Although he learned to play the trombone at the age of eight, Alan Kaplan did what many new high school graduates did and began to pursue a college degree in the late 1960s with an eye to a “stable” profession. But while attending Los Angeles Valley College, the engineering major was offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that gave birth to an illustrious and rewarding career.
“I was all set to transfer to UCLA in the summer of 1972,” recalls Kaplan. “I had my classes picked out, I was all registered, and I got the call. On June 24 – it’s just about exactly 45 years ago – I got the call to go with Buddy Rich.
“That was the band … the one I was buying all the records and listening to, and I’d go hear them whenever they played at Disneyland or when they were at the Whiskey A Go Go – I’d take every opportunity to hear them. So, getting called to play with them – forget it, I’m outta here.”
The chance to play as the youngest lead trombonist ever with the Buddy Rich Big Band was worth the risk of being drafted into the Army with the possibility of being deployed to Vietnam. The 19-year-old had a school deferment in order to attend UCLA, which was null and void when he joined Rich’s band. Fortuitously, the Vietnam War and the draft ended while Alan was on the road with the band in 1973.
The next few years found Kaplan playing with big band legends such as Harry James, Louis Bellson, Don Ellis, and Lionel Hampton. By the late 1970’s he was compared to trombone greats like Carl Fontana and Frank Rosolino. Spanning more than four decades, his estimable credits include touring with Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand; and playing in ensembles for “The Merv Griffin Show,” “The Joan Rivers Show,” and “Star Search.” Most recently, Kaplan has played in orchestras for “The Book of Mormon,” “In the Heights,” and a filmed revival of “Newsies.”
Kaplan’s film credits encompass 1,000 or so motion pictures including “The Dark Tower,” “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “Jurassic World,” “Out of Africa,” “The Color Purple,” “Animal House,” “Apollo 13,” and numerous installments of series such as “Spiderman,” “X-Men,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Star Trek,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and “Star Wars.”
Kaplan’s television credits include “Once Upon a Time,” both the original and current series of “Hawaii Five-0,” “Dynasty,” “Fantasy Island,” “Homefront,” “The Middle,” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and specials like the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon. He has also distinguished himself as a go-to player in animation soundtracks, having lent his talents to scores for “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “Animaniacs,” “ Pinky and the Brain,” “American Dad,” “Timon and Pumbaa” (from “The Lion King”); and “101 Dalmatians” (1996). In addition, Kaplan’s recording credits span multiple genres, having backed a diverse range of artists beyond jazz including Ray Charles, Plácido Domingo, Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, Marvin Gaye, Paul McCartney, Oingo Boingo, and Dwight Yoakam.
In 2002, Kaplan released his first solo album, “Lonely Town,” which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement of “Angel Eyes,” and “Secrets of Hoyt’s Garage,” a recording of arrangements by legendary studio trombonist, colleague, and mentor Hoyt Bohannon, in 2012. Kaplan has also released three play-along albums for Music Minus One, including “Ballads for Trombone with Orchestra,” “Standards for Trombone,” and “Mostly Mozart Arias.” He is an artist and clinician for the Kanstul Instrument Company, which has created two models of an “Alan Kaplan” trombone to his specifications as well as built a copy of a rare 1930s trombone from Kaplan’s personal collection. The original instrument was played by Tommy Dorsey.
At a restaurant across the street from the historic Musicians Union of Hollywood on Vine Street, Kaplan looked back at a career that continues to make history itself. Unwinding after a rehearsal session in the iconic building a few weeks before AFM 47 relocated to Burbank, he reflected on the technological changes in making music for film and TV, learning to follow in the footsteps of the greats, and something that will never change for a true musician: the synergy of playing alongside great musicians to a live audience.
How did you choose the trombone?
The first instrument that got my interest was steel guitar, which was played by one of our neighbors. But I was talked out of that because you can’t play guitar in a [big] band, especially steel guitar. In 1960, my dad to took me to a nearby music store for trombone lessons because the instrument looked like fun. Unfortunately, the guy didn’t have one, so he handed me a trumpet to try. I took it home for a week, couldn’t get a sound out of it. My lips were thicker than a lot of trumpet players, I guess. So, he later gave me this trombone to try, and I said, ‘That’s it.’
I didn’t have any great knowledge or love of music because I didn’t come from a musician family. I did, however, have an ear for it. I listened to my dad’s records. He played the same few over and over – but good ones. Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald – I heard these swinging arrangements and it meant something to me.
I took private lessons and picked it up quickly. Los Angeles is a great place to study. Later I studied with studio players and got a really good fundamental education from them before I went on the road. When I came back off the road, I would pick the brains of the people I was working with and would learn a lot. You just keep refining things as you go – I’m still learning.
What drew you to studio work in films and television?
When I was studying with Bill Tole (Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Airmen of Note; portrayed Dorsey in the 1977 film, “New York, New York”) and then later, with Roy Main (Nelson Riddle, Henry Mancini, Michel Legrand), they had homes, they had families. They weren’t starving artists and they weren’t sitting in one orchestra all the time. They played different things. They told me about the jobs they did, working in a theater here or in a studio there, or in a band here. I thought, that’s what I want to do – I want to earn that kind of a lifestyle, I don’t want to be starving and I don’t want to have to travel all the time. I want to have a somewhat normal life and I want to be able to play with the best players around. It became apparent to me that the studio musicians were the best players of all.
What does it take to be a successful studio musician?
A lot of things have changed, but in my opinion, you have to be able to play any style in the studios because any given TV show or movie can be period. In this week’s episode, they might go back to the 1920s with speakeasy music, back to the 1940s with swinging big band, or a symphony orchestra playing Mozart.
Besides trying to be able to play all styles and forms of music, I also do all the requisite extra instruments – we call it doubling. It used to be that only the woodwind players doubled, but now it’s common for trombone players to play both tenor and bass trombone. I also play the tuba, euphonium, and the contrabass trombone. I try to maintain as many skills as possible. When I’m not working – and even when I’m working – I practice a lot. I may not have played a certain instrument at all this week, but I might have to next week. My goal is to be as versatile as possible so that whatever I do, they think that’s my main instrument.
How does the improvisational nature of jazz lend itself to studio work?
I personally feel like jazz musicians … I don’t even want to say jazz, because that’s such a broad term. I like to say commercial musicians, because within jazz, it could be Latin, straight ahead, or rock [fusion]. Commercial musicians are used to adapting. They know that the music they’re playing wasn’t copied 200 years ago and isn’t always intended to be played exactly as written. It’s marked, but you use your own interpretation. What’s the best way? Do I make this note long or short? You could see the same group of notes, but I could probably come up with ten different ways to play it.
Do you still see these skills demonstrated among commercial musicians today?
When I started, most of the woodwind chairs were jazz musicians learning to double. You’d see people like Bob Cooper, a wonderful tenor [sax] player, playing flute or clarinet; Bob Hardaway, a good friend of mine, playing oboe. Bill Green (alto sax, bassoon, and clarinet) was very busy in the studios. Bud Shank was playing alto sax and flute in all kinds of TV shows. Emil Richards, who is in his mid-80s now, was famous for all the exotic instruments that he had. He, more than any of the great percussionists, scoured the world for exotic instruments that [made] all these great sounds. Reed players like Don Menza were saxophone players who worked hard at doubling. There were some dyed-in-the-wool specialists on the flute or clarinet, like Louise Ditullio on flute, John Ellis on oboe, or Domenic Fera on clarinet, but most of the other chairs would be covered by doublers. It was handy because as a writer or a contractor, you don’t want to think, ‘What if the score needs this?’ You didn’t have to worry – they could play it.
A lot of players who are coming into the freelance world today don’t have that [improvisational] jazz background. They didn’t come from playing in bands. Woodwind players tend to specialize in flute, clarinet, double reed, or saxophone. They’ll play it one way, and they only know how to do that.
Often in studios, the notes were just written. Sometimes, they’re still copying while we’re on a session. It hasn’t had a chance to really steep and turn into what it’s going to be. So, it’s up to us to kind of take that and realize, “Okay, I see what’s here, but listen to what’s going on in the room. I have the same line that the strings have over there or that the French horns are playing – we can go with them or see if maybe they want to go with us. And is a rhythm groove going on? Is that straight eighths? Is that swinging? Then, we should make our phrasing and how we approach our notes [complement] what’s going on.
I like to play with players who are on top of all that because in the studios, there just isn’t time to talk about it. There are somewhere between 70- 90 [musicians] in the room, and we’re greatly separated. So, it’s kind of hard to communicate; you’ve got to really listen.
How do composers and conductors facilitate the process?
There will be directions from the director to the composer. If it’s just us interpreting music that’s usually going to be from the conductor relaying directions from the booth. The conductors are oftentimes not the composers.
When I started, the composer usually did his own conducting. What was nice about that was that we had a mechanism for click tracks. A click track is a metronomic “tic-tic – tic-tic” in our headphones. If there was going to be a period of measures where it was all one tempo, we would hear a specified number of warning clicks. The conductor would tell us where those warning clicks would occur and when they would be going out. He would then conduct free time following the picture. The conductor would be following the picture until another place that’s going to be a different tempo. There generally would be a hold, more warning clicks would come in a different tempo and we’d continue.
Composers had to be able to conduct well and go free time. Now, a lot of composers write sitting at a keyboard. They’ve never conducted anything in their lives. We have people hired to be conductors, but since they’re not the ones who wrote the music, they can’t really say musically what we need to do. They’ll be relaying instructions from the composer, who is sitting in the booth. They’re one step removed and it’s more time consuming and tedious that way.
Are there any advantages or disadvantages to using the digital click tracks?
Now, there’s really no need for a conductor at all because we have pre-programmed clicks going constantly. The conductor is standing there but basically, we’re following the clicks. And it’s both good and bad.
What’s good is that we can stay together on some really frantic things. They don’t just write in a constant 4/4 meter or in a constant tempo. Sometimes the tempos change dramatically or we’re doing some very odd meter things, going from 7/8 to 11/8 – very confusing. Hard to conduct, and hard to follow a conductor, because we have so many notes to count and play. So, having a click track that is programmed and variable really makes it possible for us to stay together in a big group like that.
The bad thing is when the clicks are going constantly, it doesn’t give much room for expression. A lot of the composers that I work with like James Horner or John Williams, who know how to conduct brilliantly, have clicks programmed but they would often try not to use them and see if the orchestra could stay together without the clicks. If it failed to congeal, they would go ahead and have us play with the clicks.
Does it make for a better performance to have the conductor there?
I think it depends on the music and how good the conductor is. I hate to say it, but some conductors are more of a detriment than an asset. When they get lost and are in the wrong place, it’s very distracting. Having started in the 1970s in the studios, nearly all the composers were good conductors. I feel that with a really good conductor, you can get more music out of the orchestra. I’ll never forget the first time I worked with John Williams. I could tell how loud we should play just by his facial expressions and by how small he was gesturing.
The very first session I did was for the original “Hawaii Five-O.” Bruce Broughton was the composer. He was splitting duties with the main composer for the show, Mort Stevens. They would alternate, and every week one of them would do a show. They got in some real creative ideas.
Are today’s arrangements more sparsely written?
Not necessarily. Many of the early composers got a lot of sounds out of fewer [instruments]. One of my favorite composers [was] Bernard Hermann, who passed before I got to work with him. He did all those Alfred Hitchcock movies and a lot of “Twilight Zone” episodes. Hermann didn’t have a lot of players, and he had to have them double because they were all playing different instruments in the course of one session or project. But he [achieved] such a variety of different sounds.
Sometimes TV is a little different. We still do shows with 20 to 30 musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes I do shows where it’s only me in the studio. They will have already recorded the trumpet and woodwinds, so I don’t know a lot of what’s going on because they [record] us separately.
Is the synergy different when you’re by yourself in the studio?
It’s easy to go in and work that way because any mistakes you make, you can just redo it really fast – it’s very efficient that way. But you miss something.
Striping is where in the daytime sessions, they’ll do the strings and woodwinds together and then in the evening, they’ll bring in the brass and overdub to what the strings and winds already played. So, we’ll go in with French horns, trumpets, and trombones and we’ve got to play with what they played, but we’re only hearing them on our headphones. We’re not in the room with them, and it’s hard to get the blend right.
It’s easier to play in tune and adjust your intonation to a roomful of players rather than to something going into your headphones. I didn’t grow up wanting to play with other musicians [though] headphones. I wanted to play with other musicians – that’s what it’s about.
Is it more enjoyable to play “before a live studio audience”?
At this point, since the studio thing has gotten more antiseptic, I enjoy playing for people more. I’m still affected by that. I’ve played on Kimmel’s show and The Tonight Show few times for various acts. And I do a lot now in the theater too, which I love.
“Star Search” was pre-recorded and we would do what was called a sideline for on-camera: we would stand there faking and didn’t actually play. I did all four of the trombone parts on the pre-recorded, but there was only one of me standing on stage. “The Merv Griffin Show” was live. We would back up whatever musical guests there were and also played during the commercials – that’s when we had our most fun.
How has the increase of recorded music for stage productions affected the experience for both the players and the audience?
Budgets don’t allow [for live musicians] or there isn’t enough space. I was playing for “The Nutcracker” at the Alex Theatre when they had a budget for live musicians – now they don’t. They’re cutting down the size [of orchestras] more and more. We had to have a skeleton group of us because it’s small in there, and we were playing along with an electronically generated score – it was awful. You’ve got to have one or the other.
In Vegas-type shows, everybody wants their special effects timed perfectly so the music has to be programmed so that it can sync up. It’s all about the show now – it’s not about the music. Sometimes if they do have musicians onstage, we’re like props or scenery. We just did “The King and I” and “An American in Paris” at the Pantages. They have to keep re-orchestrating the book for smaller groups, so our workload gets harder because we’re covering all these notes that used to be played by the French horn or the third trumpet.
For “The Book of Mormon,” the conductor was actually playing a keyboard, so he often had to conduct by nodding his head because he’s playing keyboard, taking the place of instruments that used to be played, and another keyboard player is covering another six or eight instruments that used to be occupied seats.
Doesn’t that change the music too?
To the audience it may sound pretty good, but when you’re in the pit, you notice the difference. It’s sad because you remember how lush and how great something like that can sound. But we’re still playing live for an audience. People come down and look at us in the pit when we’re playing the exit music. I love to their faces, enjoying what we do.
That’s why I’m more interested in live [gigs] where people can see us play. Vegas started putting the bands downstairs, not having them onstage for the production shows, and at the Oscars the last two years, the band has been at Capitol, not even in the theatre. We need to be seen playing. Otherwise, people forget what it’s like to have human beings play music.
How would you mentor a young musician who is just coming up the ranks the way you have done?
Because of all the demands now, I would encourage young musicians to play [a variety of] instruments. It’s great to be a great jazz trombone player, but you’re not going to make a living, or at least, not the kind of living you deserve to have. You need to learn other skills, and you need to take it seriously. You can’t just say, ‘I own a bass trombone’ or ‘I can play a little classical.’ No. Make everything you do sound like it’s your specialty.
And I encourage what I did – play as much as you can, besides practicing. I jumped at any opportunity to do free rehearsals. Everything you do is an investment in yourself. Somebody might hear you and say, “By the way, I know somebody that needs a trombone player.” If you didn’t show up that day, you might not have gotten that opportunity.
Other players are going to need you to sub for them, so you want to be on good terms. Some people think, “It’s every man for himself, so I’m going to hustle away. I know that this guy is working for so-and-so, and I’m going to get next to this leader and send him a letter about me.” No.
Be patient and respect the territory of others. You’ll get a chance to be recommended for something that someone else has been doing. But you don’t try to take control like that. I’ve gained many things and I’ve lost many things over the years – that’s the way it is.
Do you think recent films like “La La Land,” “Born to Be Blue,” and “Miles Ahead” will help to bring about the resurgence of interest in jazz?
I have criticisms about those movies, but they talk about great jazz musicians. “Whiplash” brings up Buddy Rich and they talk about Charlie Parker in “La La Land.” Any movie that’s talking about those people is great for our business. There were probably a few young musicians like me at eight years old, who had their ears opened up to [jazz], who maybe wouldn’t have otherwise. If it turns one person on to the music, it’s worth it.
What were some of your favorite films or shows to work on and why?
I have to say, out of all of the films, “Silverado” is still my favorite. It was a 1985 modernized Western. It was composed by Bruce Broughton and is one of the most thrilling scores, ever. It was like a “Magnificent Seven” kind of thing, with a lot of Aaron Copland. It’s a great score and the playing was fantastic. Some of my all-time heroes were playing on it, like Jerry Vinci, Dick Noel, Tommy Johnson, Tommy Tedesco, Richard Perissi, and Dick Nash.
One of the thrills I had was playing for Barbra Streisand when she made her first comeback. They called it, “The Concert.” It was 1994 and she did two nights in Las Vegas [and] some nights in what they called the Anaheim Pond. We rehearsed for three solid weeks. She wanted everything – every word she spoke in between songs – on a teleprompter. She even had Alan and Marilyn Bergman write what she should say about the songs and we rehearsed different endings. It all built up to this first night.
I’ve been onstage all my life and I play for stars all the time – big deal. I don’t generally feel this way, but when Streisand came out – I mean, ex-presidents were there… it was big. It was absolutely electric. And when she started singing the song from “Sunset Boulevard,” I’m sure the audience felt the same thing. We did it again in 2000, but that was the most special, that first night in 1994. It was history.
I got a studio call sometime in the late 1970s. We were playing at Universal, which hasn’t had a recording studio in a really long time, but that was when they still had the scoring stage. We were playing for some TV movie about a cruise ship. There was Bobby Shew on trumpet, and Pete Christlieb [on tenor]. Shelly Manne was on drums, and I think it was Monty Budwig or Chuck Domanico on bass. A really good rhythm section, kind of a big band, and a jazz score.
I saw Tommy Johnson carrying one tuba and this old guy carrying his other tuba – I thought it was a relative. He went up to the podium, and it was Eddie Sauter, from the Sauter-Finnegan days. He starts conducting the first cue and Pete and Bobby are just blowing, featuring tenor solos and trumpet solos throughout. We were playing these really swinging backgrounds and it was fantastic. That was how it was the whole day. [Eddie] was pretty quiet, he didn’t say too much. But it was one of the hippest things I’ve ever done. Every so often, something really different comes up, and it’s great.
©MMXVII Joanie Harmon – From the forthcoming, “Making Life Swing: Jazz on the Small Screen”