“It changed the way I looked at things forever”. This is how Miles Davies recalls his first trip to Paris in 1949. The reception he received from his newly-found European audience was on a level of respect never witnessed by black musicians in America during this time. On this trip, accompanied by Tadd Dameron and Charlie Parker, Davies loved how his Parisian friends treated him – a stark difference from the everyday racism and police brutality black musicians experienced in America.
It’s no surprise that when Davies was invited back to Paris in 1957 he leapt at the chance. At the time, Davies was also revamping his current group, trying to convince former band member John Coltrane to re-join after being kicked out due to a bad drug habit. He needed no persuasion to leave his stressful American life behind and take a break in the City of Light.
Davies arrived in Paris in November 1957 and was quickly whisked away on a three-week tour of Europe including Brussels, Amsterdam, Stuttgart and, of course, Paris. However, on this tour an unexpected opportunity arose. Davies’ promotor Marcel Romano was tipped off by a film technician that young director and jazz fanatic Louis Malle was creating a new feature film and in need of a soundtrack.
The film was Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud, translated to Elevator to the Gallows. In this film, a restless femme fatale convinces her lover to murder her unsuspecting, wealthy husband. The murder is committed, however, the lover becomes trapped in an elevator whist trying to receive a key piece of evidence he left at the scene. This creates a domino effect of dark events which occur on a cold night in Paris.
This may be a surprising film for Miles Davies to want to be part of, however, after a private screening, Davies eagerly agreed. It wasn’t the film itself that convinced Davies to record the soundtrack, but more the experience. Davies had never written a film score before and he saw it as an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. He asked for a piano in his room and began creating ideas for the soundtrack in breaks during his European tour.
Now, onto the actual music. Davies was accompanied by his European tour band, which consisted of tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen, pianist René Urtreger, bassist Pierre Michelot and drummer Kenny Clarke. It was a heavy session for the musicians, as they recorded the soundtrack immediately after the tour ended. Whilst the band’s first viewing of the film was on the 4th December 1957, Davies had been preparing for this project for weeks. This created an unlikely scenario. Whilst a film soundtrack can take days to record, the Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud score was recorded in just four hours.
Malle produced a series of loops including the scenes where music was required, sending these over to the band. The recording process was a gruelling process, with Davies giving little to no direction. The majority of the soundtrack was actually improvised over a series of basic structures, so the score was completed in a very short amount of time. The only piece that included specific instructions from Davies was ‘Sur L’Autoroute’, the third number on the soundtrack.
Whilst the score recordings may have taken little time to record, this does not mean there was lack of thought behind each passage. Davies expressed every single scene through insightful composition and musical moments. From the dark, desolate opening to the use of funeral piano chords to reflect a murderous scene. The majority of the score is melancholy and slow to reflect the feel of the film, but busy and bright moments also exist, such as in ‘Diner Au Motel’.
The soundtrack was originally released as a 10” LP and the first side of Davies’ compilation album Jazz Track. This album received a 1960 Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Performance. In 2018, the Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud soundtrack was reissued in triple-10” LP and 2CD edition, including a disc of 17 alternative takes.
Whilst you may not know this film, the soundtrack remains a significant moment in Davies’ career. The score entraps key elements of bepop, with Davies choosing modal elements rather than typical chordal improvisation. This style of improvisation was also explored by Davies in “Milestone”, recorded in 1958, as well as in the iconic Kind of Blue album. This film score set Davies up to produce these quintessential and memorable tunes. Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud should be remembered not only for its musical genius, but the long-lasting impact it had on Davies’ musical development.
Suzie Letts, December 2020