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William Claxton's cover photo of Sonny Rollins standing in the desert -- sporting a cowboy hat, gun holster and humorously knowing look -- has only added to Way Out West's classic status. (William Claxton)

Jazz On The Range: 5 Cinematic Sides

by David Brent Johnson
May 17, 2011 (WFIU-FM)

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Say, pardner. You ever hear the one about jazz being the only true American art form? Now, I love jazz just as much as the next fellow, but consider the Western: Established in the early years of the 20th century, affording many aesthetic pleasures, widespread in its cultural influences and indubitably made in the U.S. of A. It embraces space, freedom, history, pioneers and movement; it creates a mythology that can make the true past difficult to discern. Sound familiar?

There's actually a considerable jazz/Western lineage: Singing black cowboy film star and Duke Ellington big-band vocalist Herb Jeffries, the Western Swing phenomenon of the 1930s and '40s, saxophonist Charles Tyler's Western-inspired free-jazz epic Saga of the Outlaws and, of course, the famous Count Basie-in-the-desert moment in Blazing Saddles are just a few examples. Jazz's legendary cutting contests have often been compared to pistol-packing showdowns, and its exceptional players to fearless gunfighters; as one Charles Mingus composition put it, "If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Bunch of Dead Copycats." Here are five recordings that address Western themes in a cinematically connected way.

David Johnson is the host of WFIU's Night Lights.

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