introduced new approaches to melody, phrasing, harmony and rhythm. Rather than sticking to a composer’s arrangement, bands typically began a piece by playing the melody; each performer then improvised a solo, before returning to the melody of the song at the end. These solos often included chromatic notes (colour tones) – hitherto considered dissonant – but used in the right context, added depth to the performer’s musical palette. ‘Cool Jazz’, the next incarnation of the modern sound was in some ways a reaction to bebop, but on its own terms, it was just as revolutionary, and a further break in approach from the swing band paradigm. Pioneered by Miles Davis on his album Birth of the Cool, and reaching mass popularity with the release of his classic Kind of Blue album in 1959, cool jazz, in the words of historian Roy Carr was ‘a somewhat atonal cerebral alternative to bop which concentrated on linear improvisation and interweaving rhythmic complexities.’ It was cool jazz, in particular, that became the music of choice for the new wave.

Miles Davis recording Kind of Blue (1959)

III. Improvisation

The only cats that are worth anything are the cats that take chances. – Thelonious Monk

Every day Jean-Luc would just turn up with his little exercise book and scribble some notes and some dialogue and we would rehearse maybe a couple of times, so I knew where to point the camera vaguely. – Raoul Coutard

Improvisation had always been a defining aspect of jazz music and its theory and practice had inspired earlier modernists such as the poets Ezra Pound and Langston Hughes, and the painter Jackson Pollack. By the early 1940s, however, the popular and dominant swing style dance music of bandleaders such as Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller rarely strayed far from the written arrangement. Modern jazz musicians returned improvisation once more to a central role in performance, taking it to new heights as improvised phrases became longer, faster, and more intricate. For performers such as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, or John Coltrane, already masters of their instruments, improvisation was a means of personal expression – a stream-of- consciousness in musical form.

John Coltrane

As we have seen earlier, improvisation was an intrinsic aspect of John Cassavetes’ methodology in America, but the French New Wave filmmakers also viewed improvisation as a key part of their creative process. While shooting Les Quatre cents coups, Francois Truffaut improvised the scene in which Jean-Pierre Léaud’s character is questioned by a psychologist about his life. Truffaut had hired an actress to play the role, but she was not available on the day of filming. He decided to shoot the scene anyway, asking the questions himself and giving Léaud complete freedom to answer as he wished. The result was a scene that felt more genuine than any scripted scene could have.

Jean-Luc Godard’s improvisatory method of film directing was unprecedented in the history of cinema. Before filming Breathless he had attempted to write a traditional screenplay, but once production got underway he tossed it, deciding instead to improvise scenes and dialogue day-by-day as the production went along. Often he released his crew after only half a day’s work, preferring to spend his time thinking. When he did film, he worked fast, often shooting only one take, and deliberately ignoring conventional approaches to lighting and continuity. What mattered most was inspiration. As Godard’s biographer Richard Brody has described it: ‘Godard’s novel method was not only the practical springboard for his formal and intellectual inventions, it was a part of them. Breathless would be an “action film” in the sense of “action painting”: the act and the moment of making the film were as much a part of the work’s meaning as its specific content and style.’

Jacques Rivette, who had struggled to emulate the success of his Cahiers du cinema colleagues with his debut feature Paris nous appartient (1961), was first motivated to use improvisation when he interviewed Jean Renoir for an episode of the series Cinéastes de notre temps in 1966. He later recalled:

After a lie, all of a sudden, here was the truth. After a basically artificial cinema, here was the truth of the cinema. I therefore wanted to make a film, not inspired by Renoir, but trying to conform to the idea of a cinema incarnated by Renoir, a cinema which does not impose anything, where one tries to suggest things, to let them happen, where it is mainly a dialogue at every level, with the actors, with the situation, with the people you meet, where the act of filming is part of the film itself.

On his next film, L’Amour fou (1969), Rivette began only with a ten-page outline from which the actors improvised their action and dialogue. Rivette described the new experience: ‘What was exciting was creating a reality which began to have an existence on its own, independently of whether it was being filmed or not, then to treat it as an event that you’re doing as a documentary.’ By breaking formal conventions and acting spontaneously, Rivette’s subsequent films, like jazz concerts, became ‘happenings’. Improvisation was a choice that allowed his work to exist most purely in the present moment of creation.

L’Amour fou (1969)

IV. Echoes from the Past

Alfred Lubitsch: Is that why you’re sad?
Angela: No.
Alfred Lubitsch: Then why?
Angela: Because I’d like to be in a musical…
[singing & Dancing] with Cyd Charisse… and Gene Kelly… Choreography… by Bob Fosse!

dialogue taken from Jean-Luc Godard’s Une femme est une femme (1961)

I’ve found you’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light. – John Coltrane

John Coltrane

A characteristic of modernism and one that allows modernist works to break free from what has gone before, is the self-conscious reflection on, and simultaneous contrast with work of the past, through revision, parody, referencing and other techniques. As fanatical cinephiles who had spent their youths at the Cinémathèque Francaise and other film clubs, the French new wave directors were well aware of cinema tradition and history, and often made reference to what had come before in their own work as a way of honouring earlier work they valued, while simultaneously making it ‘new’ again by recontextualizing and reframing it within a modern context. Silent cinema, in particular, influenced them, a fact acknowledged through their use of intertitles, archaic devices such as the iris out, and homages such as Agnes Varda’s Les Fiancés du pont Macdonald sequence from Cléo from 5 to 7 (1963). Genres like film noir and the musical were reinvented, posters of favourite films appeared in the background of shots, and influential directors like Jean-Pierre Melville, Fritz Lang, and Samuel Fuller appeared in cameo roles. They also demonstrated their own love of cinema by including in their films numerous scenes in which characters visit the cinema, most memorably when Anna Karina’s character watches Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in Vivre sa vie (1962). This scene, in particular, re-enlivens a film from a previous generation by placing it within the context of the life of a modern girl, who shares the sorrow of Joan herself.

Anna Karina’s character watches Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in Vivre sa vie (1962)

The innovators of modern jazz, intent though they were on breaking new ground, did not create in a vacuum. Like their forebears, they drew on a wide variety of influences including blues, ragtime, popular song, classical, and most importantly earlier music in their own tradition. Familiar standards were reworked or musically quoted and given new titles, for instance Thelonious Monk’s 52nd Street Theme borrowed from I Got Rhythm, and Charlie Parker’s Ornithology from How High the Moon. Parker also felt a kinship with modernist classical composers and would discuss the music of Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel in interviews. Sometimes he would call his bandmates to the stand with a phrase of Hindemith on his saxophone. Yet he was equally comfortable playing in the earthy blues style of Kansas City jazz on such classic compositions as Parker’ s Mood. Older jazz, classical music, and popular standards alike were equally ripe for reimagining.

Charlie Parker

V. Political Activism

There’s no interest in relating a story of two young Marxist- Leninists in terms of a love story. What’s important is to try to know what Marxist-Leninism is and how it helps in their love.

Jean-Luc Godard discussing La Chinoise (1967)

My music tries to say how I really feel and I hope it mirrors in some way how black people feel in the United States.

Max Roach

While Modernism may have primarily been about aesthetics, many of those associated with it used their work to make political statements. One famous example is Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece Guernica, painted in 1936 in response to an atrocity of the Spanish Civil War. In 1950, director Alain Resnais made a short film about Guernica whose fractured, abstract and discordant style mirrored the modernist-style painting it depicted. Resnais would go onto explore war and its aftermath in many of his subsequent films, including his groundbreaking Holocaust documentary, Night and Fog (1956), and his new wave classic, Hiroshima mon amour (1959). In an article on Resnais, Peter Bradshaw wrote:

Like Godard, Resnais began by being fascinated — as well as agonised, and thrilled — by the modernist question of whether cinema, as the pre-eminent artistic medium, could really tackle and confront the urgent issues of the day: the evil of the Holocaust, the nightmare of nuclear destruction, and the toxic burden of empire, especially as the French were beginning to perceive it in Algeria.

Chris Marker, Resnais’ close friend (and collaborator on the anti-colonial short Les statues meurent aussi/Statues Also Die, 1953), was more direct in his approach. His film essays documented such events as the Cuban Revolution (Cuba Si!, 1961), the Vietnam War (Loin du Vietnam, 1967), student protests in America (La Sixième face du pentagone, 1968), and the disparity between the promise of a utopian revolution with its ultimate failure to materialise in the epic (Le Fond de l’air est rouges/A Grin Without a Cat, 1977).

Le Fond de l’air est rouges (A Grin Without a Cat, 1977)

The birth of modern jazz in the 1940s and its growing popularity in the 1950s, coincided with the emergence of the civil rights movement in America. Black musicians who had experienced discrimination firsthand voiced their solidarity with the movement through their powerfully evocative music. In the words of jazz historian Stanley Crouch: ‘jazz predicted the civil rights movement more than any other art in America.’40 Drummer Max Roach was one of the most outspoken activists. In 1960 he recorded We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, the first of several explicit statements about the civil rights cause. Another was Charles Mingus who wrote Fable of Faubus in response to the racist policies of the governor of Arkansas, and John Coltrane who composed Alabama in tribute to four children killed in an attack on an attack on a church in Birmingham, Alabama by the Klu Klux Klan.

Charles Mingus


Although they continued to share much in common in terms of both modern content and stylistic invention, the preference for jazz soundtracks in new wave films proved to be short-lived. The switch from black and white to colour film in the early to mid- 1960s coincided with a return to more traditional orchestral soundtracks, such as Georges Delerue’s score for Godard’s Le Mepris (Contempt, 1963), John Addison’s for Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963), and Bernard Herrmann’s for Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Meanwhile, modern jazz, which only a decade before had been the authentic cutting-edge sound of contemporary youth, became increasingly sidelined by a tidal wave of pop, rock, blues, folk, soul and other musical forms. Youth culture began to move away from jazz as its trademark sound, and many new wave directors in their continuous pursuit of the modern and relevant, reflected this new direction from the late 60s, such as Jean-Luc Godard who worked with ye-ye singer Chantal Goya on Masculin, féminine (1966), the Rolling Stones on Sympathy for the Devil/One Plus One (1968), and Jefferson Airplane for the unfinished film eventually re-titled and released as One P.M. (1972). Some jazz musicians, meanwhile, attempted to synthesize rock n roll sounds in their own quest for reinvention. Even Miles Davis, the inventor of Cool Jazz himself, went ‘electric’, creating jazz fusion on his record Bitches Brew (1970), and performing as the opening act for rock acts. The ‘now’, musicians and filmmakers alike would realise, quite quickly becomes the past, and the very spirit of invention that brought jazz and new wave together would eventually drive them apart. In many of the new wave films of the late fifties and early sixties, however, we will always have eloquent testimony that for a time, jazz music and new wave films shared both a body of work, and a soul.

You can read more of my articles about the French New Wave here:



Berman, Marshall, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, London: Verso, 2010

Butler, Christopher, Modernism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010

Brody, Richard, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, London: Faber and Faber, 2008

Carney, Ray, The Films of John Cassavetes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994

Carr, Roy, ‘The Cool on the Coast’, A Century of Jazz: A Hundred Years of the Greatest Music Ever Made, London: Hamlyn, 2006

Chilton, John, Sidney Bechet: the wizard of jazz, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014

Cole, Bill, John Coltrane, Boston: Da Capo Press, 2001

De Baecque, Antoine and Toubiana, Serge, Truffaut, California: University of California Press, 2000

Dixon, Wheeler W., The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, New York: State University of New York Press, 1997,

Du Noyer, Paul, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing, 2003. p. 130 (Kenny)

French, Philip, Malle on Malle, London: Faber and Faber, 1993

Gabbard, Krin, ‘Another Other History of Jazz in the Movies’ chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Film Music, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gioia, Ted, The History of Jazz, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011

Hughes, Robert, The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change, London: Thames and Hudson, 1991

Levine, Lawrence W., “Jazz and American Culture,” Ed. Robert O’Meally. The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998,

Meeker, David, Jazz in the Movies, London: Talisman Books, 1981

Neupert, Ricahrd, A History of the French New Wave Cinema, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2002

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s, London: Bloomsbury, 2013

Shapiro, Nat and Hentoff, Nat, Hear Me Talkin’ at Ya, New York: Dover Publications, 1966

Schwartz, Stephen P., A Brief History of Analytical Philosophy: From Russell to Rawls, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2012

Taylor, B.F., The British New Wave, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006

Thomas, Lorenzo, Don’t Deny My Name: Words and Music and the Black Intellectual Tradition, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2008,

Vincendeau, Ginette, Jean-Pierre Melville, An American in Paris, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003

Wallace, Rob, Improvisation and the Making of American Literary Modernism, London: Continuum, 2012


Bradshaw, Peter, ‘Alain Resnais: 60 years of sensational cerebral filmmaking’ in The Guardian, March 2, 2014.

Campbell, Camilla, ‘Art Beats: Jazz and Jackson Pollack’.

Coutard, Raoul, interviewed by Solomons, Jason for The Guardian (June 6, 2010).

Crouch, Stanley, ‘Obama’s one cat who needs to put jazz on his party menu’ in The New York Daily News, December 21, 2008.

Holaway, Nathan, 1959: The Most Creative Year in Jazz, April 8, 2015.

Lapham, Lewis, ‘Monk: High Priest of Jazz’, The Saturday Evening Post, April, 1964.

Lerski, Cezary L., ‘Polish Jazz For Dummies: 60 Years of Jazz From Poland’ on

Rivette, Jacques, interviewed by Aumont, Jacques, Comolli, Jean-Louis, Narboni, Jean, Pierre, Sylvie for Cahiers du cinema 204, 1968.

Solal, Martial, interviewed by Fordham, John for The Guardian (May 20, 2010).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s