Composed by Jerry Goldsmith; trumpet solo by Uan Rasey.
Jerry Goldsmith, the composer of the haunting melodic theme for the great film Chinatown has explained how he created this timeless, evocative music: “Chinatown takes place in the 1930s and the producer (Robert Evans) and the director (Roman Polanski) wanted music of that period for underscoring. Bob Evans had fallen in love with ‘I Can’t Get Started” by Bunny Berigan and he thought the whole picture should have that flavor. I told them that I didn’t think that kind of music would be right for the picture in that the visuals already established the setting as 1937 Los Angeles. I grew up in Los Angeles, and amazingly enough, that’s the way it looked. It would be too much of a re-emphasis of the thirties with that kind of music. So I told them that what we are dealing with in the film are characters, and that the time (in which the story is set) was of little significance. It could be now or 1933. Bob understood and said ‘You’re right.’ The score for Chinatown does contain several pieces of source music (including Berigan’s ‘I Can’t Get Started’), used to heighten the sense of realism, but these selections do not function in the foreground of the drama.” (1) (Below right Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes and Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray.)
In 1974, Goldsmith was faced with the daunting task of replacing a score by composer Phillip Lambro that had been rejected for the neo-film noir Chinatown. With only ten days to compose and record an entirely new score, Goldsmith quickly created an underscore that mixed an eastern music sounds with elements of jazz in an ensemble that featured a trumpet, four pianos, four harps, two percussionists, and a string section. Goldsmith received an Academy Award nomination for his efforts though he lost to Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola for The Godfather Part II. The score to Chinatown is often regarded as one of the greatest scores of all time and ranks No. 9 on the AFI’s list of top 25 American film scores. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score. (2)
The music: Certainly the most memorable part of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the film Chinatown is the hauntingly evocative trumpet solo played behind the credits at the beginning of the film. That trumpet solo was played by Hollywood studio veteran Uan Rasey. (Rasey, 1921-2011, with his last name incorrectly spelled, is pictured at left in the early 1950s.)
Rasey plays this iconic solo very simply, with minimal ornamentation. His emphasis was on the sound and emotional content of his playing. Although the theme from Chinatown is hauntingly melodic and evocative of the complex mix of emotions Jake Gittes and Evelyn Mulwray have for each other, most of the other music in Goldsmith’s score is rather non-melodic and abstract, yet remarkably effective in heightening the drama that is playing out.
The story continues: Uan Rasey’s career as a Hollywood studio musician spanned more than forty years from the early 1940s through the 1980s. He was long a member of the unofficial fraternity of trumpet virtuosos in Los Angeles who played hundreds if not thousands of studio calls requiring music for commercial recordings, radio and later television, and film and/or television scores. This fraternity included swing era veterans Mannie Klein, Conrad Gozzo, Pete Candoli, Shorty Sherock, Zeke Zarchy,and John Best, among others. What is even more remarkable about Rasey is that he was afflicted by polio as a child and was unable to walk. So he made all of those calls using crutches, and at times a wheelchair. Despite this disability, Rasey was always a very positive person, who inspired his peers not only with his sterling musicianship, but with his positive attitude toward his work and his life. (Above right, early 1970s – Uan Rasey surrounded by his trumpet-playing peers: L-R: Bud Brisbois, Pete Candoli, Billy May, Rasey, John Audino, Chuck Finley and Ray Triscari. May was also a renowned arranger/conductor who made sure that these trumpeters, and many others, had plenty of work to do at his studio sessions.)
One final story about Uan Rasey. This one involves one of Rasey’s long-time trumpet playing colleagues, John Best. In 1982, Best was seriously injured in a fall from a ladder. The injuries he received left him a paraplegic. While Best was hospitalized, one of his first visitors was Uan Rasey. In typical fashion, Rasey, himself on crutches for his entire adult life, began encouraging Best to continue playing his trumpet. Best lived for more that 20 years after that injury, and continued playing his trumpet, albeit from a wheelchair.
The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(1) This information comes from the liner notes for the original motion picture soundtrack CD for Chinatown, Varese Sarabande VSD-5677 (1995).
(2) This information is derived from the Wikipedia post on Jerry Goldsmith.
Here is a link to a brief interview of Uan Rasey done near the end of his life:
Here is a link to Uan Rasey playing a trumpet solo in the great MGM film “An American in Paris.”
This post marks the inauguration of a new category here at swingandbeyond.com – Movie music. Here are some links to other posts on this blog that relate to movie music: