The Lonely Beat captures a period–specific set of images, motifs and themes associated with the modern, post–War American city. It is a world in sound that was based in reality as well as reconstructed within the media and pop culture.
American cities reflected a changing socioeconomic and cultural reality in the post–War decades. The pursuit of home ownership following World War II meant an acceleration of a white demographic's relocation from the city to its mushrooming suburbs, a shift that would exacerbate economic disparities and urban segregation, especially for black populations. Even as their economic fortunes began to founder, however, cities remained a center of media, publishing and advertising as well as fashion, design, architecture and entertainment. Moreover, the American city – in this case most clearly identified with, though not necessarily limited to, New York City – would attract a new cohort of artists, becoming a crucible for experimental visual and performance art, poetry, dance, music, theater and film in the process.
Many aspects of mid–century city life and culture were remade and romanticized in pop culture, a hard–boiled, bohemian version of the city in particular developing in novels, short stories and television and film dramas. This was the version of the city that became seated in the popular imagination, a sort of exotic, labyrinthine nexus of underworld forces, bohemian lifestyles and minority populations, a confabulation whose potency would only increase as white populations retreated further into the suburbs.
Popular music became a major vector for this image of the city. Music sustained an idea of the city as sexy and stylish, dangerous and decaying. It was the foreboding Metropolis, the Naked City, the Asphalt Jungle, gangland, bohemia, Gotham, the mean streets. It was a place of after–hours intrigue and rendezvous – it was a place of crime, juvenile delinquency, corruption, lurking evil - and men who sought to stop these forces. As portrayed in music, the city was at its most mysterious and atmospheric; there was a romance to its solitude. It was skyscrapers, streets, wharfs, fogs, smoky nightclubs. Crucially, too, the city was where black communities lived, along with ethnic populations of every stripe. In this sense there was, like exotica, an element of the Other about the city, some world that aroused Middle American anxieties and fantasies.
All of these images, motifs and clichés are evident in post–War popular music.
A cluster of city-inspired images and motifs provides an overarching unity to the diverse collection presented at the Lonely Beat.
The selections are not evaluated in terms of either authentic or commercial qualities. The actual relationship of this music to the image of the city it projects is complicated, each recording’s place along a continuum of culture difficult, sometimes impossible, to establish.
Many of the artists featured here - the jazz musicians and pop singers, the instrumental combos and Latin orquestas, the R&B vocal groups and hipster-entertainers - formed a very real part of the creative infrastructure of the city. The venues and spaces where they performed – nightclubs, bars, jazz cellars, strip joints, theaters, hotel lounges, coffeehouses, lofts - comprised part of this fabric, too, as did a cast of peripheral characters – the deejays, promoters, critics, managers, record label operators, entertainers and various scenesters.
The perceived authenticity of this music and its very identification with city culture and nightlife and made it attractive to broader pop culture. The music quickly, often willingly, became a stand-in for a post-War America besotted with an image of the city that was more about danger, romantic interludes and bohemian license than it was about social realism.
Things get complex, though. Musicians would just as often participate in their own typecasting. For every recording created by an opportunist eager to capitalize on this cluster of Naked City-type motifs, there is a nominally authentic artist seemingly perpetuating the same clichéd images. The torch singers featured here are heard at that their most lovelorn, jilted and atmospheric. The Latin jazz and mambos are all nightclub cool and exotic flavor. The jazz combos and vocalists are stylishly self-conscious, playing up the suspense themes and a hipster appeal.
Jazz and jazz-inspired forms became one of the dominant vehicles for this cluster of motifs.
Jazz, especially bebop, embodied both the Naked City romance as well as the underlying dynamic between commercialism and authenticity. Bebop, which originated in New York City and was identified with its black populace, had connotations of 52nd Street clubland and after-hours Harlem jam sessions. Bebop was underground, bohemian, somewhat inscrutable, even intimidating; it was redolent of smoky jazz clubs and cellars.
Long-playing soundtracks for crime-related television series and films would seize upon bebop and its West Coast variants (including cool jazz and the “progressive” jazz of the Stan Kenton orchestra), a certain style converging early on in soundtracks like Leith Stevens’s Private Hell 36 and The Wild One, Tony Mottola’s Danger and Elmer Bernstein’s The Man With the Golden Arm.
By the late 1950s, this stylized version of modern jazz had become the de facto vehicle for conveying the city – or, again, the idea of the city. “Crime jazz,” as it eventually became codified, proved extraordinarily effective as a set of motifs for meaningfully conveying the moods, action and gritty drama of the city. Rippling piano chords loomed around every dark corner, walking bass lines, flutes and twangy guitars cued the hero on the move, bursts of bongos accompanied every chase scene, heart-stopping moments of suspense were followed with lonesome saxophone reveries.
Dozens of crime-related films and television serials were accompanied by popular jazz-based soundtracks. As a commercial force, Henry Mancini’s Music from Peter Gunn (and its follow-up More Music From Peter Gunn) and Charade, Stanley Wilson’s Music From M Squad, Warren Barker’s 77 Sunset Strip, Pete Rugolo’s Music From Richard Diamond – to name a few best-selling examples - also spawned a set of recordings that borrowed heavily from the aesthetic without necessarily being connected to a particular television or film production. Albums like the Creed Taylor’s Lonelyville: The Nervous Beat, Heinie Beau's Moviesville Jazz, Elmer Bernstein's Blues and Brass, Irving Joseph's Murder, Inc. and Malcolm Peters’s Imagination: The Music of Ron Goodwin would further reify crime-jazz, formalizing the style and concept in the process.
This gestalt of Naked City motifs and imagery wasn’t simply the handiwork of Hollywood arrangers and composers. Art Blakey, Mal Waldron, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Chico Hamilton were highly original musicians with peerless jazz credentials, yet their soundtracks for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Sweet Love, Bitter, Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud, The Cool World and Sweet Smell of Success adhered to many of the same clichés. It could get a bit confusing where originality ended and the derivation began.
The Afro-Latin element is also worth considering in this context, as Latin jazz and mambo’s appropriation by popular culture followed bebop’s example. As styles, Latin jazz and mambo developed uniquely and independently, and were phenomena with origins outside of the white mainstream. Like bebop, Latin jazz (in reality, historically inseparable from bebop) and mambo were urbane, if not even more exotic, and elements of them were plundered, too, to paint an impression of Gotham.
Frequently, Latin – or something close to Latin - numbers would appear on crime-related soundtracks. Leith Stevens’ Private Hell 36 had its “Havana Interlude,” Billy May’s Johnny Cool had its “Juan Coolisto,” Warren Barker’s 77 Sunset Strip had its “77 Sunset Strip Cha Cha,” Stanley Wilson’s Music From M Squad had its “Cha-Cha Club.” Latin combos themselves, popular as live club acts, would sometimes show up in key nightclub scenes in films and television shows. Beyond soundtrack appearances, elements of Afro-Latin music were prevalent on post-War recordings too numerous to mention. Afro-Latin percussion ascribed rhythmic texture and a sense of exoticism to thousands of jazz, R&B, pop and rock ‘n’ roll records, the bongo in particular becoming an iconic accessory. Whether it was a standard pop chart embossed with a hint of rhumba rhythm and Latin percussion, or Machito exploiting the mambo’s “hipster” appeal, it is again somewhat fruitless to assay the Latin, and Latin-inspired, selections on the Lonely Beat in terms of their authenticity.
The beatnik warrants some final mention. The Beat generation’s transformation into, and exploitation and merciless caricature as, the clichéd “beatnik” was a particularly extreme example of a sort of real phenomenon nearly completely subsumed as a stereotype. The beatnik is a lingering undercurrent at the Lonely Beat: the slang and “street” references, the spoken-word-set-to-music interludes, the bongos, the whole like-wow-man-beatsville aesthetic. Yet, like the jazz musician, a cycle of feeding one’s own stereotypes ensued. Even an artist like Henry Jacobs, a crucial participant in San Francisco’s post-War Beat circles and art and experimental music scene, is heard in full put-on mode as Shorty Petterstein on “A History of Jazz,” validating the scatter-brained, jazz-loving, jive-spouting beatnik stereotype.
Ultimately the Lonely Beat’s examples are best appreciated as a confluence of pop culture and bona fide phenomena.
From the outset, the city fantasy – and the dynamic between pop culture and more authentic forms that informed it - would be amply reflected in the 45rpm format.
For every chart success there will be disproportionate numbers of derivatives. This is perhaps the pattern of post-War music. And many of the selections here – not only the soundtrack and soundtrack-inspired themes but also the jazz, pop, Latin, R&B and pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll – emulate popular and pioneering period artists. The glamorous jazz and torch vocals of Peggy Lee and Julie London, soundtracks by Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones, the hip Latin jazz combos of Cal Tjader and Jack Constanzo, the sophisticated, stylized Los Angeles R&B vocals of Charles Brown and the young Nat “King” Cole, and several generations of bebop and cool jazz modernists are touchstones, as are one-off hits like the Viscounts’ “Harlem Nocturne” and Cozy Cole’s “Topsy.”
Other 45s seemed to spring into existence without obvious precedent. Among these are a number of dark nocturnes, wild vocal interludes and unclassifiable, atmospheric miniatures that nonetheless conform, in unique, strange and satisfying ways, to a similar basic sensibility.
The Lonely Beat’s index of motifs and themes becomes a shorthand for this constructed idea of the city. The index illuminates how these ostensibly disparate records might fit together as a set, and provides interesting ways of exploring and plotting what are ultimately some of the music’s defining characteristics. The looming danger, the solitude, the beatniks, the hipster slang, the bongos, the flutes, the whispering, the walking basslines and the moody tones of the tremolo guitar and the lonely saxophones: Each individual selection falls somewhere among a registry of common motifs and themes. Each refracts and weaves together these motifs in a million different ways. Instrumental guitar combos borrowed the riff-heavy crime jazz, transforming themes into wild, dangerous rock ‘n’ roll. Pop singers made beatnik references, while easy-listening maestros summoned the city in atmospheric tone poems. Others make references in less obvious ways.
Inclusion in the Lonely Beat is deliberately a subjective matter. The index provides conceptual contours rather than a rigid, reductive set of criteria by which a 45 could be objectively evaluated for inclusion. Selections are ultimately included just as much for some sense of urban drama or cinematic atmosphere or other impossible-to-quantify concept.
The Lonely Beat runs with every cliché and trope of the city – the city in all of its gritty, glamorous, bohemian glory - knowingly, lovingly perpetuating this fiction. For all of the complicated, recursive conflation of pop culture and authenticity that gets played out here, for all the diversity of backgrounds that are represented, for all the peculiar ways that images and motifs are invoked, some world of shared sensibilities still coalesces in the end. This world is the Lonely Beat.
:: Dan Shiman :: Little Danny :: Office Naps ::