Jazz is a particularly important element of the film, serving as the primary symbol of Dickie's rebellion against his father's more staid lifestyle, as well as the main way that Tom becomes close to Dickie. While Tom covets the gilded and regulated world of classical music, Dickie prefers the seductive and irregular musical language of jazz, and Tom pretends to love jazz in order to ingratiate himself to Dickie upon arriving in Italy. A wealthy, white New York heir to a great shipbuilding fortune, Dickie is drawn to jazz for its more improvisatory and noisy qualities, in spite of his father labelling it "insolent noise." Dickie's identification with the historically black American musical tradition reveals his desire to transcend his affluent WASP-y background and become one with a genre of music that represents freedom and instinct. One of the ironies of the film, then, is that his sailboat—perhaps the most bald-faced symbol of WASPishness and wealth—is named after the black jazz saxophonist, Charlie Parker, affectionately nicknamed "Bird."
Charlie Parker was one of the great jazz musicians of the 20th century. Born in 1920 in Kansas City, KS, he is credited with inventing the genre of bebop, along with Dizzy Gillespie, his frequent collaborator. Parker was from a performing family: his father was a stage performer, and when the family moved to Kansas City, MO, Parker discovered his natural talents for music while taking lessons in public school. After dropping out of school, Parker toured with bands in Chicago before moving to New York City to pursue music full-time, eventually joining Jay McShann's band. While playing in McShann's band, Parker was given the nickname, "Bird," short for "yardbird," either because his playing was "free as a bird" or because he once hit a chicken while driving on tour (the origin of the nickname is disputed). After getting discovered by prominent jazz cats Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, Bird's career took off, and he was headlining tours while also maintaining side collaborations with Gillespie. It was during this time that the two would invent bebop, a style of jazz known for its complex harmonies and irregular rhythms. While Parker's career took off, he also battled mental health issues as well as alcoholism and heroin addiction. His addictions and mental health struggles hurt his career, before eventually killing him in 1955.
As jazz rose in popularity in post-war America, many of the affects of the black music tradition were adopted by white youth looking to rebel against the normative social practices of their conservative parents. Just as rock and roll would liberate the youth of the 1960s, jazz provided young people with a frame for social and cultural rebellion in the 1950s. In his iconic essay from 1957, "The White Negro," renowned writer Norman Mailer writes, "...the presence of Hip as a working philosophy in the sub-worlds of American life is probably due to jazz, and its knife-like entrance into culture, its subtle but so penetrating influence on an avant-garde generation—that post-war generation of adventurers who … had absorbed the lessons of disillusionment and disgust of the Twenties, the Depression, and the War." Mailer's essay details the ways hip-ness as a category derives from young white people seeking to emulate black aesthetics in an attempt to transgress social expectations.
Dickie would undoubtedly be an accurate candidate for Mailer's characterization of the "white negro," sporting a bowler hat (a common fashion for beboppers, popularized by Dizzy Gillespie), seeking liberation from the business-driven pressures of his family, and frequenting smoky jazz clubs throughout Italy. Dickie's rebellion is at its core a kind of pretension, an affiliation that, however genuine, serves to cover up his shame for being wealthy. There is no doubt that Dickie genuinely loves jazz, and Charlie Parker in particular, but Mailer's essay suggests that Dickie's relationship to jazz is, at its core, appropriative and rooted in a broader cultural shift that was taking place in the 1950s towards modernity and a streamlined definition of "the hip."
In 1959, renowned jazz pianist, bassist, and bandleader Charles Mingus addressed his audience and said:
You haven't been told before that you're phonies. You're here because jazz has publicity, jazz is popular ... and you like to associate yourself with this sort of thing. But it doesn't make you a connoisseur of the art because you follow it around.... A blind man can go to an exhibition of Picasso and Kline and not even see their works. And comment behind dark glasses, Wow! They're the swingingest painters ever, crazy! Well so can you. You've got your dark glasses and clogged-up ears.
As jazz grew in popularity, many authentic originators in the field questioned the authenticity of the audience, no doubt a side effect of the growing aura of hipness that surrounded the form. Jazz was a musical genre that catapulted a black avant-garde and modern black aesthetic of nonconformity into the spotlight, and its purest advocates wanted to ensure its sanctity in the culture. A deeper understanding of the aesthetic and cultural context of jazz and youthful affiliations with the counterculture, rounds out our understanding of The Talented Mr. Ripley and its place in a wider artistic canon.