Tiomkin and all that jazz, May 2012

by Warren M. Sherk

This month the city of Kremenchug plays host to an international jazz festival that includes a competition for student pianists that will honor native son Dimitri Tiomkin.

Kremenchug, Ukraine

READ: Tiomkin piano improvisation competition in Kremenchug, Ukraine

“Jazz is more than music to the European, it is a new life principle,” said Dimitri Tiomkin upon his return to New York in 1928. The Russian pianist had recently performed the European premiere of George Gershwin’s Concerto in F at the Paris Opéra. So began a lengthy period that lasted well into the 1930s during which Tiomkin spoke frequently of American jazz. The pianist and budding film composer was quoted on the subject in Musical America, the New York American, New York Evening Post, and Hollywood News.

When American composer Charles Wakefield Cadman declared “the motion picture industry will gain neither dignity nor respect from the encouragement of jazz” it was Tiomkin who responded, “modern jazz as composed today is a direct reflection of the spiritual as well as the mental life of the people.” The exchange took place in April 1930, when Tiomkin was still new to the Hollywood film music scene. While his acceptance by the film capital was still a few years away, Tiomkin continued to write music for his wife, choreographer Albertina Rasch. Some of these ballets, such as “Scarlet Jazz” and “Modernistic Impressions of the Blues” featured jazz themes.

READ: Fascinating Rhythms: Dimitri Tiomkin, African American Music, and Early Jazz

Tiomkin’s management company in New York, Bogue Laberge, produced a publicity flier for “Dimitri Tiomkin The Great Russian Pianist.” The first program listed therein was “Debussy and Modern Jazz.”

As a proponent of new music, or modern works, Tiomkin championed music by American composers, such as George Gershwin, Richard Rogers, and Emil Gerstenberger. A typical Tiomkin program included Tiomkin’s own “Quasi Jazz,” “Little Africa” by Rogers, and two jazz-flavored preludes written by Gershwin in 1926. “Little Africa” was first performed by Tiomkin and the work was dedicated to him. Gerstenberger, a fellow Russian-born composer best known as an orchestrator for musical revues on Broadway, wrote some original music for piano.

Tiomkin’s concert programming caused a critic for the New York Evening World to aver, “…it seemed as if there might be something epochal in Mr. Tiomkin’s recital—that it might portend the finis of classic programs and the beginning of a new disposition.”

This new disposition included jazz alongside classical music. Tiomkin told Los Angeles Times music critic Isabel Morse Jones of his intense interest in the music of George Gershwin and American bandleader Paul Whiteman, often referred to as the “King of Jazz.”

John Tynan of Down Beat magazine, America’s leading jazz publication, spoke with composers Johnny Mandel and Dimitri Tiomkin early in 1959 to garner their opinions on the use of “progressive” jazz as underscore in the movies. Mandel had written arrangements for Count Basie’s orchestra and was just getting his start in films with his jazz-based score for I Want to Live. Tiomkin was just coming off of Wild Is the Wind.

One need look no further than chord changes from a famous four-bar passage in “Wild Is the Wind” to see the influence of jazz on composer Tiomkin. Painting Ned Washington’s lyrics, “For my love is like the wind and wild is the wind!” are such extended harmonies as Bbm9#11 and A7#5(b9).

Excerpt from the vocal score for "Wild Is the Wind" in the Dimitri Tiomkin Anthology

The song from the film has since been embraced by jazz singers and recorded by Kenny Burrell, Amel Larrieux, Nina Simone, Esperanza Spalding, and many others.

LISTEN: Singer Nicolas Bearde’s take on “Wild Is the Wind”

It was not unusual for Tiomkin to choose a jazz combo to play source music—music from a seen or implied source on screen—as he did for D.O.A. with “Fisherman’s Jive.” Soon after Wild Is the Wind, Tiomkin went with a twelve-piece jazz combo on the theme song for Town Without Pity. And themes from films were often re-cast in a popular vein, witness “The Fall of Love” from The Fall of the Roman Empire arranged as a slow jazz number for saxophone quintet with guitar, bass, and drums.

Historically “jazz” underscoring for films has been largely written out and not truly improvised. In the late 1920s Tiomkin explained to American musicologist Sigmund Spaeth that he felt skillful jazz players are able to give the feeling of “spontaneity and the mood of extemporizing” even when definite music is followed.

Tiomkin added, “Jazz is a part of modernism, and, being a modernist, I like it.”

Perchance the young Ukrainian pianists who will be performing jazz renditions of Tiomkin’s music will appreciate the composer’s musical journey that began, perhaps like their own, in Kremenchug.


  • “An Ultra-Modernist Goes Jazz,” by Sigmund Spaeth, typescript of article in the Dimitri Tiomkin Collection at USC
  • “Paris Loves Irony of Jazz,” Musical America, February 25, 1928
  • “Russians Mixed Jazz,” Variety, July 24, 1929
  • “Tiomkin Tracking Down Jazz” by Isabel Morse Jones, Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1930
  • “Cadman Attacks Jazz of Talkies,” News Times, South Bend, Indiana, April 27, 1930
  • “Tiomkin Jazzes ‘Town,’” Variety, Februay 22, 1961
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