Dennis W. Green

I write things. And talk about stuff.

Sometimes I swim.

The Jazz of Star Trek

(This is taken from "More Than Zarathustra" originally published in Perihelion SF magazine. Read the full article here.)

At first listen, the original Star Trek Theme seems to be a pretty conventional orchestral piece, using classical forms, as most TV and movies themes of the era are. But Alexander Courage’s composition has its roots in jazz.

In a 2000 interview, Courage explained that his inspiration for the main part of the theme is from “Beyond The Blue Horizon,” a pop tune from the 1930s. Courage said it gave him the idea for a song which was a "long thing that...keeps going out into space...over a fast moving accompaniment." 

This swing version of the song, by Jack Hylton and his Orchestra, illustrates that.

But the most interesting musical parallel is apparently coincidental. The Star Trek theme shares a harmonic progression with the jazz standard, “Out of Nowhere.” That is to say, the two songs share the same several notes, played in the same order, to form each tune’s main melody (“the hook” in music parlance).

“Out of Nowhere” was introduced by Bing Crosby in his 1930 film Dude Ranch, and was Bing’s first Number One hit. You can definitely hear the melodic similarity in Bing’s version, but when Charlie Parker and Miles Davis slowed it down and made a ballad out of the tune in 1947, the resemblance is downright eerie:

It’s difficult to believe that Courage wasn’t familiar with “Out of Nowhere,” but he never mentioned it as an influence, and absent an “unconscious plagiarism” ruling of the sort that led George Harrison to pay a bunch of money to the composer of “He’s So Fine,” we are left with the resemblance as a coincidence. But a coincidence that the show has had some fun with.

In the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Gene Roddenberry suggested doing a detective story based on the holodeck, and writer Tracy Tormé got the job of writing “The Big Goodbye.” In the process, Tormé created the character of 1940s literary detective Dixon Hill, one of the most memorable additions to the Star Trek canon.

As Captain Picard enters Dixon Hill’s office for the first time near the beginning of the episode, a radio is playing “Out of Nowhere.” 

It was producer Robert Justman who suggested the Easter Egg. A jazzer would say he was “hip” to the connection.

(It’s interesting to note that Tracy Tormé is the son of legendary jazz singer Mel Tormé. The younger Tormé would go on to co-create “Sliders,” and cast his famous father in the show.)

A musician friend of mine also insists there is a scene in Voyager that takes place on Earth at a Star Fleet reception where a combo is playing “Out of Nowhere,” but I haven’t been able to locate it.

Jonathon Frakes happened to play the trombone, which led the ST:TNG writers to send Commander Ryker to a holodeck jazz club to unwind. Ryker’s musical bane was “Nightbird,” which he could never master.

In fact, once jazz broke into the Star Trek franchise, it would play a small but significant role in every series.

  • The Deep Space Nine crew also liked to hang out in holodeck bars. Their favorite hologram was lounge singer Vic Fontaine, played by former teen heartthrob James Darren. Eventually, he would come to serve as a father confessor of sorts to various members of the crew.
  • Lieutenant (and clarinetist) Harry Kim led a jazz quartet on Voyager called the Kimtones. Unlike Frakes, Garrett Wang did not play the instrument, but memorized the correct fingerings, no small task.
  • And on Star Trek: Enterprise, we learn that free jazz has an interesting effect on the Vulcan psyche, when T’Pol hits a San Francisco club in the episode “Fusion.” "It was unusual, chaotic, but I was drawn to it," she says. "I felt...invigorated." This idea popped up in Voyager as well. In the episode “Riddles,” Tuvok loses his intellect for a time and quits repressing his emotions. During this time, he develops a fondness for jazz.

A word of advice: Don’t hint to a jazz musician that the best way to enjoy the music is to stupid and emotional.