Inside Oscar winner John Williams’ jazz, bluegrass scores

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

This eerie tune from director Robert Altman’s film is co-composed by Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamash’ta. Lehman says Yamash’ta was brought on for his ability to create unusual sounds with unexpected objects. Credit: YouTube

This year, John Williams’ score for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny earned him his 54th Oscar nomination. At 92, he’s the oldest nominee ever, breaking his own record last year for his score for The Fablemans. In total, he’s won five Academy Awards.

The composer is often associated with theme music for big blockbusters such as Star Wars, Jaws, and Harry Potter. But his seven-decade career includes a bevy of lesser-known works. 

KCRW gets a breakdown from Frank Lehman, a professor of music at Tufts University and author of Hollywood Harmony: Musical Wonder and the Sound of Cinema. He says some of Williams’ best works are smaller scale and grab less attention from the Academy. 

Jane Eyre (1970)

This score from the BBC television adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel is sometimes referred to as one of Williams’ personal favorites, Lehman says.

“He's gone out of his way to reconstruct lost elements in the score and perform it in concert. So it's clearly close to his heart. You can kind of hear why. It's so overflowingly lyrical, suffusing this beautiful, achingly Gothic and romantic score. It's elegant while being simple. It's certainly not simplistic, though, harmonically and texturally. It's about as sophisticated as that because you can get a Hollywood film score, but the impact is very clear, very direct, very poignant.” 

Images (1972)

This eerie tune from director Robert Altman’s film is co-composed by Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamash’ta. Lehman says Yamash’ta was brought on for his ability to create unusual sounds with unexpected objects.  

“They're very experimental, very avant garde. In fact, when Altman approached Williams to do this project, he didn't have a whole lot of instructions other than the insistence that Williams simply not do anything that he'd ever tried before. And you can really hear it. … It's very hard-edged and difficult music, but does wonders in the film.”

Sabrina (1995)

Sting provides lead vocals on this jazz track. It’s part of the score from the Sydney Pollack remake of the 1954 film of the same name and was nominated for an Oscar. 

In the early days of his career, Williams worked as a jazz arranger and a virtuoso jazz pianist, Lehman says. “There are records of him from the 1950s that are flabbergasting in terms of his sheer technical skill. And it's a lovely movie, kind of forgettable compared to the original in all terms, except for the music, which is really a gorgeous, beautiful, ballad-filled cocktail jazz style. … ‘Moonlight,’ that song that was performed by Sting during the end credits, is the real standout among them.” 

Rosewood (1997)

The jaw harp, steel guitar, and harmonica are strong in this bluegrass, Americana score featured in John Singleton’s movie about a 1923 racially-motivated massacre in Florida. Lehman says this score was overshadowed by Williams’ work on Schindler’s List. 

Lehman points out that initially, Singleton wasn’t sold on Williams as a composer for the film. He was ultimately convinced when he learned that Williams helped arrange music for Mahalia Jackson, the seminal American gospel singer. Some tunes feature Shirley Caesar, another heavyweight gospel singer. 

“When you have a musician of the caliber of Caesar on hand, you basically let her do what she wants. And all the vocal inflections, all of the individual aspects of how she scoops the melody there, that's all entirely her. I'm sure Williams just sat back in the recording booth and said, ‘Here's the sketch. Here's an outline of that melody, and you just breathe your fire into it.’”

He continues, “It works remarkably well in the film too [in] a really harrowing moment when the town of Rosewood is being burned to the ground by a white mob. And then her voice echoes over that scene.”

The Book Thief (2013) 

This score is more intimate than some of the others, Lehman says, centering the emotional nature of the film. The film is told from the perspective of a child, which he says is reflected in the music. 

“This led to a very different kind of score from Williams. For one, it has almost no outward references to the stylistic markers of Eastern or Central European Jewish music, which is such a defining feature of the Schindler's List score. Instead, it's more soft-edged, culturally in-specific but very beautiful, very evocative. … It’s not quite like anything else in Williams’ output, which generally does try to give this element of place.”



  • Frank Lehman - associate professor of music at Tufts University, author of "Hollywood Harmony: Musical Wonder and the Sound of Cinema"