In her new work, Improvising the Score: Rethinking Modern Film Music through Jazz, musicologist Gretchen L. Carlson illuminates the differences between jazz scores and conventional soundtracks, examining jazz in film from its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s to today, and spotlighting innovative jazz collaborations by such distinctive filmmakers as Spike Lee, and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The book will be published In July by the University Press of Mississippi.

From Duke Ellington’s seminal (and swinging) score for Otto Preminger’s 1959 crime drama Anatomy of a Murder to Miles Davis’ haunting, improvised soundtrack for Louis Malle’s 1958 thriller Lift to the Scaffold, jazz and motion pictures share both a unique history and structural challenges. PW talked with Carlson about the uneasy relationship between jazz and Hollywood, and the challenges (and rewards) of placing spontaneous jazz improvisation within the confining structures of film production.

Publishers Weekly: In your book you write that the film industry favors scores that are “predominantly written out and sent regularly to production executives for approval before being inserted into the finalized film,” as opposed to the “spontaneous, individualized creativity” of jazz.

Gretchen Carlson: One of the takeaways that I really hoped that my readers would have is that these [film directors and composers] highlight the value of networking, open-minded collaboration and of respecting and understanding jazz, as not only an older, traditional art form, but as something that continues to adapt and respond to new, unique environments.

How does the 2014 movie Birdman—which featured a completely improvised soundtrack by Antonio Sánchez using only drums—exemplify that type of unique environment?

The film’s director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, wanted the story to have a sense of what it's like to be in real life. And jazz for him sonically reflects the gritty reality of life, improvising your way through whatever comes at you. So the soundtrack was developed before the film. Iñárritu went into the recording studio with the drummer Sanchez, and he hadn't even had a fully written-out script yet. He gave Sanchez cues—hand gestures, or some sort of motion—when the character was going to be turning a corner, or moving into a new space. And Iñárritu provided some context for what sort of experience and emotion the character was having at the time. And so Sanchez would improvise based on that contextual cue, as well as the motion. But the soundtrack was developed and then played back as the actors actually filmed the shots. And so that kind of reversal … hardly ever happens. And I think it really shows how much Iñárritu wanted improvisation to be a fundamental part of the film.

Could Birdman be a new version of Miles Davis’ improvised soundtrack—featuring musicians Barney Wilen on tenor, René Urtreger on piano, Pierre Michelot on bass, and drummer Kenny Clarke—to Malle’s acclaimed 1958 thriller Lift to the Scaffold (also known as Frantic in the U.S.)

Yes, there certainly is a relationship. Louis Malle, the director of Lift to the Scaffold, also was someone who, like Iñárritu, was a risk taker, and experimental in his approach to film. He, of course, knew of Davis' reputation, and Davis was in France at the time. And my understanding is that the recording session all happened in an afternoon, or a single day, because the film itself had already been completed. And so the slight distinction from Birdman is the footage was already in place. And so, Davis and the ensemble that he was performing with, improvised in response to what was on the screen.

Jazz trumpeter and film composer Mark Isham also conveys a kind of Miles Davis impressionism in his score for Adam Rudolph’s 1998 film Afterglow, which featured musicians Charles Lloyd, tenor; Geri Allen, piano; Gary Burton, vibes; and drummer Billy Higgins.

I had the pleasure of talking with him over a couple of days, and going out to see him in Hollywood. And he's still very invested in jazz, but he has, more or less, fully shifted to a professional career as a film composer. And I think part of that was economically motivated. And part of it is he just really started to find his niche and made connections and was very successful at it. He's able to do it quite quickly. He's a very skilled film composer. So, I think that's the avenue where he ended up channeling the majority of his efforts.

How do you categorize the relationship and the music supporting the 1992 biographical film Malcolm X, and the 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke, both directed by Spike Lee, with the films’ scores produced by jazz trumpeter and film composer Terrence Blanchard?

Spike and Terrence have shared a lot of ideology, in terms of wanting to tell stories of Black culture through their art. They really respect each other's creativity. And both of them recognize that jazz is strongly rooted in Black creativity and culture. And for that reason, Spike has wanted it to be a big part of his musical soundtracks, regardless of the types of films that he's making.

You detail a similar relationship between director Woody Allen and pianist/composer Dick Hyman in such films as Allen’s 1986 comedy, Hannah and Her Sisters.

Both of them have strong, nostalgic experiences with older jazz styles. So their soundtracks tend to feature music from the twenties, thirties and forties. And one of the things that I really expound on in my chapter on them is that Dick Hyman is a very prolific, amazing piano player, able to capture the nuances of these styles, even in contemporary times. And I think that's reflective of the kind of golden age, and modern, glamorous era that Woody Allen tries to capture through his films.

So, basically you’ve been chronicling the emergence of the jazz-friendly director.

Yes, I like what you said about the jazz-friendly director, because I think that really is the key in all of these case studies that I'm looking at. And the thing that I highlight is they're in many ways recognized as auteurs: unique directors that have their own signature takes. And for each of them, they've had their own path to get where they are. But they've largely operated outside of the “traditional” film industry, whether they've financed themselves personally, or had connections that have helped finance them separate from the traditional studio systems.

And so that has given them this liberty to really make the creative choices that they want to make without the same kind of oversight that I think a lot of directors have to deal with. And since they all love and appreciate jazz in a very specific way, it lends more of a flexibility or openness to the creativity and the improvisation of the composers.