Monday, February 4, 2008

Hank Mancini: Jazz Musician

Following service with the Army during WW II, Hank Mancini embarked on a decade-long apprenticeship as a free lance arranger and musician that included work on radio shows, providing the music for little man Billy Barty’s vaudeville act, developing music for choreographer Nick Castle and being a house arranger for Universal-International Pictures for most of the 1950’s.

As Mancini explained: I once referred to the music department at Universal as a salt mine, but it was a good salt mine, and younger composers in film today do not have access to that kind of on-the-job training. Being on staff there I was called upon to do everything. I mean everything. Whenever they needed a piece of source music, music that comes from a source in the picture, such as a band, a jukebox, or a radio, they would call me in. I would do an arrangement on something that was in the Universal library, or I would write a new piece for a jazz band or a Latin band or whatever. I guess in every business you have to learn the routine--in film scoring, the clich├ęs--before you can begin to find your own way.

Aided by his own big band background from his days growing up in West Aliquippa, PA and serving as an assistant to Max Adkins in Pittsburgh, PA, during this stint with Universal, Mancini was tapped to be the lead arranger for the two best-known swing biopics, "The Glenn Miller Story" in 1954 and "The Benny Goodman Story" in 1956.

Little did anyone realize at the time that these apprenticeship and time in the salt mine would ultimately make Mancini one of the most successful film composers of his time. He had a knack for writing catchy tunes which was one of the major keys to his success. And what a success it was as from 1958 and through most of the 1960’s, Mancini so dominated the television and film music scene that everything else seemed to be either an attempt to clone his sound or a reaction against it.

Hank’s breakthrough came though Blake Edwards, a former editor at Universal who remembered Mancini's work on Orson Welles' 1958 film noir, "Touch of Evil," in which Mancini supplemented the canned source music used for the soundtrack with some Jazz inspired music and included Conrad Gozzo on lead trumpet and Shelly Manne on drums to insure that the music was phrased properly.

Edwards was extremely impressed with Mancini’s score for this film and asked him to write music for a Peter Gunn, a new television series he was now directing. Since he was working on a small budget, Edwards asked Mancini to write for a jazz ensemble of 11 players

At a time when many television programs were using uninspired canned or “generic” orchestral backgrounds, Mancini opted to use modern Jazz with innovative Jazz themes accompanying Gunn’s every move. The harmonies fit the mood of the show, which was a key to its success, and they served to lend the character even more of an air of suave sophistication.

Mancini's music, “especially the pounding, menacing sounding theme,” proved almost as popular as the series, and RCA rushed out an album featuring the title song and other pieces. The label first offered Shorty Rogers the recording job, but he refused RCA’s request insisting they use the composer himself. Although television soundtracks had been released on albums before, Music from "Peter Gunn" was a phenomenon. It reached #1 on Billboard's chart, stayed there 10 weeks, and stayed on the list for the next two years. It was so successful, RCA put together a sequel and Mancini received an Emmy nomination for the theme and won two Grammy awards for the first album.

Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme with its hip, bluesy, brass texture and insistent piano-and-bass line became as associated with crime fiction as Monty Norman’s theme for the James Bond films was to become associated with spy films.

These two albums – The Music from Peter Gunn and More Music from Peter Gunn contain a wealth of small group and big band Jazz that is often overlooked either because of their commercial success at the time or because they were overshadowed by the many success of Mancini’s later career.

I thought it might be fun to remind readers of Jazz Profiles about this music or make it available through this review to listeners that may be new to it.

In talking with trumpeter Pete Candoli many years later, he shared the view that “In all the years of studio dates that I worked on in Hollywood, I’ve never enjoyed doing anything more. The musicianship on these dates was first-rate and Hank’s scores were always beautifully written and fun to play on.”

Vibist Victor Feldman also recalled these dates with fondness and affection: “These were some of my earliest studio recording dates and it was a thrill to be around such an incredibly talented bunch of musicians. Hank couldn’t have been nicer and the themes and ‘charts’ [arrangements] were so wonderfully crafted and just a blast to play.”

The first of these albums [the two have now been combined into one CD] highlights Mancini’s skill in employing an endless variety of orchestral voicing in making 11 musicians sound like a full big band. With the success of the initial album, RCA granted Hank a budget for a full orchestra and the sound he achieves on these tracks is even more rewarding.

Brassy trombones, either as soloists or in a trombone choir, chords played in the background by a “block chord” combination of vibes-piano-guitar as made famous by the George Shearing Quintet, descending figures being howled out through a bevy of French Horns, bass trombones blatting pedal tones [with or without mutes], “Shout Choruses” on tunes like Fall Out, Timothy,” and Blue Steel that would rival anything ever written by any big band arranger past or present, flute choirs phrased in unison with piccolos “on top” and the rarely heard bass flute [where else?] on the bottom, marimbas, a solo feature that highlights the brushwork of drummer iconic studio drummer Shelly Manne, beautiful ballads in the form of Dreamland, Joanna, Blues for Mother and A Quiet Gass – it’s all here; beautifully and consummately played by a group of world class musicians that populated the Hollywood Studios during the day and its many Jazz clubs at night.

In the music from Peter Gunn, Hank Mancini has given us a feast for the ages; do yourself a favor and partake.

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