© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Thanks to his work as a Jazz composer, movie score writer for many of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films and writer of a series of TV themes including the one for the Mission Impossible series, Lalo Schifrin has achieved an iconic stature.
And deservedly so.
He has been a creatively consistent force in popular music at the highest level for over 60 years.
But most people don’t remember that it all began when Dizzy Gillespie took a chance on him when he was playing piano with Xavier Cugart and was largely unknown in Jazz circles.
In the following story, Gene Lees explains how it all began for Lalo. It’s a wonderful story and it couldn’t happen to a nicer person.
"BECAUSE Dizzy Gillespie is infinitely unpredictable (he has given up his northbound trumpet for a straight model, just when the world was getting —' used to the unorthodox horn), the music business has learned not to be surprised by his surprises.
Thus, when word went around the business last year that Gillespie had hired Xavier Cugat's pianist, the standard response was, "Well, that's Birks for you."
But as usual, Gillespie knew more than people knew he knew. Certainly in this case he knew precisely what he was doing. The association of pianist and arranger Lalo Schifrin with the Gillespie quintet has proved one of the trumpeter's most fruitful of recent years. So close is the collaboration that Gillespie compares it to that of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington.
Schifrin was not, of course, Cugat's pianist at any time. A young freelance arranger working in New York, he had contributed arrangements to Cugat's book. And at that, they weren't standard Cugat arrangements. Schifrin added a distinct jazz tinge to the Cugat library.
More to the point, Schifrin was, and always had been, a jazz musician. Though he was born in Argentina, he had worked consistently with jazz groups, in his native country and in France.
Gillespie also knew this about Schifrin: he had studied composition with the noted Latin American 12-tone composer Juan-Carlos Paz, had led a highly successful 16-piece jazz band in his native Buenos Aires, and had taken four first prizes at the Paris Conservatory (in composition, harmony, fugue, and counterpoint). Finally, Schifrin already was working on the now-famous Gillespiana Suite, the idea for which had come to the young Argentinian when he first met Gillespie a few years ago during Dizzy's State Department tour of South America with a big band.
Lalo was a man with a lot of background.
Boris Schifrin 29 years ago (Lalo was a childhood nickname that stuck), he is the son of a musician. His father, Luis, led the second violin section of the Theater Colon Orchestra, one of South America's best symphony organizations, for 30 years.
When he was 10, Lalo started studying piano with a Russian teacher, Andreas Karalis, who had been the head of the Kiev Conservatory until his political convictions made it prudent for him to leave. At 16, Lalo started studying harmony with Juan-Carlos Paz. In the meantime, he was studying sociology and law at the University of Buenos Aires.
"Then I decided it had to be music," he recalled. "So I applied for a scholarship to the Paris Conservatory."
By now he was a draftee in the Argentine army. By luck, he was released from service in time to accept the scholarship and left for the French capital. There he studied with a celebrated disciple of Maurice Ravel.
"In the meantime," Schifrin said, "I was playing with French jazz groups. I played with Bobby Jaspar, who at that time was playing mostly tenor; Jean-Louis Chauton, baritone; Jean-Louis Viale, drums; and Benoit Quersin, the bassist, who now owns the Blue Note night club in Brussels."
He also played at the third International Festival of Jazz in Paris' Salle Pleyel, as a representative of Argentina. That was in 1955. In 1956 he went home to Buenos Aires and formed a 16-piece band. It was his country's first band in what Lalo calls "the Basie-Gillespie tradition."
"I wrote all the arrangements and put together the best musicians in town," Schifrin said. "The band was a big hit, and that we had not expected. We did concerts, radio and TV broadcasts, and dances. We had another book for dances, which I also wrote.
"A few months later, Dizzy came down on that State Department tour. It was the first American band to visit Argentina.
"We played for the musicians in Dizzy's band. The next day Dizzy asked me if I would write something for him. That's when I got the idea to write a Gillespiana suite."
But the time for the suite was not yet.
IN 1957, SCHIFRIN started writing for motion pictures. One of the films for which he did an underscore was called El Jefe, meaning the chief or leader. The score was strictly jazz. For it, he won an Argentine academy award. A ballad from the score also became a pop hit.
The following year, Schifrin picked up his second Argentine academy award, this one for a non-jazz, 12-tone score utilizing the curious sextet instrumentation of violin, viola, cello, tympani, alto saxophone, and baritone saxophone.
Schifrin decided it was time to go to the United States.
Shortly after his arrival in New York City, he put together a trio comprising himself, bassist Eddy DeHaas, and drummer Rudy Collins. Collins is now in the Gillespie quintet with him; he replaced Chuck Lampkin, who has been drafted. The trio played Basin Street East and the Embers. Schifrin also began to do studio arranging.
"It was ironic," he said. "They gave me more Latin American things to write than anything. They evidently couldn't believe I was a jazz musician.
"This was the period when I was writing for Cugat. I did a lot of work for him. There are several albums of my charts. I changed the sound of the band somewhat. Cugat liked it. He told me that all his life he had wanted to do something like it, but the business end of it had pushed him to do other things.
"All this time I had been carrying the idea for the Gillespiana Suite in my head. One day I wrote a sketch of it and took it to Dizzy."
Gillespie not only liked the sketch but also liked Schifrin's playing enough to hire him to replace Junior Mance, who had left the trumpeter.
If Schifrin had changed the sound of the Cugat band somewhat, he also changed that of the Gillespie quintet. After the bluesy sound of Mance, Schifrin's Latin American effects resulted in a considerable change of texture and, to an extent, of rhythmic emphasis.
But there was no clash. "Don't forget," Schifrin points out, "that Dizzy is the composer of Manteca, Lorraine, A Night in Tunisia, and Con Alma. He worked with Chano Pozo years ago. Dizzy has always had a sympathy for Latin American music."
To the listener, it sounds these days as if the group has been heavily Latinized. Sometimes whole sets are made up of Latin tunes, in which Gillespie seems to find even more than his usual freedom. Schifrin claims otherwise: "We've really added only a few Latin things to the book, including the thing we call Safari, which is really African, and the Gillespiana Suite. All the other Latin tunes were in the book before I came."
Rehearsals on the quintet version of Gillespiana began shortly after Schifrin joined the group. "Then Dizzy commissioned me to write it for big band," he said. "That was the original idea anyway.
"We did it in concert with a big band in Carnegie Hall in March, 1961. In fact, I wrote all the arrangements for the concert, including a work called Tunisian Fantasy, which was based on A Night in Tunisia. Of all the works I've written for Dizzy, I was most happy with that one.
"It is a work in three movements. They're called A Night in Tunisia; The Casbah, which is a development on the bridge of the tune; and Tunisian Promenade, which is based on the interlude of the tune. It's really a duet for trumpet and bass with orchestra.
"The whole concert was recorded, but it hasn't been released yet."
SCHIFRIN continues to write at a furious pace. He has just completed a jazz piano sonata (the Modern Jazz Quartet publishes his music), which Bill Evans will probably record. Schifrin is scheduled himself to record, for Roulette, an extended work for small group, which is to be a choreographic poem, based probably on the Faust legend.
He says there is no nationalism in his use of Latin American rhythms. "I use them for color," he explained. "And they seem to work well with Dizzy.
"I have always had a great sympathy for Dizzy's music — his dramatic conception of both harmony and melody. And he always has been interested in different rhythmic effects. You know, when Dizzy uses Latin American rhythms — like when he's playing the cowbell while Leo Wright is soloing—they're absolutely authentic. He picks them up so easily it's amazing.
"You know, the man is a genius.
"It seems to me that there is enough room in jazz for all possible influences. I've just done a composition for the quintet called Mount Olive, which is based on Middle Eastern rhythms and scales.
"Jazz is music.
"It happens that it is facing certain problems at present. I think most creative musicians today are facing problems.
"Recently we've seen the introduction of Greek modes by young musicians; the use of polytonal harmony along with excursions into the atonal, a field which Lennie Tristano started exploring years ago; polyrhythmic things like Dave Brubeck is doing; different effects of timbre like Gil Evans uses. And there have been other explorations, using classical influences — for example, the music of John Lewis, Gunther Schuller, and J. J. Johnson. Don't overlook J. J. — he's something else as a composer. All of these explorations are having a revolutionary effect on the form of jazz, aiming toward escaping the constant use of simple theme and variations in the old way.
"Of course, there will always be guys who just want to blow. But the writers are becoming more important. They can give the player form and inspiration and support. The first to use that conception was Duke Ellington. For a long time he was alone."
GILLESPIE is of the view that his pianist is likely to be one of the writers contributing much to that development.
"Lalo has improved a lot as a pianist since he joined the group," said the trumpeter, who didn't bother to point out that every musician who has ever worked with him remembers that period of his life as one of great growth under Gillespie's almost off-handed teaching.
"People from other countries," Gillespie said, "they listen to records, get ideas. . . . But it's not the same as playing jazz all the time.
"A couple of things confused Lalo at first. But he's improved enormously, now that he's been here a while."
Lalo is well-schooled in Chopin, Beethoven, and other great classical writers for the keyboard. Yet his approach to jazz piano is quite unclassical, except for his fluency in playing long lines and runs. Sometimes he hammers at the keyboard in a stiff-wristed manner reminiscent of Dave Brubeck's.
He applies Latin American methods to jazz, in a highly personal way. Sometimes he can be heard repeating a left-handed chord in rhythmic unity with the running Latin chords (octaves with fifths, or sometimes fifths and sixths in between) while he is playing at surprising speed with his right. But the ideas are jazz ideas. As often as not, a solo will start with a single line and gradually develop into a powerful and exciting excursion into the Latin toward the end.
All this music comes from a somewhat unkempt, rather serious, and usually confused-looking young man who somehow reminds one of Bill Dana's television character, Jose Jiminez. Unsmiling when you meet him, Schifrin looks as if he'll, never in a million years, know what's happening.
The slightly discombooberated air is probably related to the fact that English is not his native language and he has to listen carefully to it. The subtlety of a joke will pass by when he has first met a person. Later, as his ears become attuned to the acquaintance's speech, his big, easy sense of humor manifests itself. He is a thoroughly cultivated young man of polished tastes, who may be found in intense conversation about Goethe or quoting the poetry of Paul Valery in French.
"Lalo is really something," Gillespie said. "And he hasn't really begun to show people his potential. He won't, until he gets a chance to use strings. He has ideas about strings that will scare you, using them percussively and that sort of thing.
"We're all going to hear a lot more from Lalo."
Down Beat Magazine
April 12, 1962