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Aaron Zigman: The Making of a Hit Soundtrack, the Jazz Influence, and the "Inside Story" of Music for the Cinema

Victor L. Schermer By

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The whole script intrigued me. The entire script was very emotional. It's a beautiful script. A tear came to my eye when I read it. It deals with what few movies deal with today - the aspects of long-term love.
Following the recent and very popular cinematic opening of Nick Cassavetes', " The Notebook ," those who loved the film generally agreed that composer/arranger Aaron Zigman's musical score was outstanding. The film itself is a quintessential love story spanning over five decades, beautifully interwoven with subtle observations on youth and aging, with a delicate irony that could only be achieved by the director son of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands (the latter also co-starring in the film). For the musical backdrop, Zigman artfully mixed his original romantic orchestral themes with actual jazz recordings from the 1940's (including Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and others) and some original "period pieces" to spice up the drama, recorded with vintage equipment and using some top jazz artists such as Dean Parks, Dan Higgins, Bill Reichenbach, and others of equal stature. The result was a poignant blend of "classical" music, jazz of the time period, and drama which makes the film haunting and heartrending.

Recently, at the suggestion of All About Jazz Senior Editor Chris Slawecki , I interviewed Zigman by phone at his home in Los Angeles. I was interested not only in Zigman's connections to jazz and music in general, but also in the "ins and outs" of writing for the screen, which I've always felt must be a difficult process requiring a multitude of skills. I soon found Aaron to be a warm and engaging person, devoted to his craft, and with a remarkable history of producing, writing and, arranging for individual artists such as Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, Tina Turner, Chicago, to name but a few, while evolving a blossoming career as a screen composer. Quick on the heels of his success with "The Notebook," he is working on his next venture, "The Wendell Baker Story," written by Owen and Luke Wilson and directed by Andrew and Luke Wilson.

Guided by his reverence for other composers, but also inspired by a love of life and music that comes from deep within, Aaron's views will interest jazz fans and musicians alike. He considers his links to the jazz community to be vitally important, and we can all learn from his vision of music as a unified project that breaks the boundaries of arbitrary definitions and human differences.


Beginnings, The Pop And Studio Scenes, And The Segue To Film
Influences And Mentors
Composing And Arranging For The Cinema
About "The Notebook"
Personal Life And Philosophy

All About Jazz: Let me start out, as I usually do, with the infamous desert island question: If you were to go to a desert island, which five or six recordings would you take with you?

Aaron Zigman: I'd take the Concerto for Orchestra by Bartok, Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony, Gaspard de Nuit by Ravel, Ben Webster, Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans ' I Will Say Goodbye.

AAJ: What scores would you take?

AZ: Vaughn Williams' "Thomas Tallis," Stravinsky's "Petrouchka," and Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe."

Beginnings, The Pop And Studio Scenes, And The Segue To Film

AAJ: Can you give us a brief bio?

AZ: I started playing piano at age six. I was taught in the beginning by my mother, who is a pianist and harpist. Then at seven, I started with other teachers. I studied jazz around 12 or 13 with a few guys: Rocky Slight, Gene Hartwell (a great jazz pianist who resided in San Diego where I grew up). Then I continued my classical studies with Florence Stevenson. I moved to Los Angeles, went to UCLA, playing with a few jazz groups, including an original combo.

In my third or fourth year at UCLA, I began to break into the session scene doing demos for a few producers. Then in 1984, I got signed to publishing company Almo-Irving as a songwriter. Under their auspices, I penned songs for Carly Simon, the TV show "Fame" [and] some stuff for David Lasley.

I then broke in as a studio musician. I came to the attention of Gary Katz, who is Steely Dan's producer. He and Don Was hired me on keyboards ... Now I'm starting to arrange, developing a bit of a name for myself as an arranger/writer. Then I got into the scene and started playing with guys like John Robinson, Steve Lukather, Jerry Hey, David Williams, Neil Stubenhaus (in the early 1980's these guys were the "cats"), and meeting other great studio players like Gary Grant and Alan Pasqua. Alan and I are great friends; he's an unbelievable jazz pianist.

Then I wrote a big hit in pop music called "Crush on You," which was a top three CHR record for a group called The Jets, a young group out of Minneapolis. I wrote all their hits - "Curiosity," "Private Number." That started my career as a producer. I worked for Clive Davis and produced and arranged for Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole.

AAJ: You wrote songs for them?

AZ: I produced "If Ever a Love There Was" with the Four Tops and Aretha and I wrote "Everlasting" for Natalie Cole's comeback record ... and worked with Dionne Warwick. This was all in the mid-80s. I was Stewart Levine's arranger for years. I did Boz Skaggs' "Heart of Mine" ... I arranged Phil Collins' "Two Hearts." I did string arrangements for Tina Turner's, "I Don't Wanna Fight (No More)." I did Seal's "Human Beings." ... This went on in my pop world, from age 22 to 30 ... I worked with groups like the Brand New Heavies [and] did most of the Big Mountain records.

I then had the opportunity to perform on records and worked with many different artists. From there, I was able to enter into film, scoring as an orchestrator, as I worked on the movie, "The Birdcage" [and] produced songs in many other movies. So, I'm kind of a "free safety" if you will.

The greatest times I ever had were conducting string charts of mine on a record [and] doing things that involved an orchestra. All the while, I'm studying, looking at scores, hanging out and listening. It's all about that, exploring new things and learning about other people's music. Eventually, in my mid-30s, I met Nick Cassavetes, at first not knowing he was a director. We were friends for a few years. He knew of my abilities, and he had a movie to do - "John Q." He called me up and said, "Ziggy, I got a movie. I'm gonna send you the dailies, the opening montage. I can't promise you the gig, but I will give your music to the right people."

AAJ: The film was already made at this point?

AZ: Yes. He sent me a pre-edited version of the opening sequence ... I took a 50-piece orchestra, went into Capitol Studio A, and took my shot and wrote a five-minute orchestral piece with a soprano (a vocalise), using the text of "Ave Maria." They all loved it, and I got the job. I took a chance, spent a lot of money just hiring the band. Hey, I [had been] out of work for six months. During that time [I] only did one track on Christina Aguilera's record. And I wanted to take a shot at becoming a film composer.

AAJ: Let me back up and ask a couple of things. Were your parents influential in your musical life?

AZ: My mother was, especially because her side has a litany of great musicians, so there's that connection. My parents have always been supportive of my music career... once I could make a living at it!

AAJ: Could you recommend a few CDs that readers could get, if they want to listen to some pop work you did?

AZ: Seal's recordings "Human Beings" [and] "State of Grace." I arranged the theme from "Baghdad Café" on George Benson's album. I really love the string arrangements I did on Tina Turner's "I Don't Wanna Fight (No More)." I like what I did for Big Mountain. I co-arranged "Baby I Love Your Way" (the Frampton remake) and I produced the remake of the Youngblood's hit, "Get Together."

AAJ: Is the soundtrack for "John Q" available on CD?

AZ: No. But I'll have a Website up soon with some tracks from the score.

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Influences And Mentors

AAJ: Who have been some of your most seminal teachers, mentors, inspirations?

AZ: I'll focus first on influences: Vaughn Williams, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Mahler, [and] the impressionistic juice of Ravel. For modern day guys, I love Ennio Morricone, who has a heart the size of the Grand Canyon. You can't ignore John Williams. He doesn't influence me; I just like him as a composer - he is one of the best alive today.

AAJ: Have you studied with anyone who blew your mind?

AZ: I studied with my third cousin, George Bassman. He wrote the score for "Marty," and for the original version of "The Postman Always Rings Twice." He was Benny Goodman's arranger. He orchestrated a lot of "The Wizard of Oz." I studied with him in my early 20s. He's the one who really turned me on to the twentieth century musical literature that I needed to know about. Neither of us went to conservatory. We have a common bond: we're both self-taught. George and I developed a long student/mentor relationship. He's since passed away, but I remember when he gave me the George Piston book and said, "Here you go, kid. This is how I did it."

Another mentor of mine is Jerry Hey, who is well known as Quincy Jones' arranger. Jerry is simply one of the greatest pop arrangers of all time. The "Hey Horns" are unparalleled in the history of pop music. He and I have been friends for 20 years.

AAJ: He served as your conductor for "The Notebook."

AZ: Yeah, he's my conductor, although I conduct as well. I love Jerry. Of anyone I've ever met, he has the sharpest musical mind. Jerry would be the only guy that I would ever run something by. He gives great feedback. He's a great force in my life. Some people cast him as someone in the pop world. Truly, the guy is well beyond that. He has perfect pitch, great ears and knowledge of all styles of music.

AAJ: What's an example of the kind of feedback he might give you?

AZ: He'll tell me a balancing thing, a harmonic suggestion that might be helpful, like a great orchestrator would. There are very few people as musical as he is, in scope, feel, rhythm, perspective of the overall scheme, in any style of music.

AAJ: Sounds like you'd give him a pretty good letter of recommendation!

AZ: Oh yeah. I like good minds, as we all do. The great thing about Jerry is that it's just about the music: when it's music, it has to be right. He and I hear the same things - texture, balance, sonorities. We've pretty much gotten to the point where we don't say much - we just fix it.

When you're preparing to record a soundtrack, it's a military operation; everything has to be down to a science. For "The Notebook," I only had two and a half days on the sound stage to produce 51 minutes of music. Jerry and I make a great team and we had excellent results.

AAJ: Has Quincy Jones had an impact on you?

AZ: I think Quincy Jones has had an impact on everyone. His taste in music is impeccable. I certainly have admired all his work, all those great records he made. I actually played keyboard on his Valentine's record.

AAJ: The border between classical and pop is very open.

AZ: There's a relaxed quality. You don't get locked and don't get rigid in one thought. You're open to a little bit more expression.

AAJ: I appreciate that philosophy. With respect to "The Notebook," the music is heavily into the jazz of the 1940s. Have you always had an interest in that era?

AZ: I've always loved the early piano players like Willie "The Lion" Smith, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Eubie Blake ... guys like Chet Baker, the early Dexter Gordon, Louis Armstrong, Gil Evans, Miles. But honestly, I was no aficionado when I started "The Notebook." I did a lot of research. I knew I had the project a year before. I had a lot of time to woodshed on that era, and I really started listening.

Jazz, in a way, is like classical music. The plethora of stuff that's out there is so endless that it's impossible to listen to all of it. I certainly did a lot of listening, and I learned a lot. I really prepared myself in some of the melodic writing for this movie. I learned a lot about the big bands ... but I (also) learned about some of the obscurities: the players, the recordings, the different styles and approaches.

AAJ: Are you available as a teacher?

AZ: I've had a few students. I love to work with young people. I find it fun and exhilarating. I just wrote a big wind ensemble for the USC [Thornton] School of Music that was performed two months ago in Newman Hall. Professor Rick Todd asked me to write a piece. I wrote a dense, deep harmonic piece for twenty-four horns, double winds, contrabassoon, five trombones, tuba, three percussion, timpani and harp. I got to work with this young orchestra for two days and had a ball. I'm available to teach any time.

AAJ: If a reader wants to contact you about this, how can they do so?

AZ: My Website will be up soon. Also, they can always get a hold of me at my agent's office: Laura Engel at 818-380-1918.

AAJ: Which motion picture composers and arrangers particularly turn you on when you're actually doing your own composing?

AZ: I mentioned Bassman, Ennio Morricone, John Williams. You can't ignore the great Elmer Bernstein and Thomas Newman. In general, I've been inspired by Alex North, Max Steiner ... Michel Legrand, early Jerry Goldsmith [and] Benny Herrmann. He's one of my idols. Talk about great jazz influx.

AAJ: You mean Bernard Herrmann?

AZ: Yeah, Benny. We had the same car mechanic, and he used to call him Benny. My mechanic, Harry Nicols, always tells me great Hitchcock stories that involved Benny Herrmann.

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Composing And Arranging For The Cinema

AAJ: Let's talk about actually putting together the music for the film "The Notebook." I've always thought that it must be difficult to synchronize music with the timing, mood and action of a scene. How do you go about this process?

AZ: Here's how it works. First you read the script. Then when you're hired for the job, you watch the film with the pre-existing music that's "temped." Then you see where the director thinks music should be. Those are your time plots. You have a music editor who gives you your cues and what we call spotting notes, where the seconds are broken down [and] marked with "SMPTE Codes," time codes that synch with an Oracle, the mechanism that synchs your beats to the picture.

AAJ: Have you already composed the music prior to the synching?

AZ: You're writing the music as you watch the picture. You plot your points, tempos, demarcations, hits. Then I go to my living room, and I sit down and start writing. I listen to the dialogue. Nowadays we work with computers. You can put your music into the computer, lock it up to the time code, you're synched, and you write the music. I use the computer program Digital Performer. Most directors want to hear the music before you go onto the scoring stage with a hundred musicians. So you show the director a demo using computer-synthesized samples.

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About "The Notebook"

AAJ: Let's talk about "The Notebook." You've already told us about your connection to Nick Cassavetes. Were there aspects of the script that intrigued you?

AZ: The whole script intrigued me. The entire script was very emotional. It's a beautiful script. A tear came to my eye when I read it. It deals with what few movies deal with today - the aspects of long-term love. Long-term love is not necessarily in vogue in our society.

AAJ: That's an understatement.

AZ: This movie and this script painted something emotional enough to grab many people.

AAJ: I rarely cry at a movie, but this one affected me deeply that way.

AZ: You're human, like everybody else. It's funny to me that some people find movies like this too sappy or overly sentimental. Some movies actually are that way, but I didn't find this one to be. In love, most people do things that would be considered sappy or maudlin.

AAJ: I thought the wonderful thing about the movie was the way Cassavetes combined the realism of his father's work with broad-brush romanticism.

AZ: Yeah, Nick is like that. Nick draws on real experiences. That's the great thing about him. What he shows you on the screen, he believes and has experienced.

AAJ: As Charlie Parker said, "If you haven't been through it, it won't come out of your horn."

AZ: There's nothing in his movies that he hasn't experienced in some way. I've known him for years. That's Nick Cassavetes.

AAJ: What was it like to work with these folks?

AZ: Oh, Nick is awesome, and the whole cast was great. I don't work with the cast that much because I'm the composer, but I certainly met everyone. They were all very friendly. They all like working with Nick because he's fun to work with. He's a director's director. He's brilliant, he's not full of himself. He's easy to get to know and easy to like, and you want to work for someone like that.

AAJ: That feeling comes through in the movie.

AZ: Thank you. It's a good movie, positive. It's not a Hollywood "cool, hip, slick" movie. I'm tired of those. I want a story. All movies don't have to be like reality TV. Yes, the ending of "The Notebook" is surreal, maybe never happens, a fantasy, but I go to the movies to engage myself with fantasy. I love this movie so much because it hits the heart, and it does have a little fantasy in it. When I compose, my writing's all about fantasy. My constant motifs are all about yearning for love, death, hope and interdependence. And that, for me, is what this movie is about.

When I wrote the music for this movie, I felt as if God had sent me a jewel, a gift. Give me ten of them. I'd lock myself in a cave. I'd be happy as a lark!

AAJ: This movie spoke directly to you.

AZ: It spoke to my heart, right in the middle of my heart. (It) broke my heart.

AAJ: When I heard the score, two particular composers came to my mind: Samuel Barber and a little known 19th-century French composer, Canteloube, whose beautiful song cycle, "Songs of the Auvergne," is virtually his only well-known legacy.

AZ: Yeah, I love Barber. I'm not familiar with Canteloube. But I love to learn about composers I've not heard about.

AAJ: Victoria de Los Angeles did the best-known recording of "Songs of the Auvergne." The feel of the music, for me, is similar to your score in some way.

AZ: I listen to Barber often. I've always loved "The School for Scandal" [and] the "Adagio for Strings." I might want to have that piece on the desert island. It was originally written as a quartet or octet. Leonard Bernstein became aware of it in the late 1930s or 1940s, I think.

AAJ: How did you choose the specific jazz recordings for "The Notebook"?

AZ: Actually, Nick got the idea for the Jimmy Durante version of "I'll Be Seeing You." "I'll Be Seeing You" was in the script originally. He wanted me to find as many versions as I could. Nick, Erin Scully [New Line Cinema's Music Supervisor] and I worked together. I went to Tower Music and found Durante's 1964 recording arranged by Gordon Jenkins. Nick said, "I might want you to re-orchestrate some of it." In the scene where Gena Rowland's character goes nuts, toward the end of the movie, the music keeps playing in the background. I got the original three-track recording from Warner Brothers. The music was separated enough so that I extended the bridge and orchestrated about 12 to 14 bars, and then we went back inside the record.

AAJ: It's mentioned that you purposely used recording equipment from the 1940s for some pieces.

AZ: I used small rooms with no air, and I used ribbon mikes from the 1940s. They're the precursor to the modern Royer mikes, which the brass players love because they're not so "high-endy" and they keep it warm. Conway Studios had an old ribbon mike from the 40s, and I used it on all the guitar and drum stuff. I used Royer mikes for the trumpet, that whole jazz suite that's on the soundtrack album, "The Proposal," "Carnival Part I" [and] "The House to Restore." The second piece is a down home, low country type of music modeled after the prison gang music of the 1920s ... It's on the porch scene.

AAJ: For these pieces, you used some jazz musicians.

AZ: Yeah, Jerry Hey and I wrote "House to Restore." The low country piece was written by myself and Dean Parks, the great guitarist. Bill Reichenbach and I wrote "The Proposal." And the fourth one, I penned with Dan Higgins, the great saxophonist who did all the sax and clarinets in the film. That's my crew. I've been working with these guys for years. They're my family.

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Personal Life And Philosophy

AAJ: Let's turn to your life more generally. In your liner notes, you seem to imply that music is your life.

AZ: I say it's my favorite place to dream, a form of communication. I also love to play tennis ... swim ... read books. I like to watch people. I just like their diversity, different energies.

AAJ: Your family home is in San Diego?

AZ: I love my family. I have a strong sense of family. It never wanes.

AAJ: Are you involved with anyone romantically?

AZ: No, I was, and it ended about a year ago ... I'm writing music, doing life, helping people when I can, and trying to walk a decent path. I'm a serious work-in-progress. I love my work so much. It doesn't complete me, but it's an important part of me. I like being busy and meeting new people. Writing for film, I get to meet new people. There's such a diversity of interesting minds and spirits in this world.

AAJ: People often think of Hollywood as a kind of Babylon, but in reality, there are some extraordinary people in the business.

AZ: I've been very fortunate to work with people like Erin Scully, who works at New Line Cinema. Incidentally, the Music Department at New Line Cinema are the most down-to-earth people you'll ever meet.

I believe that, most of the time, if you look for the good in people, you'll find it. It's only our fear that keeps us in stigmas, typecasting and stereotypes. Once you lose that and engage someone, you find you usually get a good response.

AAJ: That brings me to the subject of spirituality. Do you have a spiritual orientation?

AZ: I'm Jewish by birth. I'm not ultra-religious. I identify as a human being. I want to be a kind person.

I'm apolitical and a-religious. In the times we're living in, I find religion to be very beautiful. All religions have beautiful qualities. The problem for me is that dogmatism, idealism and fanaticism are the bane of our society. I just want to know if you're a kind person and have good human qualities. Music to me has nothing to do with politics. Certainly, there's been great music written out of oppression, like Shostakovich. For me, turbulence is turbulence, but when I think of music, there's joy and pain. I don't like to characterize music in terms of religious or political beliefs.

I have written Hebraic, very Eastern European pieces. I wrote an unpublished tone poem about the late Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. I started it in 1994, three days after he was assassinated. I was so enraged and upset by his death, that I just sat for six months, read about his life, and wrote a 35-minute work.

Look at Bach and all the music he wrote for the church. So to say that all music doesn't have a religious connotation also could be a misnomer, but for me, I'm pretty much apolitical and a-religious. I like to keep it simple.

AAJ: Have you had other very moving, transforming experiences in addition to the death of Rabin?

AZ: Yes, the evolution of transforming as a human being: falling in love or losing someone you love; those experiences: love and death.

AAJ: Can you tell us about some of your upcoming projects and what some of your wildest dreams are musically?

AZ: My next movie is "The Wendell Baker Story." It's a great quirky romantic comedy written by Luke and Andrew Wilson.

AAJ: And some of your wildest dreams?

AZ: My wildest dream is to keep scoring movies. I love all styles. I would certainly love to tackle a dark, action movie.

AAJ: What about straightforward classical composing?

AZ: I want to write my symphony. I've written two major wind ensembles, pieces for string orchestra [and] a viola sonata. Eventually, I might like to write more for the concert stage and get some played by the orchestras. Look at Lou Harrison, he's writing well into his eighties.

AAJ: The Philadelphia Orchestra, with its lush string sound, would be great for some of your music.

AZ: I'd love to get some stuff played there. Their first cellist contacted me about the Rabin piece a few years ago, but it's hard to get performed by the major orchestras. Endowments are being decreased; orchestras are losing money. It's sad. Both jazz and classical are having tough times. What we love, Vic, is in danger!

AAJ: Yes, it is. It's a tough time. But the music goes on.

AZ: Yes. And I think film is a powerful medium to keep the younger generation interested.

AAJ: A concluding question: What message would you like to give to the truly dedicated jazz musicians out there?

AZ: Thank you for breaking the ground. It's guys like me that love to listen to you. We also need more of the younger ones breaking in. That persona is what will keep the interest going. The younger guys inspire their peers to pay attention to them and also to those who preceded them. We all need to pay homage to those who came before us. Continue the quest for the harmonic grail, if you will.

AAJ: I like that phrasing. I've thoroughly enjoyed talking with you today.

AZ: It was my pleasure, Vic.

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