Tag Archives: jazz

Peter Gunn

Last week I wrote a bit about the music from the Peter Gunn television show. It’s something I’ve always been interested in, partly because it’s got the Mancini music, but also because I’m a sucker for old crime shows.  So I’ve started watching the series. Most of the episodes are available on YouTube. I haven’t been binge watching I don’t think. That’s like a whole season in a weekend, right? I’ve just been sneaking in an episode or two a day. And after a half a dozen episodes, I believe I’ll keep it up.

Here’s what the show has going for it. It takes place in the 50’s (the show ran three seasons, from 1958-1961), but not the Happy Days 50’s. This is the adult 50’s with jazz music, crime, and cigarettes. There is a lot of smoking in this show. Even when the hero, Peter Gunn (Craig Stevens) isn’t smoking, and he usually is, it seems the camera man is. Smoke frequently seems to drift into the scenes from off camera. It’s not that I’m a fan of smoking. In real life I hate it. It stinks and it kills you and stupid smokers think it’s ok if they throw their nasty butts wherever they want. But on a screen in black and white it looks cool.

The music is also cool. It’s good jazz. Each episode opens on the soon to be crime scene somewhere on the rough side of the river. As the dim lights come up, so does the foreboding jazz. The opening crime goes down with little or no dialog, and is instead punctuated by drums and horns.  I like how frequently the show will take a few minutes while Edie Hart (Lola Albright) and the band perform a number. It’s like a bit of a variety show stuck into this detective show. But it works. It feels organic. Edie and the band are always there at Mother’s in the background. And occasionally when they perform, and Mother (Hope Emerson) and Pete stop to enjoy a song, the audience gets that pleasure as well.

I like the characters.  Edie is Peter’s girlfriend. She’s a sexy Doris Day type who can sing. I like her relationship with Peter. Even when they are whispering sweet nothings to each on the dock, they’re clever and playful and cool, and it works. Mother is the old broad who owns Mother’s, the jazz joint where Pete hangs out. And there’s Lieutenant Jacoby (Herschel Bernardi), the cop who regularly helps Peter out. Truth be told, I would have cast this guy as the star.  He looks like a waterfront detective ought to look, more Mike Hammer than James Bond. Pete’s a bit too neat and well dressed for my liking. But he handles himself well, and seems to be well liked and respected by the rough waterfront crowd, so I’ll let his pretty-boy looks slide.

The plots are bit thin. In each a bad guy enters the scene causing problems for someone, then Peter, often with the help of Jacoby, steps in and deals with the bad guy, sometimes getting himself roughed up in the process. Of course the plot of each episode has a wrinkle, something to make it interesting–a blind piano player as the only witness to a murder, a hit man who uses dogs as his weapon, Ted Knight uses knockout gas to rob his own bank. But like all these kinds of shows, it’s the time spent with the characters as much as the weekly mystery, that makes them fun.

What’s not to like? Just a couple things. I’ve already mentioned that Peter is too good looking and well dressed. Also, the entire show is shot on a sound stage, even the car chases. This actually works as most of the action takes place in the middle of the night, the time when only criminals and beatniks are awake, so the darkness covers most of the flaws here, so I can pretend I’m watching a play for a while. But the bar fights, when suddenly all the furniture, including the bar and the built in shelves, shatter to to bits of balsa wood, I feel like I’m watching a sketch in the Carol Burnett show.

Finally, while the producers were probably being progressive for their time by giving us one black musician, with a speaking part at that, he’s the only person of color I’ve seen so far. I think there may have been some black folks in the jazz scene in the 50’s, but I’ll have to check. When Pete is out fighting crime in the rough part if the city, and then finishes his night with a drink at Mother’s, it’s off-putting to have  the house band be the gang from Lawrence Welk’s orchestra.

But I will continue to watch the series, and if any of this sounds fun, I’d encourage you to do the same.  Here’s “Vicious Dog,” one of my favorites so far.

The Music from Peter Gunn


The Music from Peter Gunn, 1959.

Who knew that this album would bring up such memories and send me down so many rabbit trails.

Another of pop’s old record club albums, The Music from Peter Gunn by Henry Mancini is one that I listened to a lot as a kid.  As kids, elementary aged kids, the only records we had were children’s records and my folks’ old records. It wasn’t until 5th grade that I received my first three singles of contemporary music.

I remember one vignette from childhood.  I don’t remember who the older kids were, a boy and a girl if I remember right, but their parents were visiting ours. I think I was in the third or fourth grade. We were all sitting around the record player, and the girl, the older of the two, was disparaging our record collection, all kids records, meh. I reached for one of dad’s old records, Thereby Hangs a Tale by Eddie Arnold. This is another record that my brother and I listened to a lot, and had the A side pretty much memorized, especially “Tennessee Stud,” “Battle of Little Big Horn,” and “Wreck of the Old 97.” My brother probably still has those songs memorized. So I put Eddie on the turntable. “How’s this?” I asked, already reaching for another in case this one didn’t receive her approval. I remember her nodding her head along with Eddie. No, this good. Even then I remember being a little surprised. It was the 70s, I guess, and the folk/country sound was pretty prevalent in popular music. Or maybe her dad listened to Eddie Arnold too.

Anyway, in revisiting the Peter Gunn album, I was surprised how much I remembered of this album. When one song ended, I was able to hum the opening bars of the next tune during the space between. That’s something that is mostly gone in the days of shuffle and Pandora. Too bad.

And this is great jazz music. It’s popular.  It was popular at the time–in 1959 this album was the first to win a Grammy for album of the year.  And it’s certainly stood the test of time. The Library of Congress entered this album into the National Recording Registry in 2010.  But perhaps more tellingly, search YouTube for covers of the Peter Gunn theme, and you’ll find a lot of them, some of them quite bizarre.  Try to look away from this.

This popularity can make some of us snobby folks suspicious.  But this music is really beautiful, fun, and of course the main theme may make you want to drive a long car into a seedy neighborhood to shake down a punk for information on a recent kidnapping (or put on your go-go boots and go for it). Of course that may just be me.  The best thing to do, of course, is to listen to it. Here are a handful of tunes from this album.  Enjoy.

The Piano Scene of Ahmad Jamal

ahmad jamal

One of my favorite albums in my collection is The Piano Scene of Ahmad Jamal.  It’s a favorite for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s a great album and Jamal is a great jazz pianist.  First issued in 1959, there are a dozen tunes that with the help of a cigarette (not recommended) and maybe an old fashion or martini (recommended) will transport you back to what is now often referred to as Mad Men Times. This is great cocktail lounge music, but as Miles Davis will argue in the copy on the back of this album, Jamal is more than a cocktail pianist.  In my research, he’s always cited as an influence on Davis.  So that’s cool. We’ll get back to that coolness in a bit.

The other reason I love this album is that it used belong to my dad.  Back in the late 50’s and early 60’s (Mad Men Times) my dad was a student at Kansas State.  While there he was a member of one of those 5-albums-for-a-penny music clubs.  You get free music up front and then have to buy more music in the coming months.  (This was back when people bought music.) As a result, we have a lot of cool old albums, all labeled on the back with a giant S for Sears.  There are a variety of artist from his music club days.  The most numerous are Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, and old movie soundtracks. The coolest, I think, is this Ahmad Jamal record.  Dad says he saw Jamal perform back then in Manhattan, Kansas or maybe Columbia, Missouri.  I imagine that influenced this purchase.  So it’s fun to think of dad in his short hair and dorky 1950’s glasses, seeing some live jazz in 1960 in a smoky little room, listening to a guy that had an influence on Miles Davis, and being able to say years later, “I really used to like his early stuff.” When I listen to this album, I enjoy vicariously a little of my dad’s 1960 cool.

Jamal is still around.  This album was actually reissued last year, which is probably why the youtube links to these songs are all broken.  There is one great youtube clip of early Jamal which I’d like to share.  Enjoy.

Ok. One more.