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.



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