Gene Cipriano: Hired “Gunn” Looks Back at Some Very Good Years

While most people might not know the name Gene Cipriano, they would certainly be familiar the TV themes, films, and jazz and rock albums that he has helped to create. Fans of animated series such as “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” and “American Dad” have heard his multiple talents on flute and oboe, as well as alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone.

Gene “Cip” Cipriano’s first time out making music for TV was with former bandmate Henry Mancini, creating the iconic “Peter Gunn” theme. Courtesy of Gene Cipriano

“Cip,” as everyone knows him, has helped create music for decades of landmark shows such as “Batman,” “Mission Impossible,” “The Flintstones,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “M*A*S*H*,” “Moonlighting,” “Columbo,” “Kojak,” and the original “Star Trek” series. He has also played for live programs including “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Johnny Carson Show,” and “The Judy Garland Show.” Cip has played in the Academy Awards orchestra continuously for the last 58 years.

Hollywood’s film industry has also benefitted from Cip’s talents, with his contributions to films such as “The Wild Bunch,” “Charade,” and “Some Like It Hot,” where he filled in for Tony Curtis’s crossdressing tenor player. Cip played on the original 1968 Michel Legrand soundtrack for “The Thomas Crown Affair,” joined by his “Wrecking Crew” colleagues Carol Kaye on bass and Tommy Tedesco on guitar, as well as West Coast A-listers including Ray Brown on bass, Shelly Manne on drums, Tom Scott on sax, and Lighthouse Café alumnus Bud Shank on alto sax. Cip and percussionist Emil Richards were reunited for the 1999 version of the film, with a new score composed by Bill Conti.

Along with his stature as one of The Wrecking Crew that helped to create iconic rock and pop tunes in the 1960s and 70s, Cip is a member of a select cadre of jazz musicians, composers, and arrangers, including Johnny Mandel M*A*S*H*) , Lalo Schifrin (Mission Impossible), Jerry Fielding (The Wild Bunch) , Dennis McCarthy (Star Trek), Alf Claussen (The Simpsons), Neal Hefti (Batman), Ronnie Lang (Peter Gunn and more with Mancini), Dick Nash (Peter Gunn), Gary Foster (The Carol Burnett Show), Shelly Manne (Peter Gunn and more), Marvin Hamlisch (The Apartment), Bob Bain (The Tonight Show), and Andre Previn (The 1958 Academy Awards).

On record, Cip has worked with a diverse range of artists, including Glen Campbell, Helen Reddy, Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, Rosemary Clooney, Patty Page, Stan Kenton, Harry Nilsson, Frank Zappa, Natalie Cole, and Michael Bublé. He played on Frank Sinatra’s 1993 “Duets” album with a cavalcade of jazz stars, conducted by the late Patrick Williams, and also live shows with Sinatra and Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. Cip also played on Sinatra’s TV specials, with guest stars, Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Cip’s big break came when up-and-coming composer Henry Mancini needed a flute player for a new series, “Peter Gunn,” and called upon his former bandmate from the Glenn Miller Band. The rest is Hollywood history, writ large throughout Cip’s decades of film and television work.

Cip is currently preparing to start work in the fall on the animated series, “American Dad.” He looks back here on a life and career that spans the history of jazz and telling stories through music and the mediums of TV and film.

What got you into jazz in the beginning?

My dad used to work in the pit at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, where they would break shows … before going to Broadway. My dad played in the New Haven Symphony too.

My dad was a clarinet player. He put a clarinet in my hands when I was eight years old. I began to listen to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, and I said, “That’s what I want to do.”

My first band, when I was in high school… probably you’ve never heard of this band. His name was Ted Fio Rito. The actress Betty Grable … used to sing with this band. I lived in New Haven, Connecticut, but joined the band [while] in New York. We traveled a lot to Army bases. That was fun.

One of the trumpet players in the band was Doc Severinsen. He was 17 and I was 16. I had to go back to finish high school, and Doc went to New York and joined Charlie Barnet’s band.

Yale was in my hometown. I was going to get a scholarship for clarinet. I auditioned and they accepted me. That night, I got a call to join the Tommy Dorsey band, so I went on the road. I wanted to play. I was 23.

Did you end up going to music school?

No, I finished high school and was working around my hometown. We had a theatre where a known band would play on Sundays, and this band came through [led by] Tony Pastor. He played with the old Artie Shaw band. And the Clooneys – Rosemary and her sister Betty – were [singers]. Rosemary would always ask me to go to church with her on Sundays. She was a nice lady, so was her sister Betty. Even when she made it big and I would run into her somewhere, she had no airs about it, she was always “down-home.”

I wanted to live in New York. To join the musicians’ union in New York, you had to establish residency for six months. So, I just went to New York with a bunch of guys and we rented an apartment and sweated it out, did some jobs. I worked a little bit with Claude Thornhill when Lee Konitz was in the band. [Thornhill] wasn’t working much and I got a call to join the Tex Beneke band. He was still big at the time and I had a whole year of work.

Tex Beneke used to play with Glenn Miller – he was one of the singers and he played saxophone. He was a pretty big star, he sang the tunes like “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”

When he came out of the service, they wanted to regroup the Glenn Miller band, but Glenn was dead, so they offered it to Tex.

The band consisted of a lot of guys who worked with Glenn Miller. We still had the [original charts] and people still wanted to hear all the old tunes. That was good because I was able to save some money. Then I joined the Tommy Dorsey band and met the girl singer – Frances Erving – and we got married and moved out here. That’s where I met Henry [Mancini].

How did you get the “Peter Gunn” job?

[Henry] found out I was out here and I got a call from him one day and he said, “Cip, do you remember me?” He said, “I’m going to be doing a TV pilot called “The Peter Gunn Show,” and I’d like for you to do it.” And that’s how I got started working in the studios out here in California.

He was a great guy to work for. And he was very loyal and his music was good and easy to play. We used to look forward to working with Henry and all the movies that he did.

Henry became so busy. The composers would say, “Get me the Henry Mancini Orchestra.” I got a lot of work because Henry was hot at that time. I worked with Johnny Mandel on “The Sandpiper,” that was a great score. Jack Sheldon played on that movie too. I got calls to work with Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, and Pete Rugulo, and other composers because they wanted guys who had worked with Mancini, like Ronnie Lang, Ted Nash, and myself.

Why do you think jazz was a natural fit of detective shows like “Peter Gunn”?

The music was different. Henry just hit on a formula that people liked, and the show became a big hit, a lot of it due to the music. It was always a lot of fun and a lot of laughs. And the music was easy, really.Then we did another show with Henry called, “Mr. Lucky.” That was a lot of fun.

There was sort of a jazz-oriented score that Henry wrote. Shelly Manne and Dick Nash and Ted Nash and Victor Feldman. Red Mitchell was the bass player and Jimmy Rowles played piano. And the first piano player was John Williams, the [film] composer.

The theme songs were such a major feature of TV shows back then.

You remember the show, “My Three Sons,” that music was very memorable – that was by Frank DeVol. Neal Hefti came out here, he was with Woody Herman’s band. I did “Batman” with him, that was always fun. I worked with Morty (Morton) Stevens, I did “Hawaii Five-O” with him, and “Streets of San Francisco” with Pat Williams.

There’s nothing like that anymore. The whole scene has changed.

How did you transition into working on motion pictures?

My first picture call was “West Side Story,” with Johnny Green (arranger and musical adaptations). I did “Some Like It Hot” – every time Tony Curtis picked up the saxophone in the picture, that was me playing. And then I did – this was a very good score too – “The Thomas Crown Affair,” the one with Steve McQueen. That was the one Michel Legrand did. That was a good score. He had myself, Bud Shank, and Tom Scott on it. Shelly Manne, Ray Brown played bass, Jack Sheldon, and Frank Rosolino, [who was] a jazz trombone player.

How did you begin working with rock artists?

Harry Nilsson … was one of the first rock guys I worked with. They knew I played oboe and they wanted to get an oboe on the record date so I got a call to do it. And then, when all the other rock artists wanted an oboe, they would call me.

The big years were the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It was a lot of work, a lot of record dates. I worked with The Monkees. There were a lot of laughs, I remember. They had a good sound. Then I worked with the Beach Boys, that was very good. I worked with Helen Reddy and Olivia Newton- John. I worked with Elvis Presley, a TV special.

What was it like being part of The Wrecking Crew?

It was a lot of fun because a lot of times the composer would say to the rhythm section, “Think of something wild that would fit this particular piece of music.” They would think of something and then they’d ad lib and tell us what to play. Sometimes we’d make up music right on the spot.

Why does this type of studio experience no longer exist?

Most of the rock groups are self-contained, they have their own musicians. There are very few record-based, like they were in the 1960s and 1970s. You could do 15 sessions a week back then and think nothing of it. We did a record with Harry Nilsson – we’d be there at 7 p.m., he’d show up at 10 p.m. And 3 a.m., we’re still there and he’s telling us what to play.

I guess the rock world was a little more loose….

(laughs) It was very loose, I would say.

You’ve done the Emmys and Oscars. What is expected of the band at these live broadcasts? Do you get new music every year?

Oh, yeah. We sight-read everything they put in front of us, and that’s always fun. It’s a good band, good musicians, and it pays good.

It’s a little more exciting because you’re right there when you do it live and the performers are onstage and we’re in the pit, performing the music. When you do a film call, there’s no audience or anything. They put out the music, we do a three-hour session to get all the music in, and it’s over with.

What were some of your most memorable moments in playing for TV?

When we did the Academy Awards and the guy ran across the stage nude. (laughs) David Niven had a great line about the gentleman. He said, “I wouldn’t be running like that, not with the shortcoming he has.” The whole orchestra broke up.

But things always went pretty smoothly, because the band was so good – [the orchestra for the Oscars] was made up of the top musicians in town.

How much of the story are you given when you score episodes for a series?

They’ll get three or four shows ahead. They book you for three hours every week, [to] score an episode. You score each show each week, then they may skip a week.

It’s all new music when they put it in front of us. We don’t know any of it and that makes it exciting. Some shows have a lot of music and some don’t. It’s a challenge and you have to get the music done in three hours. They don’t like to go overtime.

The jazz community seems very tightly knit – how do you explain the bonding that goes on? Is it the collaborative and improvisational nature of the music? And I’m told that doubling and tripling on instruments is helpful to get studio work.

I think if you’re a jazz player and you come to town and sit in on sessions, it’s word of mouth. If people like your playing, they’re going to call you.

The busy guys that get a lot of work play good flute and clarinet besides saxophone. I play the clarinet, flute, and oboe, besides saxophone. I play tenor. But you get a call sometimes to bring an alto or a baritone – I have those instruments also. The record dates I’ve been playing lately, I’ve been using baritone.

What have been the specific contributions of the “West Coast” scene to film and TV?

One of the first movies to have a jazz score was, “I Want to Live,” Gerry Mulligan was the leader. And then Shorty Rogers, who was very influential with jazz … became a good composer. He would write whenever a [director] wanted a jazz score. Shorty Rogers would get the call, or Pete Rugolo, who was connected with Stan Kenton, because they lived out here. And Johnny Mandel – who wrote “The Shadow of Your Smile.” You could always tell it was his score because the music was something special. Everybody wanted to work with Johnny.

You were there at the beginning of jazz musicians working in TV and film. What do you think has changed the most throughout that time? Or hasn’t changed?

There are still a few shows that use live musicians, but a lot of it is done in [a composer’s] home, on a synthesizer … instead of with a live orchestra. That’s been going on a lot. And, the size of the orchestras has been smaller – I don’t know if that is to save money or what.

What do you think was the difference between Hollywood’s composers now and then? It appears that they learned on the job…

[Mancini] learned his craft right in the studios. When he left the Glenn Miller band, we went to work at Universal and he would work on movies like “The Benny Goodman Story” and “The Glenn Miller Story,” that’s how he got his start.

I met Marty Paich at a jam session in the 1950s, he was a big influence on me. You knew he was very good then when you’d go to sessions with him. Then he got a call to do some record dates. I think Mel Tormé gave Marty his break, and he went from there. He really knew his trade.

How is a composer or arranger wired differently than a musician?

I think that’s what their goal was – to become a composer and get a show, rather than just sitting in an orchestra. Marty Paich was a very good piano player. Jerry Fielding, who was a very good composer, played clarinet.  Neal Hefti was a great trumpet player. Pete Rugolo was the same way. 

What are your top three favorite TV themes?

My top three TV themes? I would say Lalo Schifrin’s “Mission Impossible,” Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn,” and Pat Williams’ “Streets of San Francisco.” I think, because [these were part of] a new type of music and it was a challenge. It felt good, it always fit the picture. And these composers that wrote them, they were great. Very talented.

I saw you playing baritone at the memorial for Dave Pell, one of the last events at Local 47 when it was still headquartered on Vine. The sheet music looked yellowed and old, as if they were the original charts…

That was all the original music. There was no rehearsal, we were sight-reading everything. It was fun. I just got a call from the guy who was playing trumpet (Carl Saunders, Pell’s nephew), asking if I could play for that. [Dave] became a record producer and I worked on some of his records.

What are you working on now?

I’m doing a lot of record dates lately. I enjoy record dates more than anything else right now because the music is always good, with good orchestras.

Sometimes when you do a TV show week after week, the music gets stale and it’s not a challenge anymore. When you record a song, it lasts three minutes or so. It’s more challenging.

An album you released in 2005 is titled, “First Time Out,” which is both wry and optimistic, considering you were 77 then. What are some of the things you learned early in your career, and how do they serve you today?

To always be on time, never be late. Never talk over the composer and never laugh at any of the music. The composer is the boss, you have to respect them.

Have you ever had occasion to laugh?

I’m afraid I did. It was a rock and roll date. The composer was just getting started, so I felt bad.

SOURCES:

Phone interview with Gene Cipriano, September 9, 2017

Phone interview with Gene Cipriano, August 8, 2019

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