Boom!, a new collection by CAM Sugar, sheds a light on the bond between jazz and Italian cinema during the 1950s and 1960s, telling the story of the country from an unexplored perspective through unreleased soundtracks and forgotten gems by some of the label’s most renowned composers.
Where it all started
Piazza dell’Esedra, Rome, May 1944. The eternal city hasn’t been liberated yet by the Allied forces, but a group of thirteen elements is illegally jamming, led by soundtrack music colossus-to-be Piero Piccioni. They’re called Orchestra 013 and the genre they are performing, jazz, has been banned by the Fascist regime because it has nothing to spare with Italian culture, they claim.
Little did Mussolini know, as over the following years jazz would find in Italy an unparalleled hotbed both in terms of quality and innovation, which resulted in a unique bond between the genre of the Afro-American tradition and the Belpaese’s golden age of cinema.
Inspired by its American counterpart, jazz was first discovered in the 1930s and 1940s when records were smuggled into the country, or secretly listened via foreign radios, like Radio Londra, the name given in Italy to the BBC. One could easily picture the jubilee when, by the end of WWII, the first American GIs docked on the Italian shores and brought chocolate and big band V-discs with them. Glen Miller’s “In the Mood” suddenly became the anthem of the Liberation, and America the light to guide the Italian lifestyle of the two following decades.
Needless to say, such a state of illegality had made jazz the music of the cool young rebels. Over the Alps, in France, things were the same.
When in 1958 Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, the sophomore film of Louis Malle, the enfant terrible of the French New Wave, hit the big screen the audience was no doubt struck with the enigmatic and meditative trumpet of Miles Davis to soundtrack the black and white footage. A few months later, in Italy too a jazzman, Piero Umiliani, was commissioned the first entirely non-diegetic jazz score in the history of the country, this time for Mario Monicelli’s comedy masterpiece I soliti ignoti. Jazz had entered cinema from the front door.
The genre succeeded like no others to capture the creative tension, the rebellious vision and the hip flair of a new generation of directors who strived to portray - in France like in Italy - their society caught in the frenzy of the post-war years.
In little to no time most directors followed suit, hiring jazzmen to score their films. On top of Umiliani, we recall the likes of Piero Piccioni, Armando Trovajoli, Francesco De Masi, and Gianni Ferrio - unanimously dubbed “the Italian Quincy Jones” for his unmatched ability of arranging and conducting a brass section.
This meant that soon after, even maestros like Riz Ortolani (Il sorpasso), Ennio Morricone (La voglia matta and Il successo) and Carlo Rustichelli (Letti sbagliati), who at first rejected the genre, were caught by the jazz fever.
The sound of the Dolce Vita
When in 1958, actress Aiche Nana performed her legendary strip tease that inspired Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita at the Rugantino Restaurant in Rome, dancing undressed of a carpet of blazers thrown in with cheeky cavalry by the men attending the party, the orchestra furiously jamming around her was - needless to say - playing jazz.
It was the dawn of a new period of unparalleled economic growth, roaring capitalistic euphoria and unlimited optimism toward the future, which in Italy took the name of Economic Boom. A season of unique social and musical changes, when the fireflies disappeared from Italy - paraphrasing the words the great intellectual and director Pier Paolo Pasolini used to highlight the rapid industrialisation of the country. Italy shed its skin, turning from a farming country into an industrialised one, where rural villages got replaced by modernist skyscrapers, and fields let room to concrete.
Italy was an open and unwritten book, which offered a multitude of narrative stimuli which cinema took no time to dive into.
Jazz as a bittersweet mirror of Italian society
Whether used for comical or political purposes, jazz was perfect to capture all the different and controversial sides of the Boom, painting vivid, introspective pictures - sometimes bittersweet, sometimes witty - of social themes. If Piero Umiliani used noir and tense nuances to highlight the atmosphere of comic suspense of L’audace colpo dei soliti ignoti (1959) - the equally-cult sequel by Nanni Loy to Monicelli’s opus -, the same composer used it to capture the alienation and desperation of an entrepreneur overwhelmed by the illusion of wealth the Boom instilled in the Italians with his superb score for Una bella grinta (1965).
Umiliani, again, adopted melancholic jazz for Il nero (a long-lost and hardly seen film), to describe the condition of the mixed-race son of the love of an Afro-American GI and a Neapolitan woman, discriminated because of his unusual skin colour in the Italy of the 1960s - a theme that shows how highly relevant and contemporary both jazz and these films can be.
Jazz had the power of transcending music. It had a narrative role, meaning that it was used simultaneously with design and architecture to portray now the ecstasy of the Boom, now its alienation. In Dino Risi’s Il sorpasso (1962), the jazz score by Riz Ortolani has both these roles, either when soundtracking the braggadocio of main character Vittorio Gassman, or when dialoguing with the urban landscape of a deserted Rome on the August bank holiday. Similarly, in another masterpiece by Risi, Il vedovo (1959) starring Alberto Sordi and Franca Valeri, the bittersweet blend of comedy and drama unfolds against a jazz score by Armando Trovajoli (“Jumping”) and the scenario of the Velasca Tower - a symbol of the Milano of the Boom designed by studio BBPR.
From mondo to spy movies: the many routes of jazz in Italy
The widespread wealth - or at least the illusion of it - brought by the Boom meant that the Italians of the 1960s were always demanding for new pastimes and media to binge. Cinema was one of these. It therefore comes as little to no surprise to learn that during that decade Italy was second only to the United States for the production of films. Many of these were far from remarkable flicks, the so-called B-movies, ranging from morbid mondo movies to action-packed spy ones, from kinky erotic films to summertime comedies revolving around the Italians’ rediscovered enthusiasm for holidays.
Films that, however, often came with superb scores, as shown by Boom!. The collection sheds a light on how these movies, made for popular entertainment, made use of different jazz styles according to their different scopes.
Mondo movies (Le dolci notti by Marcello Giombini and Mondo Cane N.2 by Nino Oliviero and Bruno Nicolai) adopted brushed drums, the vibraphone and baritone sax phrases typical of burlesque to portray the lustful excitement of Dolce Vita night clubs, while on screen they investigated through the peephole with a Church-induced moralistic stance to the tribal and sexual costumes of foreign populations.
Differently, the lounge declination of jazz was perfect to describe the new affluent and charming lifestyle made of modernist villas and designer interiors - think of the industrial design applied to scooters of Lambrettas, Alfa Romeo and Lancia cars, Brionvega stereos, Castiglioni lamps and other Mid-Century furniture delights. So were the samba and bossa nova influences of several soundtracks. All sonic nuances that witnessed the bond between Italy and Brasil, where many of the key figures of 1960s Italian cinema of the had lived in the aftermath of World War II, nurturing a penchant for latin jazz. One of these was director Luciano Salce, who commissioned the soundtrack for his Le ore dell’amore (1963) to Brazilian guitar legend Luiz Bonfà, contributing to the musician’s only cinematic work in Italy which CAM Sugar retrieved and remastered (also as a dedicated digital album) from its archive.
As by the mid-’60s jazz grew in mainstream popularity, its rebellious stance started to fade, meaning that it was more and more integrated in light-hearted B-movies aimed at a broader audience. This was the case, for instance, of the countless spy movies that tried to cash in on the James Bond trend, with series such as Agente 077. This, though, did not mean that its quality decreased. Instead, enriched by a broader palette of sounds, jazz came back reinvigorated with bubbly and dreamy wordless vocals by the likes of Nora Orlandi (“Il treno rosa” by Peppino De Luca) and her 4+4 (“Agente 077 - Sfida ai killers (Titoli) by Carlo Savina) or I Cantori Moderni di Alessandro Alessandroni (“7 monaci d’oro” by Piero Umiliani; “Il raggio infernale” by Gianni Ferrio).
From trattorie to Cinecittà: the soloists that made Italian jazz great
The prolific bond between jazz and Italian cinema is also one made by the cream of international soloists who, otherwise had to rely on live performances alone, found in soundtracks a platform of artistic expression and experimentation, but also a medium to make ends meet.
When we write that jazz was underground music, we truly mean it. It’s in fact in the basement of the historical restaurant Hostaria Meo Patacca in the Roman quarter of Trastevere that cult director Bernardo Bertolucci first came across the saxophone of Gato Barbieri, who regularly played the joint alongside Enrico Rava, an establishment of jazz trumpet, and pianist Franco D’Andrea. The three of them would later appear, alongside drummer Gegè Munari on Piero Umiliani’s score for Una Bella Grinta.
It is also the case of Oscar Valdambrini (trumpet) and Gianni Basso (baritone sax), two of the leading soloists of the RAI television orchestra conducted by Armando Trovajoli, here performing on the collection’s opening cut “Notte in Algeria” by Piero Umiliani: the platonic answer by the composer to his hero Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia”.
Differently to American jazz, where the names of musicians baldly stood on the covers of the albums they recorded and artists were personalities in the known, Italian cinematic jazz was more elusive, hardly crediting the session men. This phenomenon captures a country where the cream of its music scene had a laborious attitude that brought them to spend hours in the recording studios although never compromising on creativity and artistic edge.
It is for this reason that BOOM! is a seminal compilation for the lovers of the genre, as it enables to cast a light on an unspoken generation of jazz talents who you won’t be able to live without from now on.
Chet is Back(er)
Among these formidable soloists, one above all blesses the compilation: Chet Baker.
Baker, an icon going beyond music alone, lived one of his most rocambolesque and artistically peculiar seasons in the Belpaese. When touring the country in the summer of 1959, he opted to stay won not only by the beauty of the place but also by the energetic and adventurous jazz scene. Given his precarious financial conditions, constantly undermined by his weakness for drugs, Italian jazz musicians made a great show of solidarity by including the American trumpeter and singer in their orchestras and sessions.
At some point Chet was given an opportunity to star in Urlatori alla sbarra, a film by Lucio Fulci showcasing the next big things of Italian rock’n roll, including Adriano Celentano and Mina. In the B Movie scripted by Piero Vivarelli - a fundamental figure in Italian genre cinema - Baker plays the nearly autobiographical role of an American narcoleptic jazzman, inseparable from his trumpet like Linus with his blanket.
It’s on the set of the film that composer Piero Umiliani met the American. Umiliani was one of the few farsighted personalities in Italy to understand the value of Baker, making him part of his projects, like the soundtrack for L’Audace colpo dei Soliti Ignoti - the follow-up to the score that opened the season of italian cinematic jazz in 1958 - where his Lee Morgan-esque trumpet solo stands out as icy and cool as ever in “Tensione”, one of the many nuggets of the collection.
Baker’s Italian stay was extended for a year and a half courtesy of the police, who arrested and jailed the jazzman after finding him, on the verge of an overdose, in the toilet of a service station and in possession of heroin. Many are the tales spared about his stay in prison, including one saying that every night a group of musicians would gather outside his cell dueting with Baker, as he played the trumpet for the other inmates in the silence of the penitentiary.
Following the end of his detention, he recorded his famed album Chet is back (1962), also starring Amedeo Tommasi on piano - one of the rare occasions where, in typical American style, the session men were credited.
The album also magnificently works in highlighting the conceptual and artistic synergy between the coolness of early-1960s Italian and American jazz, a genre equally listened to in classy night clubs as well as by the hip teenagers of Ivy League campuses, of Hollywood comedies, or those portrayed in British kitchen sink dramas.
A rediscovered treasure
This legacy has now been elicited from the CAM Sugar archive with Boom! - Italian Jazz Soundtracks at their Finest, 1959-1969, a collection that investigates this hardly explored bond between jazz and cinema in Italy during the economic miracle.
The project, which encompasses a precious and fundamental work of research and remastering, is also dedicated to the publication of many digital soundtracks that show the role of CAM Sugar, with its 2,000 titles and over 500 awards, as the go-to label for jazz in the history of Italian cinema.