Crime Jazz: noir-ish music from '50s television and film crime dramas

The covers for Rhino Records' two-part collection of 'Crime Jazz.'

A friend recently turned me on to "Crime Jazz," the two-volume soundtrack collection from Rhino featuring ominous, jazzy theme music from 1950s TV shows and movies in which very bad people do very bad things. It'd be great music for a cocktail party where you serve themed drinks and dress up with fake shotgun wounds, or one of those dinner theater parties where there's a crime, and everyone has to try and solve it. I love driving around Los Angeles with this CD blaring from my rolled-down windows.

The website PopCult has a great collection of covers from LPs of that era, and a little musical history:

In the '50s, a new style of musical score was introduced to movie soundtracks: jazz. Previously, movie music meant sweeping orchestral themes or traditional Broadway-style musicals. But with the growing popularity of bebop and hard bop as the sound of urban cool, studios began latching onto the now beat as a way to make their movies seem gritty or "street." In some cases, they hired actual jazz musicians to do the job, such as Duke Ellington for Paris Blues. More often, they hired young composers who grafted jazz elements into big band arrangements (Elmer Bernstein being perhaps the foremost practitioner). Although jazz was used for all sorts of movies and television shows, it seemed to meld best with stories of danger—hard-nosed detective tales, studies of urban corruption, or spy thrillers. While not exactly on the same level of artistic expression as the leading jazz artists of their respective times, these compositions nevertheless convey the emotions demanded by the shows they backed. Many of them even employed the talents of great players like Stan Getz, Shorty Rogers, Quincy Jones, and Shelly Manne.

At, Alan Kurtz wrote a blog post with some great records of the genre. "Jazz served as a cinematic signal for sex and violence," he explains.

The 1997 Rhino Records collection, Crime Jazz, is no longer in print — but you can buy used CDs cheap.

Part 1, and Part 2.

You can listen to clips of some of the tracks here.

If you like this kind of stuff, you might also get a kick out of a related 1996 compilation released by Ultra Lounge, "Ultra-Lounge Vol. 7: The Crime Scene."

The theme of the 'Peter Gunn' television series (1958) may be the most famous single piece of music from this genre. Here's Shelly Manne's version. And here's Henry Mancini's.

A classic crime jazz album from 1959: "Shelly Manne & His Men: Son of Of Gunn !! Play more music from Peter Gun." Image from