The Black Dahlia Murder as Music Noir

Don Heckman writes frequently about jazz for The Times

The story of the Black Dahlia is one of the Southland’s most enduring and compelling mysteries. Occurring less than two years after the close of World War II and at a time when the nation was returning to normalcy, it triggered a noir image of Los Angeles life that in some respects continues into the present.

Elizabeth Short--known as Beth to her friends, and as the Black Dahlia because of her predilection for wearing black and because of the recent release of the Alan Ladd film “The Blue Dahlia"--was found murdered at the corner of 39th and Norton in the Crenshaw District on Jan. 17, 1947. The circumstances of her death were particularly brutal, including the fact that her nude body had been surgically severed and severely tortured.

In part because of Short’s slight connection with the entertainment world via her desire to become an actress, the case became a media sensation. More than 500 people confessed, at one time or another, to having committed the crime. John Gregory Dunne’s “True Confessions” (which became the Ulu Grosbard-directed film with Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall) and James Ellroy’s “The Black Dahlia” fictionalized the story, and James Gilmore’s “Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder” professes to have found the perpetrator of the murder, which remains officially unsolved. More recently, the case served as the inspiration for a CD-ROM interactive computer adventure game, also titled “The Black Dahlia.”

What, you may ask, does all this have to do with jazz? Until very recently, not much. But an ambitious effort has arrived in the form of Bob Belden’s “Black Dahlia” (*** 1/2, Blue Note), a 12-movement suite inspired by and programmatically descriptive of the life and death of the 22-year-old Short.

Belden composed the work for a 65-piece orchestra featuring a large roster of soloists, including trumpeters Tim Hagans and Lew Soloff, pianists Marc Copland and Kevin Hays, and saxophonists Joe Lovano, Lawrence Feldman and Belden. This is not his first large-scale work, although his previous jazz-tinged orchestral albums, “The Four Seasons” and “Turandot,” remain unreleased in the United States.

There are many things to like about “Black Dahlia.” The first is Belden’s mastery as an orchestrator. Although he has not yet found a completely convincing voice of his own--the album’s only less than first-rate attribute--his easy control of timbres, harmony and rhythm is the work of a craftsman-like musical illustrator. At times, traces of Gil Evans’ tonal blendings sneak through the mix, but Belden is far too musically sophisticated to produce anything that could remotely be described as a simulation.

Equally important, he has composed what can legitimately be described as a Third Stream composition--one that combines elements from concert music and jazz in the kind of smoothly integrated, unself-conscious fashion that eluded most of those who originated the term back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The soloing, all around, is excellent, especially from Hagans and Lovano; and the various movements--bearing titles such as “City of Angels,” “The Edge of Forever: Last Night at the Hacienda Club” and “101 North"--stunningly capture the dark currents of Los Angeles after dark, both in the ‘40s and today.

In a broader sense, Belden’s “Black Dahlia” sets a standard for the use of jazz artists and a jazz sensibility in expanded works. And, unlike his previous large ensemble efforts, which delivered similar accomplishments, this one, at least, has been released domestically. Obviously, budget limitations make it difficult for works such as this to see the light of day. But Belden--as well as a number of other composers who come to mind--has the talent to create music that is both entertaining and intellectually stimulating. There’s no reason why works such as this and composers such as Belden shouldn’t have an equal opportunity to command the sorts of commissions and performances offered to artists in the contemporary classical field.

Terence Blanchard is one of the jazz artists who, like Belden, has the capacity to reach beyond the traditional framework of jazz. His efforts, however, have largely been centered on the composition of film music, primarily for such Spike Lee efforts as “Jungle Fever” and “Malcolm X.”

But, as his score for the Samuel L. Jackson film “The Caveman’s Valentine” (***, Decca) makes clear, Blanchard has an ear for tonal variation that encompasses a rich array of musical ideas. This is not a jazz score, as such, and it is best heard in its natural milieu, which is as a supporting environment for the dramatic flow of the film. But its clusters of sound and rhythm are informed by a jazz ear. Like Belden’s “Black Dahlia,” Blanchard’s efforts to expand his musical palette are providing a healthy widening of the canvas by which we define jazz and jazz artists.