Year Released: 1959 (Recorded in 1958)
Composer/Artist: Henry Mancini (1924-1994)
Record Label: RCA Victor
Genre: Television Show Soundtrack
To kick things off with this record collection, let us go back several decades to the late 1950s to one of the most important soundtracks in both popular music and entertainment culture. This soundtrack became the first record to win the Grammy Award for “Album of the Year” in 1959. The opening theme music from this album has been covered by rock bands and featured in the 1983 arcade game Spy Hunter. The record that I am discussing today is The Music from Peter Gunn from 1959: composed and conducted by Heny Mancini.
Allow me to give some context before exploring the music. This album serves as the soundtrack to the television Crime Noir Drama Peter Gunn (1958-1961), which aired on both NBC and ABC through its three seasons. Created by Blake Edwards, also known for directing the original Pink Panther movies (which Mancini also scored, among any other films throughout his career), the plot for Peter Gunn is quite straightforward. A police officer and a detective team up to solve crimes. The show is currently available in syndication on the Tubi website and app. I should also note that Peter Gunn is an audacious program (for its time) because of the onscreen violence and mature thematic material permissible in the 1950s.
Jazz music serves as the central component to The Music from Peter Gunn. According to the album liner notes written by the show’s creator, Blake Edwards wanted jazz music reflective of modern times (the 1950s) that also complemented the mysterious atmosphere of his drama. Another interesting aspect of the show stems from how Edwards also wanted the music featured in the program to be performed live instead prerecorded in a studio and dubbed. This point becomes very clear in the first episode (“The Kill.”), The orchestrated jazz heard on both the soundtrack and the show do not present neutered versions of the genre. In The Music from Peter Gunn, Henry Mancini uses the jazz formal structure in tracks that often span from two to four minutes. He applies a melodic theme (often called a “head” in jazz terminology) and moments of shared improvisation in the ensemble mainly consisting of piano, bass, guitar, brass, solo saxophone, and percussion. The iconic theme music that opens the soundtrack and show prove an exception, because it based more on 1950s rock and roll idioms.
Does The Music from Peter Gunn still hold up in the 2020s? My answer to that question is both “Yes” and “No.” On the on the one hand, the album could serve as an introduction of sorts to jazz music for large ensembles through tracks like “Sorta Blue,” “Dreamsville,” and “Fallout!” Some musicians might be slightly annoyed by instances that sound like the pattern infamously known as “The Lick.” The also album functions as a sound artifact of 1950s pop culture and could be an acquired taste for a few people. Some parts of the album, like the title to the last track (“Not from Dixie”) would probably raise some eyebrows given recent social debates. I should add that More Music from Peter Gunn (1959), which I also have, functions a companion album that includes more tracks heard on the show. As of 2010, the Library of Congress archived The Music from Peter Gunn for its historical and cultural significance as popular music. Listeners can access The Music from Peter Gunn, which was re-released in 2019 under the Digital Gramophone label, through digital music streaming services.