Paris Blues

Battle Royal

Following his success on ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959), Duke Ellington collaborated with an unbilled Billy Strayhorn on his second film score, Martin Ritt’s PARIS BLUES (1961). The film stars Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as American expat jazz musicians who must choose between their passion for music and their love for vacationing schoolteachers Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll.

Ellington was approached to write the score by photographer Sam Shaw, the man responsible for Marlon Brando’s torn-shirt photo from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and Marilyn Monroe’s blowing-skirt stunt from THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. Author Harold Flender converted Shaw’s discussions of artistic expression in Paris into a 1957 novel. Ellington agreed to do the film because of the novel’s mixed-race relationships and the fact that the film celebrated the “freedom to play and compose in a romantic atmosphere where the first consideration was artistry.”

However, when the cameras rolled, the original story had changed: Newman’s crisis became the choice between writing a “serious” jazz concerto and Woodward’s divorced schoolteacher, while Carroll’s civil rights issues were pitted against Poitier’s aversion to “Negro causes.” “When he arrived in Paris and discovered the switchover,” said Mercer Ellington, the composer’s son, “he was very disappointed and firm in his belief that they should have stuck to the original version.”

Whatever the concessions made to the tenor of the times and the Hollywood censors, Ellington’s music remains front and center. Ellington classics such as “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Mood Indigo” were re-orchestrated for performance by Newman’s onscreen band. Entire scenes were given over to Ellington’s background score, including “Paris Stairs,” which accompanies the free-wheeling pairs of lovers as they cavort through the Paris streets.

Filtered throughout the score are snippets of Newman’s jazz-concerto-in-progress, titled “Paris Blues.” James Lincoln Collier, in Duke Ellington: The Life and Times of the Restless Genius of Jazz, called the theme “a wonderfully evocative piece of music,” and the tune permanently entered Ellington’s repertoire at concerts.

The highpoint of the film and the score is the impromptu “battle royal” jam session between Louis Armstrong’s Wild Man Moore and the members of Newman’s band. As Moore challenges each instrument—guitar, saxophone, and trombone—to top him, the improvisations get wilder and more intricate until the joint is jumping with unbridled musical joy.

In his biography of Billy Strayhorn, Lush Life, David Hadju described Paris Blues as an artistic progress from ANATOMY OF A MURDER, which was “essentially a song score,” partly because Ellington and Strayhorn “found more areas of commonality in Paris Blues.” “They felt close to the characters,” Shaw was quoted in the book, “like they were part of them—black artists in a foreign, white world.” The film earned Ellington an Academy Award nomination for Scoring for a Musical Picture, though he lost to Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal for WEST SIDE STORY.

While not a perfect film, PARIS BLUES is highly enjoyable thanks to its quartet of leading players. The music is a must for Ellington lovers.

  1. Jazz flavoured scores from that era, I am always fond of, just like the Funky-Jazz type of scores from the Seventies. Very interested on what the rest of the score sounds like. Maybe someday, Film Score Monthly or Intrada can re-release it.

    1. The score is definitely worth a re-release, especially with better sound. If you can find a copy of the VHS (what is THAT?!), it’s worth a look. You might also check your local library for a copy of the CD.

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