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Improvising the Score - Rethinking Modern Film Music through Jazz

Improvising the Score

Rethinking Modern Film Music through Jazz

By Gretchen L. Carlson
Hardcover : 9781496840721, 208 pages, 5 b&w illustrations; 4 musical examples; 3 tables, July 2022
Paperback : 9781496840844, 208 pages, 5 b&w illustrations; 4 musical examples; 3 tables, July 2022
Expected to ship: 2022-07-15
Expected to ship: 2022-07-15

A vivid, behind-the-scenes investigation into the integrative collaborations between contemporary jazz musicians and filmmakers


On December 4, 1957, Miles Davis revolutionized film soundtrack production, improvising the score for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. A cinematic harbinger of the French New Wave, Ascenseur challenged mainstream filmmaking conventions, emphasizing experimentation and creative collaboration.  It was in this environment during the late 1950s to 1960s, a brief “golden age” for jazz in film, that many independent filmmakers valued improvisational techniques, featuring soundtracks from such seminal figures as John Lewis, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington. But what of jazz in film today? 

Improvising the Score: Rethinking Modern Film Music through Jazz provides an original, vivid investigation of innovative collaborations between renowned contemporary jazz artists and prominent independent filmmakers. The book explores how these integrative jazz-film productions challenge us to rethink the possibilities of cinematic music production.  In-depth case studies include collaborations between Terence Blanchard and Spike Lee (Malcolm X, When the Levees Broke), Dick Hyman and Woody Allen (Hannah and Her Sisters), Antonio Sanchez and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman), and Mark Isham and Alan Rudolph (Afterglow).  

The first book of its kind, this study examines jazz artists’ work in film from a sociological perspective, offering rich, behind-the-scenes analyses of their unique collaborative relationships with filmmakers. It investigates how jazz artists negotiate their own “creative labor,” examining the tensions between improvisation and the conventionally highly regulated structures, hierarchies, and expectations of filmmaking. Grounded in personal interviews and detailed film production analysis, Improvising the Score illustrates the dynamic possibilities of integrative artistic collaborations between jazz, film, and other contemporary media, exemplifying its ripeness for shaping and invigorating twenty-first-century arts, media, and culture.


"This book represents a substantial contribution to the growing discipline of film music studies, not to mention jazz studies. I have always been intrigued by films such as Birdman, Afterglow, and Mo’ Better Blues, but Carlson has found new ways to make them even more fascinating. "

- Krin Gabbard, author of Better Git It in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus

"Carefully researched and engagingly written, Gretchen Carlson’s Improvising the Score is a most welcome addition to contemporary jazz studies. With a persistent focus on music practice, Carlson’s various case studies reveal important insights about jazz’s unique relationships to film and media. Interdisciplinary in the best sense of the word, [this book] is sure to be a widely read and highly influential work of scholarship. "

- Ken Prouty, associate professor of musicology and jazz studies at Michigan State University and author of Knowing Jazz: Community, Pedagogy, and Canon in the Information Age