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Miles Davis: The First Improvised music film Soundtrack

by John Cobley

Monday Apr 17th, 2023


 “It all happened on the spur of the moment. After about three hours it was over.” Kenny Clarke



Improvising while watching a movie was done by countless pianists and organists all over the world during the silent-film era. In 1957 Miles Davis did the same thing for Louis Malle’s L’Ascenseur sur l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), but this time his improvisations were recorded for the soundtrack. The result was a critical success and the film won the Prix Louis-Delluc. 

Miles Davis was an established star when he arrived in Paris at the end of November, 1957. The 31-year-old had been at the forefront of jazz for a decade and had recently recorded an important LP with Gil Evans, Miles Ahead. For his second visit to France, Davis was brought over by promoter Marcel Romano and scheduled for a concert tour and a three-week club engagement. But this changed somewhat after he was approached by Louis Malle, a young film maker, who had just completed his first major film. Malle was a jazz fan and wanted Davis to contribute a soundtrack to his film noir. Despite the fact that Malle had only a four-day deadline, Davis accepted.


Davis clearly did his homework before the December 4th recording. There were reports that he had a piano moved into his hotel room and that he watched the film clips he was to improvise over. Davis later wrote: “I had never written a music score before. I would look at the rushes of the film and get musical ideas to write down.” (Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography) Jeanette Urtreger recalls him working in his room and playing on his trumpet some notes that he wanted played on the recording. During this preparation, he also performed two major concerts with the trio he would be recording with, one in front of a capacity crowd at Olympia and one for television. This trio had one musician who had worked with Davis, American Kenny Clarke, but Davis had to get to know his bassist Pierre Michelot and his pianist René Urtreger. 


At the same time, Davis was conferring with Malle. The young film director recalls, “I was trying to portray a new generation…a description of the new Paris. Traditionally it was always the Rene-Clair Paris that French films presented, but I took care to show one of the first modern building in Paris.” (Louis Malle, Features Collection booklet, p. 10) Malle also wanted a new approach to the music. What he sought was “not like a lot of film music, emphasizing or trying to add to the emotion that is implicit in the images…. It was a counterpoint, it was elegiac—and it was somewhat detached. But it also created a certain mood for the film.” (Malle, p.14) After the recording, bassist Michelot recounted an occasion when Miles required more counterpoint: “I remember that for one sequence he wanted only bass and drums, which we did, but he thought we had stayed too close to the on-screen image. He explained that the music ought to be in counterpoint to the image.”


In the discussions before the recording, Malle stressed how important he wanted the music to be: “I insisted in Ascenseur [that] the music be more important than the image in several places. And I would have preferred in some scenes that the image were more neutral in order to bring out the importance of the music more strongly.” (John Szwed, So What the Life of Miles Davis, p.155)


So after just a few days’ preparation, Davis and his trio met at 9pm in a studio on the Champs-Elysées. The star of the film, Jeanne Moreau, was there serving drinks. Miles, as would be his habit for later recordings, gave little guidance to his trio on how to support his improvisations. Michelot recalled that “In most cases there was only the barest minimum of instructions: play two chords only, for example, D-minor and C7—four bars each, with no specific length to the piece.” (Szwed, p. 154) Marcel Romano recalled that “Louis Malle had prepared a loop of the scenes to which music was to be added, and they were projected continuously. All the musicians were concentrating hard.” 


Between three and four hours later, the music was complete. “Louis Malle seemed quite satisfied,” remembered Marcel Romano. “And so did Miles.” (Udiscovermusic.com) A brief (1:38) video from the session can be found on YouTube: “Miles Davis records the score for Elevator to the Gallows.” A selection of the music issued by Fontana on LP has ten sequences ranging from 3:50 to 0:53. Most are about 2:00 long. The CD, issued 30 years later, lists 16 tracks. The titles are changed and some sequences have up to four takes. Thus we learn that Miles recorded 47 minutes of music that evening in 1957. 


There is no doubt that Miles Davis was on top form. He had reached a new level with his recent flugelhorn recording with Gil Evans, Miles Ahead. In this recording, on trumpet, his sound had developed a lot—no doubt partly from the influence of Gil Evans who was a great champion of sound. And his melodic improvising has been universally praised. 


So Louis Malle now had to add this wonderful music to his soundtrack. He was clearly pleased with the results: “…when we got to the final mix and added the music, it seemed like the film suddenly took off,” he explained later. His desire to do something innovative—the counterpoint idea that he likely got from Vsevolod Meyerhold, the Russian theatre director*—didn’t make his job easy.


In actual fact, a quarter of the 24 minutes of music in the film enforces the dominant film-noir mood and does not work as counterpoint. This music features the main “theme,” with Miles on trumpet in three parts: The opening, the main sequence of Florence searching the street of Paris, and the final denouement. These work really well and establish exactly the mood that Malle was seeking. Apart from the quality of the music, one reason that they work is that they are loud enough. Much of the other music is barely audible and thus has little impact.


The soundtrack does use counterpoint for the tense murder scene early in the film. However, Malle uses music intermittently in this 1:53 scene, and the volume is too low for Miles’s muted trumpet to create the required mood of calmness and sadness to counter the tension. Perhaps this failing was due to Malle’s lack of confidence in this new technique. Possibly, Malle also intended counterpoint for the interrogation scene at the end of the film, when the hero has several emotional outbursts. For most of the scene there is very quiet calm music from the trio (piano, bass, drums). However at times the music is punctuated by louder volume and at one point a drum roll. This punctuation contrasts with the overall calmness of the music for this sequence.


Counterpoint is not used for the other notable sequences. Instead the music enhances what is on screen: the fast trumpet with the car race, the moody trumpet and saxophone in a long bar scene, Florence entering another bar, and the motel scene with the German tourists. But all these come across as tentative—too quiet. As well as being too careful—or lacking confidence, Malle was probably hesitant with the volume in these scenes because of the dialogue.


So Malle was extremely lucky to find Miles Davis just when he needed music for his first feature film. He made the most of his good fortune by managing to persuade Davis to work with him and subsequently by preparing him to record some brilliant improvised music. It’s not known if Malle had actually been planning a jazz soundtrack, although it’s possible since fellow director Roger Vadim had used the Modern Jazz Quartet for his film No Sun in Venice (Sait-on jamais…) eight months previously. 


However the 25-year-old director, although full of contemporary innovative ideas, lacked the confidence to make full use of Davis’s music. Of course there were the three sublime sequences of soundtrack music, but his use of the music for the other eleven sequences was not nearly as successful, even though he had good material to work with—the “Motel” music, for example, that Leonard Feather admired so much. That said, there is some interesting soundtrack in the assassination scene, but as in other sequences the volume is too low to create the desired effect. Nevertheless, from the perspective of 65 years L’Ascenseur sur l’échafaud still impresses as a brilliant debut.


*I am grateful to Aslam Husain for this insight.


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