The trumpet riff at the beginning of Gerald Wilson’s “Before Motown” is a triumphant and blast, possessed of what Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish tinge.” It is delivered in its elegant audacity by Bobby Rodriguez, the Grammy-nominated musician, composer, and educator known to his fans, students, and colleagues as “Dr. Bobby.”
Drawing from his Mexican American roots in East Los Angeles, Rodriguez composed the score for the musical, “Paquito’s Christmas,” working with the show’s lyricist Luis Avalos. The musical, which is set in multicultural Los Angeles, has been presented in cities across the country since 1994.
A professor of music at the University of California, Irvine and at the University of Redlands, Rodriguez brings consummate musicianship and professional expertise to his students, as well as his flair for adding that sabor to jazz. During his 18-year career at UCLA, Rodriguez created the Latin Jazz Big Band in 2000 with strong support from Kenny Burrell, legendary guitarist and a Distinguished Professor and founding director of Jazz Studies at UCLA. Rodriguez, who taught at UCLA until earlier this year, also co-directed Burrell’s Los Angeles Jazz Unlimited Orchestra.
Rodriguez is currently working on a new recording of his music and is writing a book on the “ABCs of Jazz Improvisation.” He performs regularly throughout Los Angeles and on September 27, 2018, will be a featured soloist with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra at Catalina’s Bar and Grill in Hollywood. Rodriguez, who works to motivate the youth of Los Angeles in their pursuit of music education, is also a sought-after clinician and soloist at numerous high schools.
How does your heritage as a Latino from Los Angeles inspire your music?
My music has always been jazz with a Latin feel. There’s always been an East Coast/West Coast rivalry. The music is different, first of all, because of the warmth of Southern California, and certainly because of the environment of Los Angeles.
For example, salsa music that’s written in New York has a strong [influence] from the Cuban tradition. Here on this coast, I think we’re much more able to free ourselves from the confinement of the clave– a two-bar rhythmic concept (snaps fingers) that comes from the New Orleans tradition – dukka-dukka-dukka-du-du-du. That element is built into the Cuban soul. Cuban music [is] music based on clave. We can alter it here on the West Coast; we’re not as strict about it, and I think that’s an advantage.
For example, salsa music that’s written in New York has an extremely strong [influence] from the Cuban tradition. Here on the West Coast, I think we’re much more able to free ourselves from the confinement of the clave– a two-bar rhythmic concept (snaps fingers) that comes from the New Orleans tradition – dukka-dukka-dukka-du-du. That element is built into the Cuban soul. Cuban music [is] built with clave. We can alter it here on the West Coast; we’re not as strict about it, and I think that’s an advantage.
Jazz is a hard sell because it’s very intellectual music and there usually no dancing. That’s basically why I’ve made my music “LatinJazz,” so it would be more attractive to a larger audience.
Gerald Wilson’s compositions embody that California warmth…
Gerald is one of my heroes. Of course, he wrote straight jazz charts for many years. But when it came to playing his own stuff, his wife, Josefina, a Mexican American woman from Los Angeles, also had a big influence on him. She took him down to Tijuana and they experienced a bullfight, and when he saw that bullfight, his whole world changed.
Gerald used more harmonic information, not so much rhythmic information. His flat-9 chords, which of course, is what he’s famous for, give his music an immediate and absolute Spanish feeling. For example, his “Carlos” is magnificent.
How have you been able to further Latin jazz – or jazz with a Latin feel – in Los Angeles?
We – Eddie Cano, Lionel “Chico” Sesma, Paul Lopez, Tony Garcia, Mike Pacheco, Johnny Martinez, Rudy Macias, me and many more – started this organization called the Hispanic Musicians Association in 1986. This organization afforded me the opportunity to form a Latin Jazz big band in L.A. Some of the music we created then, I’m still using with my students today. I haven’t heard some of the songs in 30 years and when I hear the kids play them, it amazes me because they still sound good and are still high-quality. In my music I use the songs as vehicles for improvisation. Good and correct music lives for a long time.
The actor Luis Avalos wrote the book for “Paquito’s Christmas.” We had met through Elizabeth Peña when we both worked on the project ,“Celebrando la Differencia” in 1989. He liked what I had done with the music and contacted me and said, “I have an idea for a play.” It had a beautiful Christmas theme, [with] the story of this boy, Paquito, who goes away and finds all these strange and funny things and eventually gets back into his own bed where he is safe and secure.
I introduced Luis to the head of the LA Cultural Affairs at the time, and I introduced him to the idea of getting sponsors to finance school age students to come and see the play for free, with sponsorship by a company, a corporation, LAUSD, or L.A. Cultural Affairs.
What did you think of the depiction of jazz musicians in L.A. in “La La Land”?
I’ve actually lived that experience. People have come to me and tried to [lure] me with different enticements [to fame] and I’ve never taken to that path. I always felt that I just wanted to be true to what I have inside me. If it takes me to the top, great. If it takes me four steps up, that’s okay too. As I’ve always said, “If it’s honest, it’s real and that’s what I am.”
Have you done much studio work for film or television?
Not on a regular basis. Some of my music has been picked up by independent music supervisors and has been placed in different movies for ambience and background. I’m still looking for that major hit. But if 22 seconds of my music is used, yes, there is a payment.
Do you get writer’s credit for this music?
I think you have to have a minute or some perimeter of how much time is used, or if it’s a featured theme. But if it’s background, they pay you by the second. It just depends on if a music supervisor says, “I want a fill right there.” And off it goes. Sometimes the temp music becomes the [actual] music because the director enjoys it so much.
What got you started on the trumpet?
I wanted to play since I was eight years old. I saw a trumpet player on TV, I think it was Harry James and I fell in love with the whole thing – his sound, the image, the beauty of the notes. But my mother was newly divorced at that time so money was very tight, we didn’t have extra. She thought it was just a passing fancy of mine and that she would pay and lose out on the money and I would go and do something else.
Well, I wore her down, I would not give up. I kept asking to play and two years later I finally got her to let me try. It was ten dollars a month: five dollars for rental of a trumpet and five dollars for the music lessons. And as soon as I tried, it was magic, and I loved it. I started out [while] at Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary School, on 3rdand Rowland. Then I went to Salesian High School, a Catholic boys’ school. I worked hard at it and practiced a lot.
What made you decide this was what you wanted for a career?
As soon as I got to high school, I was standing on the corner [one day], and a guy came up to me and offered me a job playing music with his band he was managing. He was a senior and I was a freshman. But already, I was advanced. There were no jazz bands at that point, just concert band work. I also played in pop and rock and roll bands and then I realized I could make money. I never thought about making money [before]. “You want to play in this band?” I said, “Okay.” “Here’s ten dollars.” “Wow – ten bucks – great!” And I’ve never looked back.
I was student body president at my high school and I kept playing. At that time, KBCA had a jazz station here in Los Angeles and I got a job as a broadcaster. I did that for a year, then I got drafted. I went away to the service for three years. I played my trumpet at Ft. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, and Fulda, Germany for two years. This was right at the height of Vietnam, 1969 to 1972. I thought I was going to Vietnam and I’m so happy I didn’t – the gods were with me on that. I did not enjoy the service but do think now that it’s in my past, it’s a good growing-up place. It does teach you discipline and awareness of other things, other than just yourself.
Coming back, my one dream was to make a record. In 1973, I came back and immediately went into production to make my first record, which I did. It was called, “Simply Macramé.” The cover of it shows a macramé [piece], because I was in love with a girl who made macramé, and it was fascinating to me. I was just contacted three months ago by someone in England, who has just re-released that record on vinyl. I haven’t heard it in 40 years. He sent me a copy of it and I was stunned to hear myself as a 24-year-old, it was amazing.
It’s amazing how things work. Looking back now, it’s pretty understandable. But when you’re in the middle of it, crawling forward, there’s a lot of unknowns and sheer belief in your life moving forward. Being the greatest in your neighborhood is certainly not the way to keep a career going. I now know that you have to be schooled so you can understand how a musician works after the pop years, which of course are your 20s. I went through [those years] with Quincy Jones and the Brothers Johnson school of pop and then finished that at 30, being married and having my first child. It’s a reality check and you wonder how you’re going to pay for this new [life].
I realized my abilities were not as good as I assumed they were to compete on a world scale. So, I started taking lessons and it helped a lot. I went back to school at 33 and finished my bachelor’s degree because when I got out of the service I went to school though the G.I. Bill but never finished. I got my doctorate in music performance in 2006 from UCLA. I did it partially because of the respect I have for jazz music. There aren’t a lot of Doctors of Music who can really play. Well, I wanted to be that extraordinary one, the different one who can play, who can teach, and who has the paperwork – the big three, so to speak.
You are working on multiple writing projects, including your own autobiographical children’s book, “An East L. A. Story,” and a book on jazz improvisation. What is the importance of chronicling the history of jazz, particularly from a musician’s viewpoint?
Being part of the industry, I know some of the heights, the lows, the downfalls, and the creative spurts. I understand the practice routine, the dedication, the commitment, and the luck of having a body that will allow you to progress forward over ten, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years. These are the types of things a writer outside of the industry wouldn’t really touch upon because it’s “just the facts, ma’am, just the facts”: he was born, he played, he recorded. But there is so much more. We don’t play music for money, we play music for love. Then we must figure out how to make money with it.
There’s a lot of personal and emotional information on why artists do what they do. It’s taken me a long time to understand the value of history because now I’m part of it.
I happen to know LaRue Brown [Watson], Clifford Brown’s widow, and I knew her at a time when I wasn’t asking about Clifford Brown. I met Freddie Hubbard about a year before he passed and became very good friends with his wife Brigitte. And then a year later, she died too.
Ndugu Chancler was my very good friend. He played drums on “Simply Macramé.” He died this year in 2018. And there are other friends who will go and with them will go the stories and history of jazz. It’s Hollywood, but it’s also an amazingly artsy town [with] a lot of people who want to express themselves.
How is jazz education unique from teaching about other types of music?
First of all, jazz education is important. There’s a lot of individualism involved. A lot of other music is very programmed. You’ve got to play it how Beethoven said to play it, or Mozart, or whoever. Jazz is very individual. There are rules, of course, that guide the basic sensibilities of jazz. But jazz musicians have a lot of freedom within those rules [in order] to bend them or break them. If you understand the larger picture of how jazz is to be presented, which is of course, honestly, personally, and respectfully, with the sensibilities of jazz as the core [with] the basics of the instrument – intonation, time, rhythm, knowledge, all those things. Then, your individuality can shine through.
Jazz is a very beautiful music. Many people say it can only have started in America, because of the freedoms we have here to express ourselves. And I certainly agree with that. I will forever be grateful for what jazz has allowed me to become. Jazz is freedom; jazz is America.
As an educator, what do you learn from your students?
To listen to [them]. That they are me, 40 or 50 years removed. I’m 67. I never imagined that number would be attached to me. I didn’t think it was a negative, I just never thought of it.
I see myself in them. They’re wisecracking, they’re wanting to be one of the guys of stature. They don’t know how to do it. They’re far too aggressive and they’re not talented enough – yet.
First, I try and make them understand that listening is where they must start, dedicated is what they must be, and determination is what they must forever have. I learn from my students that they are me, 40 or 50 years removed. I’m 67 and I never imagined that number would be attached to me. I didn’t think it was a negative, I just never thought of it. I see myself in them. They’re wisecracking, they’re wanting to be one of the guys of stature. They don’t know how to do it. They’re far too aggressive and they’re not talented enough – yet.
It makes me see how much I should have learned at an earlier age. I needed mentors; I was lucky to have some later. Bill Taggert was my first bandleader; Paul Lopez was my salsa guru. Don Ferrara, my first real trumpet teacher, and then the man who saved my career – Uan Rasey. These people are great individuals who were really helpful to me. Uan gave me not only great trumpet advice, but also personal advice. He said to me, you’ve got the goods now you have to use them correctly. And when someone on the outside can affirm those hidden feelings … he said all you have to do is put the pieces together. And that’s what I’m still trying to do.
I’m very lucky to be living right here right now with an ability to help myself and to help others. I’m not an inventor or re-inventor of the greatest thing in the world. But nobody can be a better me than me. That’s what motivates me to keep practicing and keep trying to get just a little bit better every day. That’s what I tell my students all the time: don’t compete with me … compete with yourself. Because no one can be a better you than you.
If you’ve ever seen such iconic TV shows as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Streets of San Francisco,” or seen any number of major motion pictures of the late 1960s-1990s including “Swing Shift,” “Breaking Away,” “Cry-Baby,” or “The Grass Harp,” you’ve heard the music of Patrick Williams, musician, composer, arranger, conductor, producer, and educator.
Throughout his career, Williams moved seamlessly between jazz, classical, and popular genres. He was chosen by Frank Sinatra as musical director and arranger for the Chairman’s final studio recordings, “Duets” and “Duets II,” and also had a major role in shaping some of the most beloved and successful pop songs and albums by artists such as Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Gloria Estefan, Brian Setzer, and Barbra Streisand. His arrangement of Billy Joel’s Diamond-certified album, “The Stranger” was recognized by The Recording Academy for Best Arrangement and Record of the Year in 1977.
I was privileged to interview Mr. Willilams last year for MLS, with deepest thanks to Peter Erskine. Williams, who died today at aged 79, was one of the main inspirations for this blog.
Click here to read the entire “Making Life Swing” Q & A with Patrick Williams.
“I’ll Remember April,” as the time last year that I embarked on “Making Life Swing.” I learned a lot more than I ever expected to learn, not just about the past and present of the jazz world.
I learned about the people who live and work in that world and the stories that feed their creation of music. Not only were they all consummate professionals in their respective fields – which were not only limited to musicians, composers, and arrangers – but they were passionate, driven, and humble human beings. They had committed themselves, usually early in life, to a type of music that to the average person has all the threadbare glamour of an old wooden tennis racket in its worn-out press, found in the inner recesses of Grandpa’s garage or worse yet, in a forgotten corner of a museum. You’ll ooh and aah over it, and marvel at how the game was played “back in the day.” But the average person wouldn’t pick the thing up and play a match with it.
Unlike an outdated piece of sports equipment, the jazz genre is very much as vibrant and valid today, not just musically, but socially. It still enjoys the strength of not only its practitioners but of the community of their fans, family, and friends that support it. The most popular post on MLS is an interview with Angela Levey, widow of the legendary drummer Stan Levey, and their son Chris, who generously shared their experiences as a Southern California family in the mid-20th Century. Their story is buoyed by Stan’s personal and professional drive as a musician, his place in history as a protégé of Dizzy Gillespie and one of the very few White artists who gave birth to bebop, the great love story of Angela and Stan, and the musical aspirations of Chris and his brother and half-brother – who were dissuaded from a musician’s life by their famous father, who wanted much more for his sons.
Listening to my transcripts, I found myself italicizing certain words that seemed to demand that treatment. I’ve been urged to video-record my interviews, but that would make the project something that is isn’t meant to be. The internet has a bounty of great interviews, visuals and the voices of this accomplished cadre of musicians, composers, and arrangers.
In my interview with drummer Peter Erskine, he spoke of how the great film composer John Williams once said to him regarding a film track, “That is going to look really nice.” That being said, I kept to prose here because I wanted the reader to really be able to listen through the printed page.
In these verbatim interviews, my subjects have revealed that to play jazz is to play music born of perseverance, patience, and of listening to your fellow musicians tell you how they are feeling musically. Other humanistic themes emerged as well. Erskine describes jazz as a genre where musicians pay it forward, sharing with and teaching their colleagues as equals, not as rivals. Teodross Avery, in the middle of his career both as a musician and an academic, talks about how young musicians learn from their elders, both formally or by subtle examples “on the job.” And record producer and jazz historian Jordi Pujol talks about learning to love West Coast jazz all the way over in sunny Spain. In addition, throughout these narratives are woven the threads of social justice, tradition, education, and quite simply, love.
Speaking of love, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the uber-swingin’ art that graces the homepage. The lovely and talented Shiho Nakaza has been my best friend for longer than either of us probably want to admit. Whether we are waiting for a table at a restaurant, watching the Cubbies win at Wrigley Field, or hearing a Latin jazz concert at LACMA, her beautiful expressions of the world around her magically appear at her fingertips. Her drawing of the band at a tribute to the late West Coast sax giant Dave Pell draws (no pun intended) great admiration from everyone I’ve handed my business card to or directed to this blog.
I am happy to report that “Making Life Swing” has been recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club this year with 2nd Place for an Individual Blog. My esteemed co-winners in this category are California Rocker and Today Past.
That we three have received these honors is immense. First off, it shows that the idea of citizen bloggers has achieved true legitimacy within today’s sphere of journalism. Being recognized on the same list of finalists with icons such as LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and KCET, gives blogging a ton of street cred. But more importantly, two music blogs and a history blog being honored thusly shows that what we need right now is good news about people making the world a better place through their art and also that we need to look back in order to move forward.
I hope that with “Making Life Swing,” you dear reader, can experience both.
An audience gathered in a small auditorium one evening last November on the campus of California State University, Dominguez Hills. Waiting for the recital of student jazz combos to begin, the usual pre-concert scene unfolds: people saving seats, student performers greeting friends, families, and professors who have come to support them. Other students who are running the house are moving to and fro in preparation for the performance.
When the recital begins, the energy in the room turns toward the students, who do not disappoint. Their parents and classmates are visibly impressed at the unexpected talent of their offspring and friends. In the middle of the recital, a member of the music faculty appears with a quintet, and a palpable vibe of adulation begins to rise, not just from the audience, but from the players onstage.
A veteran player with a considerable list of concert, recording, film, and TV credits that belie his age, Teodross Avery has upped the game for a little-known division at the state university, and joined the music faculty as assistant professor of Jazz Studies and Commercial Music within the university’s music department.
As a teenager in Northern California, Avery connected with Wynton Marsalis when the trumpeter-educator purchased instruments for talented young musicians. Not only did Avery benefit from receiving an instrument from Marsalis, but he was also fortunate enough to meet and receive pointers from the accomplished players in the Marsalis organization, with whom he jammed with when they toured his community.
At 17, Avery won a full scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and got the attention of Carl Griffin, A&R executive at GRP/Impulse Records, who signed Avery at 19. In 1994, Avery’s first album, “In Other Words,” was received with great acclaim, including a five-star review in USA Today. While still an undergrad, Avery was in great demand, and backed the likes of Aretha Franklin, Betty Carter, and Ramsey Lewis while still completing his studies at Berklee, graduating in 1995.
Graduating with an estimable amount of professional experience, Avery set out to conquer New York City. He performed at the legendary Blue Note with the Cedar Walton Sextet, featuring Art Farmer. Avery also played and recorded with a variety of jazz greats including Dee Dee Bridgewater, Hank Jones, Ben Riley, Harold Mabern, Cyrus Chestnut, Lewis Nash, Donald Harrison, Bobby Watson, and The Roy Hargrove Big Band. His second album, “My Generation, was released in 1996 on the GRP/Impulse label. The James Moody classic, “Moody’s Blues” is subtitled “Teo’s Licks” on “Frank,” Amy Winehouse’s 2003 jazz-tinged album.
Avery has portrayed musicians – actually playing onscreen, instead of actors who simulate playing instruments – in films and television, including appearances in “Love Jones,” “Beauty Shop,” “Black-ish,” “Saturday Night Live,” and the MTV Awards.
Avery earned his Ph.D. in Jazz Studies from USC in 2016. He also holds a master’s degree in music from the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University. Avery is also the recipient of numerous awards, including The Sony Innovator Award (1992), The National Foundation for The Advancement in The Arts’ Clifford Brown/Stan Getz Fellowship (1992), and The NAACP ACT-SO Award (1991).
At a state school that is geared toward preparing students for careers, Professor Avery’s faculty appointment could not be more beneficial. He shares his experiences, many of which are probably common among his students – some of whom are already working in the music industry while earning their degrees – including parental support in pursuing a musical education, early recognition of his talent, and the multigenerational teaching and learning that is one of the hallmarks of the jazz genre.
How was music a part of your upbringing?
My dad … listened to jazz, rock, West African music, blues, all different styles of music. My mother is from Ethiopia, so I heard a lot of East African music through her. East African and West African music are so different, but there are similarities as well.
My dad really turned me on to good music and such a diverse group of musical styles. He always admired people like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and real guitar players. He started me on the guitar when I was ten. His feeling was that if I could learn to play classical guitar music that I could play anything – which is totally not true. [My father] meant well and it was a great way to get me excited about music. Learning how to play etudes and arpeggios will teach you how to play your instrument in a complete manner.
Classical music can prepare you technically but it cannot prepare you in terms of learning popular music styles, or how to groove or how to be an improvisational musician. You have to let go of that, to achieve the spontaneity of [jazz]. A lot of musicians who were classical musicians, they can read anything on the page. But the best jazz is the opposite of that.
Is the ability to groove more internal?
It’s internal, but it’s external too. The best jazz is in the moment. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re playing with three or four other musicians … reacting to what you’re doing, and you’re reacting to them.
There is some analyzation that goes down. You have to figure out, ‘How does this piano player play? What kind of voicings are they using? Do they swing? Do they play on top of the beat or behind the beat? What players are they influenced by? They play this, you play that – how will the bass player react to the drummer. But nothing is based on what’s on the page. It’s a constant conversation in the music.
Along those lines of interaction, what unique skills do jazz musicians bring to telling stories on TV and in film?
If you really play improvisational jazz, you’re dealing with spontaneity and following other musicians, being intuitive and reacting to their reactions. In dialogue, you’re hearing words. The music that you compose [and play] would be directly related to the dialogue in terms of interpreting what [the words] mean.
Dialogue tells you where things are going. Or, the movement – say there’s dance involved – will give you the information you need in order to write stylistically. If you have a group of people dancing in the jazz style, you might compose something in swing. That’s why most movies that deal with jazz, you hear the swing approach in the types of music, even if it’s a small group performing the music, it will be out of that style.
Do you always see a script or the film or show before you compose?
Not always. With “Love Jones,” the director, Theodore Witcher, just explained what was going to be happening over the phone. We had this scene in a club called The Sanctuary. This club is where all the poets meet up and perform spoken word poetry with the band.
He said, ‘We have a song that we’d like you to play.’ I said, ‘Cool,’ but I had no idea what that would look like. I didn’t know what the room would look like, I didn’t know what the dialogue was between the different people. So, I just showed up and based on what he said, I figured we could play the song. When it happened, we were able to adapt.
Were you able to bring in your own musicians?
I brought in my own musicians. We all went to Chicago to film the movie. I brought in a guy named Carl Allen who was recently the director of jazz studies at Julliard until a few years ago. I had a bass player by the name of Marcus Shelby, who’s in the Bay Area; he’s from L.A. [originally]. And then a guitar player from Chicago named Jeff Parker who’s doing very well.
When you do live TV, are you there with a specific artist, or for the entire broadcast?
I did “Saturday Night Live,” and the MTV Awards with Lauryn Hill, TRL with Shakira, and “The Today Show” with Matchbox Twenty and a bunch of different shows like that. I’m there with a specific artist, not part of the pit band.
Usually award shows, you’ll have musicians who are part of the house band or the pit band. They’ll be used to support singers when they come on and then they’ll play bumps on and off, as the show comes to a commercial or comes back from a commercial. (Teodross scats the “Entertainment Tonight” theme song)
The house band – if you have a special artist perform – might request certain [musicians], and I’ve been one of them. Usually, you’re part of a tour. When I was with Lauryn Hill, we were on the road for a year. When you’re on tour, you’re in a different city every two days, maybe every day. When we were in New York, we would do Madison Square Garden and then do “SNL,” it’s just part of the whole tour.
It’s different when you’re not on tour and you do a TV show. I did a long run with Shakira for Spanish-language television stations like “Sabado Gigante,” and MTV’s “TRL.” We did a giant stadium performance where a soccer team was playing in New York – a promo for her single, “Hips Don’t Lie,” with Wyclef Jean.
When you’re onscreen, do the actors and the director interact with you?
They come by and talk to us a little bit. Someone like Anthony Anderson will come by and tell a couple of jokes. Comedians – the real ones – can never stop telling jokes. The [singers] often perform with musicians so they naturally gravitate towards the band. Except Mary J. Blige – she never talks, she’s always in her zone. To [be] a diva you have to remain wordless to the lesser types. (laughs) You have to be focused.
How did you get the attention of Wynton Marsalis?
At the time – 1986 or 1987 –my dad lived an hour north of Oakland, in Vacaville, and it was quiet out there. There wasn’t much going on there, he lived in the country. It’s great if you want to study – I got very good grades because there was nothing to do. And it’s great for practicing because you have a lot of time on your hands. I would practice for six to eight hours a day over the summer, just playing all day, listening to albums, checking things out.
One thing you did was look through newspapers and see who was coming to town: Wynton Marsalis, Art Blakely, Freddy Hubbard, the ? Brothers, Nat Adderley – all these great performers. I read in The San Francisco Chronicle that [Marsalis] would buy instruments for up-and-coming musicians.
I had a saxophone that was not that good and I needed to really upgrade. I inquired about the possibility of getting a saxophone, and his tour manager, David Robinson, said, “Yeah, we do that.” I asked how I could audition. I sat in with Marsalis and played for him, and he got to see how serious I was.
It was great, because when you’re at that age, you’re very malleable. You can go either way with it – you can quit music or you can continue to play. A situation like that where someone buys you an instrument can keep you totally excited about learning to play.
When [Marsalis’s group] would come to town, I would seek them out and try to play with them and take pointers from them. They would say, “You need to try this, you need to try that. Listen to this player.” And you’d learn the music even more like that. But it wasn’t like being part of a formal institution.
What are the pros and cons of learning the way you did, and of being enrolled at a music school?
Jazz, in the past few years, has been heavily dependent on the institutions, and that’s been great for the music. But it really comes more out of an oral tradition, where musicians learn and take direction from older musicians. That’s how they really learn the music. That is just as important as being at an institution.
Formal programs are great, but in addition to that, a student needs to talk to and learn from an accomplished musician. Sometimes, it could just be a 20-minute conversation on a [musician’s] break. They can set you on a path that will be valuable for you as a young artist. You will get the inside information. Let’s face it –not everyone is in on the same scene. That teacher at an institution may have [an academic] perspective, but a teacher who is out playing and touring around the world and teaching, will have a different perspective. That is why I was chosen for the position [at Dominguez Hills].
So, what drew you to add “educator” to your list of credits?
I want to give students what I wanted when I was a student: An education from a professor who also has extensive professional experience, as well as recording, touring, writing and production experience.
You see the generations play together more often in jazz than any other type of music…
Yes, it’s different from other styles. In classical music, you see that a lot too. But you don’t see that much in R&B or rock, when there’s a tribute. It’s never just a natural exchange.
Who were some of your greatest mentors?
Wynton and Branford were two great mentors; so was Freddy Hubbard. Some of these people I would just go listen to and I would ask them a question. Or, I would play with them. A lot of times you could learn by how they played – they would be telling you what to do by the way they played, not necessarily by saying it.
And, it’s what they don’t say. They’re telling you things by what they don’t say. If you were a young musician playing with older musicians, and after the job they said, “You should listen to Ben Webster play ballads,” that means you don’t play ballads well. Or, they might say, “It’s important to learn the lyrics to songs when you learn [to play] them.” That means, you don’t know the lyrics to songs. They’re trying to help you out and they’re hoping that you’ll get what they’re saying. But it’s up to you to be wise enough to understand.
The average jazz musician is not like the average rock or blues musician, where it’s about being totally expressive in the most straightforward way. Those people will just say, “You don’t know the lyrics to songs and you sound like crap playing behind me.” So, you have to decipher [jazz] musicians because they’re very terse – they’re not going to say a lot.
What is an example of when you were coming up and someone gave the kind of criticism to you?
The majority of my experiences – I know how to figure stuff out without people really telling me much because of those experiences. For instance, most jazz is playing instrumental versions of vocal songs. I’ve had vocalists say, “You need to learn the lyrics.” Betty Carter could tell if you didn’t know the lyrics.
Let’s say Hall & Oates, “Your Kiss” was covered by a jazz musician [and] was written 70 years ago. If I was playing with you as the vocalist, if I didn’t play that chorus true to the melody, that would be a perfect time to tell me, “You need to go and learn the melody,” because you’re dependent on me playing it like it’s been played and how you’ve sung it many, many times. I’ve been in situations like that with a mature vocalist who sings songs from her time.
You can’t really get away with [not knowing] this stuff in jazz. If you play with older musicians, they’ve played with older musicians, and they all know the same songs. If they play, “All the Things You Are,” they’ve played it over and over and over since they were 18, and they’re 70 now. When they were 18, they were playing with a 70-year-old who knew that song as well. So, when you come along and if you’re not playing that melody, everyone’s going to know.
As a seasoned, real-world musician who also has the academic credentials, how do you prepare your students for the industry?
This is the classroom, but this is a stepping stone to a professional career. I preface everything by saying, “You will need this as a professional later.” Maybe they might not want to accept what I’m saying. At that point, I say, “Hey – I’ve done this many times, so trust me. I usually tell them straight and it connects all the dots.
One day, another musician will be interviewed by another writer and they will ask them, “What was it like being taught by Teodross Avery? What do you think the musician would say?
I think they’re going to say I gave them the real deal. That I was telling the truth and that I tried to give them what they needed to be successful. And that I was also concerned about where they were going to go, what they wanted to study and perform. That I did not have a one-size-fits-all approach; that I listened to them.
© MMXVIII Joanie Harmon
From the forthcoming book, “Making Life Swing: Jazz on TV and Other Unexpected Places”
About this time last year, when I began writing “Making Life Swing,” it was hard to pinpoint where I would begin my journey of recounting the deep contributions of jazz and its practitioners to music on TV. I dug deep into my memories of television viewing as a kid, a teen, and a young adult. I mind mapped all my favorite theme songs, and ones that I thought were classics in the genre, Googling the composers, arrangers, and players who created them.
The internet being what it is, however, tugged at my sleeve in the margins of one website, with a blurb that mentioned “Schoolhouse Rock.” Of course – I would start at the beginning, namely my childhood diet of Saturday morning cartoons, interspersed with catchy and iconic tunes like, “I’m Just a Bill,” “Naughty Number Nine,” and “Conjunction Junction.”
I started searching for the creative minds that were responsible for this landmark series and found the website of George Newall, the former advertising executive who got the proverbial ball rolling. Per a request to come up with a way for his boss’s son to learn and remember his multiplication tables, Newall, who had studied composition and was a jazz pianist himself, was able to gather a cadre of musical luminaries, including Bob Dorough, to compose and perform the songs about the multiplication tables on an LP, which eventually became the TV phenomenon we now know as “Schoolhouse Rock.
I emailed Mr. Newall and to my great joy, he not only granted me an interview, but copied Mr. Dorough on his reply, which blew my mind. It was like seeing Duke Ellington or Mozart cc’d on a message to me. I interviewed the gracious Mr. Newall, but was a bit nervous about talking to Mr. Dorough. This was the composer and/or songwriter of classics like “Devil May Care,” “I’m Hip,” and Mel Torme’s hit, “Comin’ Home Baby,” which was composed by bassist Ben Tucker, another “Schoolhouse Rock” alumnus.
The day of the interview arrived and I phoned Bob at his home in Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania. He was the consummate Southern gentleman, and was patient, kind, and enthusiastic. And he sang a verse for me from “Elementary, My Dear” – moments like that in an interview are magical!
Without further ado, here is the MLS post on “Schoolhouse Rock.” And some great links for more on Bob Dorough.
Rest in peace, Mr. Dorough, and thank you for the music. There truly was “Nothing Like You.”
Obituary in the Arkansas Times
Patrick Williams has enjoyed a charmed career, albeit one fueled by talent and hard work. Being in Hollywood at the right time didn’t hurt – he has been honored by the muses Emmy, Grammy, Oscar – and even Pulitzer. With multiple nominations and wins for his work in what this author considers the Golden Age of Television, Williams has written iconic TV themes and scores for landmark shows during the 1970s through the 1990s such as “Lou Grant,” “Columbo,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Streets of San Francisco,” and “The Bob Newhart Show.”
Williams worked as the ad hoc “house composer” for MTM Enterprises, which he recalls as “the [gold] standard of the industry at the time… with all sorts of hit shows, one after the other.” This body of work has helped to establish a creative model for many TV composers since, in writing music for programming that portrays the work and lives of detectives, journalists, and others whose professions have the elements of danger and moral ambiguity. At the core of these stories is often the responsibility of a main character or characters to improve the human condition.
Throughout his career, Williams’ work traverses seamlessly between the jazz, classical, and popular genres. The versatile arranger and conductor was chosen by Frank Sinatra as musical director and arranger for the Chairman’s final studio recordings, “Duets” and “Duets II.” Williams has also had a major role in shaping some of the most beloved and successful pop songs and albums by artists such as Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Gloria Estefan, Brian Setzer, and Barbra Streisand. His arrangement of Billy Joel’s Diamond-certified album (10,000,000 copies sold – yes, this is better than Platinum, which is only a paltry million), “The Stranger” was recognized by The Recording Academy for Best Arrangement and Record of the Year in 1977.
After graduating from Duke University with his bachelor’s degree and studying composition and orchestration at Columbia University, Williams arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. His first film score was for the 1968 rom-com, “How Sweet It Is,” starring Debbie Reynolds and James Garner. For 25 years, Williams worked prolifically in film and television, winning Emmys for his work on made-for-TV films “Yesterday’s Children,” “The Princess and the Cabbie,” and the mini-series, “Danielle Steele’s ‘Jewels.’” He won an Emmy in 1980 for “Lou Grant,” – which garnered five nominations throughout all five seasons of its 1977- 1982 run.
Williams’ original score and his adaptations of works by Mendelssohn and Rossini for the 1979 film, “Breaking Away” were nominated for an Academy Award. In addition, his 1977 opus, “An American Concerto” was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and featured jazz legends Chuck Domanico (b), Grady Tate (d), Phil Woods (as) – also featured on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are”), as well as fellow TV composer Dave Grusin. The work was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and released on vinyl in 1980.
Williams was the artistic director of the Henry Mancini Institute at UCLA from 2001-06, and has been a guest lecturer at the Berklee College of Music, Indiana University, Duke University and Yale. He has also taught at USC, Texas Christian University, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and the Canadian Motion Picture and Television Workshop. Williams holds an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Colorado, and a visiting professor and composer-in-residence at the University of Utah, where he composed “An American Concerto.” He now arranges and produces for artists on his own label, Soundwings.
Over lunch at the Pacific Dining Car in Santa Monica, with a soundtrack of other conversations, the clink of glasses and flatware, and even a celebratory round of “Happy Birthday” at a nearby table, Williams shared his life’s work of enhancing cinema’s storytelling process through music, mentoring the next generation of musicians and composers, and how the arts can strengthen America.
What is the landscape for composing music for TV today, with the increased use of existing music and synthesizers that replace orchestras?
A music editor is called in before a composer is called, and they put together all this temporary music and shove it into the movie [or show]. The problem is in these times, that the composer comes in and the whole picture is filled with music. And whether it’s effective or not, good or bad, the director [has heard] it hundreds of times.
When I was doing the [TV] shows, they might want to hear the theme, so I’d play it on the piano or do a rough demo. That was about it. They didn’t need to hear the whole show filled with music. So [today], the composer comes in and he’s got serious limitations of what he or she can do. [Directors are] so hung up on the temp music that if you do too much that’s different, they’re not going to like it. So, with one hand tied behind your back in a way, you do the score. To me, that is the most significant difference between 25 or 30 years ago and what’s going on now.
Your theme for “Lou Grant” really captured the essence of the show but also the period of the late 1970s in which the stories take place. What was your process of creating music for each episode?
The fun part of the show which was unusual was that it was never the same score. I never knew where it was going to take me, so it was a lot of fun working on that show. I did almost everything in terms of the score. I wrote the theme, and we did 14 or 15 episodes a year. Every week was like a movie of its own; we could get involved in all sorts of different things. The stories were never the same. One [episode] was about people in an L.A. barrio and I did a whole Afro-Cuban thing.
The theme changed too, from season to season – it seemed like it got “jazzier” over time.
It did, depending on the players. But the music was the same. It was AFM policy to record the theme every year. A different cast of characters would put a little bit of a different twist to it, they would take it in another direction. I would just kind of watch they did, unless something bothered me. I don’t say much except, “That sounds good.” I say that a lot.
How much of a film is completed before you step into the process?
Most of the time, it’s completely done [or] in the final cut. I did a Western and they flew me to Durango, Mexico, so I’d get the atmosphere of this Western, especially the Mexican vibe and all. It was helpful, I guess, but that’s rare, it’s happened to me a dozen times at the most. Normally, I’d get [a show or film] when it was completely done.
What I like to do is watch it once myself, with no one, so that people aren’t telling me what they think is on the screen. I want to see what’s on the screen and see what I think about it before they start to say, ‘Now here’s what’s really going on, and here’s what we want.’ Because they’ve already made up their minds – they’ve seen it over and over and over.
I may look at it and say, ‘Look, just because we’re at a church, doesn’t mean we have to have an organ, because the story isn’t about the church. The story is about the guy who’s in the church.’ It’s that kind of thing you always have to deal with as a film composer – where’s the story? You’re following the story.
What happens next?
When I was doing [TV] shows, they might want to hear the theme, so I’d play it on the piano or do a rough demo. That was about it. They didn’t need to hear the whole show filled with music. Why? You’re hiring a composer to do that.
I also think and this is my opinion – directors, almost by definition, have issues with control. They want to feel like they’re in control and in a lot of ways, they really are. But a lot of that is hiring the right [composer] and communicating with them about what you want. And then he goes home and writes. That’s how I liked it.
As the composer, were you able to choose your own orchestra?
I pick the players, absolutely. The contractor actually makes the calls, but we talk about who we’re going to get, very carefully because players are like secret weapons. You can say, ‘Here’s a flute solo,’ but then you say, ‘Who’s going to play the flute solo?’ It makes a big difference, just the style… You think of a certain player and you think about what that player can bring. Almost like a director who casts actors – same idea. The players are extremely important.
When I did “Streets of San Francisco” for five or six years, I brought in Tom Scott to play the saxophone. He’d been on a lot of my records, I know what he plays. I know how he’s going to approach it. And “Lou Grant” as well – that was Tom Scott.
What do you expect most out of your musicians as the composer and as the conductor?
I’m careful about the dynamics I have when I write, so they see what I want. I don’t have to tell them anything – they look at the music and they know what I want. And the orchestras I get here, all these players are so experienced. They’ve done a lot of movie scores, they understand what’s going on. If it says, ‘mezzo piano,’ they know what that is, I don’t have to tell them.
I feel there’s a difference between a player and a musician who plays. The musician has to have an overview, looking from a hundred feet up, not down in the weeds.
Peter [Erskine] is a champ, he knows this. He asks, ‘What are we shooting for here? How am I going to get this to where it should be, as a drummer and as a musician?’ And he’s got a ton of experience. He can play anything he thinks of, there isn’t anything he can’t play. He has phenomenal technique, but he doesn’t overplay. He understands how to use that in a very musical way, not in a technical way.
What else was important to you when recording for film and TV?
I never fluffed. I didn’t want to take a lot of shortcuts. I wanted to feel confident when I walked into the studio that I was prepared, so consequently, we could record faster, which means you save money. We can record more music in three hours if everybody understands what’s going on and you don’t have a lot of political problems. We’re just [there] to record the music.
It worked out well for me because I could get more bang for the buck – I could get a bigger orchestra. To me, it made it possible for me to get the kind of orchestra that I wanted. We used real people. (laughs) I always liked real people.
TV themes used to become pop hits – why has it become less of a priority for a show’s budget to have really great music in the wake of less expensive, pre-recorded material or a one-composer-musician-and-a-synth theme?
There was a whole market for TV themes. When they’re a hit, the studio’s making money, everybody is making money. So, why not have a really good theme and make some money? If nothing else, it just makes good business sense. Mike Post changed a lot of things because he understood how that worked, and he had hit shows – three or four at one time – “Hill Street Blues,” big shows.
What does a great score do? And what are some of your favorites – yours and the work of other composers?
I have quite a few [favorites]. “Chinatown” by Jerry Goldsmith … there are so many. There was a generation between the [active composers] now and Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. There was Alex North, Henry Mancini – all these composers that I admired and had their records.
When I was first out here in 1968, I went to some dates [at] some of the soundstages so I could listen. I remember Alex North did a picture called “Cheyenne Autumn,” a Western. It was at Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood which was a wonderful stage – it’s not there anymore. He had 25 woodwinds. The highest woodwind was a flute. He had four alto flutes, four bass flutes, four bass clarinets. I never heard anything like that in my life.
[As for my scores], the best analogy for that is that they’re all like children – which one do you like better? They’re [all] different. You can have two daughters who are [at] opposite poles. They grew up in the same house [but] they can be extremely different.
And I think scores are the same way – you deal with what’s in front of you. I remember I did a picture at Warner Brothers called “Swing Shift” – Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. I did a lot of movies in the 1980s. He was a jazz trumpet player… it was a lot of fun.
What do you think of how jazz has been represented in film scores?
Johnny Mandel’s “I Want to Live,” was one of the first jazz scores in the mid-fifties. He had a nine or ten-piece band. Gerry Mulligan was in it, and it had a real jazz score. But it’s very difficult to pull that off because oftentimes, [film makers] don’t want real jazz. Their idea of jazz isn’t exactly what you might think – it’s theatre jazz, if you know what I mean.
What were some of the highlights of your teaching career?
I was at the University of Utah and at the University of Colorado for a few years as a visiting professor, and [taught] a professional approach to music, to give [students] the idea that if they wanted to go into this, what they needed to know and what they had to be prepared to do. They have to understand what being a professional means, how you behave.
I was the artistic director of the Henry Mancini Institute for five years. It ran from the end of July till the end of August. I went throughout the country auditioning … to Eastman, Julliard, University of Michigan, North Texas – all the top schools. We were looking for the best of the best. The ages were from 19 to 30. And musically, they were outstanding. We were recruiting from pretty heavyweight music schools, and it was a full scholarship.
We took over UCLA – Royce Hall, all of it. We had 85 musicians – a full symphony [and] a 16-piece jazz band. To play in the jazz band, you had to play in the symphony too – you had to play in everything. From the day [the students] walked onto the UCLA campus, they were treated as professionals. They were exposed to all kinds of new music. They had to know how to sight-read [music], they had to be able to play it effectively and in the right style. We weren’t playing repertoire, we were playing music that was being created there. You don’t play the trumpet the same way if you’re sitting in a symphony orchestra as you play the first trumpet in a big band, so they had to be able to know how to do that.
We had seven young composers and they got to write for the big band, for chamber groups. We had great faculty, top pros from the city. Peter was there a few times. So, the faculty was really seasoned – experienced, active professionals – not just teachers. [Students] got the chance to be exposed to something they never would have if they didn’t come to that institute. At the end of the month – it was like how one picture is worth a thousand words – they got it. That’s what we were shooting for.
How were you able to expand on a multi-genre perspective in your teaching?
The mixing of different genres… that’s what I liked to do. If a guy wanted to be a composer, I would say, “Why don’t you write a piece for string quartet and jazz saxophone and see how that works?” In other words, try to mix up the mediums.
We had a jazz course in improvisation [at the Mancini Institute], and I made it a requirement for the string players. They don’t know how to improvise, they’ve been playing Beethoven. This is how it works – here’s a D Minor 7th. You play these notes – Dah-dah-dah-dah. And then pretty soon, you say, “Okay, now play it this way: dada-dada-dada-dada…And they’d play it and all of a sudden, “Whoa, what is this?” They’ve never swung, it was the first time they’ve ever felt that.
What inspired “An American Concerto”?
I wanted to do a jazz quartet and a symphony orchestra and put them together. I wanted the symphony orchestra to be as virtuoso as the jazz quartet, so it was even-Steven. Now, a symphony orchestra isn’t going to swing, per se, but if you understand how the symphony orchestra works, they don’t have to swing like a jazz player. They can do what they do, the jazz players do what they do, and we put those two things together [to] see how it comes out.
I got nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for that piece. But I [also] got some terrible reviews. I remember one reviewer – the guy said I was like a musical Pied Piper, leading musicians off a cliff. (laughs)
Gene Lees liked it.
Gene loved it. I think it had its impact in terms of stimulating young composers to try things – “Well, if he can do it, well, hell – maybe I can do it.” And that’s what I was most pleased with. I would go to colleges and [hear that the] piece made an impact, not only on the students but on some of the faculty. That meant a lot to me.
What are you looking forward to now?
I still keep my hand in it. I produced a Christmas album last year with an Italian singer, Laura Pausini, and a Christmas album for Martina McBride in Nashville. My daughter’s trying to get me back involved in the film thing. She found this guy who’s an electronic music, computer-kind of a genius. She said, “Dad, you do what you do and let him do what he’s does.”
So, we’re going to see what happens. The guy is incredible. It’s all computers, sampling. It’s what everybody is doing.
There’s this wonderful new group called Accent. I’m going to work with them. It’s six guys, [who] met online – this is a 21st Century thing. They found me online. They’re all from different countries, but they all like The Four Freshmen, they like the Hi-Los. And, they’re extraordinary. I had a meeting [here] and they were all around the table. I didn’t ask them, but I wondered, can they do this live or is this completely a studio thing? So, I said, “When you do a recording, you can overdub, but you can’t do that when you do it live…” They started to sing. In the restaurant, and everybody’s looking around wondering what’s going on…
They want to do it with a big band. All they do is a capella, their harmonies are very rich. But now, they want to [sing] with a big band, and a rhythm section. We looked at old R&B hits – “River Deep, Mountain High.” I thought, let me see what they could do with something like that. We’re going to go into the studio later this month and see how it goes.
I just arranged and produced an album with Arturo Sandoval. It’s all my originals – the idea is Arturo Sandoval and strings. There’s a pop ballad, a classical piece, a piece that combines classical and jazz. It’s quite extraordinary. I re-recorded “The Witch” from [my album] “Threshold,” with Arturo. It’s from 1976 or so, but he comes in and sounds fresh as a daisy.
In today’s political climate, the arts will most likely suffer, with everything from cutbacks to education to fewer performing and visual art opportunities for the public. Why is it important to a society to ensure that the arts thrive?
When I was really busy in the 1980s and 1990s, [studios] all wanted to send me to Prague. It was like I [always] had to renegotiate my deal. I’d talk to the director and say, ‘You know what? I can do it here, faster and better. It’s not going to be wildly more expensive [here] because by the time you fly me over there, you put me up, and I have to deal with musicians I don’t know, I’m dealing with a studio I don’t know, and a language [barrier] – if you can, let’s just do it here.’
I was doing a date at Weston’s recording in Hollywood. This was in 1997, 1998, something like that. It had a really big orchestra. We’d just taken a 10-minute break and everyone had come back. These four people came wandering into the studio, and they’ve got suits on. Who the hell are they? I’m thinking. They come up to the podium, and the whole orchestra stands up and applauds. They gave me a plaque: “Thank you for helping to keep the work in Los Angeles” from the Local 47. It meant a lot to me, because it was from the players.
Have you had much experience performing overseas?
There’s a few big bands in Europe that are very good. One is in Cologne, and one is in Amsterdam. I actually had a full symphony too with the Metropole Orchestra. I worked with them on an album and a number of other projects. I was going to Amsterdam two or three times a year, and they’re really good.
I really enjoyed working with the Metropole. They’re completely state-supported. The players all live in the suburbs, come to work. They’ve got three studios, one big one for the orchestra. They’ve got a choir and a big band, and they all have their own studios. Unfortunately, it’s all being cut back, I’m told because of the economics. What they did [previously] was they didn’t have to make any money, it was state-supported.
Apparently now, that has changed. They have to do some concerts that make money. That changes everything from kind of an artistic thing to having big names and all of that. They had big names, but they did creative things, not exactly what you’d plan for a popular TV show.
I remember, I went to a house and they had a party. Vic Mendoza was the artistic director over there, a composer. We went to this party and a lot of the orchestra was there and I’m talking to the players. They all speak English – I certainly don’t speak Dutch. At any rate, I sense this atmosphere of insecurity from them. They don’t know what’s going to go on here. They don’t know how the orchestra is going to survive and if it is going to survive, what’s it going to look like if they cut the funding back, what’s going to happen?
I think it’s a matter of someone coming in and saying, ‘Why are we spending so much money on this orchestra?’ When it becomes that, it changes everything. This is their whole livelihood, playing in this orchestra. If they don’t have this orchestra, what are they going to do? So, it’s a big deal over there.
Despite these developments, what can we learn from other nations in their support and greater participation in the arts?
When you would go over there and do a television special –I did two of them – they had the best cameras, the best [equipment]. The sound was always terrific, and they had a sold-out audience. They would get people like Herbie Hancock.
There are [approximately] ten symphonies in London, not just one, and they’re playing all the time. So, when you go to London, you can get orchestras that are so used to playing together that the sound is automatically like one [musician], except there are 85 of them. They immediately get it balanced, those English strings are out of this world. A lot of scores are done with the London Symphony Orchestra or the Royal Philharmonic. They have very good results over there, I’ve always loved recording in London.
They use the concert hall in Amsterdam, a beautiful hall for three concerts a day, not just one at night. They’ll have 2 p.m., a matinee, and then a concert at 8 p.m. It’s very impressive, the sound, the hall, and the whole thing, is just baked in history. They have two symphonies in Amsterdam – it is part of the fabric of everyday life.
© MMXVIII Joanie Harmon
From the forthcoming book, “Making Life Swing: Jazz on TV and Other Unexpected Places”
Peter Erskine’s career would make a great movie. A drumming prodigy at age four, the New Jersey native was featured on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour Show. At seven, he attended Stan Kenton’s summer clinics and was taught by drummers Louis Hayes, Alan Dawson and Clem De Rosa, future Weather Report bandmate Joe Zawinul, and former Kenton trumpeter Marvin Stamm.Erskine went on to graduate from Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and studied at Indiana University under percussionist George Gaber. He was in the Stan Kenton Orchestra from 1972 to 1975, and later, played with Maynard Ferguson until moving to Los Angeles to join the jazz fusion pioneers in Weather Report in 1978. He recorded five albums with the band and won his first Grammy with their album “8:30.” Erskine left Weather Report in 1982 and moved to New York City, where he worked for five years with Michael Brecker, Mike Mainieri, Eddie Gomez, and Don Grolnick (later, Eliane Elias) in Steps Ahead. Erskine later joined John Scofield, Bill Frisell and Marc Johnson in Bass Desires, the John Abercrombie Trio, and Bob Mintzer’s Big Band.
Based in Los Angeles since 1987, Erskine now travels the world regularly, performing with a diverse range of artists including Diana Krall, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Kate Bush, Seth McFarlane, and Sadao Watanabe. He won a second Grammy Award drumming for the WDR Big Band in Köln with Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, and Vince Mendoza for the “Some Skunk Funk” album. At home in LA, Erskine now works with such artists as Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane – who is an accomplished jazz vocalist; film and TV composer Patrick Williams, and John Beasley, Bob Sheppard, and Benjamin Shepherd, who are members of Erskine’s Dr. Um Band.
Erskine also produces jazz recordings for his own label, Fuzzy Music, which has four Grammy nominations to its credit. He is a prolific author of a number of instructional and general interest titles including, “No Beethoven: An Autobiography & Chronicle of Weather Report”; “Time Awareness for All Musicians,” “Essential Drum Fills,” and his recent “The Drummers’ Lifeline,” co-authored with Dave Black, vice president of Alfred Music Publishing.
Erskine is the Director of Drumset Studies at the Thornton School of Music at USC and is authoring a series of iOS Play-Along apps suitable for all instruments. He was honored with an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music in 1992. In 2015, Erskine was part of the orchestra that performed the soundtrack for the film La La Land, which won six Oscars and seven Golden Globes, including Best Original Score and Best Song in both awards; he performed the score recently in Korea.
Erskine shares his experiences of creating music for films and television, the impact of jazz on movie and TV scores, versatility within the drummer’s craft, the musician’s life in film and reality, and how practitioners of jazz “pay it forward,” for each other and the next generation of players.
You’ve played since age four – how did you choose the drums?
I heard a lot of jazz around the house. By the time I was born, my father was a psychiatrist, but he had been a bass player. He fashioned a drumset for me out of a Chinese tom tom and a conga drum from Havana.
I asked my dad, “Can I start taking lessons?” when I was five. We went to the music store and the guy who happened to be teaching that evening was this remarkably gentle, patient, and swinging drummer, a man named Johnny Civera. He just passed away a few years ago, he was in his 90s.
What early impact did jazz have on television?
When I was growing up – I’m 63-years-old now – I was part of that generation that was watching TV in the late 1950s and all through the 60s. Just about every television show, drama or comedy, had a jazz theme or a jazz-tinged theme because all the writers as well as the studio players all had jazz backgrounds.
It could be McHale’s Navy, I Dream of Jeannie, Peter Gunn, or Johnny Staccato – tons of shows utilized jazz. Peter Gunn and Johnny Staccato had actual musicians onscreen. So that meant, in addition to all the variety programming – Ed Sullivan-types of shows, the daytime talk shows – [there was] a lot of jazz being broadcast. On top of which – CBS primarily – made it a mission [to feature jazz], between the Leonard Bernstein/New York Phil broadcasts and the Jazz Omnibus series.
Back in the day, there were three major networks and PBS, and jazz was just part of everyday media life. Even commercial radio had these kind of swingy jazz [themes]. It started to change in the 1960s and the vehicle for expression, especially for young people and political movements, shifted over more to rock than jazz, but jazz kind of adjusted. You had jazz rock and you had fusion. The jazz musicians were energized and excited by what was taking place in the pop world. All of sudden, pop records were really leading the way in terms of sonic innovation.
How did you begin playing for TV and film scores?
My studio work in terms of television and film has always been [less than] many of my colleagues. I just didn’t get called that often and whenever I did, I would consider it “pennies from heaven.” So, I never relied on the studio thing and I never became part of… I would almost venture to say a slave to what that required in terms of staying in town and monitoring who hired you and who didn’t, and making the most of your networking. I didn’t worry about it that much. If somebody called me, fine. If some other drummer did it, I was happy for him or her.
That said, I began getting called for a lot of the dates [in the 1990s] that would require specific things. I get called for a lot of films to play the Gene Krupa “Sing, Sing, Sing” floor tom thing. Another example, Glengarry Glen Ross. The wonderful late Jeff Porcaro was the drummer on that score. Larry Bunker was playing the vibes and percussion – he was a wonderful brushes player.
They were recording Al Jarreau singing “Blue Skies” at a very fast tempo, and for some reason, John Patitucci and myself were called in for that – I don’t know who gave them my name. We cut that [in] the first take and they wound up using the bass and drums of the song in one of the scenes within the film.
Meanwhile, there were some composers who liked using me – George S. Clinton called me for all three of the Austin Powers soundtracks. More recently, I got to work with Alexandre Desplat on The Secret Life of Pets, which was a lot of fun. It turned out when I went up to him and introduced myself, and said, “Maestro, thank you for the music,” he was like, “No, no, no – thank you.” He was a fan.
One of my first films was with Patrick Williams, a wonderful jazz arranger who is also a wonderful film composer. And it was a film called “Used Cars,” it’s funny as hell. Working with Pat was a thrill – I was a fan of his while in high school, I had all of his records.
So, we’re doing what they call a source cue. A source cue is [for example] when characters are in a scene and a radio is playing in the background. Is it a car radio, a TV thing, or is it a live band? To me, the drumming would be different. I asked Pat, “Is it a band playing? Or is it on the radio?” And he said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s a source cue.” I was kind of like the actor who asks, “What’s my motivation?” Pat: “It doesn’t matter!”
By contrast, when I worked with George S. Clinton, he would explain every scene and they really did try to dial the performances into the context. In the case of Austin Powers, we were spoofing a 1960s-era British spy movie. They recorded the drums in the room with the other instruments and we were looking to get leakage. They used mics they imagined would have been used at Abbey Road or a BBC studio.
What is leakage?
In the old days, all the instruments would be in the same room at the same time. Then they started using gobos. A gobo – it possibly stands for “go-between” – is an abbreviated term for a wall you set up in a studio to help isolate the sound of a guitar amp or a drum set. Then they started putting patio umbrellas above the wall of gobos around the drummer.
Eventually, they started putting the drummer in a separate room. When you’re in a separate room, you tend to play differently than when you’re in the room with the other instruments because when you’re in a room with the other instruments, those microphones are going to hear it too.
When other microphones hear it, depending on the distance, what you play becomes much bigger and potentially, less pleasing. When you listen to old film scores, for example, the drums… they’re playing just what the music needs, they don’t overdo it. In later years, when the drummer got into a booth, he or she would start overdoing it because they could make it softer or louder or whatever.
So, they were looking for that leakage [in “Austin Powers”], so the drums wouldn’t sound so pristine. It was more like you hear them in the distance as well as up close. It’s more natural, it’s just the way movies sounded back in the day, when everyone was in the same room.
What were some other memorable studio gigs?
The biggest thrill was getting a call to work with John Williams. The first film was Memoirs of a Geisha. I don’t even know if they specified Memoirs, but I got the call [saying] it would be at MGM, which is now Sony. So I went on the internet to find out what film John Williams was working on. I saw that he was working on Memoirs, but also that he was slated to compose the music for Spielberg’s Munich.
I thought if John called me it must have been in the context of my improvisational jazz work, because otherwise he could have called any number of players. Then I thought it might be period music because I’ve got a bit of a reputation – you can see that drum set there – I’ve dabbled a bit in period stuff and I know enough about it to respect the style.
I sent a period kit and one of my contemporary improvisational jazz kits to the studio. I thought, it could be an action film like “Munich” – I’d better send a drum set [for that]. So, I sent three drum sets to the studio. I showed up early because I had to figure out which kit to use. And the engineer said, “Your drums all sound great. Too bad you’re not going to be playing any of them. You’re going to be in the main room with the other percussionists and the small orchestra … on Japanese o-taiko drums.”
The skin is thicker than a normal drum head and there is very tight tension. And the drumsticks are much larger than regular drumsticks. These all belonged to a percussionist named Michael Fisher, he has one of the great collections in Los Angeles of Japanese drums.
One of the Japanese music advisors had also recommended me because I had gone to a fundraiser in Little Tokyo and there was a taiko group that I had worked with a few years earlier. They [invited me] to come up and play. Someone videotaped it and the [music director] saw it and thought, “That guy knows how to play [o-taiko].”
Meanwhile, I’m excited to meet John Williams. I don’t know how to address him, so I ask one of the harpists, “Is it John? Is it Mr. Williams – is it, ‘Maestro’?” She said, “It’s always ‘Maestro, only Maestro.’” So, he walks into the studio and says, “Peter.” I said, “Maestro.” He said, “No, no – call me John.”
He points to the set-up of the three drums and the music cues. He said, “Let’s look at this first cue.” It was about four pages long, and in 6/8 time. I’m looking at it, and he said something very interesting. He said, “I’d like you to approach this as if you were a Japanese Buddy Rich.” Which is funny, but it immediately clarified what he wanted. So much of what he writes is informed by jazz. [Most] percussionists will play a pretty straight-up-and-down rhythmic approach. A jazz drummer will play a more legato dub-buh-duh-ba-duh. It’s more how we hear the music, and John wanted that.
The most instructive moment of that session was during a short break. John was dictating a change of notes to the two harpists, writing it down as he’s composing in his head. When he was done, he asked them [to play it]. So, he counted off and the two of them played it. And his response was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever heard.
Instead of saying, “That sounds good,” he said, “That’s going to look real nice.” Here’s a musician, and certainly the greatest living film composer that I can think of, who sees and hears what he does in such a cinematic, filmic sense; serving the story, because he has enough confidence in his writing.
It blew me away. I remember that I came home and said, “Whatever else I’ve done, it was like playing with the Yankees in Yankee Stadium.” I did another film with him, The Adventures of Tin Tin, and that was a very demanding, very specific [score], very jazzy. The main title alone is great – that it didn’t win the Academy Award that year blew my mind.
When [Steven] Spielberg was in the room, Williams instructed the ensemble – it was a small orchestra – not to attempt to add any feeling or interpretation to maximize the expression. The maximal expression would result if we played exactly what was on the paper. That’s not a direction you normally get. You wouldn’t believe how challenging that is to do and keep it the same.
What is unique about this period drum set?
That drum set is from 1935 and I got it from the Pro Drum Shop in Hollywood. I like to keep that set up as a reminder of where drumming has come from. That’s a 28 -inch bass drum. It’s a tom-tom, made in China. There’s a contraption on the bass drum pedal that will simultaneously strike the cymbal if you want. There’s no hi-hat. In later years, they came up with the snowshoe or low-boy, which is the pair of cymbals near the ground that drummers played. Gene Krupa was instrumental in bringing the cymbals up so that they could be played with the sticks, the hi-hat cymbals. The time-keeping was done mainly on the drums, not so much when the ride cymbal became more prominent, in swing and definitely in bebop.
While jazz was prevalent in film or TV scores of the 20th Century, how has it been represented more recently?
Before La La Land, there was Whiplash. Damien Chazelle, the director, played drums in high school. He suffered a lot of anxiety and I think he had a pretty demanding instructor, [although] nothing like the Marine drill sergeant psycho personality [portrayed in Whiplash]. I was involved with a DVD packaging of the film. They wanted to include, as one of the additional features, interviews with different drummers on what their education was like.
I said, “A film about a drummer. Maybe I should watch it first if I’m going to make comments on the DVD.” So, they sent a messenger with a watermarked version of the disc, and I watched it and said, “Good lord, what did I just agree to?” The thing I really disliked about it was that it didn’t convey a hint of the joy that musicians get from playing – that’s why we do it.
Damien approached it as a psychological thriller and that was the setting for it. But I was asked my opinion by KCET and they asked a few specific questions. Yes, [Whiplash is] exciting to watch, but no way was it anything like real life. Most people appreciated my point of view and other people said, “Hey, lighten up – it’s only a movie.” That’s fine, I admit as much. But I was openly critical of the film.
How did this lead to being chosen for the La La Land orchestra?
I figured I had completely burnt any possible bridge to ever work with this talented director. He is talented – they shot Whiplash in 17 days or something like that, a pretty remarkable piece of filmmaking. But – typical Hollywood – when you come out and voice your honest opinion about something, they seem more than eager to win you over somehow.
I got called to work on La La Land. Damien might have just been a fan of mine. I don’t want to think that he bothered himself reading that KCET piece, but it was ironic to get called to work on his next film. I was feeling a little bit self-conscious, but he was very gracious.
We didn’t get to work too much with him, because this was before the Academy Awards and Whiplash was all of a sudden, the talk of the entertainment industry and he was constantly being pulled out of the recording studio [during] the La La Land pre-record to do Skype interviews. We were left in the capable hands of a film music producer. He was aware of how the music would play in the film and that what we do, [matches up with] what’s being done by actors onscreen.
During a lot of the pre-record, it seemed to me they were still trying to figure out the tone for the characters in terms of onscreen. I asked, “Who’s the drummer onscreen? Is it an older guy?” “No, it’s a young guy who’s trying to prove himself.” So, I tried to play it like a younger, less discreet drummer would do it. But when I saw the scenes in the Lighthouse, it was an older guy – I totally got that wrong. Me and my questions!
Did they record all the musicians separately or together as an orchestra?
The [jazz] combo was done separately and then the orchestra was [recorded]. They were doing sessions at Warner Brothers and we were doing ours in Hollywood at a smaller studio. Then they added some things – I didn’t even recognize my drumming in a couple of spots because they added some electronic drumbeats to give it more punch for the dance pieces.
On “Another Day of Sun,” the first part of it [was played by] a wonderful drummer named Gary Novak. Then I was brought in. It starts off, “dee-dee-dee-duh-dee-duh-dee-dee-dee,” and then it goes to jazz. I went to put my part in, I’m counting and listening to the metronome – we call it a click track. I count and I play my little fill-in. I got all the way to the end, and they said, “That was good, but we want a bigger fill.” I said okay and did it again – played the fill, played the whole cue. They said, “We want a bigger fill.” I was getting irritated. I said, “Look, if you don’t like what I play in the beginning, just stop me – don’t make me play the whole damned thing.”
So, I counted and said, “Here I go – here’s your big goddamned stupid fill,” and that’s what they kept. I recall how peeved and angry I was when I played it, and during the Golden Globes, they kept cueing that up every time somebody went up for an award.
Do you think La La Land may have awakened a consciousness in audiences that may not have previously paid attention to jazz?
They made a film that tapped into something people really enjoyed, and I think it was a pleasant release from everything else going on in the world. Anything that uses jazz is to be celebrated, and if it turns more people on to [the music], that’s great.
I don’t think that there have been too many films that have been able to utilize jazz and escape criticism, whether it’s the way the musicians’ lives are portrayed, the accuracy of the craft of playing the instrument, or the actual music used. A film that gets it very, very right – but it’s a documentary – is I Called Him Morgan. Among musicians we all said, ‘Yeah, that’s how we remember it.” The tone of it is very close to what we do.
What do you think compels your students to study jazz?
Jazz is not something you decide to do because you think it represents a smart business decision or life planning. I think it’s the same for most music, but very much for jazz because of the amount of time that you need to commit and dedicate to learning the craft of it.
It’s a passion. Among all the students I have, the ones who succeeded are the ones who are truly passionate about the music. And it could be any style of music [where] that would be an ingredient for success. If I sense that there isn’t any there there [with a student], it doesn’t surprise me that they usually wind up finding another avenue to pursue in the music business.
What inspired you to create the Fuzzy Music label?
It’s like that MasterCard commercial. The cost of making an album: $6,000. The cost of promoting an album: $10,000. The enjoyment of making your own musical decisions: priceless. We’ve been doing that for almost 20 years. No single project has ever earned enough money for me to take a vacation, but I have a respectable catalogue of music, and we do wind up making money.
Years ago, I was given some advice by someone in the music industry, a drum head manufacturer. He saw me running around [playing gigs] – which I still do – and he said, “Peter, you have to find a way to make money while you sleep.” And so, I started writing, I started working with instrument manufacturers on the design of new instruments. I started composing.
You wear a lot of different hats, and you also try to create not only legacy projects or items to be known for, but something for your family. I have a wife and two children. The children are 31 and 36 now, but they’re still my kids and I always want them to be taken care of. So, we make all of our choices based on what’s going to be best for the family.
Having said that, my wife has always been supportive 100 percent [saying], “Play the music you want to play.” I’m happy that I get to teach at USC, I’m grateful for the opportunity. It’s an excellent school. It functions as a very powerful magnet – we attract some of the best players. Look at our faculty. Most music schools have one or two of us. We’ve got a roomful. We not only have hundreds of years of experience combined and the passion, but we are all active in the recording industries as well as live performances.
And, students have the value of your providing the proverbial foot-in-the-door…
It would take two hands or more for me to count the number of students who are working in the field, who I have given work to – “Hey, I can’t do this job, will you cover and do it for me?” Then, boom, they’re in.
I love being part of that process. Jazz is not the only thing that does this, but jazz is very much the music of “pay it forward.” We were given the time and the advice and the benefit of the experience by great jazz musicians. It only feels natural to pass that along. I’ve never run into a jazz master who was stingy with his or her time. They’re always sharing the benefit of their wisdom because it’s their passion.
Drummers in particular, have this. My wife has said on repeated occasions, “I’ve never seen a group of people, or musicians specifically, like drummers.” In essence, we’re all competitors, but we all share our trade secrets. We’re happy to show [each other], “How do you do that?” It’s not like I’m not going to show you because I want to be the only guy that can do that and therefore, become more valuable.
That’s not the way we think. And it keeps you sane. If I get called to work on a film, great. If I don’t, I’m happy for the other drummer. If you run into a great player, [they are] a talent to celebrate and hopefully make a part of your musical circle.
What are you most looking forward to now?
I’ve got some interesting projects coming up. There’s a classical composer who utilizes quite a bit of jazz in his music, named Mark-Anthony Turnage. About twenty years ago, we did a piece called, “Blood on the Floor,” featuring John Scofield and myself, a saxophonist named Martin Robertson who’s a British musician, and Ensemble Moderne, a chamber orchestra based in Frankfurt, Germany.
Since that time, I’ve worked with the Berlin Philharmonic, the L.A. Phil – I’ve done a lot of orchestras. Mark wrote me a concerto for drumset and orchestra. He was my kind of doorway into the classical world. I had studied it in school and I’m beginning to play with these great orchestras. I’m doing a concerto in December in Tokyo with an excellent orchestra there. And I’m playing with another orchestra in October with the pianist Makoto Ozone. We’re going to play [Leonard] Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety,” which is a piano concerto.
Do you think that there is a greater appreciation for jazz outside of the United States?
I don’t know. Yes, it’s certainly very possible to do a one, two, or three-week tour of Europe with a jazz band, where in the U.S. it’s pretty difficult. In Italy, we play free concerts in town squares and they’re packed with people. In America, you’d have trouble getting a crowd. At the same time, you see concerts at LACMA and they’re jam-packed. So, it depends a lot on good promotion as well as playing at a place that has a built-in audience.
Jazz was never that popular [in the U.S.], but it was more prevalent by the time TV came along. They used it in ads for everything. But in general, the arts get more support in Europe. They recognize that you have a healthier, happier society when you have art. You go to London and you don’t pay to go to a museum.
Their governments make it a mission that they want the people to be educated. It’s a smart investment. That’s why I’ve never minded taxes. If that means that the people I encounter every day aren’t stressing about their health care or are a little smarter, that’s better for me.
For Peter Erskine’s KCET interview on Whiplash, click here.
© MMXVII Joanie Harmon
From the forthcoming book, “Making Life Swing: Jazz on TV and Other Unexpected Places”
Chris Levey recalls his earliest interest in music.
“My parents would tell the story … they had the marimba set up in my bedroom,” he says. “I was six or seven and I started to pick some of the melodies out of the books and play them on the marimba. [My] parents looked at each other, rolled their eyes and said, ‘Here we go.’”
The struggles of a musician’s life were all too familiar to Levey’s family – his father was Stan Levey, one of the earliest bebop drummers. A protégé of Dizzy Gillespie and alumnus of Stan Kenton’s orchestra as well as Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars, Stan Levey was a major force in Hollywood studios throughout the 1960s and 70s, driving the beat for a number of TV classics, including “The Tonight Show,” “The Munsters,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Addams Family,” “Laredo,” “Batman,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Bewitched.” His film credits include “Cool Hand Luke,” “Bullitt,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” and “The Amityville Horror,” all of which he did under the direction of Lalo Schifrin, as well as numerous other soundtracks composed and conducted by Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle, and Andre Previn.
While Chris Levey’s profession as a radiologist may have made his mother Angela and father Stan proud, he says that he and his two brothers – one of whom is also a physician – were not dissuaded from pursuing music as a hobby. However, he notes, they were emphatically discouraged from pursuing it – and the typical musician’s lifestyle – professionally.
“When my dad saw that I started to play music in my teens, he said, ‘Play all the music you want, but if you drop out of school, I’ll kill you.’ And he used to be a boxer, so we took things like that half seriously,” laughs Levey.
Music also had a great impact on Angela Levey’s teenage years.
“I was about 11 or 12,” she recalls. “On my street in Washington D.C., there were four or five musicians who liked jazz, when it was very new. I liked to dance, so I had the record player going on all the time. And one or another of them would march into the house and take the stuff off my player and put on what they wanted me to hear. So, when I was very young, I had a jazz education from my neighbors, guys that were working – like Earl and Rob Swope.”
Angela moved to New York City when she was 16, and got a job as an assistant manager at the newly opened Birdland. One night, she and a couple of girlfriends went to the Three Deuces and it was there that she saw Stan Levey for the first time.
“I really liked him,” she recalls. “A couple of nights later, I was at the Royal Roost. They had what they called the bleachers. Most of the people, especially people that didn’t have any money, would be sitting in the back on chairs and benches without going to tables and eating and drinking. So, I was there and Stan was there, maybe three people away from me. And he kept talking to me. We walked down the street to the drug store and sat at the counter and talked until light. Hours and hours and hours.
“And that was it. From that moment on, we were never apart. It’s been eleven years since Stan passed, and instead of crying 22 hours a day, it’s like one or two now – I think that’s really great progress.”
When he was 16, Stan Levey had been discovered by Gillespie when he chanced upon a rehearsal at the Downbeat Club in their mutual hometown of Philadelphia. Self-taught up to that point, Levey was invited to sit in and was eventually hired to play in the band when Dizzy’s drummer Jerry Gilgore found another job.
Levey eventually followed Gillespie to New York and played with his mentor, as well as a who’s-who of other bebop pioneers: Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, and fellow drummer Max Roach, who Levey replaced in Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars when Roach left to form a quintet with Clifford Brown.
Angela Levey recalls their move to Los Angeles, a couple of years after their marriage in Atlantic City when Stan was with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Her first and lasting impressions of Los Angeles were formed the morning after they spent their first night at a hotel in Hollywood.
“We had spent four days and three nights in our car, so he was really tired,” she says. “But I got up and walked down the hill, Vine Street, all the way to Sunset Boulevard, and it was glorious. When I had left the East, it was snowing, and this was gorgeous and beautiful, I can still remember how it looked. I walked to Sunset Boulevard and got a manicure and pedicure.”
Levey says that she and her husband Stan, who both had less than ideal childhoods, really worked at being good parents.
“Surprisingly, I was a terrific mother,” she laughs. “And that really shocks me – I don’t know where that came from. [Stan] had a terrible childhood, so he kind of watched me and one lick behind, would do the exact same thing, and he was a wonderful father. [The kids] were very lucky and they know they’re lucky.”
Levey says that although her sons grew up in the entertainment business, they managed to stay grounded.
“Chris and I have laughed about this – David too – that we never knew one person that had a ‘real’ job,” she says. “It was like, writers, directors, producers, agents, actors, singers, musicians. We wouldn’t have liked them if we didn’t like them, they were lovely people who were just doing their jobs and that’s what it felt like to us.
“[Stan] had season tickets to the Dodgers game with all these guys that he worked out with three days a week,” Levey recalls. “They would go to lunch after working out, and they were hilarious guys, like Milton Berle, Bobby Morse, and Neil Simon and his brother Danny. After Stan had gone, my kids had lunch with them. And they did the same thing that Stan did whenever he left. They all stood up, threw their napkins down and said, “I’ve had it with you people,” and just stomped out.”
Chris Levey says that his father, who was often the only White musician playing with first-string bebop giants like Gillespie, Parker, and Miles Davis, was part of a period where the music took precedence over race. In his 2016 book, “Stan Levey: Jazz Heavyweight,” Frank R. Hayde observes that, “… the interracial aspects of bebop, as personified by Stan Levey, are also vital to the music’s history.”
“My father was Jewish, so I guess he had a little higher consciousness of the division of ethnic groups, so maybe that concept was a little more familiar to him and he had less of a hard time with it,” notes Chris Levey. “He used to share rooms and even beds with these guys. He and Miles Davis had a one-room apartment with one bed and a lightbulb hanging. When they played in the South, the hotels and the venues where they played had no problem with a Black band coming in and playing or staying. But they had a problem with an integrated band with a White drummer.”
While Levey says his father’s career as a studio player for television and film was purely a practical matter of generating a reliable income, there was a level of artistic satisfaction to be had from the experience.
“I think it was also an opportunity for growth for him and he rose to the occasion,” he says. “It was almost like a whole other art form. These things were beautiful, a lot of them had words you never heard, like the “M*A*S*H” theme, that’s a nice little bossa nova tune. [Pete] Rugulo and a lot of other guys got to write things that they were never able to write before and it opened up new vistas for people who were creative enough.
“It was important for the evolution [of jazz], it gave them whole new avenues with which to write. Those [TV themes] would never fit with a swing band, a bebop band, or anything else. But here was a medium that really opened up those avenues. They may seem like corny songs, but if you put them in the right hands, they’re smokin.’”
Levey recalls going to the studios with his father for recording sessions.
“It was mostly a lot of his old buddies that I would see with him when he was still playing live music,” he says. “Many of them migrated to studio work, so they were all pretty comfortable with each other, just talking and joking. No one was particularly anxious. It was all by what we call networking these days – you call a guy when there’s a need and the same guys, little by little, migrated to that industry.
“Some of these guys would do two to three record dates in a day. They had to bang one out and on to the next one. I think they were particularly qualified because on the bandstands – particularly Kenton’s and [Woody] Herman’s – they all had to sit down and sight-read pretty quickly so they had those chops already.”
Angela Levey also had a career in film and television, in front of the camera. In the late 1980s and 1990s, she did bit parts in episodes of programs and films like “The Nanny,” “Six Feet Under,” “Thirtysomething,” and “True Lies.”
“I had the kind of – in parentheses – ‘career’ that every actor over 40 that had children wanted,” Levey says. “Nobody knows it, but that life is extremely difficult – I never worked less than 12 hours a day, sometimes more, much more. But I did exactly what I wanted to, it was really great. My agent was married to a director who was one of Stan’s best friends. She said, “Every actor in this town wants more, more, more. I have this woman that tells me, ‘If you work me more than once every two weeks, I’m quitting.’
“It was tiny, tiny little bit [parts],” she says. “But when you’re in the union, it’s really good money. When I was doing it, it was never fun, except when it got to the twelfth hour, which was the golden time when everybody would perk up. But when I look back on it, it was fun.”
Unfortunately, studio work was not as enjoyable for Levey’s husband, the drummer.
“It was just soundstages where the film would be showing on a huge screen and the composer had written the music according to him seeing what was on the screen,” she says. “The musicians had the music in front of them, interpreting it. They had to play exactly what was in front of them.
“One time, he was doing a Streisand [album]. She stops and looks back at him and says, ‘What did you just play?’ He said, ‘I played what was on the paper.’ He said, ‘I knew it was wrong, she knew it was wrong – but I saw it and I had to play it.’ It was like, mechanical. But it came out beautifully.”
Stan Levey, who had seen the advent of bebop, the rise of the West Coast Sound, and the usurping of jazz audiences by the growth of rock and roll, was ultimately disheartened by the automaton performances that were demanded by studio work. He decided to put his drumsticks down for good in 1973, after completing the soundtrack for “Rosemary’s Baby,” and turned his artistic sensibilities toward an aspect of the jazz world that is almost as celebrated as the music: photography.
A self-taught photographer who began by documenting life on the road as a musician with friends and colleagues, Levey shot album covers for Gillespie, Victor Feldman, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and Sonny Stitt, while still keeping up his “day job” as the drummer on their recording sessions.
Chris Levey says that his father’s athletic discipline was evident in the way he conducted both his musical and photography careers. Stan Levey, who had a brief stint as a heavyweight boxer in his youth, eventually opened his own photography and video business, processing his own film and producing videos, including his autobiographical documentary, “The Original Original.”
“I think he was just happy to be working and he did whatever he needed to do – that’s why he learned all the percussion instruments,” recalls Chris Levey. “He just worked his ass off, and he achieved what he needed to. He was extremely disciplined. He went and took music theory classes, he would play with an Earl Hatch music book – he just dove in head-first. He still boxed. He worked out with a punching bag constantly and still had these routines that he did. He did his own development, including a color lab at home.
“At one point, he shot a wedding and took the film to his local lab, and something happened to the machinery and all the negatives got destroyed,” he says. “After that, he went out and bought his own negative developing machine and did all of it, not just the printing but the negative production as well. And he was not a terribly technical guy, but he learned a whole other skill and industry by himself.”
Levey’s brother David, who is a radiologist as well, played the drums in a band in Stan’s home studio, with his friends Jeff, Mike, and Steve Porcaro; David Paich, son of arranger Marty Paich; and Steve “Luke” Lukather, who went on to form the rock band Toto. Their half-brother Robert Levey is a master woodworker, who also played the drums in high school, hanging out with a group of friends that included Little Feat guitarist Paul Barrere, Leroy Vinnegar’s sons Mark and Kevin, and Red Rodney’s son Mark. Chris Levey plays the bass with local jazz, Americana, and big bands in his current hometown of Easton, Maryland. He says that his father’s example of determination and hard work set him and his brothers on paths to their eventual success in their fields.
Angela Levey now lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, to be near Chris and her sister, who has nine children. While she enjoys having family close by, Levey misses Los Angeles, where she and Stan raised their family and thrived for more than 50 years. When “La La Land” was being filmed at iconic L.A. locations like the Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach – where Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars were the band-in-residence – the production company contacted Levey for permission, which she gave, to include a photo taken by Stan in an interior shot. Ultimately, much of the club’s original décor was replaced with props for the film, but Angela is still a fan. And unlike the aspiring actress played by Emma Stone in “La La Land,” Levey got her guy.
“Oh G-d, I loved it,” she says. “People ask me if I like it and I always say, “I’m going to tell you I loved it, but you don’t necessarily have to love it.” Here’s why I loved it. They mentioned a lot of people that I know. [Ryan Gosling] mentions Hoagy Carmichael, whose son is a good friend of mine. And the pictures of the Lighthouse. Some of them were fake and some of them were really taken in there – I spent years there.
“When they were dancing in the street, up on Mullholland, I could practically see my house, which was right down the hill. The street that ran along the foothill was Valley Vista, and that was my street. And, where she worked on the Warner Brothers lot is where I worked. The whole thing was so familiar, it’s like my life. I just saw it again on HBO and I sobbed through the whole thing.”
© MMXVII Joanie Harmon – From the forthcoming book, “Jazz on the Small Screen”
The soulful vocals of Grady Tate, who died this week at the age of 85, made memorable two Schoolhouse Rock segments, “Naughty Number Nine” and “I Got Six”. The songs – both celebrating multiples of three! – were penned by Bob Dorough and originally featured on the Grammy-nominated 1973 album, “Multiplication Rock,” which became the nucleus for the TV series of educational shorts. Tate also performed “Fireworks” by Lynn Ahrens, which was part of the America Rock series.
Tate, who was also a well-known drummer who played across genres with a wide range of artists including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Itzhak Perlman, Lalo Schifrin, Bette Midler, Phoebe Snow and Paul Simon. He was the drummer on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” for six years.
Tate performed in military bands while in the Air Force, and later studied English and drama at what is now North Carolina Central University before graduating in 1959. Before embarking on his illustrious career in jazz, Tate taught in public schools in Washington D.C. prior to moving to New York in 1963, where he joined Quincy Jones’ big band and became a sought-after session drummer. Tate served on the faculty of Howard University from 1989 to 2009, where he taught jazz singing and drumming.
Nearly four generations of viewers – and their parents and teachers – have enjoyed the catchy songs and lively images of the animated series Schoolhouse Rock. Inserted between the requisite Saturday morning cartoons on ABC, the three-minute shorts taught billions of kids their multiplication tables, parts of speech, and American history. Little known however, is the jazz pedigree of the groundbreaking series.
The title, “Schoolhouse Rock” belies the fact that most of the songs in all six series were written and/or co-written by uber-hip jazz pianist and vocalist Bob Dorough. George Newall, a composer and pianist who at the time of the series’ creation was co-creative director at McCaffrey & McCall, an advertising firm in New York, also composed many of the songs throughout Schoolhouse Rock’s nearly 30-year run. In addition, a small but mighty firmament of jazz luminaries had a significant impact on the series in its infancy. Lynn Ahrens, who was a secretary at McCaffrey & McCall when Schoolhouse Rock was in its first series, is responsible for the fact that generations of schoolkids now know the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution by heart, thanks to her songwriting and vocal skills. She wrote 20 of the songs, among them three of the most memorable: “Interjections,” and “The Tale of Mr. Morton” for “Grammar Rock,” and “Interplanet Janet” for “Science Rock.”
The original series which included “Multiplication Rock,” “Grammar Rock,” “Science Rock,” and “America Rock,” originally ran from 1973 to 1985. A subsequent series, “Money Rock,” as well as additions to “Grammar Rock,” were created in the early 1990s. “Earth Rock” was produced in 2009 for video release.
The idea for Schoolhouse Rock came from David McCall, president of McCaffrey & McCall. He was concerned that his son, who could easily memorize the lyrics to any rock and roll tune, had difficulty remembering his multiplication tables, and enlisted the help of Newall to find a way to reinforce learning through music. The results have become a cultural phenomenon that has been widely admired, imitated, and parodied. A musical titled “Schoolhouse Rock Live” was penned in the 1990s by a couple of Northwestern University students who fondly remembered the series and wanted to create an homage. Their show – which have received the blessings of Dorough and Newall – has made it to off-Broadway, with productions around the world.
Bass player Ben Tucker introduced a number of artists to the project and served as its musical contractor. Tucker wrote the instrumental version of “Comin’ Home Baby,” which became a huge hit for Mel Torme, who sang lyrics by none other than Dorough. Some of the most memorable Schoolhouse Rock performances were given by trumpeter and vocalist Jack Sheldon, who sang throughout the series, including “Conjunction Junction” and one of the series’ all-time favorites, “I’m Just a Bill.” Grady Tate, who started out in the early 1960s as a drummer for Quincy Jones, delivered “I Got Six,” and “Naughty Number Nine” for “Multiplication Rock.” Blossom Dearie’s dulcet tones lent themselves to “Figure Eight,” “Mother Necessity,” and “Unpack Your Adjectives,” which was written by Newall and covered by vocalist Sarah Gazarek on her 2012 tribute to Dearie titled, “Blossom and Bee.” Dave Frishberg, known for acerbic ditties like “Peel Me a Grape,” “Do You Miss New York?” and “Van Lingle Mungo,” sang “Walkin’ on Wall Street” and “$7.50 Once a Week,” which he co-wrote with Mark Chapalonis for the “Money Rock” series, and “I’m Just a Bill.”
At nearly 94, Dorough is still swinging. He performed this summer at Delaware Water Gap in Pennsylvania and is slated for another concert there in September, vocalist Nancy Reed, another Schoolhouse Rock alumna. He also delivered a TEDx Talk in 2016 on “Schoolhouse Rock Explained” as part of a series on education. His estimable career in jazz – and other genres – has established him as a singer/songwriter, composer, producer, and arranger. Partnering with composer Stuart Scharf, Dorough arranged and produced two albums for the 1960s folk-pop band Spanky and Our Gang. His compositions, “I’m Hip” (with Dave Frishberg); “Devil May Care” (with Terrell Kirk); and “Nothing Like You,” which he performed on Miles Davis’s 1966 album “Sorcerer,” have become part of the jazz canon.
In 1978, Ahrens, who started out at McCaffrey & McCall as a secretary but soon after became a copywriter and later, a senior vice president, went off to freelance as a full-time songwriter, writing for television and doing advertising jingles. Among them, “Bounty-the-Quicker-Picker-Upper” and “What Would You Do for a Klondike Bar?” burned themselves into the consumer subconscious in the 1980s-90s, thanks to Ahrens’ signature way with words. In 1983, she began writing for theater and went on to win countless accolades, including the Tony Award and Oscar nominations for such works as “Once on This Island,” “Ragtime,” and “Anastasia.” In 2014, she and longtime collaborator Stephen Flaherty received the Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement, and in 2015 they were inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.
Newall, who had created the famed “Hai Karate” after shave campaign in the 1960s, left McCaffrey & McCall in 1978, along with co-creative director Tom Yohe, the artist behind the iconic drawings and animation of Schoolhouse Rock. They went on to create more children’s television features and garnered numerous awards for their work including Emmy nominations for spots on nutrition for ABC, and “The Metric Marvels” and “When You Turn Off Your Set, Turn On a Book” for NBC. Yohe and Newall were also honored with an Action for Children’s Television (ACT) Award for their work on “Drawing Power,” an Emmy-winning Saturday morning series they created for NBC in 1987. The ACT citation commended the pair for proving that “cartoons could be non-racist, non-sexist, informative, and funny.” Newall, who is an accomplished jazz pianist and composer, has recorded several albums, including “Return to Jazz Standards,” with his wife Lisa Maxwell, who is a jazz vocalist.
Nearly 45 years after Schoolhouse Rock was created, Ahrens, Dorough, and Newall shared their experiences on combining Madison Avenue savvy with the Three R’s; the ways that music has affected and enhanced their career choices, and the intergenerational and global appreciation of the innovative teaching methods – and sheer “heart” – that characterize Schoolhouse Rock.
How did Schoolhouse Rock get its start, musically and visually?
Bob Dorough: I actually had done one or two advertising jobs for McCaffrey & McCall and got to know George that way. Being a jazz fan, he went to the Hickory House where my friend and writing partner Ben Tucker was playing the bass. One night he said to Ben, “My boss is looking for someone to put the multiplication tables to music.”
Well, I’d written a lot of songs. I called them “pop-eyed songs,” where I got the words or the idea from ordinary sources. Ben said, right away, “My pal Bob Dorough can do it, he can set anything to music.”
I knew it was a great opportunity for me and figured the first song had to be good. I just picked three out of the series of numbers and wrote, ‘Three is a Magic Number.’ I was aware of the New Math, so I did a little research and attacked the problem from the back end in that particular song, [talking] about all the properties and the trinities concerning three before I began to deal with the multiplication part. The song is already a minute and 20 seconds old before I say, “Count by three and multiply backwards from 3 X 10.” It was really off the wall and I thought, if they are really looking for something out of the ordinary, I’m going to give it to them with the first song, win or lose.
And of course, I won. They were crazy about the song, and suddenly, I was a paid songwriter. It took me about three years to do “Multiplication Rock” from that moment. We weren’t in a hurry – we probably started in 1970 or 1971. I wrote the numbers one at a time and I’d bring them in.
Eventually, they wanted to record. Ben Tucker was the bassist and I played the keyboards and did the singing because we didn’t really know what we were doing yet. But we wound up making a whole album called, “Multiplication Rock,” and it was actually put out on Capitol Records. This is all before the idea of [Schoolhouse Rock on] television came into our lives.
Lynn Ahrens: When I was little, my mom read out loud to me, doing all the voices of the characters in my books and making up tunes to the rhymes. I started writing little songs at about the age of 4, and have never stopped. I think that early “ear-training” gave me a love of words and music. When I was applying to colleges, someone suggested Syracuse University. They said the Newhouse School of Journalism was a terrific place for anyone who had a way with words. I ended up going there—a dual major in English and Journalism—and thought I’d probably end up working in the world of magazines.
I knew I wanted to live in New York City. When I graduated, I moved to New York without a cent, and would have taken the first job offered. That turned out to be a job as a secretary at McCaffrey & McCall, and my journalism degree actually served me pretty well. It was a wonderful place to work—there was always laughter in the halls. To a kid fresh out of college, it felt like an ongoing party.
I used to bring my guitar to work so I could write songs on my lunch hour. One day, George Newall passed my desk, and said, “I hear you write songs. Would you like to write one for Schoolhouse Rock?” Lo and behold, one song led to another and I became one of their regular songwriters. I was simultaneously promoted to the job of copywriter and so did both copywriting and songwriting for about seven years.
George Newall: I ran the copy department and my friend Tom Yohe ran the art department. He heard “Three is a Magic Number” and started doodling the characters.
Our biggest client at the time was ABC Television. We did all their tune-in advertising and all of their corporate advertising as well. The guy who ran that was named Rad Stone. He just happened to drop into the office one day when Tom was listening to the music and doodling character possibilities and he said, “Hey, do you think you could make a storyboard out of that?” ABC is looking for short form educational programming.
Tom said he could, so he did a storyboard and we set up a meeting. The head of children’s programming at the time was a young guy named Mike Eisner who later became the CEO of Disney. ABC was doing an anthology show to be produced by Chuck Jones – the celebrated father of animated cartoons like Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner. They started the tape recorder and Tom took them through the board. Eisner turned to Jones and asked, ‘What do you think?’ Jones said, “Buy it, as long as he draws it,” pointing to Tom. In a world where people make hundreds of presentations before selling an idea, we had one meeting and we were on network television.
George, how did your advertising knowledge and skills help to present the ideas and instruction behind Schoolhouse Rock?
We were on five times every Saturday morning and three times every Sunday morning. We were actually sponsored and it used to be listed in the TV Guide as if it were a real program. Writing a song that people remember is very similar to doing advertising – it’s all concept-based. The strongest songs are the ones that have those really simple concepts that are easy to understand.
The two examples I can give you are “Conjunction Junction,” which Bob wrote from an idea I had about a railroad switching yard to hook up words and phrases. And I wrote a song called “Unpack Your Adjectives.” A kid comes back from vacation and people ask her about it and she “unpacks” [descriptive words]: it was raining, it was snowing, it was hot. If you have a simple, easy to understand concept, that is what will sell a product. In this case, it sold the multiplication tables.
Were there many changes to the songs when Schoolhouse Rock became a television series?
Dorough: When you write songs out of the clear blue sky, you don’t time them, the song takes its own form. They were of different lengths, that was the problem. The first thing that happened that determined the program size was that every song had to be three minutes, no more, no less. I had written jingles where they said it had to be 30 seconds, I was used to dealing with time. I had to retrofit quite a few of the songs to fulfill that three-minute size.
One of the most interesting things was that I had a song about multiplying by two, “Elementary, my dear… two times two is four.” Tom Yohe, who was the animation genius, said, ‘I’m thinking of making it about Noah’s Ark, two by two, two of every kind of animal.” When he said that, I said, “Oh, it’s a little short.” So, I recorded the verse with just piano, not a band, and we tacked it on in the beginning – a little intro about Noah:
Forty days and forty nights
Didn’t it rain, children
Not a speck of land in sight
Didn’t it, didn’t it rain
But Noah built his ark so tight
That he sailed on, children
And when at last the waters receded
And the dove brought back the olive tree leaf
They landed that ship near Mount Ararat
And one of the kids grabbed Noah’s robe and said,
“Hey, Dad – how many animals are on this old ark anyhow?”
Then the song started. That would never had happened had there not been the [requirement] to make every song three minutes.
Was there any educational research done to help in the creation of the songs and the series?
Newall: David McCall was on the board of the Bank Street School of Education. When the long-playing album of the songs was released, a couple of the multiplication songs were given to Bank Street and they got them into public schools, inner city schools, and country schools to test, and they did very well.
At one point, Bob wrote a song called “Little Twelvetoes.” It was about the 12 multiplication tables, and it was very complex. Eisner said, ‘Wait a minute – no kid is going to understand this.’ So, we said, ‘Call the Bank Street School.’ He got on the phone and our Bank Street consultant Dorothy Bloomberg said ‘Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean kids won’t understand it.’ (laughs)
Dorough: At the time, my daughter was eight-years-old. I always played the songs here at home before I played them for McCall and the gang. I didn’t go too often into the schools, but my wife and daughter were always there, listening to [the songs] and commenting. They were a good sounding board. And of course, as a songwriter already I’d written a number of songs and had my own built-in criteria.
Schoolhouse Rock reflects the educational trends and priorities of the times that it was created in, starting with the 3 R’s and evolving to more political, economic, and environmental issues. How did the Schoolhouse Rock creative team capture this evolution through music and visuals?
Ahrens: The series certainly did evolve. I think that’s the strength of Schoolhouse Rock —that it can handle whatever seems most important for our times, and do it with fun and grace. In the early days, we would be told to write pretty much anything we wanted to, as long as it fit under the category of “Grammar” or “America.” The last four songs I wrote all had to do with the environment. In this last go-round, the topics were assigned—i.e. “The Rain Forest,” “Recycling,” and so forth. It was certainly more freewheeling in the old days.
I think that inherent in a lot of the pieces we all wrote is a liberal mindset and a sense of inclusion. Look at “The Great American Melting Pot,” “The Preamble,” “Fireworks,” “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage,” and many more. I don’t think I ever consciously set out to put forth an agenda. It was mainly about teaching a little something in an entertaining way, although over the years I think we’ve all become more political. When Obama was running for election, I did write new lyrics to one of my songs (“Nouns”) and a friend cut together some of the old footage, to help get out the vote. You can find it on YouTube if you Google “Schoolhouse Rock the Vote.”
What is it like when you realize the impact that Schoolhouse Rock has had, not just on elementary education, but on our collective consciousness in the United States and around the world?
Newall: It was a seat-of-the-pants things and people liked it. We had no idea that it was developing a cult-like following. We had a couple of things going for us. We were an advertising agency, not a film production or television production house, so we always had a very independent feeling about what we created because it wasn’t what we were doing for a living. We were making very good money in advertising already. Most TV producers are too timid to take chances because they’re obsessed over whether their shows get picked up again the next year.
And a lot of the work – not the recording sessions, but the drawing and designing of the cartoons was done on the kitchen table at home after work. I don’t remember ever seeing Tom work on a storyboard in the office, he always did this at home or on the way to work on the train. We had “day jobs,” so that gave us a certain amount of independence.
Dorough: Once it was on television, I was dumbfounded. I hadn’t watched cartoons at all – I’ve been watching cartoons myself every Saturday since. My daughter didn’t watch television that often, but we tuned on every Saturday and heard my voice and I thought, “Wow, I wonder if anyone is seeing this.”
I volunteered in Manhattan to do some school assemblies around Christmastime after Schoolhouse Rock had been on television for a year. I put on a big act and said, “I’m from ABC, and we have a show for you.” They’d say, “We don’t have any money.” And I’d say, “This is a free show, compliments of Schoolhouse Rock.”
The teachers had never heard of me. I said, “All I need is a mic and a piano.” I played at all kinds of [low and upper-income] schools in Manhattan. When I’d start with “Three is a Magic Number,” the kids would be nudging each other – they all recognized my voice.
It’s an age-old idea – the music gives [the lessons] a sort of vehicle. McCall summed it up saying that kids can’t memorize the [multiplication] tables, but they’ll sing along with rock and rollers and learn all the lyrics. It was a simple idea but it had never been exploited like we did it.
I was just reading about an economics professor who’s using hip-hop to teach economics to bored high school students. There are a lot of spinoffs and other songwriters are writing educational songs. Some of them come to me looking for approbation and approval, which I give them readily. It’s really spawned an interest in the connection between education and music, which is stimulating to the development of the brain.
Newall: Once, in the late 1980s – Tom Yohe, my partner who designed most of the series, was invited to Dartmouth. Their senior class does a theme every year that everybody works on, and their theme for that year of all things was “Schoolhouse Rock.”
So, Tom goes up to Dartmouth with a videocassette and does his little talk and slaps the cassette in. The film comes on the screen and every kid in the audience sings along with it. He said, ‘You won’t believe it – there are kids out there who know these damned songs!’ That’s been our experience ever since.
Bob was invited to do an event at the Kennedy Center, it was the 40 th anniversary of Schoolhouse Rock. I went with him and introduced him and participated in the show. We drew the largest crowd they ever had at the Millennium Stage; there were 2,000 people. And they sat there transfixed, singing along with Bob.
Afterwards, there was an autograph session. There were two individual Asian couples who came up to get our autographs and said, ‘Our kids never would have learned English without your films.’ That was just astonishing.
When we first did Schoolhouse Rock, Tom said to me, ‘These could be evergreens because every year, a new class of kids comes in and starts school and it could go on forever.’ Bob and I have been on a couple of NPR call-in shows and I really think it’s schoolteachers that have made it live. Eighty percent of the calls coming into these shows are from teachers talking about how they use it with their classes. For three semesters, I taught an advertising writing course at St. Johns University. My class looked like the U.N. – 30 percent of them were from the Caribbean and there were students from Asia. And they all knew about Schoolhouse Rock because they heard it when they were in school, they were introduced to it by schoolteachers.
Ahrens: Unlike theater, in television you never get an immediate sense of how your audience is responding. But over the years I’ve become extremely aware of how much people love Schoolhouse Rock. It shows in the letters people write, the many imitations and parodies you can find on YouTube, the TV shows that have used some of the pieces for political purposes. The little show we all took part in has become iconic on some level. It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know it and love it.
It never occurred to me that the little songs we had such a great time writing and producing would ever become as important as they seem to have become. Winning the Emmy certainly gave the series some weight and over the years people began to analyze its success and popularity. But we just kept writing and having fun. All the rest is gravy. My favorite part has been belonging to the Schoolhouse Rock family, and we’re still friends. In fact, just last night, George and I went to see Bobby perform at a night club in New York City. He was wonderful!
George, what led you to music initially and how have you been able to have a “second act” career as a jazz pianist?
I was drafted and was in the Army from 1953 to 1955. I always played jazz by ear and I wound up in an Army band in the 11 th Airborne Division, because I could play piano at the service club and the officers’ club on weekends. That was the start of my musical education.
While I was in the band, there was another guy who got his master’s in piano from Florida State. He said, ‘You’ve got to go to this school.’ I wound up going to Florida State and majoring in composition and theory. I had done big band arrangements when I was in the Army band, so in college I wrote some contemporary classical music that won some awards in the southeast. But to continue in serious music I’d have to commit to years more study. And economically that would have unfair to my first wife who had already worked for four years to help me get through college.
So, we moved to New York and I wound up working in the mailroom of an advertising agency for $50 a week. Since I had also done some writing in college, I went to the head of the agency’s copy department and said I wanted to be a copywriter. They had a client that needed radio commercials and he asked me to write some spots. At the end of the meeting the only commercials they bought were the ones I had written. So, suddenly I was a copywriter. They raised me to $75 a week. And that was the beginning of a different world.
During the summer on weekends, I used to play in a club called The Riptide on the Jersey shore. But when I got into advertising, I slowly began to play less and less. Except at Friday afternoon jam sessions called “Jazz at Noon. At those sessions, I got to play with the great Jo “Papa” Jones of Basie fame. And Mel Lewis, Thad Jones, Ron Carter, Elvin Jones, Sam Jones, Bobby Durham and lots of other big-name jazz players who were working in the city at the time. I even had the [opportunity] of playing opposite Oscar Peterson in one of those sessions!
Lynn, what led you to your current career in storytelling through musical theater?
One thing always leads to another, and a lot of what I learned [working] on Schoolhouse Rock I use today in writing musicals—a brevity of language, word pictures, a sense of entertainment, and so forth. Schoolhouse Rock taught me how to work in a studio, how to communicate with actors and musicians, and even how to record and mix. I also learned that music can dictate visuals, and in envisioning stage musicals, we are always thinking about what we’re seeing as well as what we’re hearing. I started writing for the theater as a way to stretch myself and try a new kind of writing. It has turned out to be my true career and calling, but Schoolhouse Rock certainly contributed to my skill set, abilities and confidence. It was a glorious and meaningful time in my life, and I’ll be forever grateful that my young self was given the opportunity.
Bob, what made you take a chance on a career in music?
I was in my high school band in Texas, playing clarinet. I had dabbled with a harmonica, a violin, and the piano around the house. I never thought of music as a real way of life. Just the idea of the ensemble… there are all these kids playing different instruments and playing different parts of the music and it fits together like an ensemble.
And so, right away it piqued me. I began to practice and really dig in and make it sound better for the whole band. After about two weeks in the high school band on the clarinet, I told my parents at suppertime, “I’m gonna be a musician.” My bandmaster was very talented and helpful, and he gave me clarinet and harmony lessons. So pretty soon I was already writing music in high school for the band to play. It was pretty bad, but I was doing it. And from that moment on, they didn’t resist me, my parents. So that was it for me.
And what inspires your songwriting?
I started writing songs that would fit my own personality and that I could sing with confidence and believe in. That sort of developed the writing and the singing. It took a good while but I worked on it for a number of years. I’ve played in a lot of little clubs in New York and Los Angeles, and later on in Europe. I was always looking for a new song – or learning old songs – and trying to sing them in a different way, in my way, seeking to communicate with the audience.
I used to work in a lot of bars, where they’re all talking and drinking and they don’t care much [about the music]. I was singing pop tunes like ones by Hoagy Carmichael that they might know, hoping they would stop for a minute and listen. That was my goal – to make them listen.
© MMXVII Joanie Harmon – From the forthcoming book, “Jazz on the Small Screen”
Growing up in Barcelona, Jordi Pujol listened to his father’s record collection, which was like a “who’s who” of popular American jazz.
“When I was young, my father mostly listened to swing orchestras – Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Les Brown, Glenn Miller,” Pujol recalls. “He also had some records by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lois Armstrong and some mainstream jazz groups like Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster. He also had the four volumes of ‘The History of Jazz,’ a collection that Capitol Records released in the late 1950s or early 1960s – every volume was a different period of jazz. Volume Four was dedicated to modern jazz, including Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, Stan Kenton, and other artists. In this last volume, there was a tune called, I Had the Craziest Dream, played by a group called the Dave Pell Octet.
“At that time, I was about 16 or 17 years old, and liked the group’s sound. The arrangement was by André Previn and the baritone solo was by Bob Gordon. I knew all the musicians playing in the other selections on that record, more or less. But I didn’t know anyone in that particular group. I wanted to know more about what they were doing, so there started my interested in West Coast jazz.”
In 1983, Pujol founded Fresh Sound Records, which has among its 900 titles a large number of releases by American artists who were credited with creating the West Coast sound. Many of these artists, including Shorty Rogers, Chico Hamilton, Conte Candoli, and Shelly Manne, made great contributions to the jazz-influenced film and TV scores during the mid to late 1950s and early 1960s. Pujol’s meticulously and lovingly researched liner notes, as well as vintage photographs of musicians, composers, and arrangers that are Fresh Sounds packaging for these releases are value added for the serious collector – or in the case of this author, for those who were perhaps born too late and are enthralled by the artistry and rich history of this music.
“There are so many [film scores] that are good, but these show the evolution of jazz in the movies,” says Pujol, who is currently working on a book about jazz in film. “Leith Stevens was the first to use jazz scores in movies like ‘Private Hell 36,’ and ‘The Wild One.’ In both movies, Shorty Rogers was responsible of the success of these soundtracks. Rogers and his Giants also appeared in ‘The Man with the Golden Arm,’ the score of which was composed by Elmer Bernstein, a film where the main character was actually a jazz musician, portrayed by Frank Sinatra. Henry Mancini’s contribution to this field was also important with his score for the film ‘Touch of Evil,’ and especially for the music of the popular ‘Peter Gunn’ TV series. ‘The Subterraneans’ by André Previn was very interesting too, and of course, ‘I Want to Live’ by Johnny Mandel.”
Pujol notes the longtime association between jazz and thrillers and action films.
“There was a big change because [previously], movies used symphonic orchestras, and jazz was a new way to present those kinds of movies, most of them were related with crime,” he says. “Shorty Rogers and all the above composers were essential in this development as the men responsible for the success of jazz on film and TV. Later, Pete Rugolo, Lalo Schifrin, Jerry Fielding – and Dave Grusin, Mike Post, Pete Carpenter on TV – mixed more modern flavors with jazz on the screen to suit different moods.”
Many of the Fresh Sound releases of West Coast jazz focus on the work of instrumentalists and singers with particular arrangers who helped them achieve a signature sound. These partnerships, which continue to ensure the longevity of these vocal jazz treasures include Marty Paich with Sammy Davis, Jr. or Mel Tormé, Nelson Riddle or Gordon Jenkins with Frank Sinatra, and Billy May with anyone.
“I’ve always been interested in the arrangers, who made jazz different on the West Coast in the 1950s” says Pujol. “I have a lot of my favorite musicians in East Coast jazz; I see that they are more straight ahead, hard bop players, which I like too, and such great and influential arrangers as Gil Evans, Al Cohn, Ralph Burns, and Gunther Schuller. But on the West Coast, arrangers like Marty Paich, Shorty Rogers, Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel, and several others who were also involved with the Hollywood studios contributed to create that identifiable West Coast fresh sound.”
Pujol says that film scores and television also kept jazz in the public mind during the 1950s and 1960s, with programs like “Stars of Jazz,” hosted by Bobby Troup and “Frankly Jazz” with Frank Evans.
“They made those programs back then because jazz was so well-received,” says Pujol. “Jazz introduced other music into film and TV. Almost all the series in the 1950s had jazz in the background, but little by little that changed in the 1970s, moving more and more towards pop sounds and rhythms. These were still instrumental, with big bands and filled with some good jazz soloists, too.”
Fresh Sound Records also boasts a variety of genres within jazz, including jazz funk, world jazz, bossa nova, Latin jazz, and jazz flamenco. Pujol notes that at one time, jazz was far more accepted by the general public as a popular musical genre than it is today.
“When I was young, many people went to jazz concerts,” he notes. “They were not necessarily jazz fans, but they liked the music and understood it. American musicians started to live in Europe, so jazz became more international after the Second World War. Also, events like the Newport Jazz Festival contributed a lot to jazz and what was happening in the 1950s. In that decade, a lot of festivals began to be organized in Europe too. They helped not just to develop jazz, but were a good space to show people that jazz was a very creative kind of music, with great artists.”
For more about Fresh Sound Records, click here.
All photos courtesy of Jordi Pujol
© MMXVII Joanie Harmon – From the forthcoming book, “Jazz on the Small Screen”
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”
Last spring, while binge-watching the 1970s series, “Lou Grant,” I realized that the credit, “Music composed and conducted by Patrick Williams” referred to the same Patrick Williams who had performed at one of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute’s biannual festivals that year. My Google search led me to the artist’s website, which informed me that not only had Mr. Williams provided the theme music and score to the seminal series about journalists in Los Angeles, but had likewise created tuneful settings for many more of the great shows of my childhood, including “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Columbo,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” and “The Streets of San Francisco.”
Many West Coast jazz musicians of the 1950s-60s ended up working in film and television, having in their wheelhouse the skills and talent needed to compose, arrange, conduct, and most of all, play innovative new forms of music. Their residency in clubs like the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, Shelly’s Manne Hole, Zardi’s in Hollywood, and The Haig on Wilshire Boulevard gave them a natural showcase where film and TV personnel could hear their music and select these artists to write scores, arrange music, and even portray actual musicians, performing onscreen.
“Making Life Swing” is an attempt to collect the stories of those who are actively performing, writing, and even teaching the next generation of jazz artists. I am seeking to share various perspectives here, including the insights of collectors, fans, and family members of the artists. These stories seek to portray the people and processes that are an integral part of telling stories on television. In addition, they will also pay tribute to a genre of music that oddly is more appreciated more just about anywhere in the world except for the United States where it was born.
I borrowed “Making Life Swing” from an essay by Ralph Ellison, who before writing “Invisible Man” was a promising trumpet player and jazz critic. It’s a bit out of context, but these lines resonate, particularly today:
“Without the presence of Negro American style, our jokes, tall tales, even our sports would be lacking in the sudden turns, shocks and swift changes of pace (all jazz-shaped) that serve to remind us that the world is ever unexplored, and that while a complete mastery of life is mere illusion, the real secret of the game is to make life swing. It is its ability to articulate this tragic-comic attitude toward life that explains much of the mysterious power and attractiveness of that quality of Negro American style known as “soul.” An expression of American diversity within unity, of blackness with whiteness, soul announces the presence of a creative struggle against the realities of existence.”
I would like to propose that jazz, perhaps more than other genres of music, strives to make sense of that “creative struggle” as the one truly American art form where contributions were largely measured by what one brought to the table – or bandstand – rather than by skin color, background, or social class. If only everything else were held to such a standard – who knows how far we could all go?
As “Lou Grant” progressed through its five seasons from 1977 to 1982, the opening theme became more sophisticatedly layered. In my mind, it embodied the increasing complexity of reporting the news during a turbulent time in our history, a time full of social and political shifts that we still struggle to understand today.
While Ellison was specifically addressing race relations in his essay, one can apply these lines to the dualities of living as a practitioner of jazz. The transient work environment, grueling hours, and inadequate compensation still seem to be no match for the talent, dedication, and passion that is evident in the stories I present here. Within those stories will also be the incongruities of everyday life, personal relationships, moral dilemmas, and shimmering triumphs. These elements are all part of what makes a good story whether on the page or on the screen, and the stories gathered here represent a small but eloquent part of that process.
©MMXVII Joanie Harmon