Monday, July 8, 2019

Gillespiana Redux with Lalo Schifrin

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

In an earlier post, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles mined the Jazz literature and created a compilation of articles on Gillespiana, one of its all time favorite Dizzy Gillespie recordings.

You can locate this earlier research in the blog archive by going here.

Unavailable to us at the time was Lalo Schifrin's composer notes which we came across through a recent purchase of his autobiographical Mission Impossible: My Life in Music, edited by Richard Palmer.

So we though it might be fun to do a feature on Lalo’s recollections of how this wonderful suite of music came about in a separate posting which will later be archived as part of the larger Gillespiana compendium.

By way of background, “Lalo Schifrin is a true Renaissance man. As a pianist, composer, and conductor, he is equally at home conducting a symphony orchestra, performing at an international jazz festival, scoring a film or television show, or creating works for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, and even the Sultan of Oman.

Lalo Schifrin received classical training in music at the Paris Conservatory during the early 1950s and simultaneously became a professional jazz pianist, composer, and arranger, playing and recording in Europe. After hearing Schifrin play with his own big concert band in Buenos Aires, Dizzy Gillespie asked him to become his pianist and arranger. In 1958, Schifrin moved to the United States and thus began a remarkable career.

Schifrin has written more than sixty classical compositions and more than one hundred scores for films and television, including Mission: Impossible, Mannix, Cool Hand Luke, Bullitt, Dirty Harry, The Amityville Horror, and the Rush Hour films. To date, Schifrin has won four Grammy Awards (with twenty-one nominations), won one Cable ACE Award, and received six Oscar nominations.

Schifrin was appointed musical director of the Paris Philharmonic Orchestra in 1987, a position he held for two years. Among Schifrin's other conducting credits are the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Israel Philharmonic, the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Mexico City Philharmonic, the Orchestra of Saint Luke (New York City), and the National Symphony Orchestra of Argentina.

He was commissioned to write the grand finale to celebrate the finals of the World Cup soccer championship in Caracalla, Italy, in July 1990. In this concert, the Three Tenors, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras, sang together for the first time. Schifrin also arranged the sequels for the Three Tenors at the subsequent World Cup finals, in July 1994 at Dodger Stadium; July 1998 in Paris, France; and June 2002 in Japan.
Schifrin's most recent commissions include Fantasy for Screenplay and Orchestra, for Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony, and Symphonic Impressions of Oman, commissioned by the Sultan of Oman, recorded in England with the London Symphony Orchestra and released by Schifrin's own record label, Aleph Records, in 2003.

It is Schifrin's ability to switch musical gears that makes him so unique in the music world. As a jazz musician, he has performed and recorded with great personalities such as Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, and Count BasiE. His longtime involvement in both the jazz and symphonic worlds came together in 1993 when he was featured as a pianist and conductor for his on-going series of Jazz Meets the Symphony recordings, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and such notable jazz stars as Ray Brown, Grady Tate, Jon Faddis, Paquito D'Rivera, and James Morrison. The third of the series, Firebird: Jazz Meets the Symphony #3 (1996), received two Grammy nominations. Aleph Records released Kaleidoscope: Jazz Meets the Symphony #6 in August 2005, recorded at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Schifrin was invited back to Australia in 2006 to conduct a Jazz Meets the Symphony tour in Queensland, Adelaide, and Sydney. In 2006, Schifrin returned to Australia for the world premiere of his Double Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and Orchestra, commissioned by the SMILE Foundation.

In April 2005, Schifrin premiered Letters from Argentina, a piece combining tango and Argentinean folk music with classical music to create a fresh new sound reminiscent of his homeland. It premiered at Lincoln Center with Schifrin on piano, David Shifrin on clarinet, Cho-Liang "Jimmy" Lin on violin, Nestor Marconi on bandoneon, Pablo Asian on contrabass, and Satoshi Takeishi on percussion. These distinguished soloists toured the United States that summer, performing in Portland, Oregon; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and La Jolla, California. The piece was recorded and released on Aleph Records in May 2006.

Lalo Schifrin is a recipient of the 1988 BMI Lifetime Achievement Award. BMI also honored Schifrin in 2001 with a special composer's award for his original cult classic theme to Mission: Impossible. He was most recently honored for his significant contribution to music, film, and culture by the French performing rights organization SACEM, along with the 57th Annual Cannes Film Festival in 2004. That same year he was awarded the 65th Annual Golden Score Award by the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC). He has been honored by the City of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County, and the California Legislature, and he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1988. He also received the Distinguished Artist Award in 1998 from the Los Angeles Music Center, and he recently established a jazz and classical composition scholarship in his name for UCLA. He was honored by the Israeli government for his "Contributions to World Understanding through Music," and he was given honorary doctorate degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of La Plata, Argentina. Lalo Schifrin has been appointed Chevalier de POrdre des Arts et Lettres, one of the highest distinctions granted by France's Minister of Culture, and in 1998, the Argentine government appointed him Advisor to the President in Cultural Affairs with a rank of Secretary of the Cabinet. 

Schifrin has been married to his wife, Donna, for more than thirty years. His three children include William, a writer for films and television; Frances, an art director/designer; and Ryan, a film writer/director. Schifrin scored Ryan's first horror feature film, Abominable, which was released in 2006. For more information on Lalo Schifrin, please visit

CHAPTER    SEVEN -Gillespiana

“After an absence of four years, Buenos Aires was as I'd imagined Paris to be following its World War II liberation.

I had intended my visit to be short; I was still planning to return to France and had kept my apartment along the Boulevard St. Germain. A few days after I arrived back, though, I received a telephone call from the new head of national radio and television for Argentina, an Italian married to the daughter of our new vice president. He invited me to his orifice and said he'd held a similar position with the RAI in Rome; he was a jazz fan and wanted to establish a jazz big band as he'd done at RAI. He said he'd heard I was coming back and so had waited for me, having interviewed other Argentinean arrangers, none of whom had convinced him as potential bandleaders. Suddenly, therefore—and I was not even twenty-four years old—I was being offered my own orchestra, with the added dimension of radio and TV programs! At that time, Gato Barbieri was still playing straightforward be-bop tenor saxophone just like Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Stitt. We made our debut two months later with great success. The band had four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, and a rhythm section. I was conducting from the piano.

And then something even more special occurred: my long-standing jazz idol was about to arrive! From my late teens onward, every time I left the house I would say to my mother, as a joke, "If Dizzy Gillespie calls, tell him I'm not here!" But now he was materializing, the real flesh-and-blood Diz. It seemed like a fateful encounter: my return from Paris and his tour were on two converging lines!

He played in a Buenos Aires theater for the whole week, and it was sold out. I went to every concert and we met. During that week there was a reception for Dizzy, his wife, Lorraine, and the whole band, and I was asked to perform with my own band for them after the dinner. He heard my piano playing and my arrangements. Immediately after we'd finished our set, he came up and asked if I'd written all of the charts. I said, "Yes," and his response was "Would you like to come to the United States?" I thought he was joking. Perhaps they called him Dizzy for a good reason! But, no, he meant it.

It seemed, however, that the State Department was less keen for me to take up his invitation. American bureaucracy meant that I waited two years before getting my green card from the United States Consulate in Buenos Aires; I finally arrived in New York City on September 28, 1958. But even then I couldn't get a work permit from the American Federation of Musicians because of their own rule, and I had to wait almost a further year to be able to play piano with a regular band. I was allowed to write arrangements and to play as a replacement pianist, though. Xavier Cugat was preparing a new nightclub act for his singer, Abbe Lane, and I wrote all of the arrangements, became the musical director, and even did a symphonic album for Cugat himself (RCA). But I was still aiming to work with Dizzy Gillespie. . . .

After gaining my work permit, I formed my own trio, which played once a week in three different New York clubs: the Hickory House, Basin Street East, and the Embers. Meanwhile, I was calling Dizzy without any positive results. In those days there were no answering machines, and Dizzy didn't have an office. Eventually, one night he was performing at Birdland, and I went to see him. He said, "Hi, I heard you were in the U.S.—so why didn't you call me?" I said I'd tried, often. Anyway, Dizzy asked me: "Why don't you write something for me?" So over the weekend I composed the sketches for the Gillespiana suite. On Monday evening I went over to his house and played them for him. He asked me how I was planning to orchestrate it. I said I'd like to do a kind of concerto grosso for his quintet, surrounded by Latin percussion and brass orchestra, in which I would substitute four French horns and a tuba for the five saxophones of a standard big band. Right in front of me, he telephoned Norman Granz, the founder and then still head of Verve Records. Dizzy asked me how long it would take to orchestrate the suite. I estimated about two to three weeks. So he asked Norman to book a studio in one month's time. Just like that!

I started work immediately. But about one week later Diz called me to say, "I have some bad news." My heart fell: I thought he meant he wouldn't be recording the piece after all. Instead he said that pianist Junior Mance was leaving his group. Recovering slightly, I said: "Do you have someone in mind to replace him as pianist?" His answer being "I was thinking of you . . . ," I almost fell off my chair. The very idea that my first major piece, composed for a giant on his own turf, was not only going to be composed, arranged, and conducted by me, but I would also play piano for it!

When I arrived at the recording studio I felt very nervous, because not only was Diz there, but also such jazz stars as Clark Terry, Ernie Royal, Urbie Green, Gunther Schuller, Julius Watkins, et al. who were in the band. Still, the recording went well, and there was a lot of excitement. Gunther Schuller brought John Lewis along the next evening, and they signed the work to MJQ Music Publishing. The piece became very successful with both critics and the public. Dizzy got a gold disc and Norman Granz organized a world premier concert at Carnegie Hall, which sold out; after that he sent us on a tour all over the United States and Europe. I remember when we played at the Palais des Sports in Paris. At the end, Bud Powell came up to the stage to congratulate me. I had never met him before, and he was one of my idols as well as being the chief influence on my modern jazz piano playing.

I stayed on with his quintet from 1960 until late 1962. Playing with John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie was immensely good for me spiritually—one of the happiest periods of my life in terms of music. It was very fulfilling to play with one of the giants of jazz all over the world, and to learn from him as a human being too. And there was never any end to my association with him. Even after I ceased touring with him on a regular basis, we were seldom out of touch and he was never far from my thoughts. Real friendship had intermingled with my admiration for his musicianship. And, of course, I continued to compose for him.

As many are aware, one of his greatest gifts was the power of his humor. One night, around late 1960, we were performing at Birdland when George Shearing came in with his wife and a group of friends. They had a table close to the bandstand. I told Dizzy I wanted to meet him, because — like Bud Powell — he'd been an early idol. When we'd finished our set, I sat beside him and said it was an honor to meet him. Then Diz came over and told him he couldn't stand hypocrisy and, as a good friend, he had to tell him the truth: "George, you are black—but you didn't know it!"

In 1970 the mayor of New York gave the keys of the city to Dizzy. I was invited to take part in a gigantic concert that reminded me of a psychedelic time machine. There was a big band to play the early repertoire of his Things to Come period. Then I had the pleasure of playing alongside two of the greatest drummers of all time in quite separate quintets: Buddy Rich and Max Roach. All of the periods of Dizzy Gillespie's career up to that point were represented — and all of the participants around me that night were giants of modern jazz.

I've often said that I've had many teachers, hut only one master: Dizzy. And I mean it—now more than ever before.”

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