Born within the afro american community of New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century, jazz quickly became one of the most popular styles of musical expression. Ragtime and blues, gospel and rhythm, swing and soul: it’s clear that jazz influenced the local culture and evolution of music not only in the USA, but also in Poland. For further reading, I recommend the following publications: The History of Jazz in Poland by Krystian Brodacki and The scream of jazz-band during interwar Poland by Krzysztof Karpiński.
Above all, jazz is the art of improvisation.
Jazz is hard. Anyone who’d like to try their hand at it has to have the whole theory down to the last detail, as well as practice playing a single instrument everyday. Jazz is the breaking of conventions, negation of the known, fun with sound. It scares modern composers, so they tend to avoid it. It is surprising then that something this chaotic managed to make its way into interactive media such as video games. Is there some sense to it after all?
I’d like to propose a theory that gamers aren’t exactly fond of jazz in video games. They mostly consider it irritating and irrelevant to what’s happening on-screen. It just doesn’t fit. That’s part of the reason why most soundtracks to video games have either pompous, blasting orchestral sounds similar to those found in Hollywood movies, or focus on nostalgia sprinkled with a bit of chiptune. Jazz remains unnoticed. Ask yourselves: off the top of your head, can you come up with any title with a jazz, or even jazz-like soundtrack? Most of you will probably think of two titles, the first being Cuphead. No surprise here: it’s not only one of the hardest platform games released within the last few years, it also became very popular. Its music managed to wow even people who don’t have much to do with jazz. As Konrad wrote in his review:
“Kristofer Maddigan, a Jazz faculty graduate from the University of Toronto, debuted as a game composer by writing a 3-hour letter to the music of the 30’s.”
The second title that’s often mentioned is Grim Fandango. Even though the game was a commercial failure, it gained a cult following that spread the word to the next generation of gamers. The game was most memorable for its devilishly difficult puzzles and Peter McConnel’s music. Even those who never played Grim Fandango know, or at least have heard of the soundtrack to Tim Schafer’s work. Those who missed that wonderful music being played live during the first edition of Game Music Festival should seriously regret it: even though the concert featuring the music from Blizzard’s games sold more tickets, it was the The Jazz of Grim Fandango concert that was ultimately considered the better one. These are the most known games which feature a jazz soundtrack that people can name. It’s a shame, because actually jazz appears in many more titles. One of them is L.A. Noire,, a game that’s based on noire movies from the 40s. Many well-known artists, such as Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald make their appearance on the game’s soundtrack.
A few years ago we were mesmerised by Persona 5’s acid jazz soundtrack. I feel like I should also mention No One Lives Forever, a game that’s largely forgotten nowadays, but which was very enjoyable at its time. One also can’t do without remembering Cing’s Nintendo DS titles that featured smooth jazz and blues: Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and Last Window: The Secret of Cape West’. There’s also licensed music used in Bioshock (not only Billie Holiday but also Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli), and Fallout: Last Vegas (immortal Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole).
It is surprising that something this chaotic managed to make its way into interactive media such as video games.
In the end, my favourite jazz soundtrack is the one that can be heard in Jack Orlando. Harold Faltermeyer, mostly known for Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop (and its legendary title music) soundtracks, managed to perfectly recreate the atmosphere of USA’s great cities’ streets of the 30’s. I especially recommend the game’s main theme (both main menu and ending credits versions) and Streets of crime (amazing sax and piano duet!). The above examples show that jazz music is quite noticeable in games. The problem is, it’s not featured as often as rock, for example. Jazz used to be fairly popular within such genres as point-and-click. But with technology steadily improving, as time went by static games gave way to more dynamic ones, and jazz got benched. Nowadays jazz music is dependent on the gamers as well as developers. It’s up to the latters’ creativity and their ability to match the music’s genre with the game.
It’s not enough for jazz to be one of Cuphead’s main features. Until more games featuring jazz are created, it’ll still be treated as a necessary evil, as people won’t be able to fall in love with this genre. That’s something we don’t want: after all, what would modern music be without some smooth jazz to soothe our nerves. P.S. If anyone’s suffering from a shortage of marriage between video games and jazz, there are loads of albums with covers of famous games that could be easily recommended. For example: Chronology: A Jazz Tribute to Chrono Trigger by OcRemix, BRA☆BRA Final Fantasy Brass de Bravo collection, as well as Gyakuten Meets Jazz Soul. I invite You to listen and share Your findings.