Dick Hyman: The Beat Goes On
AAJ: Ellington also famously composed specifically for and around members of his band.
DH: It's true that it went that way too: The musicians often brought him their compositions, which he added to or perhaps fleshed out with improved harmonies. I think that's the case with Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Barney Bigard and all the other musicians with whom he collaborated.
AAJ: It comes up in various online biographies of you but it never seems fully explained: You played "on one remarkable occasion" with Igor Stravinsky?
DH: (Laughs) Oh, yes. Well. This was in the time when I was recording quite a few sessions every weekdaily, two or three a day, even. One of these assignments was to be in a pickup orchestra that Columbia organized for Igor Stravinsky so that they could have "The Ebony Concerto" recorded. If you recall, Stravinsky had written that on commission for Woody Herman; this time, it would be recorded by, I believe, what they called the Columbia Jazz Comboat any rate, with Benny Goodman. That's how it happened: Stravinsky indeed conducted and we even did a couple of additional small pieces to fill out the date, but basically it was for "The Ebony Concerto," with Benny playing the solo part.
AAJ: Who introduced you to Woody Allen and how?
DH: I think the first film that I was involved with was Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask (1972). I played organ in a group organized by guitarist Mundell Lowe, and that's the very first thing. I recall that the second one was when they needed a solo pianist for Stardust Memories, and then I got involved in whatever was required in the following films. Woody began to need bands and original music, and everything followed.
AAJ: Had you or have you played with him?
DH: I did only one time, when I was the musical director of Jazz in July at the 92nd Street Y, a position I held for twenty years. One time, we got Woody's band to be featured on the same program as The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and at that point, and only that point, I did sit in with them on one number toward the end.
AAJ: Do you both share much musical taste?
DH: The way it developed, we realized that we both have had a healthy interest in old time, 1920s kind of jazz. And, you know, that's Woody's great passion, playing the clarinet in the style of George Lewis and Johnny Dodds.
AAJ: Were you involved at all with Radio Days? Because the sound of the music in Radio Days is very much the like sound that comes from listening to you play.
DH: Ah, I like that. I wrote the famous jingle that Mia sang, "Re-lax," on instructions from Woody, who gave me the title, and I just wrote a typical constipation jingle such as I had been recording for years. The interesting thing about that tune is that it was filmed live in the RCA recording studios in New York on 44th Street: The vocal wasn't overdubbed, the band was live, the recording was live, and the filming was live, and it's the only time I know of in modern film history where that all happened at once.
AAJ: You've just used a phrase I'd like to ask you about: "Old time, 1920s kind of jazz." The phrase "classic jazz" often comes up in discussion of your work. Is "old time, 1920s kind of jazz" classic jazz to you?
DH: First of all, I may be celebrated for that affection I have for the "old time" stuff but I hate to see my reputation limited to that because, after all, I considered myself a "bebop kid" for a while, when I played in the 1950s and '60s. And there have been some other achievements too. But classic jazz means a lot to me.
The jazz of the '20s and so forth is what I was initially introduced to by my big brother, whom I mentioned before, and I learned those records by heart. And in those days, I played clarinet along with the records. (Laughs) I learned every bit of every recording by Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton and so forth. I'm also interested in the dance music of the 1920s, not only the jazz. That's kind of fun to hear: the popular dance music, which often contained jazz solos, is interesting in itself in its old-time way. And I like to download music from 20s Jazz, which supplies a new old recording from that period every two or three days.
AAJ: Did you work much with big bands that featured vocalists?
DH: Remember, I was in New York in the recording crowd in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, even into the '80s. So I probably recorded with anybody you might want to think of, and I did arrangements for quite a few of them: Tony Bennett. Perry Como, Patti Page, Bette Midler. I once did an album for Frank Sinatra on which his voice was added later, so I'm not sure whether I can say that I recorded exactly with him or not (Watertown, 1970, Reprise). Then there were Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald on one date, The Mills Brothers with Count Basie, Rosemary Clooney with Benny Goodman, Pearl Bailey, Lee Wiley, and I won't even get into the rockers or rhythm-and-blues people.