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Henry Mancini's 'Peter Gunn' music put a hard-boiled spin on cool jazz

Henry Mancini, Craig Stevens and Lola Albright on a
Henry Mancini Estate
Henry Mancini with 'Peter Gunn' stars Craig Stevens and Lola Albright in the late 1950s.

When Peter Gunn premiered on NBC on Sept. 22, 1958, television viewers were introduced to a new breed of private detective. Gone was the hard-drinking film noir antihero in a rumpled trench coat and fedora — a figure that had literally and spiritually darkened movie screens in the morally conflicted aftermath of World War II. Gunn, as played by Craig Stevens, was instead a cultured sophisticate with a taste for tailored suits and modern art: less Bogart, more Cary Grant.

No element of the show’s stylish production was quite so vital to establishing this refined gumshoe as the music of Henry Mancini. His score drew on the cool jazz that had developed on the west coast in parallel to the rise of television, along with the thundering rhythms of the new sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, which in combination with his soon-famous gift for breezy cocktail melodies proved the ideal accompaniment for the adventures of this suave but tough investigator.

Mancini, whose 100th birthday falls this April 16, spent 1958 providing the soundtrack for a transitional moment in American popular culture. After six years as a contract composer and arranger in the assembly-line music department at Universal Studios, he (along with most of his colleagues) was let go, one of many casualties as TV encroached on the movie business. But the very medium that seemed to end his career would soon provide a lifeline, as his first score for the small screen became a career-making success.

One of Mancini’s final assignments at Universal had been Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, often cited as the end of film noir’s classic era. Mancini’s score blended Latin rhythms, blaring horns and a squall of jukebox guitars to capture the roiling tensions and sweaty hedonism striving to drown them out in the film’s corrupt border town.

Craig Stevens as Peter Gunn
Craig Stevens as Peter Gunn

Peter Gunn struck a distinctly opposite tone. Gunn covers the waterfront in an unnamed, neon-and-shadows city, but remains unruffled by its violence. With just a half hour to usher a crime from execution to apprehension, Blake Edwards’ drama never offered particularly compelling mysteries for its hero to solve. Instead, Peter Gunn thrived on its milieu.

Gunn, unlike his badge-wearing counterpart Lieutenant Jacoby, is conversant with contemporary trends — able to mix with fringe artists and the criminal element alike, though he’d never be mistaken for either. A tasteful bit of faux-Cubist art hangs above the mantle in his spacious bachelor pad, though the more extreme tendencies of abstract-impressionist art and beatnik hipster patois come in for gentle parody. Cases bring the detective into contact with edgy nightclub comics (a guesting Shelley Berman), rebels without causes, and no-talent rock singers. While Gunn’s clients often force him into the black-and-white shadows of noir, his predilections seem to look forward to the coming explosion of mod color; a late episode even places us in the perspective of an artist’s canvas as he smears what is surely an eye-popping range of colors across the screen.

The prime indicator of Gunn’s contemporary cool is jazz. Instead of an office, the private eye keeps hours at the censor-taunting nightclub Mother’s, where his love interest, Edie Hart (Lola Albright) is the featured attraction. Edie is more a torch singer in the icy-blonde Julie London mode than a jazz singer, but she’s backed by a combo that hosts the occasional ringer. Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne and Laurindo Almeida all make cameo appearances as themselves over the course of the series’ three seasons, each given dedicated screen time to take a solo.

During the preceding decade, Rogers and Manne had both been instrumental in attaching “cool” to jazz’s name and reputation as foundational members of the West Coast scene, popularizing a more relaxed and lyrical approach. At the same time, Almeida was a pioneer of the worldly bossa nova craze. Dave Brubeck’s immensely popular album Time Out was released in the midst of the show’s second season, with an album cover that would look perfectly tasteful on Gunn’s living room wall.

Mancini drew upon these influences and more for his groundbreaking Peter Gunn score, the first TV soundtrack to incorporate jazz and even rock ‘n’ roll. Well… almost. Three days before Peter Gunn aired its first episode, the Lee Marvin crime drama M Squad had kicked off its second season with a new theme song courtesy of Count Basie, and a score by saxophonist Benny Carter and pianist John Williams. The latter, who would go on to become the most revered film composer on the planet, was a member of Mancini’s Peter Gunn ensemble during its first season. But Mancini’s score was the most influential in its use of jazz accents as scene-setting.

Take the iconic Peter Gunn theme, with its propulsive rhythm suggesting the steady thrum of tires on pavement, its skulking piano-guitar ostinato, and its Doppler-effect brass fanfares. It’s a theme song better remembered than the show it accompanied, revived during the ‘80s in an 8-bit reduction as the incessant soundtrack for Atari’s Spy Hunter video game, and in synth-pop pastiche as an MTV hit for The Art of Noise and Duane Eddy.

Mancini’s score was also innovative for approaching each episode like a self-contained film, generating new cues for each adventure, blended with a number of recurring themes. Nearly every episode began with a burly walking bass underscoring the crime of the week (the piece was christened “Fallout!” for the 1959 soundtrack album The Music from Peter Gunn), while Pete and Edie garnered a blissful love theme called “Dreamsville.” That ballad has found a home in jazz; it has been recorded by Wes Montgomery, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughan (who also performed a vocal iteration of the theme song), Pat Martino, and Brad Mehldau.

Rarely did an episode of Peter Gunn go by without a song performed at Mother’s — and through Mancini’s use of laid-back swing and finger-snapping bass lines, the cocktail hour vibes followed Gunn from club to crime scene. Occasionally the two overlapped, as when a pianist (and “exponent of the new sound”) is stabbed in the back onstage. The club’s trad-jazz proprietor, Lodi, introduces that victim as “a man who’s found some strange and exciting ways to wander from the tonic to the dominant chord in the company of minor sevenths,” before a shocking reveal. (A rival vibraphonist, Streetcar Jones, is accused of the murder; when Gunn visits him in prison, he’s wowed by the “wild sounds” his mallets make on the bars, and praises Lodi by name-dropping “Oliver, Bechet, Ory.”)

In another episode, James Coburn guests as a homicidal trumpet player, though the character’s mental block prevents him from ever putting the horn to his lips. (We do hear a bit of one of his records, which would have been ghosted by either Conrad Gozzo or Pete Candoli.) A jaunty tune titled “The Brothers Go To Mother’s,” often heard when Pete ventures among the hoi polloi, features the interplay of trombonist Dick and saxophonist Ted Nash — respectively the uncle and father of longtime Jazz at Lincoln Center multi-reedist and flutist Ted Nash. (In a bit of sheer coincidence, one episode’s villain shares the name of Smalls founder Mitch Borden.)

Mancini was not primarily a jazz musician, though he came of age during the big band era and toured and supplied arrangements for the Glenn Miller Orchestra, led by Tex Beneke in the wake of Miller’s death during the war. It was his experience with dance bands that landed him his position at Universal. While he contributed music to films in every genre that the studio produced — monster movies, slapstick comedies, westerns, sci-fi — his specialty was in arranging for a then-contemporary pop music idiom. When Universal produced biopics on Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, Mancini was tasked with adapting their big band hits for the screen.

In Did They Mention the Music? — his 1989 autobiography, co-written by Gene Lees — Mancini recalled that the studios “needed somebody experienced in modern dance-band writing, as opposed to the European symphonic approach to scoring that predominated in movies at that time.”

Peter Gunn updated that idea for the late-‘50s cultural landscape. Mancini’s strolling, hands-in-pockets melody lines and his sleek, contoured harmonies hinted at a breezy optimism, a sparkling confidence that embodied the picket fence rebirth of postwar America. Today it’s almost impossible to hear his substitution of alto and bass flutes for strings, howling over a striding bass on Peter Gunn cues like “Fallout!” or “A Profound Gass,” without connecting it with Angelo Badalamenti’s funhouse-mirror distortion of the same ideas to score David Lynch’s nightmare visions of the American Dream.

Henry Mancini, circa 1970.
Michael Ochs Archives
Henry Mancini, circa 1970.

Peter Gunn instantly made Mancini a household name. The soundtrack was awarded Album of the Year at the inaugural Grammy Awards, and the theme proved to be the first of many indelible Mancini melodies to come. A subsequent CBS series, Mr. Lucky, only lasted one season, but its soundtrack album was a Top 10 hit, with a title song that became a minor jazz standard. Then came The Pink Panther, and a run of movie soundtracks that yielded the classic songs “Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Two for the Road.”

By the time of his death in 1994, Mancini’s urbane melodicism had become passé; as Gunn himself laments when rock and roll takes the stage at one his local haunts, “Whatever happened to music, huh?” But Peter Gunn, like Mancini’s music, deftly threaded the needle between culture and the nascent counter-culture, and an investigator with Gunn’s instincts couldn’t help but sense that the times were a-changin’. Revisiting the show and its music today is like dropping straight into that moment of transition, suit neatly pressed and martini in hand.

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel.