Hitting the Right Note: A Musician's Take on the Genius of Saul Bass


By Joe Alterman

Although the word “genius” is, in my opinion, thrown around not carefully enough these days, there are true geniuses in every field of endeavor. However, I find Saul Bass’ genius to be exceptionally special. While I’ve long been a fan of his work, it wasn’t until I began putting this piece together that the depth of his game-changing (or, perhaps more accurately, “game-creating”) became apparent.

Have a look at some of Bass’ title sequences and then try to imagine both the film and graphics worlds without his contribution.

I had the opportunity to introduce the film Dreaming of A Jewish Christmas at the 2018 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. That film made an interesting point, noting that the music played during that time of year is what is responsible for creating the feeling we associate with Christmas. To me, imagining Christmas without that music is like imagining film without Bass’ contribution. Even today. Would the TV show Mad Men, for example, have had such a cool, cosmopolitan, bachelor-esque feel without it? I wonder…

I’m not a graphic designer, and I don’t work in film. I’m a jazz musician. So, what can a musician offer in the analysis and appreciation of Bass and his work?

To me, the deeper I delve into Bass’ work, the more I’m reminded of the “jazz bug”. What is the jazz bug? The jazz bug is what happens to nearly all jazz musicians and fans as they begin to fall in love with the music; it’s an exciting part of one’s education in the music - learning about it becomes obsessive, almost addictive; it’s a time when one yearns to discover, listen to and learn from every recording one can get his or her hands on.

To illustrate this, let’s call Saul Bass the Miles Davis of film (and I would!). Anyone who’s a fan of Davis’ music and hit by the “jazz bug” will yearn to find every recording Davis is on. They’ll want to to hear him both as a sideman and a leader. They’ll want to hear him with various sidemen. They’ll want to hear how he reacts to different pianists and drummers. They’ll be interested in hearing how he, as a soloist, responds to the the other soloists in his group. They’ll be interested in looking at his work year-by-year to discover, not only how prolific he was, but also how flexible, adaptive, tasteful and able he was.

I remember one of my mentors, legendary journalist Nat Hentoff, once telling me that, to him, jazz music was the perfect representation of democracy: the job of the band was to make the soloist sound good, and each member of the band gets to take a solo (a chance to shine out front); however, the better the band sounds behind the soloist, the better the soloist will sound, and vice versa.

It’s with all this in mind that I approach Bass’ work and encourage you to as well. In other words, instead of only looking at Bass’ stellar, revolutionary graphics, consider all of the contributing elements.

Have a look at some of the highlights from Bass’ first decade of work in film. These are a selection of some of the films he worked on, alongside a list of directors and music supervisors/composers:

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)
Director: Otto Preminger
Music: Elmer Bernstein (also composed music to films The Ten Commandments, The Great Escape, To Kill A Mockingbird, Animal House, and Ghostbusters, among others)

The Seven Year Itch (1955)
Director: Billy Wilder
Music: Alfred Newman (Randy’s uncle; other music-film work included Wuthering Heights, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and Airport

Edge of the City (1957)
Director: Martin Ritt
Music: Leonard Rosenman (also composed music to films including Star Trek IV, Lord of The Rings, Rebel Without A Cause)

Vertigo (1958)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Music: Bernard Hermann (besides his work with Hitchock, he also composed music to films including Citizen Kane, Cape Fear, Taxi Driver, and Rod Serling’s TV series, The Twilight Zone

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Director: Otto Preminger
Music: Duke Ellington

North by Northwest (1959)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Music: Bernard Hermann

Psycho (1960)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Music: Bernard Hermann

Spartacus (1960)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Music: Alex North (also composed music to films including A Streetcar Named Desire, Cleopatra, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

Exodus (1960)
Director: Otto Preminger        
Music: Ernest Gold (also composed music to films including On The Beach and It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, which was also a Gold/Bass collaboration)

Ocean's 11 (1960)
Director: Lewis Mileston
Music: Nelson Riddle (known as an arranger for Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole, Judy Garland, among others)

West Side Story (1961)
Director: Robert Wise, Jerome Robins
Music: Leonard Bernstein, Irwin Kostal (Bernstein also composed Candide, On The Town, among others)

Walk on the Wild Side (1962)
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Music: Elmer Bernstein

To me, the above gets me more excited to delve into Bass’ work than would a simple list of the films Bass worked on. Similar to how I would approach the exploration of Miles Davis’ music, the above list, with Hentoff’s lesson in mind, makes me more interested in watching what Bass, in collaboration with so many other visionaries, succeeded in creating.

I become deeply interested in what Bass could have created with jazz legend Duke Ellington, and how that might differ from his work with film music legend Bernard Hermann. I become interested in what Nelson Riddle (the man responsible for so many classic Sinatra arrangements) film music might sound like, and how Bass reacted to it visually. I become interested in how Bass’ work might vary between Preminger and Hitchcock’s direction, and what might change in his work from film to film with each director. Or, similar to Miles Davis, who worked once with Michel Legrand, I become interested in what Bass and Billy Wilder, or Bass and Leonard Bernstein, created together.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken a date to a jazz concert and, mid-show, she’s whispered in my ear, “Is this good?”

“Do you like it?”, I’d ask.

“Yeah,” she’d often respond. 

“Well, then it’s good,” I’d say.

There’s a quote by musician Herbie Hancock that has stuck with me over the years. He said, “I realized that if I perceive myself as a musician, somehow there’s an invisible barrier between myself and people who aren’t musicians. But if I define myself as a human being, all the barriers disappear.”

I couldn’t agree more; just because I’m a studied musician doesn’t mean that my opinions are more true or valid than yours. If you like something that I don’t, that’s not a knock on you. In fact, that’s exactly how it should be; your truth is just as valid as mine.

While I initially intended to, in this piece, give a jazz musician’s perspective on Bass’ actual output (and while I could elaborate on how I think it’s apparent Bass’ confidence grew from film to film working with Hitchcock, and that Duke Ellington’s music gave Bass a greater sense of freedom and experimentation than did Hermann’s music), I think that a more valuable and useful offering from me is a mindset with which to approach analyzing Bass’ work, a mindset which would, I’m confident, not only help one garner the most informed appreciation for Bass and his work possible, but also encourage non-artists to think for themselves and make confident judgement calls on their own.

Here’s a few questions to consider when watching Bass’ title sequences:

1. How does Bass’ work with Hitchcock develop over time? Don’t think just about the actual graphics; consider the development of Bass’ confidence over time.

2. How does Bass’ work (both the work itself and the feeling within) differ as you explore his work with various types of composers. For example, how does his work with Hermann, an established film-composer, differ from that with Ellington, a jazz musician who relies heavily on improvisation and each band-member’s special, individual sound?

3. Watch a Saul Bass title sequence or two with the music and then with the music muted. What’s the difference?

4. Where do you find Bass’ work to be most free, most creative? What do you think it is about either or both the director or the composer that allowed Bass so much freedom?

5. In which film do you find Bass’ work most confident? Or most like himself? Why?

6. What are the defining elements of Bass’ work, and how does the music accentuate them?

To me, the most special thing about Bass is that, in addition to having a unique graphic style, he had an instinctive understanding of what each film was trying to convey, which changes from story to story, director to director and composer to composer.

To me, Bass encapsulates everything that Jazz is all about. His individual style comes across every time, no matter with which director or composer he’s working. Even greater, however, their work and his work augment the ultimate goal of giving the audience an anticipation of what they’re in for. They make him look better and he makes them look better, just like each member of a jazz ensemble helps the soloist.

Bass’ collaborative approach is both special and, thanks to my time in Hentoff’s presence, something that I’d call deeply American. Even though Hentoff is, sadly, no longer around today for me to call and chat with, I’m confident that he, in looking at Bass’ output,  would agree that Bass’ allowing his art to meld with the music and the film in order to create a foretelling or what the story will be about is, like Jazz, a perfect representation of democracy.

Just as each member of a jazz group improvises in his own style, the best ensembles - in any field of endeavor - come together as an integrated whole and create a beautiful sound, something that Bass certainly did.

So, as you delve into Bass’ work, I encourage you to look beyond his graphics; put all the available information in front of you, consider all of the possibilities, see what most intrigues you, and then delve in.

And be confident in your opinions! Don’t let the artist or the art critic dictate your feelings towards one’s work; art analysis is a subjective field and, no matter what you do and how much you know about art, remember one thing: if you like it, it’s good!


A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Joe Alterman studied music at New York University, where he received both his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Jazz Piano Performance. In addition to performances with Houston Person, Les McCann and his own trio, among others, Alterman has performed at many world renowned venues including the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, Birdland and New York’s Blue Note, where Alterman has opened, many times, for Ramsey Lewis. Only 29 years old, Alterman has released four critically-acclaimed albums, his most recent being 2017’s “Comin’ Home To You”. He was profiled three times by iconic journalist Nat Hentoff and was the subject of Hentoff’s very last piece on music in March 2016. Dick Cavett has referred to Alterman as “one fine, first class entertainer” and Ramsey Lewis has called Alterman “an inspiration to me” and his piano playing “a joy to behold”. 

For more information, please visit www.joealtermanmusic.com