Jazz and Italian Cinema – Piero Umiliani


At the end of the fifties the director Mario Monicelli shoots the film The usual unknown, the first of a new cinematographic vein “the Italian comedy. For the soundtrack, the Roman director feels the need for music with a strong jazz appeal that can be the backdrop to the proletarian story of the film: in a neo-realist Rome, farcical characters move between poor urban neighborhoods and a social condition bordering on poverty made up of daily tragicomic expedients, American myths and inevitable existential defeats. In that given period, the musical themes composed for the cinema were based on the popular song of masters such as Nino Rota and Carlo Rustichelli. Monicelli wants to go in a new direction and, to do so, following the advice of a friend, he turns to a young pianist and composer who has been successfully involved in the composition and arrangement of soundtracks for some years, Piero Umiliani.

The young musician had begun to take his first steps in the jazz scene during the Second World War in Florence where he was born, the day after listening to pieces by Duke Ellington and other musicians of the 1930s and 1940s, broadcast by Swiss Radio during the conflict (at the end of the war, like many others, he will discover African-American music through V-discs, discs intended for tonnage troops in Europe and which, in a short time, have become a vehicle for musical diffusion among the population freed from Nazi-fascism). Moving to Milan, Umiliani has the opportunity to stand out as a brilliant and elegant pianist in the Milanese jazz scene. He affects several discs with Bass-Valdambrini Quintet, Gil Cuppini, Roberto Nicolosi Attilo Donadio and others. After studying at the Cherubini Conservatory in Florence, where he graduated in counterpoint and fugue, and having formed an octet, with which he received positive acclaim from critics, he was called by Armando Trovajoli in Rome to cover the role of arranger of musical scores composed by him. It begins in the capital for the Florentine pianist, with the documentary by the Taviani brothers Painters in the City (1954), the activity in the film studios.

For the engraving of the music de The usual unknown (some tracks will be released by RCA in an Ep in 1958) Piero Umiliani makes use of the presence in the orchestra of musicians from the Italian and foreign jazz scene: the trombonists Bill Gilmore and Mario Midana, the baritone saxophonist Gino Marinacci, the alto player Baldo Maestri, the double bass player Berto Pisani and several others. We celebrate the song "Blues For Gassman”, dedicated to the character of Peppe “is Pantera”, interpreted by the actor Vittorio Gassman (among the other performers of the film we find Totò, Claudia Cardinale, Marcello Mastroianni, Renato Salvatori, Tiberio Murgia, Carlo Pisacane, "Memmo" Carotenuto). The usual unknown it represents the first Italian film to use a soundtrack composed of themes with a strong jazz connotation, initiating a fashion that would invest all of the Sixties and part of the Seventies.

Piero Umiliani will put his excellent jazz preparation at the service of other films of that period: Audacious Coup of the Usual Unknowns (1959), with the presence of the trumpeter Chet Baker, Howlers on the stand (1960), Red lips (1960), Riding the Tiger (1961), The new Angels (1962), Smog (1962), Difficult Love (1962), A Beautiful Grit (1965). At the end of the sixties he composes the musical theme "nah nah nah nah", for the movie Sweden, hell, heaven (1968), directed by director Luigi Scattini. Characterized by an amused melodic immediacy, the song becomes a worldwide success, thanks in particular to the remake of the French singer Gabriel Salvador and its use in famous television broadcasts, such as the US variety show Muppet Show. Piero Umiliani's production consists of more than 150 soundtracks composed and created over a ten-year career.

Paolo Marra

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