Wednesday, October 1, 2014

I Remember Tadd by George Ziskind

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


“George Ziskind is an ex-Chicagoan, pianist, and child of the bebop age, who has lived in New York City since the mid-'60s. He was one of Lennie Tristano's first students and notes that, "The low point of my career was a month spent as musical director for Brenda Lee. The high point is yet to come." He believes in: "God, Country, and Art Tatum (not necessarily in that order).”


Here is another in our continuing series about the late, lamented composer-arranger Tadd Dameron [1917-1935]. It was original posted to the Jazz Institute of Chicago website as a remembrance-cum-interview and is featured here with George’s kind permission.


As the conclusion, you’ll find a video tribute to pianist Tommy Flanagan with Tommy performing Tadd’s Our Delight. George Mraz is on bass and Kenny Washington plays drums on this track which is from radio broadcast of a concert held at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City in August, 1988.


© -  George Ziskind; used with permission; copyright protected; all rights reserved.


I had the great good fortune—and it was totally fortuitous—of having my life path cross with that of Tadley Ewing Dameron, in 1958. Tadd saw right away that I had ears and knew what I was talking about on these subjects, and took an interest in me. Thank God! Tadd and I formed a close and symbiotic friendship that lasted until his untimely death in 1965.


If you want to talk about "Been there, done that" in the modern jazz business, well, that's Tadd Dameron. What Bird was to the alto, Dizzy to trumpet, Tadd was in the category of composer/arranger of the new music of the '40s. Most casually-interested jazz fans only know Tadd as the composer (with lyricist Carl Sigman) of "If You Could See Me Now." This standard was just the tip of Tadd's musical iceberg.


He intuitively knew that I greatly respected him and his accomplishments. He also was drawn to my harmonic sense at the piano. One day we walked from his NYC apartment on West End Avenue in the 80s over to Gil Evans' apartment for an unannounced social call (!!!). (He dragged me over to Miles' brownstone, on 77th, another time.) After introducing Gil and me, he blithely said, "George, play something for Gil." Well, I could have shot Tadd, and wanted to die right there. PLAY FOR THE GREAT GIL EVANS? I think I ended up doing "How Long Has This Been Going on?"


In Gil's work area, on a draftsman's table, was a score pad with an arrangement in progress. I went over and looked. It was the Rodgers and Hart tune "Wait 'til You see Her"—which finally appeared on the last Miles and Gil collaboration. I believe this one also had some Lincoln Center concert material on it, too.

During many of the long conversations Tadd and I had about harmony, melody, voicing, rhythm, and other meat-and-potatoes aspects of crafting this new music, he would let drop little crumbs of wisdom—all as casual parts of the conversation of the moment—which I regarded (and still do) as priceless and which could never be learned in such a succinct manner in the leading music schools.



MAKE LITTLE SONGS


This was Tadd's most basic advice to the improviser. When playing one's chorus(es) on a tune, it is not sufficient to know the harmony (backwards and forwards, so to speak!!); to be 100% comfortable with its figurations; and to have more than a passing familiarity with the composer's conception. Tadd stressed that the above were merely starting points. They were the basic building blocks necessary to construct a credible solo and only when you had those items fully covered could you be ready to deal with the heart of the matter, i.e., to make "little songs" as you played—little self-contained melodic bits—that could be two beats long, or two bars long, or nine or ten bars long.


The length of these motifs was not the important thing; rather, he believed that there should be lots and lots of little melodies within your solo—little songs—and that this was one of the most important defining factors when analyzing the work of any great improviser, no matter what the instrument or the style.
Stop and think for a moment of just a few of the jazz giants whose careers began under the impetus of Tadd's direction or support. Three heavily melodic players instantly come to mind: Clifford Brown, Benny Golson and John Coltrane. Three players, with almost completely disparate playing styles, shared a mastery of harmony and a capacity for pouring out torrents of heavily melodic improvisation.


BARI AS INDEPENDENT VOICE


We had a standing joke between us—whenever I'd leave his place after a hang. (I'd be there to talk music or have a quick informal dinner that Tadd would rustle up—great cook! One thing he could whip together with great dispatch and panache was simply to buy a couple pounds of large cubes of good beef, and throw together with some fresh veggies—potatoes, carrots, beans, etc—and saute the whole mess in a large skillet with a lid on it. Nothing elaborate—but good! Of course these were the days before anyone knew not to eat a lot of meat.) More often than not, Philly Joe Jones would be crashing at Tadd's place and would be present for many of these hangs. Anyway, upon my departing, he'd stick his head out in the hallway and call out, "You know, I specialize in writing for saxes!" Then, about 5 seconds later, as I neared the elevator, his head would come out again and he'd say, "I also specialize in writing for brass!" And so on...through all the sections. We both cracked up, every time he did it.


But, to get serious about his saxophone section writing. He dropped this clue on me once: in a five-man section, harmonize the two tenors and two altos and use the baritone sax as an independent voice, moving it any which way with or against the other four, contrapuntally, in contrary motion, or whatever strikes the writer's fancy, as long as it sounds good.


This is similar to something I learned from Warne Marsh many years later: "You can write or play anything you want, as long as you keep it moving!" There's a world of wisdom in that seemingly simple statement.


PLAY THROUGH THE TURNAROUNDS


The statement is self-defining, but I'll elaborate anyway. Many improvisers are locked into the habit of playing four- or eight-bar phrases, terminating their last phrase (on a 32 bar tune) at the end of bar 30 or so—or on bar 10 or so if it's a blues. A musical statement, Tadd said, sounds much more interesting if you play right through the turnaround. No matter what changes are being employed, just play on those changes all the way through. Better yet, terminate the phrase a couple of bars into the next chorus.


Although a bit off-topic, I want to pass along an anecdote that Tadd told me. Around 1940, Bird and Tadd were on the same bandstand at a jam session in Kansas City. This was the first time they had met. The tune was "Lady Be Good." On the last four bars of the bridge, Bird played two beats each of | E-9 A9 | D-9 G9 | and then on the final two bars of the bridge, the usual bar of | G-7 | and then a bar of | C7 |. Tadd, at the piano, was comping exactly the same thing. At the end of the bridge, Bird ran over to Tadd at the keyboard, threw his arms around him, and exclaimed, "I KNEW someone else would hear it that way!"
These are some small insights that were pointed out to me by Tadley Ewing Dameron, one of the great musical minds of the new jazz music that came into being in the early 1940's.


Jazz Institute of Chicago–MP: You mention the tune, "If you could see me now." Were there other tunes that Tadd was particularly proud of—that he felt really captured what he was trying to do? If so, which ones and why?


GZ: He never expressed an opinion of "his favorite tune" but I know that he wanted to be remembered as a composer and not as an arranger. And CERTAINLY not as a pianist. He did feel that his mini-suite "Fountainbleu" was a composition to be proud of. Although he comped with great rhythmic authority and swagger, his solos were always, to my ears and those of observant others, mainly him spelling out, serially, the notes of the particular chord at hand. Giant that Tadd was, I know of no one who considered him a great pianist.
There was a tune he showed me (I mean at the keyboard, so that I could play it) that killed me. It appears in big band form on his Riverside record of 1962, "The Magic Touch." The title of the tune is "Look, Stop and Listen." For me, this tune shines as a solo piano piece—and it is a certified chopbuster! Tadd wrote it while on Rikers Island and the original title of the tune was "The Great Lockup."


What recordings best illustrate Tadd to you?


Can't answer that—and he felt the definitive one hadn't been done yet.


Did Tadd tell you anything of his early training—how he got interested in music, who were his teachers and influences?


Like many of us, "The University of the Streets," plus God-given talent, and hanging out with other talent, and jamming. The usual routine—which sadly doesn't exist in the same form any more. Nowadays, all you have to do is attend Berklee.


How did you get started in jazz?


I attended Senn High School [on the north side of Chicago.] My early associates are largely mentioned in Marty Clausen's piece [Growing up musically in Chicago]. Also Eddie Baker, Sandy Mosse, Lew Ellenhorn, and Lou Levy. In an incident Lou and I still laugh about, I beat him in a North Side High School Council boogie-woogie contest play-off. Also Hotsy Katz, Cy Touff, Red Lionberg, Ira Sullivan, Wilbur Campbell.


Caught the boogie-woogie bug at age 12; then, when 14, while in a rehearsal band run by Irwin Tunick, my world changed: I stayed behind to explore the delights of their Steinway "D" and a janitor with push broom quietly sidled up to me and said "Ever hear of Art Tatum?" Within a year, Bird had been added to the mix. What more could one need after those two, unless you want to add Bach?”



Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Lee Konitz - The Gordon Jack Interview

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


The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to do something special to honor alto saxophonist Lee Konitz’s upcoming appearance at the Los Angeles Jazz Institute’s 4-day festival - Something Cool: Celebrating Jazz Sounds of the Cool School [October 30-November 2 2014 at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel in Los Angeles, CA] - which will mark the 66th anniversary of Lee’s performance on the Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis Birth of the Cool recordings that Pete Rugolo produced for Capitol Records in 1949.


We especially wanted to feature something about Lee’s association with these epic recordings and his early years in Jazz.


So we wrote to Gordon Jack and requested his permission to post his chapter on Lee from his superb book - Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective [2004].


Imagine our delight when he gave his consent!


Gordon’s book is published by The Scarecrow Press and you can find order information about it by going here.


[The footnotes to Gordon’s essay are listed at the end of this piece.]



© -  Gordon Jack; used with the author’s permission; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Lee Konitz, who was born on October i3, 1927, in Chicago, was one of the very few alto saxophone players of his generation not lo fall under the spell of Charlie Parker. Throughout a long career, his unique sound and approach to improvisation have shown him to be one of the great individualists of the music. This interview took place in May 1996, when he was visiting London to play at Ronnie Scott's club.


It was thanks to Milt Bernhart that I got my first job with Teddy Powell's band in 1945 when I replaced Charlie Ventura, which meant I had all the hot solos on tenor. Unfortunately, the chords were written in concert, which was difficult for me, as I was just beginning to understand how all that worked. When I stood up to play on my first gig, I was told that Teddy walked off the stage and started banging his head against a wall. He wasn't an instrumentalist, but he had a fine jazz/dance band, with good musicians like Boots Mussulli, who was very encouraging but mystified by my lack of knowledge. Boots was a lovely guy, and he wasn't only a very fine saxophone player but he was also the best poker player in the band; he never lost. A month after I joined. Teddy Powell had to disband because of tax problems with the IRS. A little later, I went with Jerry Wald for a while, and he could certainly play the high notes on the clarinet, but he didn't let me play any solos.


In 1947 I joined Claude Thornhill, who had a lovely "ballad" band, as you know, and I did my first recording with him. He had excellent arrangements by Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan, and Gerry of course was mainly a writer then. His charts were great, and I also played his music with Stan Kenton.and those pieces were some of my favorites, because he really knew how to write for saxophones.


Moving on to the Miles Davis "Birth of the Cool" group, Miles was the titular leader because he had more of a name, and I suppose he could get the gigs; big deal, so he got one week at the Royal Roost. It has been said that we did two weeks there, but the way I remember it, the band did the first week, and for some reason Miles and I did the second week as a quintet with John Lewis, Al McKibbon, and Max Roach, I appreciated that Miles asked me, but we were basically playing bebop and I was not all that comfortable. The nonet was an arranger's band, because they rehearsed the music. Miles made some suggestions, but very few that I recall; I thought of it as Gerry's band really. What really concerns me is the way the band has been called 'The Birth of the Cool," which I think is a little off. The nonet was a chamber ensemble where the solos were incidental to the writing, which was the most important aspect. The real "Birth of the Cool" for me was Lennie Tristano's music. [1]


I wrote "Subconscious-Lee" for my first recording session as a leader in 1949, [2] but the title is not mine; I would never call a tune "Subconscious-Lee." I think it was my colleague Arnold Fishkin who came up with that name, and all the other "Lee" titles over the years have been suggested by other people as well. Tony Fruscella was supposed to be on the date, but when he came to my room to rehearse, I apparently offended him in some way with a couple of suggestions, so he pulled out. He was a sad guy, and 1 didn't play with him again. I had real trouble relating to him because that whole junky mentality was always a big turnoff for me. I could never identify with it and hated that aspect of my environment.


During the late forties I rehearsed with a band Benny Goodman was forming with Wardell Gray, Gerry Mulligan, Doug Mettome, and Buddy Greco. I was playing lead alto, and I remember Benny sitting in a chair right in front of me as we ran down one of Eddie Sauter's arrangements, I was able to read alright, but I had no lead alto experience to speak of. and Benny said, "O.K., Pops, can you do something with it?" In other words, he wanted some "Hymie Schertzer’-like vibrato. He asked me to go on the road with the band, but I turned him down, as I was studying with Lennie Tristano. I remember him saying, "You're studying with Tristano? Why don't you study with Paul Hindemith?" Looking back, I wish that I had gone on the road with him, because I am sure I would have enjoyed the experience. Something else I remember from those rehearsals is that Benny and Gerry didn't get along at all.


Lennie Tristano played very little in public, because the club pianos were so bad. It was also difficult for him to get around, and he didn't like depending on others for that. We didn't work much, except at the Half Note once in awhile, and I could probably count the gigs there on a couple of hands and maybe a foot. Audience reaction to him, though, was always great. Leonard Bernstein was very interested in Lennie's ideas and music, and they were very good friends. He once brought Aaron Copland to Lennie's studio to find out what Lennie was doing currently, and they both liked "Intuition," our free improvisation piece. [3] They wanted to know if there was a score to look at, but Lennie pointed out that it was fully improvised. Bernstein was always curious about jazz.


Neither Tristano nor Warne Marsh, who was one of the great improvisers of this music, have been fully acknowledged, and I think they were both resentful about that. Two other Tristano students. Sal Mosca and Don Ferrara, have since retired from the active scene. Sal has followed in Lennie's footsteps and become a teacher, and Don, who was a very capable player, seemed to drop out just as he was becoming known for his work with Mulligan's CJB in the sixties. Apparently he started to change his embouchure, and the next I heard was that he was teaching but not playing, in California. Willie Dennis was another of Lennie's students, who unfortunately died in the mid sixties. He was a wonderful trombonist and a lovely guy, but I didn't know him that well because he used to drink and hang out at places like Jim 'n' Andy's. Being a family man, I didn't hang out there, and as a result I didn't work that much. Things have changed—I still don't hang out, but I work a lot now.


In 1952 Stan Kenton was trying to get more of a jazz band with charts by Bill Russo, Bill Holman, and Gerry Mulligan, so I joined playing the jazz alto chair, with Vinnie Dean on lead. Stan was a heavy drinker and I wasn't, which meant that I didn't hang out with the guys in the back of the bus, but a certain reputation had preceded me, and I just quietly tried to do my job. I appreciated him very much because he was great to everyone in the band, although he used to tell them not to smoke pot on the road, so there wouldn't be any legal problems. Some time after Vinnie left, Davey Schildkraut joined, and he was a very musical guy. He played really well, and I remember when Warne Marsh heard his recording of "Solar" with Miles, he thought it was Bird playing.


Charlie Parker of course was the major influence on alto, but it wasn't difficult for me to avoid, since temperamentally that music didn't really get to me. It was more intense than I was able to identify with at the time, but eventually I decided that was all ego and I was missing the greatest alto player who had ever lived. I started to learn his music without adopting his whole vocabulary, because it is such a temptation to play all those nice melodies like everyone else did, but I had other stimuli.

When the Kenton band was at the Palladium in Los Angeles, Gerry asked me to come and sit in with his quartet at the Haig on our nights off. I loved the pianoless concept, and I have worked in many similar groups over the years. I had heard stories about Chet not reading, but I was never in a situation to check that out. I had also heard that he didn't know chord changes, but I remember seeing him at a piano, playing changes to tunes, so that wasn't true. On my recordings with the quartet, I actually rejected "Too Marvelous for Words" because it didn't seem to fit into Gerry's context. [4] Later on, in 1957, I played on another Mulligan album called The Sax Section, with Al Cohn,Zoot Sims, and Allen Eager, and that was a fun date. What impressed me most was how nice Zoot sounded on alto—Allen Eager, too. [5] Looking back, Gerry and I didn't play that much together, but he was very encouraging to me in the early days, and I always felt he was an ally. We even got high together for the first time because we had that kind of close relationship.


A few years later, in 1959, I came to England with a group called "Jazz from Carnegie Hall," with Zoot Sims, J. J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Phineas Newborn, Oscar Pettiford, and Kenny Clarke, but I don't have happy memories of that tour. Oscar, rest his soul, was a beautiful musician but a terrible drinker. He became very hostile when he drank, and I got some bad vibrations from him. Before the tour, he had asked me to play with a little band in New York, so we already had a relationship. In Europe, though, he became really mean, which intimidated me, and if I get uncomfortable I can't play. Every night he and Kenny Clarke would be arguing back and forth, accusing each other of rushing the tempo, but eventually they would hug and kiss. Kenny of course was a lovely guy and a great drummer, and I used to sit behind the curtain, playing time with some sticks when he was on with Jay and Kai. Zoot didn't have trouble with anyone, as he was pretty stoned most of the time anyway.


Another time when I was uncomfortable in a playing situation was fairly recently at Carnegie Hall, just before Red Rodney died in 1994. We were both with Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Paul West, and Roy Haynes, and I just didn't feel that I was fitting in, but I never heard Red play so brilliantly — wow! When I play, I try to improvise from the first note, and if the acoustics are right I can do it. If they are wrong I'm messed up, because I don't have all that ready vocabulary, like a real professional should, I guess. All those cliches and hot licks carry you through sometimes.


I moved to California in 1962 because my wife and I felt there was a need to separate from Lennie Tristano, who was a very strong father-figure to me. We had been living at his house, but she encouraged me to move away to see what was happening elsewhere, and we stayed on the West Coast for a couple of years. I wasn't working much, but Warne and I used to play at Kim Novak's house in Big Sur on Sundays. Kim was not only a lovely woman but she was really nice, and she was quite a jazz fan. I wasn't soliciting for work, and it was nice forgetting about all that for a while, but I remember around 1963 going to see Miles with Frank Strozier at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. He asked me to sit in, which I didn't want to do, because that is the type of situation I am uncomfortable with, especially when another sax player is there. It was almost as though Miles was checking out a replacement, and I could never do that. I did sit in with Miles at the Village Vanguard when Herbie Hancock was with him, but again,! wasn't happy just jumping into an organized band and trying to find a voice.


During the seventies I did some work with my own nine-piece group. Dave Berger, who is a very fine writer, suggested the instrumentation, which was two trumpets, two trombones, alto, baritone, with three rhythm, and although I couldn't afford to pay for arrangements, there were a lot of people who were eager to write for it without a fee. Kenny Berger was with us for a time, and he is a fine baritone player, but he had to take a night off. Someone suggested Ronnie Cuber, who I didn't know, but he turned out to be very impressive. Kenny had been taking long solos with the band, and even though I wanted to give everyone a chance to play, I had suggested to him that we shorten the solos a little. For instance, I would start off with a couple of choruses, then the next guy would play four, someone else would take six, and suddenly you say, "Hey, wait a minute!" Not being a leader as such, I found I was sitting there listening to all the guys blow, which is fine up to a point, but eventually 1 decided that I wanted to do the playing myself. Getting back to the baritone chair, because Ronnie was so good, I hired him, and Kenny didn't forgive me for a long time, but sometimes these decisions have to be made.


In 1980 the band was booked to play some concerts in Washington, D.C., and we were asked to recreate some of the "Birth of the Cool" arrangements. I called Miles to see if he still had the charts, but he wasn't interested in helping, so I started transcribing from the records. In the end, I had to call Gerry Mulligan, because there were ensemble passages that I couldn't decipher. I went to his house in Connecticut, and he rewrote "Godchild," "Jeu," and "Rocker" in four hours. It was great to see him work. [6]


In 1992 Gerry asked me to join the "Rebirth of the Cool" band, and I stayed with him until the end of the European tour, when Jerry Dodgion took my place for some concerts in South America. After the initial novelty of playing those arrangements again, it became a little much for me. It was Gerry's show, and he did it very well, God rest his soul, but I was just sitting there interpreting the parts, and I felt I wasn't playing enough. The very last time we worked together was in Marciac, France, when Bob Brookmeyer and I were guests with his quartet in 1993. At Gerry's memorial concert I played "Alone Together," which had been my feature on the "Rebirth" tour, and I asked everyone to hum a D concert, which is common to all the chords of the tune. I often do that so audiences and I are doing something together. While I played, there was a beautiful photo image on the wall of Gerry.


I travel six or seven months of the year, and I often do workshops for students. I sometimes ask myself what I can tell these young people, who probably play three times faster than I do and know every pentatonic scale created by man. In Austria last year I did a workshop with a difference, because 1 wanted to focus very directly on the music, so I just used hand signals and didn't say a word. Communicating these concepts in English can be difficult, but a translator creates even more problems. I got through two of the allotted three hours in that way in total silence, and humming was the main point. They warmed up their musical instrument with a hum and placed that hum in different parts of the body. I then played an interval and a chord and the students had to hum them both, and it really worked. They all seemed pleased to be doing something and not just listening to a bunch of concepts, but then I started to talk and spoilt everything!


Leonard Feather [Jazz critic], who got a lot of things wrong, once claimed that I had turned down the chance of playing with some of the "name" bands, but that wasn't true. I would have loved to play with Duke Ellington or a real jazz band like Woody Herman, but they never asked me. I keep busy, though, by recording, and since December 1995 I have appeared on about twelve CDs. I'm just making them left and right, and I think these little boxes will be the only things left after it is all over!”


NOTES
1.  In Ira Gitler's Jazz Masters of the '40s (Da Capo), Gerry Mulligan is quoted agreeing with Lee: "As far as the 'Birth of the Cool' is concerned. I think Lennie is much more responsible than the Miles dates. It's hard to say unemotional because it's not exactly that, but there was a coolness about his whole approach in terms of the dynamic level. Lennie always had his own thing going. He never came out in the big world."
2.  Lee Konitz Quintet. PRLP 7004.
3.  Lennie Tristano Sextet. EAP 1-491.
4.  Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Lee Konitz. Mosaic MR5-102. We must be thankful thai Konitz did not get his way in rejecting "Too Marvelous for Words," because the title sums up his playing both on this track and on an inspired "Loverman." Mulligan and Baker, however, were not at their best, and for this reason Gerry initially felt that the material should not be released. He changed his mind because of the brilliance of Lee's playing.
5.  Gerry Mulligan and "The Sax Section." Pacific Jazz 7243 8 3357520.
6.  Whitney Balliett reports in American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz (Oxford) that after Miles Davis had refused to help and Mulligan had transcribed some of the charts, Konitz called Davis again, telling the trumpeter that the arrangements had now been rewritten, and Miles apparently replied, "Man, you should have asked me. They're all in my basement." Konitz told Gil Evans about the conversation, who said, "Miles wouldn't have told you he had everything in the basement if you hadn't first told him you'd gone to the trouble to transcribe the records." Lee told Balliett that "Miles is a bona-fide eccentric."



Monday, September 29, 2014

"Enter Ennio" [From the Archives]

Have you ever noticed how self-effacing and mild-mannered many of the great composer-arrangers are  - people like Hank Mancini, Pete Rugolo, Claus Ogerman, Johnny Mandel, Robert Farnon, Nelson Riddle - to name just a few?

Of course, I'm well-aware that this generalization has many exceptions. I worked for more than my share of orchestral tyrants. But to me it was "the meek shall inherit the earth" types who seemed to be the real giants.

I can only guess at the psycho-dynamics that play a role in forming disparate personalities, but I've always been taken with creative musicians who score music that is essentially in the background of TV series, movies and recordings by important instrumentalists and vocalists and who seemingly could care less about their own anonymity.

Put another way: they go about their business in a completely unassuming and totally absorbed way and seem content to do their work in obscurity.

I was reminded of the softly-yet-stronger composer-arrangers whom I've admired over the years as I was getting this piece on Ennio Morricone ready for a reposting from the blog archives.

Although he had the reputation and the resources to have any number of skilled musicians do the legwork and heavy-lifting for him, Ennio was a hands-on orchestrator who treated every project as though it was his first assignment. 

Maestro Morricone just loved the work He learned early on to "do what you love and the rest will follow." The accolades and awards would come his way over the years, but for Ennio Morricone, it was the act of creation which really mattered.

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


Liperoti said that For a Fistful of Dollars illustrated the perfect osmosis between images and music, the grandest success of Morricone's collaboration with Leone.

Morricone said, "It's a sort of poetry that comes without warning, as when two people fall in love with each other. The magic is totally unforeseeable . . . and empiric. As a result, Sergio always wanted me to compose the music before shooting, so that it could be played to the actors for them to be filled with it and understand it. That's how we did our best work, he and I."
- Geraldine Liperoti L’Epress interview with Ennio Morricone

"Popularity doesn't bother me. It attests to the affection and comprehension of the public. The important thing is to retain the pioneer spirit. I profoundly love the profession, and I work on each film as if it were the first — and the last. Giving the best of myself. Many of the 'greats' ask their arranger to write their scores for them. Me, I write all alone, from the first note to the last. All."
- Ennio Morricone, in an interview granted to Geraldine Pieroti, L’Express

“This too should be said: all his scores, no matter what the subject of the film, have an implicit mournfulness. It is as if their composer never for a moment escapes a sense, no matter how deep in his spirit it resides, of the eternal human condition.”
Gene LeesJazzLetter

With the help of the graphics wizards at CerraJazz LTD and the production facilities of StudioCerra, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles developed the video tribute to Italian film composer Ennio Morricone which you will find at the conclusion of this piece.

The music is by pianist Enrico Pieranunzi who, along with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron, has recorded two compact discs of Morricone’s music for the movies for the CamJazz label [see sidebar].

Subsequently, while digging through a pile of JazzLetters from 1998, we found an informative and beautifully written essay about Ennio authored by the late, Gene Lees.

We thought it would be nice to combine the video with Gene’s essay and offer the two for your review.

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

In the mid-1950s, when I was music and drama editor of the Louisville Times, I had to review just about every film that came out. I was also reviewing— and studying — the symphonic works commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra, a rather famous program operated with a substantial grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. These works were then recorded and released in boxed sets for sale.

When, a few years later in New York, my neighbor Miles Davis found out that I had those records, he asked to borrow them. He never returned them, but no matter. There was little that I found memorable in these works.

But there was much that was memorable in the movie scores I was hearing, and I began to pay them fairly close attention. Much of that music, lightly dismissed by most critics, was far better than the stuff coming out of the Louisville Orchestra, particularly scores by Hugo Friedhofer for Boy on a DolphinThe Best Years of Our Lives, and, later, One-Eyed Jacks, which were among some of the finest orchestral works of our time. Later, when Hugo had become one of the dearest (and most admired) friends of my life, my inexhaustible mentor in matters musical, I realized that composers around the world shared my feelings for him.

The condescension toward film music has somewhat diminished since then, and we can get a good many scores on CDs, although not all that I would like to see issued. Works like the scores of Alfred Newman and Alex North command some of the respect they deserve, and I am much taken with the scores of Jerry Goldsmith and Allyn Ferguson (about whom more in a near-future issue).

Cut to:

France 1958. I was living there on a fellowship, with all the time in the world to attend all the music and movie and drama and opera festivals I could find, which I did all the way from Stock­holm to LocarnoSwitzerland. And I drove quite a bit in the south of France, where I came across landscapes that struck me as suitable for shooting western movies. But, good heavens, the western was an American genre, was it not? Well, American movie-makers have never shown any particular reluctance to film European subjects, whether set in ancient Rome or modern Paris. Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front and Arch of Triumph were made into American films, the latter starring the Swedish Ingrid Bergman as a French hooker (in those days the movie did not exactly spell out that she was a prostitute, nor that the doctor played by Charles Boyer was an abortionist), and Joan of Arc, in which Bergman again played a French role. She played a Spanish girl in For Whom the Bell Tolls, but what the hell, Harry, an accent's an accent, am I right?

Why then shouldn't some European film maker do a western, particularly a French film maker, since French cineastes had made a mystique out of the western, as they have out of the abominable movies of Jerry Lewis, whom they have proclaimed a genius. But then, Keith Richard and Paul McCartney have now been knighted, and Andrew Lloyd Weber is a lord.

Eventually, European film-makers did essay the western. The most successful of them was an Italian, Sergio Leone, and he didn't make his film among locations I had seen in the south of France, but in Spain. He called it A Fistful of Dollars, made in 1964 and released in the U.S., where it was a huge hit, in 1967. It resuscitated the career of Clint Eastwood and indeed set him on the road to becoming one of the biggest stars in the world.

The style of Leone's films almost certainly was influenced by the career of his father, Vincenzo Leone, a silent film director. Sergio Leone, as film scholar Leonard Maltin put it, "almost single-handedly invented the spaghetti western," a term that no longer needs explanation in America. I think Henry Mancini invented it; if he didn't, he was the first one I ever heard use it. It also established composer Ennio Morricone with audiences around the world, for his work, as Maltin rightly noted, "became a kind of Leone signature." Leone then did, and Morricone scored, For a Few Dollars More (U.S. release 1967), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), followed by the huge Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), one of whose writers was Bernardo Bertolucci. Henry Fonda played his first (and as far as I know last) role as a bad guy. Maltin, in his Movie Encyclopedia, put it succinctly: "While these films toyed light-heartedly with genre conventions, they also embodied Leone's own convictions, which included a distrust of the capitalist entrepreneurs who, as he feels, exploited the pioneers, and a bleak nihilism that, although hitting a responsive note with 1960s movie-goers, was out of touch with the general optimism that characterized American-made westerns." He called it "a languid, operatic masterpiece."

That is quite so. But the American westerns were themselves out of touch with reality. Simplistic ugh-how Indians were always the villains fighting the noble U.S. Cavalry, when in fact the reverse was closer to the truth; Serbian "ethnic cleansing" has nothing on what the white man did to the Indians in America.

Perhaps that is why the Leone westerns caught on: some sense that they were closer to the truth about the killers and trash who flowed into the American west than the Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, John Wayne, and even earlier westerns wove into an American delusion about the founding of the nation, particularly its western reaches. As for Leone's view of the capitalists, one need only consider the careers of the likes of Leland Stanford, and of the railway tycoons who routinely hired Chinese laborers to build their iron roads and just as routinely executed them rather than pay them. William Wellman's 1943 The Oxbow Incident was a departure from the good-guys western. Later, so was Henry King's brilliantly written and executed 1950 film The Gunfighter, which closely honored the three unities — time, place, and events — of classic Greek (and later French) drama, occurring in exactly the time it took to tell the story. This unity is so unaffectedly achieved that you don't notice it until you have come to know the film well; I can think of no other film, ever, that so closely wove together its lines of suspense. Andre de Toth was largely responsible for the script.

Whether The Oxbow Incident and The Gunfighter offered any degree of inspiration or guidance to Leone I cannot say; but obviously he had studied the genre, and just as obviously he must have been familiar with these films, and possibly with Delmer Daves' Broken Arrow, which came out in the same year as The Gunfighter, both of them tragedies. And in Broken Arrow (which had a Hugo Friedhofer score) the white men were the bad guys, and the Indians were sensitively portrayed — how accurately I cannot say. (An Indian scholar, and I mean an Indian who was a scholar of Indian history, told me a couple of years ago in Santa FeNew Mexico, that Indians liked Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves because, for once, at least the costumes were correct.)

Sergio Leone changed westerns forever, giving them an abrasive realism that precluded any return to anything like the Ken Maynard-Tom Mix-Tim Holt-Buck Jones-Hopalong Cassidy myth of the past, or even for that matter the better John Wayne vehicles such as The Searchers. We were jolted at first by the seedy-looking characters who peopled his pictures, unshaven and strange, looking nothing like Mexicans and even less like Americans. These weren't westerns from another country, these were westerns from another planet, as alien as, say, a film about the Edgar Rice Burroughs figures in the John Carter of Mars books, or his Pelucidar trilogy. And part of what made them so strange was Leone's use of silence and sound and of the music that infused both. Again, I think his father's experience as a silent film director may be relevant, and this is where Morricone comes in.

Our impression of the music in silent films, imposed on us by countless comedies, is that produced by a little old lady in a print dress in front of the flickering screen, playing sentimental or suspense music as needed on a tack-hammer piano with lots of rolls in the right hand. Hugo Friedhofer made me understand that this was anything but the case.

I have read in treatises on film music that the composers had to fight to get music into pictures. Not according to Hugo. I wasn't there, of course. But Hugo was. He wrote his first music-for-film when he did the arrangements for the 1929 musical Sunny Side Up, which was one of the early talkies. Thus he was involved in motion-picture music virtually from the inception of sound, and I'll take his word for what happened.

In small towns, perhaps, little old ladies tinkled the music for silent films on bad pianos, but in larger communities, the music often came from powerful Wurlitzer organs, and in major centers, from orchestras ranging up to full symphonic size. The more important pictures were accompanied by orchestral scores. Hugo was playing cello in a San Francisco pit orchestra during that period. Sometimes the scores would arrive with parts missing, and the conductor would assign Hugo to reconstruct them, which is how he got into what we might call pre-talky scoring.

Now, Hugo said, the producers of silent films wanted and expected music throughout a picture, as in the silents. It was music wall to wall, from the start of the corridor to its end. And the real struggle of composers in the early 1930s, Hugo told me, was to persuade producers and studio executives to let them leave music out of scenes involving perhaps sound effects or dialogue with which it could only clash. Scores became more discreet as time went on, Hugo said. He himself produced some of the masterpieces of the genre.

The dialogue in the Sergio Leone westerns is sparse. In For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Lee Van Cleef (whose career was also restored by Leone, much as John Travolta's recently has been by Quentin Tarantino) and Clint Eastwood had little to say to each other or anybody else. What talking there is in these movies is terse and sullen. And thus there are large long spaces of stares and leers and squints and walks and malevolent atmosphere and portentous pauses before the guns blaze. The style calls for music as much as the silent movies of Hugo's youth. (The coming of talkies devastated employment among musicians who had worked in movie houses; it cost my own father his professional career as a musician.) Even the sound of gunfire in Leone movies was distinctive, as distinctive as that of shots in the Warner Bros, movies. (You can spot a Warner Bros, movie of the 1930s, if you're surfing on television, by the sounds of gunshots and the Janssen Symphony.)

After the reforms of Hugo and composers such as Alfred Newman and Bronislau Kaper, music in films became subtly supportive. Ideally, it was (at least in Hugo's aesthetic) not supposed to be heard at all, only felt. That is not a view I share, and Hugo told me that Erich Korngold (whom he idolized, personally and professionally, and whose orchestrator he once was) looked on the Erroll Flynn swashbucklers for which he composed music as operas without arias.



And I think that must have been Leone's point of view. Leone went counter to that philosophy of the unheard. He hired Ennio Morricone, and he wanted that music not only to be heard but to intrude, to prod, to tell the story, even if necessary to irritate.

Leone used an amplified guitar in westerns. I found this disconcerting. I first encountered the sound in some Henry Fonda western, and I recoiled, thinking, "Where is the amplifier plugged in, in 1890?" or whatever year it was. And it bothered me as much in the Leone westerns. But of course, my reaction was ridiculous. They didn't have modern violins and French horns and valve trumpets in the time of Richard the Lion Heart, and that didn't disconcert us in Korngold's score for Erroll Flynn's Robin Hood. So, gradually, I became inured to Morricone's use of electric guitar in his extremely obtrusive scores. But I still didn't like his music. I was pulled up a little short on this when I found that Henry Mancini did like and respect it. To me, however, Morricone's music still had a cartoon quality. I thought he was incapable of subtlety. He thus is one of those musicians like Claus Ogerman whom I at first underestimated.

Then, two or three years ago, in New York, I was attending with a friend a wine-and-cheese party populated mostly by writers and aspiring writers somewhere in an apartment complex near NYU. Through the talk, I became aware of some music coming from a CD, fresh and touching. I asked the host what it was. He told me that it was Ennio Morricone's score for Cinema Paradiso. When it was over, I asked him to play it again. When I got home to California, I bought it. Morricone has a distinctive and distin­guished sense of melody, and the one he invented for Cinema Paradiso is surprising, wistful, and sinuously beautiful.

Since then I have been paying attention to Morricone's music. I picked up an Italian import, a CD titled Morricone 93: Il Cinema che Suona, which contains themes from a number of his movies. Heard with unprejudiced ears, they are quite effective. He has a taste for pulsing ostinatos, and he likes to use twanging instru­ments, such as guitar and harpsichord, and what sound to me like wooden or reed flutes and pan pipes. (Some of them sound like Andean flutes.) You hear that sound in the 1973 Leone film starring Henry Fonda titled My Name Is Nobody. That score has some odd stuff in it. Leone quotes Wagner's pompous Ride of the Valkyries but on harmonica or a little button accordion. It's buried in the score, but it's quite droll. There is another thing about the Leone-Morricone collaboration: it often seemed to me that the film was shot to the music. This turns out to be true.

When the intrusive is not called for, as in pictures emphasizing dialogue, Morricone can be subtle, discreet, almost inaudible.

I knew absolutely nothing about the man, however, until I came across an article about him in the French weekly news magazine L'Express.

Ennio Morricone, born in Rome October 11, 1928, started his musical life on trumpet, to which he was introduced by his father, who was a jazz trumpet player. Morricone is now seventy. He is probably the most prolific composer in film history, having written at least 400 scores, twenty-two of them in 1972 alone, which works out to one every sixteen days. He may not be as fast as Georges Simenon, each of whose Maigret novels was written in exactly eleven days. But Simenon collapsed in exhaustion after each such marathon writing session, and he didn't turn out twenty-two novels in a single year. Surprisingly, only six of Morricone's 400 films were with Leone.



A photo shows Morricone as a man with a round pensive face on which sit sage horn-rimmed glasses. His Express interviewer, Geraldine Liperoti, described him thus: "Caught in his Roman apartment, then in the privacy of his studio, where are mixed in joyous disorder books, music scores, CDs, chess board, and even a seventeenth century organ . . . from this flood of memorabilia emerges an artist who is all nuances: at once modest and sure of his value, serene and unpredictable, shy and jocular." She com­mented on the variety of his scores, his almost dizzying output. She noted that he had almost backed into a film career.

"That's true," he said. "When I got out of the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia, I dreamed only of classical music. But the time after the war was a very hard period in Italy, and I needed to feed my family. So I started playing the trumpet evenings in clubs frequent­ed by Americans. I went there with no pleasure. It was with pain that I earned the money from diverting the occupants." He emphasized the word "occupants" a little. He meant the American military occupying forces.

"Then I wrote some arrangements for television, theater, and cinema. I worked clandestinely, for the prejudice against music deemed light was very strong at that time. Little by little, my name became known, and then Sergio Leone asked me to collaborate on For a Handful of Dollars.

"Leone, who knew my work on two previous westerns . . . . "

Ah, there is an insight for us on this side of the Atlantic: Leone did not make the first European westerns. "Sergio Leone . . . came to my residence .... When I opened the door, seeing his singular mouth ... I realized we had gone to the same primary school for boys .... Later, we even found a class photo.

"For that film, he told me he wanted a Mexican military song. I got out a little berceuse that I had composed for a television broadcast seven years early but never used. I played the trumpet, and so that's how the principal theme of For a Few Dollars More was born. I never confessed my little ruse to Sergio until many years later. Because of this, it became a game with him: he chose from among scores rejected by other directors."

Liperoti said that For a Fistful of Dollars illustrated the perfect osmosis between images and music, the grandest success of Morricone's collaboration with Leone.
Morricone said, "It's a sort of poetry that comes without warning, as when two people fall in love with each other. The magic is totally unforeseeable . . . and empiric. As a result, Sergio always wanted me to compose the music before shooting, so that it could be played to the actors for them to be filled with it and understand it. That's how we did our best work, he and I."

Did they have any thought that they were revolutionizing westerns?

"No. Moreover, when we saw For a Fistful of Dollars for the first time, Sergio and I, we found it awful. Sergio's films, and my work with him, got better, right up to his masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America. And that wasn't a western. Of the four hundred film scores I've written, only thirty-five have been westerns, and you've only spoken to me of the westerns. Why?"

Liperoti said, "Because the impact on the public was immense. And what do you think of the expression 'spaghetti western'?"

"Ah! I detest this expression! Intelligent people have to call them Italian westerns. This isn't a soup we're talking about!"

Morricone apparently developed a reputation for falling asleep during recording sessions. The interviewer asked him about it.


"You know," he said, "I get up at 5 a.m. every day. One night, at four in the morning, I was asleep during a recording. Leone sent everyone home, put out the lights, turned on the microphone, and shouted in a cavernous voice, 'Ennio-o-o-o, you have no shame, to be snoozing while everyone is working.' I woke up thinking that it was the devil who'd spoken to me. It happened when we argued. Leone was a very anxious person. He had a need to transfer his anguish to others. But it never lasted more than five minutes."

Liperoti said to Morricone that he was known for the use of unusual instruments — she used the word 'insolite', for which I have never found a good translation; and anyway in her article she was probably translating from Italian into French — such as bells, the triangle, a whistle, even human and animal cries. Actually, Morricone was not working without precedent. Henry Mancini used all sorts of non-orchestral instruments, including boobams from the South Pacific, in his scores. The harmonica (which Morricone used in Once Upon a Time in the West, in a two-note motif that set up a haunting effect and told some of the story) has been common in western-movie scores.

Morricone said, "It was never my point to be provocative. I just thought that the sounds of animals were pertinent in the universe of the western. During my apprenticeship ... I always lent an ear to sounds, no matter how modest. Even the common tap of a pencil on a table, isolated from context, can be reborn in music. The cry of the coyote, if one listens well, is eminently musical. To translate it into music in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I asked two singers to cry together, then I mixed their two voices adding echo. When Leone heard the result, he went nuts with joy ....

"In Once Upon a Time in the West, the harmonica had to resonate like a cry of pain, for it incarnated all the humiliation of [Charles] Bronson's character. During the recording, we found the musician played in a sort of monotone. Sergio threw himself on him and choked him. That's why the sound is so brilliant."

As for the Ride of the Valkyries quote in My Name Is Nobody, he said, "I always retained a nostalgia for classical music. Even if I am aware that there is an enormous moat between the public that goes to concerts and that which goes to the cinema, these winks are a way of bringing the two worlds together No one knew, for example, that the principal theme of The Sicilian Clan [a 1969 French film with Jean Gabin and Alain Delon — ed.] was an homage to Bach. I elaborated it in superposing a first melody inspired by one of his preludes for organ and a second, which I was amused to compose from the letters B-A-C-H, which, in German, correspond to our si, la, do, si. It was an appreciation to a composer I love."

Morricone detests long voyages, and for all the work he does in American films, he will not go to the United States. He said: "If they want to work with me, they come here. If not, I don't do the film. Warren Beatty, for example, loves to come to Rome. I didn't even have to ask him."

Liperoti commented that this was the privilege of celebrity, to which Morricone replied:

"Popularity doesn't bother me. It attests to the affection and comprehension of the public. The important thing is to retain the pioneer spirit. I profoundly love the profession, and I work on each film as if it were the first — and the last. Giving the best of myself. Many of the 'greats' ask their arranger to write their scores for them. Me, I write all alone, from the first note to the last. All."

Morricone has been nominated four times for the Academy Award, including once in 1987 for The Mission. He lost to Herbie Hancock, who got it for the French film Round Midnight, about a jazz musician loosely — very loosely — based on the late life of Bud Powell, and starring Dexter Gordon as a "great" saxophonist of supposed significant originality. Gordon was hardly that. The film's sheer silliness need hardly be documented here. The score was made of jazz tracks. Liperoti asked Morricone if he was bitter about losing that year.

He said: "Certainly I was disappointed. Especially since ... the music that won was not a true original score: it was composed of pieces of already existing songs. I said nothing, but everyone protested the evening of the ceremony. To win an Oscar, it is necessary to campaign to the voters, and the production houses I worked with neglected to do it. But okay, I didn't make a complaint. I have received many other distinctions."

In 1986, The Mission, a film set in late eighteenth-century Brazil, featured Jeremy Irons, Robert de Niro, Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, a very good script by Robert Bolt, and an exceptional score by Morricone. The film, which is very dark, is about the slaughter and enslavement of the autocthonous population. Its point is that this ethnic cleansing continues even now in the upper Amazon rain forests.

In 1989, Morricone scored Brian de Palma's suitably outraged but cluttered Viet Nam sermon Casualties of War. He also scored that godawful de Palma version of The Untouchables, with a David Mammet script so bloody stupid, even more absurd than his script for The Edge, that in it the Canadian Mounties come galloping across the border in their red uniforms (they hadn't worn them on duty, any more than the U.S. Marines wear dress blues in combat, in years) to aid the American cops on United States soil, where of course they have no legal authority. The violence and camera gimmicks, including a shoot-out sequence copped from Potemkin, conspire to keep one watching, but the suspension of disbelief requires effort, and the Morricone score assists you into the cocoon of credulity. Any composer who could make that turkey fly has to be taken very seriously. [Emphasis, mine and gleefully so!]

Morricone has continued to work, very successfully and effectively, in American films, including last year's Bulworth. Warren Beatty, who wrote, produced, and starred in Bulworth (an interesting picture, by the way) obviously likes Morricone: he used him in the earlier (1991) Bugsy, about the life and death of Bugsy Siegal).

The last film on which Morricone worked with Sergio Leone was The Nine Hundred Days of Leningrad, presumably about the German siege of that city.

"It was the only time he refused to talk music with me ... For him, the film was a sort of dream which he knew he would never realize. A little earlier, he had refused a heart transplant. The last months of his life, he was very tired and knew that he was going to die.

"I often called to ask him when we would go to work. But he kept putting it off. It was only afterwards that I understood why. His nephew, Enrico, acknowledged it to me on the day of his death.

"Sergio was a great gentleman."

Sergio Leone died ten years ago, on April 10, 1989. A rare collaboration ended. When Morricone too is gone, it will no doubt be written that he was an unusual composer, a very fine one, and he changed film scoring.

This too should be said: all his scores, no matter what the subject of the film, have an implicit mournfulness. It is as if their composer never for a moment escapes a sense, no matter how deep in his spirit it resides, of the eternal human condition.”