Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Anita O'Day - "High Times, Hard Times"


© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.



“The legend of Billie Holiday and the huge, vocal presences of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae have tended to overshadow Anita's reputation. She remains, though, one of the toughest, most dramatic and most fiercely swinging of all jazz singers, with a personality like rough-cut diamond. A great survivor, she kept on past her real sell-by date, but energized by a sheer appetite for life and music.”
Richard Cook and Brian Morton, Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“The thing about Anita O'Day is that she always sings jazz. And what makes her singing always jazz is her improvisation. She takes a musician's liberties with phrasing, harmony, and rhythm, and does it all while singing lyrics that still manage to make sense.”
- Dom Cerulli, Jazz author and critic

“Liquor was very much a part of the scene in those days.  [Bandleader and clarinetist] Artie Shaw is credited with having said that Jazz was born in a whiskey barrel, was reared on marijuana and was currently expiring on heroin.”
- Charlie Barnet, saxophonist and bandleader

The “currently expiring” part of Artie Shaw’s chronology is a reference to the scourge of heroin that descended upon Jazz like a plague in the decade or so following the end of the Second World War [1945].

This period is sometimes referred to as the “Bebop Generation,” an era during which alto saxophonist Phil Woods lamented: “A lot of people died for this music.”

Imagine, then, announcing to your parents that you planned to become a “Jazz musician” as I did while coming of age in the music during this era?

The look of shock, disbelief and horror that came over their faces was almost too much to bear especially given how much I loved Jazz.

Imagine, too, what their reaction would have been after reading Anita O’Day’s description of the drug world in her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times [with George Eells]. It’s a good thing she waited until 1981 before she published it, because by then, I was long gone as a player on the Jazz scene.

In her eighty-seven years [1919-2006], Anita’s career had numerous highlights during the 1940s and 1950s, but her self-abusive personal life began to take its toll in the 1960s and she began to fade out of public view.

Ever the fighter, she cleaned up her act and by the mid-1970s she made some sparkling, in-performance recordings set in Japan. “They’ve always loved her in Japan, where Anita’s mix of tough and tender is appealing exotic. They were also fascinated by the detail of her battle with narcotics. Cleaned up and fit, by this stage she is getting a kick out of the music again.”


Richard Cook and Brian Morton preceded these comments with the following review of her two volume Masters of Jazz set [#122 and #157] and her Columbia Legacy CD Let Me Off Uptown [CK 65265]; [Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.]:

“Anita O'Day lived the jazz life. She tells about it in High Times, Hard Times (1983). Asa young woman she worked as a singing waitress and in punishing dance-marathons. And she shot horse [heroin] until her heart began to give out in the 1960s and she was forced to battle her demons cold.

As is immediately obvious from her combative, sharply punctuated scatting and her line in stage patter, O'Day was a fighter. As a 'chirper' with the Gene Krupa band in 1941, she refused to turn out in ball-gown and gloves, and appeared instead in band jacket and short skirt, an unheard-of practice that underlined her instinctive feminism. With Stan Kenton, she gave a humane edge to a sometimes pretentiously modernist repertoire. O'Day's demanding style had few successful imitators, but she is the most immediate source for June Christy and Chris Connor, who followed her into the Kenton band.

These early cuts with the Kenton and Krupa bands are definitive of her desire (one more commonly and erroneously associated with Billie Holiday) to be one of the guys, not so much socially and chemically, as musically. She sings like a horn player, not only when scatting, but also when delivering a song-line straight. Her phrasing has a brassy snap and polish and, even through the acoustic fog that surrounds most of these transfers, her enunciation is exact and focused. The bands were among the most exciting of their day, or ever. Kenton's outfit called for more sheer strength, but the unvarnished vivacity and raw charm of the Krupa tracks are what recommends this material. 'Let Me Off Uptown' is the classic, of course, destined to become shopworn and hackneyed in later years, but right off the mint here. 'Bolero At The Savoy' is a band original, presumably worked up during rehearsals. The Columbia set recaptures the sound with great fidelity and compresses the very best of the material from Anita's two stints with Krupa, though oddly this reissue breaks the chronology to no real purpose, starting with false logic on 'Opus One' from 1945.

The Masters of Jazz sets are pretty complete, not to say exhaustive, and if anyone wants a fuller documentation of Anita's early work in those two packed years before America entered the war, then these are the sets to go for, though we have found the sound rather flat and muffled. Containing more than two hours of music, they should be enough for the most devoted enthusiast.”


In writing the insert notes for Pick Yourself Up With Anita O’Day [Verve 314 517 329-2, Nat Hentoff elaborates on the importance of Anita’s early hits and the role that Norman Granz of Norgran and Verve Records played in her career:

ANITA O'DAY

“Despite not possessing the range of Sarah Vaughan, the scatting ability of Ella Fitzgerald, or the emotional intensity of Billie Holiday, Anita O'Day deserves to be considered with these sublime singers in any discussion of female jazz vocalists. What recommends her? Among other qualities, an easily identifiable sound, a distinctly personal approach to lyrics and rhythms, a natural effervescence that never crosses into the realm of the merely cute, a genuine ability to improvise, and, especially when interpreting a ballad, a sincerity without mawkishness.

O'Day began her recording career more than a half century ago, in early 1941, with Gene Krupa's band for the OKeh label. That year she sang a duet with trumpeter Roy Eldridge that remains the most popular of her numerous recordings, "Let Me Off Uptown". On it, the singers and the band capture an engaging aspect of Harlem street life.

Appealing and enduring though the performance is, it suggests an innocence at odds with the international political situation of the time. When the United States entered World War II (O'Day turned twenty-two eleven days after the attack on Pearl Harbor), life quickly became difficult for Americans. People needed diversions, however, which Krupa and numerous other musicians, including O'Day, helped provide. (Occasionally the hostilities inspired material that entertainers used to bolster listeners. O'Day recorded one such tune with Krupa in 1942, "Fightin' Doug MacArthur". These topical creations are now curiosities, relics from a long-ago era.)

Although "Let Me Off Uptown" was O'Day's first and biggest hit, O'Day recorded other songs which appealed to a large audience, most notably, "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine" with Stan Kenton in 1944. But these successes were essentially a prelude to her most mature work, which she produced while under contract for a decade to Norgran and its successor, Verve, beginning in 1952. This music will ultimately form the basis of her reputation. On most of it she projects, accurately, the impression of a master singer totally in control of her not insubstantial material. Further, she performs with sympathetic arrangers (such as Russ Garcia, Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel, Billy May, Gary McFarland, and Marty Paich) and major musicians (among them Hank Jones, Barney Kessel, Oscar Peterson, Frank Rosolino, Zoot Sims, and the incomparable Ben Webster).”


“The most familiar image of O'Day is at the Newport Festival in 1958, a set preserved in the movie, Jazz on a Summer's Day. In a spectacular Mack dress and a hat that must have accounted for half the egrets in Louisiana, she resembles one of those subtly ball-breaking heroines in a Truman Capote story. The voice even Ihen is unreliably pitched, but there's no mistaking the inventiveness of Tea For Two' and 'Sweet Georgia Brown'. The woman who sang 'The Boy From Ipanema' with a sarcastic elision of the 'aahhs' was every bit as capable as Betty Carter of turning Tin Pan Alley tat [rubbish, junk] into a feminist statement.”

The 1956 Verve sessions with Bregman's orchestra amount to a survivor's testament, a hard-assed, driving gesture of defiance that is still completely musical. The version of 'Sweet Georgia Brown', which she was to include in the Newport programme, is buoyant and light footed like all the Bregman arrangements, ….” Richard Cook and Brian Morton [Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.].

The following video montage features Anita’s version of Sweet Georgia Brown from the 1956 Verve sessions arranged by Buddy Bregman. See what you think of her treatment of this Jazz standard whose “... harmonies … move leisurely from dominant chord to dominant chord, … [which] makes them ideal for supporting blues and funk licks of every denomination; and the final resolution offers a pleasant surprise since the tonic chord doesn’t appear in the first 12 bars of the song, an opening that proves in retrospect to be a masterful exercise in misdirection.” [Ted Gioia, The Jazz Standards: A guide to the Repertoire].


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Houston Person: "A Veteran of A Vanishing Tenor Saxophone Generation"

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.




Recently, one of my Jazz buddies from an internet chat group asked those of us on the list who were familiar with his playing to provide more background information on Houston Person, a tenor saxophonist who was relatively new to her.


I thought I would provide my share of an answer to this query in the form of this blog posting, one that includes the usual concluding video with a sample of the profiled musician’s music.


“A blues oriented player with a large, warm sound" is the description of Houston Person given in Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler’s The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz.


Eddie Cook writes of him:


“He was born in Florence, South Carolina on November 10, 1934). Although he was taught piano by his mother as a child, he took little interest in music until he began collecting jazz recordings and playing tenor saxophone at the age of 17. During his military service in Germany he played in groups that included Eddie Harris, Lanny Morgan, Leo Wright, Cedar Walton, and Lex Humphries.


He attended the Hartt School of Music [West Hartford, Connecticut] and then toured with Johnny Hammond; from that time he showed a liking for working with organists. After leaving Hammond he formed his own group, which, with changing personnel, has made a number of recordings. He performed intermittently with Etta Jones from 1968 and from 1973 they worked together regularly, making nightclub and concert appearances.


Besides his recordings as a leader, Person has taken part in sessions as a sideman with Groove Holmes's quintet and Charles Earland, and in a duo with Ran Blake. In 1984 he performed at the Grande Parade du Jazz, Nice, France. The influence of rhythm-and-blues is evident in Person's direct, swinging style and full-toned sound; he performs blues and ballads with particular skill. [The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz].”


Eddie also authored an article about Houston that appeared in JazzJournal International:" 'I Just Like People who Swing': Houston Person," JJI, xxxviii/1 (1985).


Richard Cook and Brian Morton remark: “Person is in the Coleman Hawkins mold, a fine ballad player with a low, urgent tone.”


They go on to write:


“Though Person's Muse catalogue has not yet comeback on line [more of it has become available since this writing], his stock remains high as a forefather of the acid jazz movement, a linage explicitly celebrated on a Prestige compilation.


It's pretty straight ahead stuff: blaring brass, chugging organ, square-four rhythm and the beefy sound of Houston's tenor over the top; inexhaustible, reliable, seldom anything other than squarely on the beat and on the case.


The gospelly side of his playing personalty is surprisingly much in evidence on his dance-orientated sets. Let Every Voice And Sing on Legends has the power to bring a lump to the throat, and there are moments on his discs when Person, sounding like a latter-day Ike Quebec, negotiates some quite subtle interchanges with the rhythm players. One either goes for this aura! equivalent of soul food or one doesn't. … He is a veteran of a vanishing saxophone generation.” [The Penguin Guide of Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.



Monday, October 20, 2014

The Return of David Matthews and The Manhattan Jazz Orchestra [From The Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


The editorial staff at JazzProfiles has dubbed this archival posting “The Return” because the Copyright Gods, in all of their wisdom and glory, have returned the use of the video that you’ll find at the end of this video.


It has always been among our favorites because it uses Dave’s blistering arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s Manteca as its soundtrack.


As you will no doubt notice from the above photograph as well as those of him in the embedded video tribute that concludes this piece, David Matthews smiles a lot.
After hearing his music, you will understand why.
This guy is a splendid big band arranger.
One reason for this is that he took a Bachelor of Music degree in Composition from the conservatory at the University of Cincinnati. He knows what he’s doing, technically.
Another is that he has been doing this for a long time dating back to 1970-1974 when he was the arranger and bandleader for James Brown Productions and subsequently from 1975-78 when he was the staff arranger for CTI Records where he wrote for Nina Simone, Hank Crawford and George Benson, among many others.
You can find a fully annotated list of David’s arranging and composing credits as well as his other accomplishments in music by visiting his website at www.davidmatthewsjazz.com.
A third and perhaps primary reason for his marvelous big band arrangements is that he has a special gift for it – some guys just play “orchestra.”
They just know what works in writing a big band “chart” [musician speak for “arrangement”]; they know what to put where and when in the music.
They have a commanding knowledge [and often, an intuitive sense] of the range and timbre of each instrument that allows them to voice and blend them to create a variety of textures or sonorities [i.e.: the way the music “sounds”].
Talented arrangers like David keep the music interesting and exciting for both musicians and listeners alike: the former love playing on their arrangements and the latter feel good after hearing them.


You can hear David’s mastery at work in the audio track to the following video tribute to him and his big band, The Manhattan Jazz Orchestra, as he takes Dizzy Gillespie’s oft-heard Manteca and transforms it into a fresh and stimulating piece of music.
One of the devices that he employs to give the piece a new sound is that he “plays orchestra”
You may think that there are only two solos on Dave arrangement of Dizzy’s Jazz standard: Ryan Kisor’s trumpet solo at 2:36 minutes and that of Scott Robinson on baritone sax at 4:03.
But David precedes each of these solos with one of his own using the full orchestra instead of the piano to play them.
You can hear the first of his orchestral solos just after the full exposition of the Manteca’s theme – from 1:34 to 2:35 minutes.
The second can be heard following Ryan’s solo, but before Scott Robinson’s - from 3:17 to 4:02 minutes.
David closes the arrangement with a stirring “shout chorus” [short for “shout me out” or “take me out”] that begins at 4:47 minutes.
Special mention needs to be made of Walter White on lead trumpet and Chris Hunter on lead alto sax, respectively, as their prowess is an important ingredient in making David’s chart come together so well. Chip Jackson on bass and Terry Silverlight on drums really keeps things flowing with the strong pulse they generate as a rhythm section.
This is brilliant stuff.
Did I say that David Matthews was one heckuva big band arranger?
Judge for yourself.


[Musicians]
David Matthews: leader, piano
Walter White: lead trumpet
Randy Brecker: trumpet (except 3,5&7)
Ryan Kisor: trumpet (on 3,5&7)
Scott Wendholt: trumpet
Lew Soloff: trumpet
Jim Pugh:lead: trombone
John Fedchock: trombone
Dave Taylor: bass trombone
John Clark: trench horn
Fred Griffen: trench horn
Tony Price: tuba
Chris Hunter: alto sax,flute
Aaron Heick: soprano sax, tenor sax
Scott Robinson: bass clarinet, baritone s
Chip Jackson: bass
Terry Silverlight: drums

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Revisiting Onzy Matthews: L.A. and Dallas Blues [From The Archives]

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles was reminded of this earlier feature about arranger-composer Onzy Matthews upon hearing the news of the recent passing of arranger-composer Gerald Wilson.

While Gerald's career was marked by longevity and much deserved accolades, Onzy's was marked by brevity and unfortunate obscurity.

We hoped to do something about to improve on the latter with this re-posting.

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“He was an incredibly imaginative arranger, especially when it came to varied and vivid blues compositions. Hopefully with the release of this material, his work will receive some degree of the recognition it deserves.”
Michael Cuscuna

I got to know Onzy Matthews a bit during his time in Los Angeles earlier in his career. He was involved as an actor in some TV soundtrack gigs that I worked on.

Onzy had a rehearsal band which used one of the practice rooms at the Musician Union Hall at Local 47 in Hollywood, CA and one day he literally called over the fence to me as I was packing my drums in the car in the parking lot at the adjacent Desilu studios to “come by and play a few tunes with the band.”

He was a groovy pianist and a superb composer-arranger who wrote charts that had flair and that swung like mad.

Many years later, I also ran into him at a restaurant in Dallas, his hometown, which was located close to a hotel that I often stayed at for business purposes.

One night, while I was waiting for my clients, we reminisced a bit over a drink in the bar. On that occasion, I remember him ruefully remarking: “They didn’t know me then and they don’t know me now.”

I always found it rather amazing that a musician with so much talent could be relegated to so much obscurity.

Which is why I was thrilled and delighted when Michael Cuscuna and his team at  Mosaic Records issued Onzy Matthews: Mosaic Select (MS-029), a 3 CD set in a limited edition of 5,000 which sells for $44.00. You can visit Mosaic's website by way of this link.

Here are Michael’s annotations to the set and some of the remarks of the Jazz fans who have purchased the set.

© -  Michael Cuscuna/Mosaic Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The brilliant West Coast arranger Onzy Matthews was a master of the blues in many hues. He contributed to important recordings by Lou Rawls, Ray Charles and Esther Phillips, but his career never caught fire and, after working for the Duke Ellington orchestra as both a pianist (when Duke was ill) and an arranger, he spent much of his later years in Europe.

Onzy made two albums for Capitol, the first of which Blues With A Touch Of Elegance is considered by many to be a big band masterpiece. This set collects those albums plus 29 previously un-issued Capitol tracks by Matthews. They include an album of jazz sambas and four-tune session of tunes from Blues With A Touch Of Elegance with Richard Groove Holmes as the principal soloist.

These big band sessions include soloists Sonny Criss, Gabe Baltazar, Curtis Amy, Clifford Scott, Dupree Bolton, Bobby Bryant, Bud Brisbois, Lou Blackburn, Ray Crawford and Richard Groove Holmes. An added bonus is the legendary, previously un-issued two-tune session by Earl Anderza and Dupree Bolton for Pacific Jazz.

Onzy Matthews died in relative obscurity in 1997 in his native Texas. Beyond the few sessions he arranged for other artists, these Capitol sessions made between 1963 and '65 are his only recorded legacy.”


  TOP SHELF
I have the vinyl recording of "A Touch of Elegance" and after seeing this 3 CD set, I had to have it. A MUST have for the '60's Jazz and Blues Fan. After hearing 'Bud' playing 'Flamingo' without the hiss and scratch of vinyl, I was reminded of the passing of Him and Maynard all over again. Too bad Onzy wasn't able to record more.

  Mr. O
I've been enjoying this set. The musicians are excellent, and Onzy has a distinctive voice as an arranger/composer. I could do without some of the more commerical tracks but most of the set is a real treat for this long time big band fan.

  Nah
Nah, this set couldn't have been one CD. Maybe two - maybe. There's lots of good music in addition to the wonderful "A Touch of Elegance" session.

  Good Stuff
There's not much big band music out there period that is at the level of "Blues with a Touch of Elegance." I also listen to the first disc a lot, especially the latin influenced material. The third disc is uneven but throughout the whole select the players are a pleasure to listen to, even with some of the more commerical stuff on the last disc.

  Could have been one CD
"Blues with A Touch of Elegance", Onzy's masterpiece is on CD2 of this set. Unfortunately, the rest of the 3CD set is not up to the level of this session: CD1 and CD3 are mostly commercially oriented recordings. But for those who are looking for rare Big Band gems, CD2 is worth the price of the set. Amazing lead Tpt from Bud Brisbois (check out "Flamingo"). Rare recordings of the great guitarist Ray Crawford (from Gil Evans "Out of The Cool") The spare but rich arrangements give the musicians room to blow. When Duke was sick at the end of his life, Onzy replaced him in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. That fact alone should motivate many to check out this set.

  Continually
a pleasure to listen to. Sophisticated big band music.

  I'm ALWAYS amazed......
how MUCH great music is out there that I had NEVER heard of...I hadn't heard of Onzy before gettin' this set on Ebay....Excellent in everyway...tight arrangements...CD #1 is my personal favorite, it has a "cool, 60's, let's have a cocktail" feel to it...

  Big Band
Subtle section playing, great arranging for the horns and saxes. The bands are sharp, well rehearsed, and up for the gigs. This is wonderful big band music.

  Onzy
Onzy's a cool dude. Sophisticated arrangements, great soloists, terrific bands. If you like big band jazz, check this one out.

  A True Representation of Dallas Jazz!!!
As a native Dallassite and musician I remember all too well Onzy Matthews, he's a legend in Dallas!!! And now the world can hear this great artist's work for themselves!

  Buy It!
Cuscuna strikes again! Incredible liner notes written by Michael himself, a beautiful 24 bit mastering job by Ron McMaster (yep that McMaster) and these words: "For all his years as a musician, the only documentation of Matthews' music lies essentially in these Capitol sessions and the outstanding albums he arranged for Lou Rawls and Esther Phillips. He was an incredibly imaginative arranger, especially when it came to his varied and vivid blues compositions. Hopefully with the release of this material, his work will achieve some of the recognition it deserves. Michael Cuscuna 2007 I could comment on all 51 pieces on this CD set, 1/2 the Band is full of ex Kenton guys, including Jerry McKenzie # 1 on the first CD, but all I can say is BUY IT!

  Neat
This is a good one. If you have the Gerald Wilson Box Set this is a wonderful compliment to it. The quality of the arrangements and the consistently interesting bands are on par with Wilson, which means excellent West Coast musicians. Lots of great solos. I think Matthews is somewhat lower key and more reflective than Wilson, which I like. The audio clips are very representative of the overall feel and quality of the performances in this select. Even the more popular tracks are interesting because Matthews tended to let the soloist loose. Neat Select.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

MandelMusic: The Music of Johnny Mandel [From the Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“The ability to write melody is mysterious. There are trained arrangers and composers who lack it, and untrained musicians who have it. Two of the latter were Frank Loesser and Irving Berlin. There are even a few trained musicians who have it, including Tchaikovsky, Henry Mancini – and Johnny Mandel.”
Gene Lees

“The thing about Johnny is that normally when you pick up a chart [arrangement] to play, you want to change a couple of the chords to make it sound more interesting. But with Johnny’s music, all you have to do is play what’s on the paper; and he does all the substitutions for you. Everything is already there; there’s nothing you have to fill in.’
- Emil Richards, vibraphonist & percussionist

“… the reason that so many of Johnny’s songs are so often played and recorded is that they can be constantly re-examined and re-interpreted.”
- Fred Hersch, pianist

“Johnny Mandel is the very best. When I hear one of his songs, I melt.”
- Tony Bennett

Johnny Mandel will be 86-years old in November, yet the last time I saw him he was grinning from ear-to-ear like a kid in a toy store while leading his own big band at a venue in Los Angeles.

Although many people know his name and usually associate it with music written for the movies, perhaps not as many know that Johnny has a history in Jazz dating back to his studies with composer-arranger Van Alexander in the mid-1940s.

From there he went on to play trumpet or trombone in the bands of Henry Jerome, Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey and Buddy Rich. He also wrote arrangements for Rich, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman.

In New York City for most of the 1950s, Johnny became one of the staff arrangers for comedian Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows TV series [along with Irwin Kostal and the legendary Billy Byers], wrote for the Philadelphia-based Elliot Lawrence big band and also did a stint on trombone with Count Basie about which he commented:

“The experience was so wonderful that it seemed like nothing could ever come close to it. So after I left the band, I quit playing. I came out to California.”

Back in the Golden State, Johnny arranged Ring-a-Ding-Ding for Frank Sinatra, Mirrors for Peggy Lee and began to get into motion picture composition about which Leonard Feather wrote:

“Mandel’s reputation as one of the most brilliant young arrangers was enhanced in 1958 by his underscoring for I Want To Live, considered to be the first successful integration of Jazz into a movie score.”

[Both the quotation by Johnny about his time on the Basie band and Leonard’s concerning the significance of Mandel’s score to the movie I Want To Live are from page 189 of the chapter entitled Mandelsongs: Johnny Mandel in Gene Lees’ Arranging the Score: Portraits of Great Arrangers [London: Caswell, 2000] about which more later in this piece.


I Want To Live is right around where I became familiar with Johnny Mandel’s music.

A friend who was really into West Coast Jazz suggested that we checkout I Want To Live which was the first time that I fell in love with its leading lady, Susan Hayward, despite the film’s rather poignant story and sad ending.

Johnny’s great music coupled with seeing many of our heroes such as Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Frank Rosolino and Bud Shank appearing on the big screen plus gawping at the “gawjus” Susan Hayward all made for a very rewarding movie-going experience.

And then it all went in a different direction for Johnny who, beginning with Emily, the love theme for the 1964 film entitled The Americanization of Emily starring James Garner and Julie Andrews, became one of the great film composers and melodists.

Johnny’s lyricist for Emily was Johnny Mercer – nothing like starting with the best!

As he explained to Gene Lees: “This is fun! I never looked back since. That’s when I became a songwriter.” [Ibid, p. 182].

Emily was followed by The Shadow of Your Smile which was the love theme for the film The Sandpiper, A Time for Love from An American Dream and Sure as You’re Born from the movie Harper [based on the book, The Moving Target] which stars Paul Newman. Alan and Marilyn Bergman wrote the lyrics.


Johnny then wrote The Shining Sea for The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming with Peggy Lee as the lyricist, Close Enough for Love with lyrics by Paul Williams for the movie Agatha and what was to become his most successful song, Suicide is Painless, which is used as the them song to director Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H*.

Johnny would go on to do the film scores to other movies such as Point Blank, The Last Detail, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea and The Verdict. 

I came across Johnny again in a Jazz setting after I returned from a government paid excursion overseas when I attended a series of rehearsals for what was to become saxophonist Bill Perkins’ album Quietly There [Riverside OJCCD-1776-2]The LP featured tunes by Johnny Mandel either from his Jazz repertoire or his film scores to date.

I was at these rehearsals at the invitation of two of my former drum teachers – Victor Feldman and Larry Bunker – who played vibes/keyboards and drums, respectively, on the album.

So here I was in the midst of Keester Parade and Groover Wailin’ again this time in the company of film score themes that Johnny had written including Emily, The Shadow of Your Smile and Sure As You’re Born [the Harper theme renamed after Alan and Marilyn Bergman added lyrics to it].

The latter has always been one of my favorites as I was a big fan of the Ross MacDonald "Bang! Bang! Shoot ‘em Up” books featuring private detective Lew Harper, and thought that Paul Newman had done a super job of portraying him in the movie.

In addition to Bill, Victor and Larry, John Pisano, who plays both acoustic and electric guitars, and bassist Red Mitchell also played on Perk’s “Johnny Mandel” album.  Everyone on the date agreed they loved playing on Johnny’s tunes and that it was “... cool that another one of the ‘good guys’ was making a buck while still writing great music.”

Almost twenty years later, Victor was to play on another Quietly There recording saluting MandelMusic this time under the leadership of tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims [Pablo OJCCD-787-2].

And if you are in the mood for more Jazz adaptations of Johnny’s music, you might want to search out a copy of pianist Fred Hersch’s I Never Told You: Fred Hersch Plays Johnny Mandel. [Varese Sarabande VSD-5547]. The recording contains Fred’s treatment of Sure As You’re Born which he notes has the spirit of Thelonious Monk much in evidence [no pun intended].

In 1991, Johnny was commissioned to arrange his version of the Gershwin’s famous Porgy and Bess which he recorded live at the Wiltern Theater with a big band made up of Jazz luminaries. It has been released on CD as The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess [NEC Avenue NACJ-3511].

In addition to his movie work, Johnny has done work with chick "singas" such as Natalie Cole on her Unforgettable album, Shirley Horn’s Here’s to Life and Diana Krall’s When I Look Into Your Eyes.

Here are a few more excerpts from Gene Lees’ Mandelsongs chapter in his Arranging the Score: Portraits of the Great Arrangers [London: Cassell, 2000, pp. 181-192].

© -Gene Less, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Of all the big-band arrangers who developed into film composers, one of the most successful and, among musicians, admired, is Johnny Mandel. And working through the medium of film, Mandel discovered, somewhat to his own surprise, that he is also a phenomenal melodist.

There are untrained musicians who have this talent, such as Irving Berlin and Harry Warren, and trained musicians who don't. Henry Mancini was a trained musician who had it. By contrast, Nelson Riddle, also well trained, didn't.

Johnny has it all, enormous orchestrational technique and a flair for melody that has produced a considerable body of songs.

"For many years I didn't think I could write songs," he told me once. …

"One of the nicest parts of songwriting," Johnny said, "is that you get to collaborate with so many talented people. The Bergmans and I have enjoyed a relationship that's lasted over 30 years and is still going strong. Our first song was 'Sure As You're Born' in 1966.I had no idea that it would result in this kind of collaboration because it started out as a shotgun wedding." The melody was written for a detective thriller with Paul Newman called Harper. This was the main theme, a long melodic line with a lot of harmonic and rhythmic action underneath it, to give a feeling of tension, agitation, and motion. …

"When I'd completed the score for Harper, Sonny Burke, who was head of the music department at Warner Bros, said he thought the theme had to become a song. He got in touch with Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Sonny said, 'Come to the office Monday morning. We'll have it.' I did, they were there, and they said, 'Here is the lyric.' Marilyn sang it. And much to my amaze­ment, it fitted: I didn't believe you could write to that melody."

Hollywood, of course, has always typecast its talent. And Johnny became known for his ability to create suspense in scores, and for a long time he got assignments of that kind. At one point I asked him what he really wanted to do. He said: "Write some great ballads. The very first thing I discovered when I began to write songs was that for me they break down into two definite categories: the ones that just come naturally and the ones that I have to manufacture and work at and use craftsmanship to complete. Almost invariably, when I look back, the second kind didn't turn out to be good. It was the first kind, mainly, that did.

"I don't know why a song happens, when it happens. If I start to hear it, I've learned enough to let it come out, let it go wherever it goes, and I assume the role of a caretaker in that I want to make sure I've got it down on paper. In essence what you've got to do is stay out of your own way and let it go. Because for some reason it wants to go there. While it's happening, my main thought is, please let the thing finish itself. Don't let it stop midway and become a fragment. I've got hundreds of great fragments that I can't figure out where to take. The first thing I want it to do is come to a conclusion, or at least come to a place where I can take it and work with it.


"Most of the songs that I've ended up feeling good about have been like that. They happen, and I've learned to let them happen.

"You know, I like writing to lyrics because it pushes me into directions that I might not go otherwise. It's a different way of writing, and it's nice." …

Mandel said, "I've learned to listen to that thing that happens, whatever it is. And I don't care what it is. I'm afraid if I knew, it would go away.

"I wouldn't want to give anyone the impression that you just wait for the muse and it just comes out effortlessly: this doesn't happen that often. There are many songs that I have had to manufacturer, hack away at, and yet try to make them sound. I can make a song that sounds pretty good, but at bottom I feel that it's a manufactured item. It isn't all gravy.

"For a good part of my professional life, a lot of what I've done is translat­ing colors and emotions that I see on the screen into sound, and I really don't know how I do it. It seems like something that came naturally to me, probably because I used to feel sensations when I heard other people's music. I don't know what the process is and I really don't want to know.

Again, the superstition takes over. If I know too much about it I have that fear underneath that it will disappear, although 1 know that isn't the case. You do best if it's instinctive and you have the chops to do it in the first place. I guess I've always been sort of primitive when it comes to dealing with experiences, and I like doing it by the seat of my pants, like the old pilots - rather than looking at the instruments to find out what I should do. All I know is that I really don't know how to put this in a logical, rational, methodical context at all." …

When Robert Farnon's name came up in a conversation, Johnny Mandel, one of the most brilliant composers and arrangers jazz has produced, said: "Most of what I know is based on having stolen everything I could from Farnon. I've listened to him and tried to approximate what I thought he was doing. He made strings sound like they always should have and never did. Everybody wrote them skinny. He knew how to write them so that it could wrench at you. I'd never heard anybody like him before and I've never heard anybody like him since. We're all pale imitations of him, those of us who are influenced by him." …

One day years ago, I was visiting [Johnny lives along the California coast]. Johnny and I stood at the end of the garden at the top of the cliff, listening to the flopping of the surf and the keening of terns and gulls. I thought of The Sandpiper and the sights of Big Sur and said, "Do you ever get the feeling here that you're walking around inside one of your own scores?"

Johnny said, "Yeah, I do."

More recently I was visiting again. I said, "What do you want to do next?"

"Well," he said, "now I've got this reputation for writing ballad albums for singers, I'd like to get back to writing something that swings."”

Nothing like having your own big band to be able to write something that ‘swings!’

The following video features tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins and his quintet performing Johnny Mandel's theme from the motion picture Harper.