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Johnny Mandel (1925-2020)


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Johnny Mandel, a elegant arranger, composer, conductor and bass trumpeter who began his career writing for big bands in the 1940s, crossed over to jazz in the '50s and wound up scoring movies in the late 1950s and beyond, including main titles that became standards, died June 29. He was 94.

Like other player-arrangers of the era, including Neal Hefti, Quincy Jones and Henry Mancini, Johnny settled in Los Angeles and tailored his passion for jazz to the commercial demands of film scoring. But Johnny never became slick, keeping one foot in the esoteric jazz world. He identified with “the little guy" and instrumental perfectionists. Celebrated equally for his swing and strings arrangements, Johnny could get fingers snapping on albums such as Frank Sinatra's Ring a Ding Ding and the Harper (1966) soundtrack and tears flowing on David Allyn's Sure thing and Shirley Horn's Here's to Life. 

Johnny arranged for Boyd Raeburn, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Elliot Lawrence, Count Basie, Bud Shank, Dave Pell, Chet Baker, Hal McKusick, Hoagy Carmichael, Maynard Ferguson, Art Pepper, Sarah Vaughan, Jo Stafford, Anita O'Day, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, Barbra Streisand and many others.

Johnny never put on airs. In fact, he detested those who did. He identified most with the guys who played the music, not those who paid the bills, and he was most at home writing and scoring sensitive barn-burners, like his own Krazy Kat.

What I've found most remarkable about Johnny's music is the quiet clash of intensity and sensitivity. During my in-person and phone conversations Johnny, I always detected a slight gruffness in his voice, the tone of a guy who doesn't pull his punches or back down. But after that passed, I sensed his true nature was rooted in kindness, warmth and caring.

Here's my complete 2008 interview with Johnny Mandel:

JazzWax: Where were you born?

Johnny Mandel: In New York. Originally my mother and father lived in Chicago. A year after my sister was born in 1919, they moved to New York. I was born in 1925.

JW: What did your parents do?

JM: My dad was in the garment business. My mom had ambitions to become an opera singer. But back then, in order to make it in the music business, you had to sleep with the producer. She grew up in a Victorian era when nice girls just didn’t do that. So she gave up her ambition of becoming a professional singer. The result was she became very supportive of me when I wanted to become a musician.

JW: Did you have brothers or sisters?

JM: I had a sister, Audre. Her name was pronounced “Audrey," but she left the “y" off. She was creative. Audre was six years older than me. Girls grow up much faster than boys, so I was an only child in a certain sense. My sister and I were friendly, but she was grown up before I ever knew what was happening around me. I was a pest, but she put up with me.

JW: Was your neighborhood in New York tough?

JM: No, we were comfortable. I grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, on 85th St. and West End Ave. I spent a couple of years going to P.S. 9 on 82d St. and West End. One day my mother dropped me off at school on Election Day in 1932, the day Roosevelt was elected president. She didn’t realize there wasn’t school that day. I started wandering around, and they found me conducting traffic on West End Ave. I was seven years old. 

JW: What was your mother’s reaction?

JM: She had a fit. She came to pick me up after they called her. The school was prehistoric, as I remember it. We had toilets with a long trough and a bunch of seats. The trough carried everything into the sewers. I got into a fight with some kid about something one day and pushed him in there. His mother called my mother and complained that her kid caught a cold. I remember my mother saying to her, “You’re lucky that’s all he caught.” My mom was a real New Yorker.

JW: How about your dad?

JM: My dad owned a clothing company called Mandel & Cash. But he took a financial beating when the Depression hit in the early 1930s. Then Roosevelt's New Deal forced him to hire a lot of people he didn’t need or use. So in 1934, my dad finally said to hell with it and closed up shop. He had been to California on a visit years earlier and loved it. He wanted to retire there. So we moved. My mother wasn’t happy in Los Angeles at first. She had been sort of a New York swinger and liked it there. She had a bunch of buddies. They were like flappers.

JW: Did you like California?

JM: When I first got out there with my family, I looked around and realized that I hated New York. I hated all the noise. In L.A., we lived in the Hancock Park area. All the houses had been built in the Spanish Mission style in the 1920s. The area looked then pretty much the same as it does today. Back then, there was more grass and trees. I thought it was wonderful. In New York, you went to Central Park once in a while but always in groups. California was a complete change. You could run free.

JW: When did you know you wanted to become a musician?

JM: On the day my dad died at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles in 1937. I was 11 years old. But my dad's sudden death of a heart attack had nothing to do with my decision. A cousin I never knew existed had come to visit, and the day my dad died I spent the day with the cousin. His name was Mel Rosenbach. He was a drummer with Harry Reser's Clicquot Club Eskimos. Back then, the big thing for a band was to have a radio show and name the band after the sponsor. In this case, Clicquot Club was a lemon soda, like 7Up. I met Mel, and we started talking. He told me he was going out on the road with Reser. I asked why he was doing that. Mel said he was a drummer. I said, “You mean you’re a drummer all the time?” He said, “Yeah, I play with this band, and we play at different dances." I said, “Wow, is it fun?” [laughs]

JW: What did Mel tell you?

JM: He said, “Oh yeah.” I didn’t ask Mel about the girls because I didn’t know about that yet. Later I discovered that most band and jazz guys became musicians because they could get girls easily. And I was one of them. But that would come later [laughs]. When Mel told me what he did with Reser, I wanted to become a musician, too. It sounded like they had a blast.

JW: Were you already listening to music?

JM: Yes. Thanks to my mom’s interests in singing, there was plenty of music around the house. The latest sheet music was there, and the record business was starting to take off again after being clobbered in the early years of the Depression. So everyone I knew played piano for their own amusement or listened to the radio or knew the latest songs. And it was all jazz of one type or another.

JW: What did your family do after your dad died?

JM: We returned to New York, where my mother wanted to live, and stayed at the Essex House hotel on Central Park South.

JW: That's pretty fancy stuff for 1937. How could your mother afford that?

JM: We were lucky that my father had had an insurance policy. After we moved, I met Marshall Robbins, whose family also lived on the fifth floor of the hotel. Marshall and I were the same age, 12. His father was Jack Robbins of Robbins Music, the big music publisher. Jack used to take Marshall and me around to see all the big-name bands in the late 1930s. I knew by then I wanted to play a horn. It had to be a trumpet or saxophone, something you kissed.

JW: Which bands did you see?

JM: Every one of them. I hadn’t learned to differentiate yet. The records were coming out quickly then, and swing was already hot after Benny Goodman had played the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1935.

JW: How long did your family live at the Essex House?

JM: For about a year. Then we moved to the Lombardy apartments hotel on East 56th St. My dad’s insurance policy saved us, and my mother was good with money. We lived comfortably.

JW: Were you a handful?

JM: Boys were very rare in our family. My family knew how to raise girls but they didn’t know much about dealing with boys. They didn’t know how to deal with me after my dad died. I wasn’t a bad kid or anything. While we were still out in L.A., I went to the John Burroughs School. But one day I came home with such a bad mouth that my mother sent me to a terrible boarding school called Cal Prep way out in Covina. It was an awful place. But that was a holding pen until we moved to New York. In all fairness, my mother and my sister didn’t really know what to do with a rowdy teenage boy.

JW: What did your mom do with you in New York?

JM: In New York she sent me to a good but dreadful boarding school called the Irving Institute up in Tarrytown, N.Y., about 45 minutes north of the city. It was quite an anti-Semitic place. It was for families of rich kids, a middle school for young gentlemen founded by the writer Washington Irving. They didn’t have any use for someone like me. I spent four years at Irving. I had a few friends but stuck to my trumpet. That was all I was interested in. And I totally had my ears glued to the radio.

JW: It sounds like they left you alone

JM: For the most part unless I stepped out of line. The Irving Institute was like something out of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. One day I used up all the hot water at 6 a.m. One of the headmasters got a switch and decided he was going to teach me a lesson.

JW: What did you do?

JM: That was the last straw. I finally told my mother, and she yanked me out of there. I then went to the New York State Military Academy in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y. I went on a band scholarship in 1942, the equivalent of high school. The academy was very proud of its marching band, but many of the guys in the band couldn’t play very well. Our gig was to play and march. You learned to march and play at the same time.

JW: Did you enjoy it?

JM: It was a great experience. Having to wake up the whole place as the bugler helped develop my chops—when the horn wasn’t sticking to my lips in the cold. Many well-known musicians went there. The whole Brown family had gone there—Les, Warren and Stumpy. We had a dance band there that I started arranging for. I graduated in 1944.

JW: Before you graduated, what did you do over the summers?

JM: My mother sent me away to sleep-away camp. In the summer of 1942, I was a music counselor at one. I was a trumpeter in charge of forming a band. The places up in the Catskill Mountains weren’t very nice. I was working there as an employee. The following summer in 1943 I was good enough to play with [jazz violinist] Joe Venuti’s band. That was a baptism by fire.

JW: How so?

JM: We were on the road in the Catskills for about 2½ months over that summer. I was going to stay with the band in the fall, but my mother talked me into going back to finish my senior year at the academy. She was right. Joe Venuti was one of the best musicians I’ve ever known. He was such a clown, a practical joker. People didn’t take him seriously but he was every bit as good as Stephane Grappelli. Our girl singer was Kay Starr. I learned what it was like to be a professional musician with Venuti. We were on the road a lot, but the band also played in New York at Roseland. That’s how hard up top venues were for musicians.

JW: What did you do after you graduated from the military academy?

JM: One of the first jobs I had after graduating was with Billie Rogers, the girl trumpet player and her orchestra. She had been with Woody Herman, in his first band, the one known as the “Band that Played the Blues." I was writing for Billie's band and playing third trumpet, but that band broke up three months after I joined.

JW: I can understand your ambition as a teen to play trumpet in a band. But to become an arranger?

JM: In those days, I was like any other kid. You grew up glued to the radio. I knew I wanted to become a musician. There were bands everywhere, and the cheapest form of entertainment was listening to live remotes of the different bands from the big hotels. Everything sounded so exciting, especially live from those hotels. But I was captivated by the songs as much as the bands.

JW: Why the songs?

JM: The culture was different then. Everything in music back in the late 1930s was based on the songs, their melodies and how those melodies were interpreted by different band arrangers. To stand out, most bands just recorded the songs that had already landed on the Hit Parade. That was the list of best-selling records in the country. Songs that made the Hit Parade were proven winners. So song-pluggers like Jack Robbins, who lived in our hotel when we moved to New York, were always in the clubs trying to get bands to play their songs so they'd be heard on the radio. That's how they sold sheet music and records. As a song publisher, if a band turned a song you licensed into a hit on the radio, you made a ton of money.

JW: So the Hit Parade was everything?

JM: Yes, that's why so many bands played the same 10 songs on there. That was the business then. Music publishers ran it. In order to get better bookings, bands always wanted to get a radio wire where they were playing and be heard live. It was the fastest way to get exposure. Lying in bed with my ear glued to the radio listening to bands playing the same songs, I said to myself about the arrangements, “What’s the big deal?" Those broadcasts were like a laboratory for me. It took a couple of weeks of listening when I was a kid before the light bulb went off. It wasn’t about the songs. It was about how the band interpreted the song. But there were no books on how to arrange for big bands back then.

JW: So what did you do?

JM: When I was still attending the New York State Military Academy in the early 1940s, I saw an ad in Down Beat that said Van Alexander was taking on students. Van and his wife had had their first baby, so he needed more income. Van wrote Chick Webb's hit, A-Tisket, A-Tasket, and many other big band arrangements.

JW: Did your mother know?

JM: Of course. I asked her, and she said OK. So I'd go down to New York on the train and go up to Van’s apartment. The first time I went there, I couldn’t believe it. Here was the guy from Down Beat. He was famous.

JW: How did it go?

JM: When I got to Van’s, I told him I wanted to do what he was doing. He said fine and went over to a closet where he had a big stack of music. He pulled off a few sheets of yellow paper he had used to arrange a song. He showed it to me and told me that what I saw was called a score. I asked him what that meant. He said that a score is a snapshot of what everyone in the band is playing and that each sheet held eight measures. I looked at all the different parts and said, “This is what they’re doing all at one time?" “Yes," he said, “for eight bars." Then I noticed that everything was in different keys. Van told me that many of the instruments' notes had to be transposed so everyone played in the same key. I picked all that up pretty quickly.

JW: What happened next?

JM: As I looked at the score, I told him that the trombones seemed as though they were playing kind of high for their range. He said that’s the way he had chosen to write for them.

JW: Did he have you write something?

JM: Not just yet. He said, “Now that you’ve seen what it looks like, you have to hear what it looks like.” He unwrapped one of his records and put it on a windup phonograph.

JW: What was the record? Do you remember?

JM: Yes, wait a second. It was Hooray for Spinach, by Harry Warren's band. We went through the whole thing, listening to the music and following the arrangement on the score Van had written. I couldn’t believe it. Back then, all songs used to have the singer in the middle of the tune, after the second chorus. I asked Van why he had changed keys. “That’s the key the girl in the band sings in,” he said. “The band had to modulate to her key so she’s comfortable singing the lyrics in her range.”

JW: What happened next?

JM: Van said to me, “You’ve seen what a song looks and sounds like. Now you have to put the two together. If you’re thinking of a sound, you have to realize what it’s going to look like on paper.” He said the final step takes a long time to do, but that when the two things were put together—hearing something great in your head and writing it down—I’ll have it made. Van said, “What you have to do is learn to see with your ears and hear with your eyes.” I never forgot that line. Van told me to listen to everything I could get my hands on. He gave me some blank score paper and told me to write something.

JW: What did you do?

JM: I went home and wrote something [laughs]. Van said the most important thing an arranger needs are guys to play what he writes, no matter how good or bad the scores are. He said, “Otherwise, you’ll never know what you wrote. You need an idea of what you did and what you wished you had done.”

JW: How did you meet Alan Greenspan?

JM: When I got out of the New York State Military Academy in 1944, I was with Billie Rogers’s band for a few months until the band broke up. Then I joined trumpeter Henry Jerome and his Stepping Tones. Lenny Garment and Alan Greenspan played tenor saxophone in that band and were already there a couple of years before I joined. Henry had a society band, but Lenny decided Henry should have a bebop group within the band. So I wrote some charts for the group. [Leonard Garment would become special counsel to President Nixon and Alan Greenspan would become Federal Reserve chief.]

JW: What was Alan Greenspan like back then?

JM: Alan was very bookish and a nice guy. He also did the payroll, so we always got paid on time [laughs]. Alan was going to NYU and Lenny to Columbia. We made an air check at this huge barn of a place under New York’s Paramount Theatre called Child’s Paramount. I think it's on a CD.

JW: Not long afterward you took up the trombone. Why the change?

JM: When I was playing in Billie Rogers's band, I realized I had accumulated some bad playing habits on trumpet. I wasn’t playing in tune, even though I had perfect pitch. I decided trombone might be a better fit for me. I had doubled on it at the military academy because there weren’t enough trombone players in the dance band. By the time I was with Henry Jerome, I had stopped playing trumpet regularly.

JW: How did you learn to play trombone so quickly?

JM: I thought of the trombone as a big trumpet. I learned all the positions. I was ambitious. That’s all I thought about.

JW: You also were writing and arranging, too?

JM: Yes. I had heard about Al Cohn's arranging skills when I had come to New York from the military academy to study with Van Alexander. I was a big fan of Al. He was one guy whose approval I always wanted. I’d listen to what Al was doing, remember it, and write it for my own band up at the academy [laughs]. I don't think I ever told Al that. Al and I played together in the Henry Jerome bop group with Lenny and Alan. Al Cohn and Bob Vitale were the other two saxophones.

JW: In 1944 you joined Boyd Raeburn’s band. How were you brought in?

JM: I can't recall. David Allyn was singing with Henry Jerome at the time. He and I moved over to Raeburn’s band together. I was playing lead trombone then because I could play in the high register.

JW: Was Boyd’s band as amazing and as ahead of its time as it sounds?

JM: Yes, it was. Boyd had a solid swing band at the time. I can't recall who recommended me but I was able to come in and replace Trummy Young. Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Pettiford were doing record dates with us, but they weren’t officially part of the band. Quite a few guys in there had been in Van Alexander’s band. We toured across the country playing Army bases and flying in Army planes. How Deep Is the Ocean and Eagle Flies were my arrangements. I was 19 years old.

JW: Once you learned the fundamentals of arranging from Van Alexander, did you find you had a natural talent for it?

JM: I had a burning desire to arrange, that’s for sure. I figured I’d learn and be good at it. I was driven. The first band I got to play one of my arrangements when I was still at the military academy was a nonunion group led by a guy named Paul Allen. Tenor saxophonist Al Cohn was in there. But once the band played my arrangement, I realized the stuff I had written was all wrong. The trombones were off the charts. Everything was wrong. So I took it in and went on from there. You really learn to arrange by screwing up. You find something that sounds good and then think about moving it to a different section of the arrangement.

JW: What band did you join after leaving Boyd Raeburn in 1945?

JM: I joined Jimmy Dorsey for a short time, when it looked like Boyd’s band might break up.

JW: What was Jimmy Dorsey like?

JM: Jimmy Dorsey was a nice guy and a hell of an instrumentalist, but not much of a bandleader. He was a sideman at heart. I had never met Tommy Dorsey, but I know he liked my arrangements. He died before I ever got to hook up with him. In Jimmy's band, I had to play the high trombone solos because the book for some reason was originally written for Tommy. Jimmy was a groove. He was a nice guy. I was there for just a few months.

JW: Why did you leave Boyd Raeburn's band for Buddy Rich in 1946?

JM: One of the musicians in Boyd's band went over to Buddy and took me with him. Buddy was a big name then. But all of a sudden playing music wasn’t fun. I was the first trombone in Buddy’s band, and it was dull.

JW: Why?

JM: In 1946, Buddy was still thinking in terms of swing. He liked Benny Goodman’s sound. Frankly, I can’t even imagine Benny and Buddy in the same room together. They had such different temperaments. When I’d play bop in Buddy's band, Buddy would pound me on the chest with his finger and say, “I hate bebop, I hate Charlie Parker.”

JW: But as we know, Rich would wind up recording with Parker.

JM: Yes. Buddy's change in thinking came sometime in 1947, I think, and probably was a result of survival. All of the big bands were adapting bop in their arrangements. Buddy eventually realized he could stick to swing and go out of business or get with what was happening. By the time I re-joined Buddy’s band in 1947 after playing with Alvino Rey, Buddy had changed, which is why I went back.

JW: What was Buddy's issue with bop in 1946?

JM: I don't know. He had just left Tommy Dorsey to go out on his own. Just as he did, the music changed. I'm sure that was a part of it. No one who is on top like Buddy wants to hear that their approach is dated. Either way, he was an all-around drag in '46. Buddy's band then was like a pre-war swing band transported to a new era. Apart from having Earl Swope on trombone, Buddy's band that year wasn't a place where I enjoyed myself, which is why I left.

JW: Drumming was changing fast in 1946, wasn't it?

JM: Smaller bebop groups were suddenly getting a lot of attention. At this time, Buddy was fiercely jealous of Max Roach. All of sudden Max was the man and Buddy wasn’t. He hated that. As late as early 1947 Buddy was still trying to be a swing drummer with a swing band. Personally, I think Buddy always sounded better in other people’s bands than his own. All of that notwithstanding, I still think he’s the greatest big band drummer.

JW: When you were in Buddy Rich's band in 1946, Tadd Dameron was there, too. Did Tadd have an influence on you?

JM: Some, but not a lot. I was listening more to Jimmy Mundy, who I think wrote the best stuff for Benny Goodman; Benny Carter; Bill Finegan; Billy May, who made Glenn Miller's band come alive; Sy Oliver; Van Alexander; Duke Ellington and Count Basie. I quickly found I could take music off records and score the whole thing. All the arrangers then were in my thinking.

JW: How did you wind up with Alvino Rey in 1946, in between your Buddy Rich stints?

JM: After I left Buddy’s band, I continued playing in what was known then as “farm team” bands. These were bands from which the major bands recruited. For example, Buddy’s band and Georgie Auld's band were farm teams for Woody Herman's band. Alvino Rey was a farm team for Claude Thornhill.

JW: How did Rey's band differ?

JM: It was a gargantuan orchestra, upward of 30 musicians. There were six trumpets, five trombones, seven saxophones, that sort of thing. Billy May was writing for the band and dividing it up into two five-man brass sections. Based on the pictures I had seen in the magazines, I always thought Rey was a short Spanish guy. It turns out he was tall and his real name was Alvin McBurney and that he was from Ohio [laughs].

JW: Was he a nice guy?

JM: Rey was marvelous, a great guy to work for. Somebody told me when I joined, “Look, when you’re playing with Alvino, if someone grabs you by the shoulder from behind, don’t worry. It’s Alvino trying to steady himself while learning to ride the unicycle."

JW: The unicycle?

JM: He was the kind of guy who wanted to learn to ride it so he could pedal up to the microphone with his guitar and announce numbers. That came to an end when he slipped a disc and couldn’t continue. But he was out there. That's how he was able to maintain such a large band. Audiences were entertained.

JW: Rey seemed to enjoy gimmicks.

JM: He did. He loved his technology. One of the musicians would stand backstage with a mike on his throat. The wire was attached to Alvino's steel guitar. The guy backstage would mouth words, and it would appear as if Alvino's guitar was playing the words. So Alvino would be playing as this guy backstage was saying, “Alvino Rey and his singing guitar.” It looked like the guitar was saying it.

JW: Why did you leave Rey?

JM: When I was with him in 1946, the whole band business caved in. Soldiers came home from the war and married girls they had been dancing with before the war. They bought houses and settled down, and started using their spare dollars to pay babysitters rather than going out to hear music or dance. We were playing to empty ballrooms by the end of that year. All the bands from Benny on down folded in the last weeks of 1946.

JW: What did you do after you left?

JM: In 1947, I enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music in New York and did a summer session at Juilliard. I wasn’t happy being back in school, but it was a good time to go back and fill in my musical gaps.

JW: In 1948 you returned briefly to Buddy Rich's band.

JM: Yes. By then, Buddy had fully embraced bop. He was actively looking for guys who played and wrote bop charts. He had to. All of the big bands were hipper. Audience tastes had changed slightly. Buddy had me write mostly ballads. Many people think I arranged Buddy's version of Oop Bop Sh'bam. I didn't, and I can't remember who did.

JW: By the end of 1948 you were arranging for Woody Herman.

JM: Yes, around that time I started thinking about moving to California again. I never liked New York except when I worked there as a musician. It was a great place to be to play and listen. So I moved back to Los Angeles. I had gone back to the West Coast one time with Buddy's band in 1946 to play the Hollywood Palladium for four weeks. Back then I stayed with Rob Swope and Ben Lary at a house down in Manhattan Beach. One of the guys, Jackie Carmen, had a car. So we'd drive up to the Palladium to play. I loved it out there. 

JW: But by the late 1940s, after the war, it wasn’t easy for a musician to just move to L.A. and get work, was it? 

JM: Right. I had to get a union card. A lot of guys wanted to live in California and not have to hack the winters back East. The biggest businesses in California back then were oil and the movies, and all the studios had staff orchestras. The work and weather were big draws for musicians. So the union cracked down on easy transfers into Local 47 from other union branches. If you wanted a union card there, you had to work doing something else for six months. This was to prove you were committed to residing there and not just jumping in to work, take some other local musician's job and return to New York or wherever when it was convenient or times changed for you.

JW: What did you do?

JM: I knew I’d have to live there for six months to work off my union card. So I worked as a shipping clerk downtown. When Woody’s “Four Brothers" band came to town with all my friends in it, I couldn't play with the band. But under union rules, I could arrange. So I started writing for Woody in 1948.

JW: How was that band?

JM: Unbelievable. I wrote Not Really the Blues in 1948. The title came from a book that clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow had written called Really the Blues. In the book, Mez said that anything other than Dixieland was a bunch of crap. I wrote this chart that started out as a blues but turned into a 32-bar song. So I called it Not Really the Blues. Woody and the band liked it very much. But they didn’t’ play it at first because trombonist Bill Harris felt it was too much for the trombones to play. But they started to play it after a while and recorded it in 1949.

JW: Your signature arrangements back then opened instantly with high energy and a ton of brass.

JM: Traditionally, when a band played theaters, you’d always open with something very fast. That's because we'd be coming up from the orchestra pit on those lifts, which audiences loved. It was very dramatic. The point was to wake up the people who had gone to sleep watching the movie, especially during early shows. I remember with Buddy's band, I had arranged Fine and Dandy with the intention of it being a pit opener. Not Really the Blues also was designed to be an opener. In fact, the original recording for Woody was too slow. I played it with my own band much faster.

JW: That arrangement starts the way gates snap open at the racetrack.

JM: Exactly. That’s a perfect simile.

JW: That's also true of your arrangement of Krazy Kat for Artie Shaw's bop band of 1949.

JM: Wow, what a band. Artie picked a bad time to start a band. He had been out of the business for quite a few years. He said that his 1949 band was the best one he ever had. Tadd wrote some of the charts. So did George Russell. I wrote some ballads for him. Gene Roland was writing great stuff for that band, too.

JW: The reeds weren't half bad either.

JM: The saxophones were incredible. Zoot [Sims], Al [Cohn], Herbie Steward, Frankie Socolow and Danny Bank. Jimmy Raney was on guitar. Don Fagerquist was on trumpet. Wow, what a player. And Sonny Russo. If I recall, some of the older-sounding arrangements were by Ray Conniff and Roger Segure.

JW: You composed and arranged for that band. What was Artie like?

JM: If he liked you, musically, he had a great deal of respect for you. He left me alone. Unlike Benny Goodman, he didn’t pick on his players. Artie molded musicians and taught them how to play better. I don’t know what he saw in me. I suppose he liked what he heard. I never played with him. I’d write the charts and give them to his road manager, Lenny Lewis, who would give them to the copyist. Artie was always up at his Connecticut dairy farm. Lenny was a clarinetist, and he'd hire the band and rehearse it. Then Artie would come down from his farm and weed out the lesser players, some of whom were Lenny's pals. Artie's genius was he knew how to form a band and how to make the musicians play the way he wanted. He was a great bandleader. One of the best. And he could do it without beating up on the guys.

JW: You then arranged for Elliot Lawrence's band in 1950.

JM: Elliot was a nice guy to work for. He loved what the arrangers did and knew how to get great work out of everyone. He wasn’t much of a pianist, and he didn't let the band ad lib. But he turned out to be a great conductor. Many of the original members of his band came from the Philadelphia area. He particularly liked Al Cohn, Gerry Mulligan and me. Harmonically, it was an adventurous band.

JW: You and saxophonist Hal McKusick worked in the Lawrence band of 1956 and 1957.

JM: Hal and I were in quite a few bands together. Boyd Raeburn, Alvino Rey, Buddy Rich in 1948 and Elliot Lawrence. Hal's sound was something else. Did you ever hear how Hal joined Boyd Raeburn's band in 1944?

JW: How?

JM: Before Hal joined the band, Raeburn had in his reed section an alto saxophonist named Johnny Bothwell. He ran the section. Bothwell was a great player but a tyrant. He always found ways to bug the players about tuning up and things like that. Loved to get under the players' skin. In the band was Lenny Green, who also played alto and sat next to Johnny. Shortly after I came on at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, Lenny just snapped.

JW: What had happened?

JM: Whatever Bothwell was doing to him went too far. One night Lenny went out of his head and tried to kill Bothwell. Bothwell left the band in fear of his life. He took with him a lot of the lead alto parts; Claire Hogan, our singer and Bothwell's girlfriend who later became his wife; and the band boy, who looked after the band's equipment on the road. So the band was left without an alto. We had subs for a while but soon someone sent for Hal McKusick, who was playing with Johnny Otis in L.A. at the time and had already been in Boyd's band. Hal came up and joined the band. That was the first time I met him. We've known each other through the years. I did some arranging for him on his Jazz Workshop album in '56.

JW: How did you wind up in Count Basie's “New Testament" band in 1953?

JM: I got a call one day from Basie himself. He made all his own phone calls. That’s why I make my own calls in my bands today. I had already written a couple of things for Basie that he liked. He also knew I was a trombone player. When he called me, he said trombonist Jimmy Wilkins, Ernie’s brother, was leaving the band. Basie said Jimmy wanted to stay in St. Louis, where he was from. Basie said, “We’re playing in St. Louis. How would you like to join?”

JW: What did you think?

JM: I couldn’t believe it. I adored Basie's band since I was a kid. Actually, I first met Basie when I was still at the military academy and hung around the band whenever they came to New York. But playing in that Basie band was the greatest job I ever had. The band had been re-formed a year earlier, in '52. I was there in '53 and part of '54. There were three of us in the trombone section: Henry Coker, Benny Powell and me. I sat on the inside at the end, right next to Freddie Green. What an experience. Sometimes I played bass trumpet.

JW: Were you apprehensive at first?

JM: No. It felt like I should have always been there.

JW: How were Neal Hefti's charts?

JM: Great. Ernie [Wilkins] was writing too. Neal's Plymouth Rock and Cherry Point were terrific. So were Ernie's One O'clock Jump and Blues Go Away [scats a few bars]. I was playing bass trumpet on that one.

JW: In 1954, you stopped playing trombone entirely. Why?

JM: The last gig I played was when I was working with Zoot [Sims], Jimmy Rowles and a bassist and drummer whose names I've forgotten. We were playing at The Haig in Los Angeles. At the time, I was writing more and more and playing less and less, and not practicing. So I was playing worse. I finally told myself that I can't do this anymore. Everyone in the arranging business had to give up something. Neal [Hefti] stopped playing trumpet. Billy Byers stopped playing the trombone. You had to. Al Cohn didn't play much when he was writing all the time. Eventually, his eye bothered him so much that he just decided to be a full-time saxophonist. And what a monster he became.

JW: Any exceptions to the rule?

JM: The only guy in the entire business who was able to come to the playing-writing crossroads and take both routes is Bobby Brookmeyer.

JW: Did composing and arranging for bands get easier at this point?

JM: Writing was always a struggle, particularly out in L.A. In New York, everything was easier because everyone was in contact at bars, on the streets and in clubs. The whole music world worked within two to three blocks of each other. So you were always at Charlie's Tavern, Junior's or another place where guys would hang out between gigs. You'd have a drink with musicians who were playing up to three record dates a day. You'd hear what was going on, who needed arrangements and be motivated by the contact.

JW: And without cell phones—imagine that. How did everyone stay in touch in California?

JM: [laughs] Yes, before cell phones. Out in L.A., everybody lived in their cars. It was very hard for me to get started in California. There was no big break. I worked tirelessly writing for recording stars like Dave Pell, Chet Baker and others. I never did any movies until much later in the 1950s.

JW: So how did you keep up with people and stay in touch with them?

JM: You'd be on regular phones all the time or you were at clubs. That’s how you networked, as they say today. Everyone liked jazz more then, and I was taking all the work I could get, including writing acts for entertainers. I even moved to Las Vegas for a while in 1957 and wrote some of the floorshows. I’ve never been a fast writer, and I'm still not. I’m slow, to this day. But I've always worked hard and intensively. In many cases I'd have to work throughout the night to get my many projects completed.

JW: Was Hoagy Carmichael a song-writing mentor?

JM: No. I just arranged that Pacific Jazz album for him, Hoagy Plays Carmichael. We got along great. I had heard before meeting him that he could be prickly. But he wasn’t. He liked what I did for the recording session. We used to hang out together. He liked to party and drink and play piano. He loved music. He got me into ASCAP. The other guy who got me back into ASCAP after I left for BMI after BMI offered me a guarantee was Johnny Mercer. After I re-joined ASCAP in 1965, I realized I shouldn’t have been anywhere near BMI.

JW: Was Hoagy vocally comfortable with the arrangements?

JM: I liked Hoagy, and he liked what we did on that album. But he was a little out of his depth. I had beboppers on the date like Art Pepper, Joe Mondragon and others. But I also had [Harry] “Sweets" Edison. I think the modern feel was a little tough for him.

JW: Was Hoagy laid back?

JM: Not really. I had heard that if you wrote a song with him, he was like a Philadelphia lawyer, going over every single note. But I wasn’t even thinking about writing a pop song in those days. That would come later.

JW: How did you get your start writing for the movies?

JM: Andre Previn recommended me for a picture in 1958 called I Want to Live, directed by Robert Wise. Andre couldn’t do it because he had just taken on Porgy and Bess, a record project. Andre has always been a friend of mine. We both liked jazz, and I had done a couple of things for him. Andre liked the way I wrote, and we became real friends.

JW: Did you have to convince Robert Wise to use a jazz score?

JM: I didn't know this at the time but Susan Hayward, the film's star, was a huge Gerry Mulligan fan. Robert and Susan wanted to get him in the film. Gerry was very big at the time. That was my first movie score.

JW: But you must have arranged something for film before, no?

JM: I had done some radio in the early 1950s, before joining Basie. I worked at WMGM on Fifth Ave., one of the last of the independent broadcasters that was a wing of MGM Pictures. We had to score all those shows, like the MGM Theater of the Air and crap like that. There was a band there all the time, and my gig was to write a few arrangements a week for them. So I had to learn how to write music by the clock, to coincide with the drama.

JW: You did no film at all?

JM: Well soon after working at WMGM, I went over to Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows for two years. Irwin Kostal and I turned out all the music for that early TV show. And it was a lot. We were doing everything. No one involved in the show had a clue about what could or couldn't be done. We were putting on a 90-minute live TV show each week. The process would start on Monday and end on Saturday night. A ton of music was needed. We’d do a segment from an opera, we’d do these long singing and dancing numbers, and so many others.

JW: Was it exciting?

JM: Somewhat, mostly because no one knew how to do a TV show then, so anything and everything was possible. Every week was another experiment. Boom mikes got into the line of the cameras all the time, or sets fell down while we were live on the air. It was the best training in the world. I never wanted to work on Broadway, but this was like that—except you didn’t take the show on the road. It was all live. There was no tape. And we had to do it 39 weeks a year. That experience taught me how to write music based on specific time slots. It's experience that came in handy when I was asked to do I Want to Live and in the next phases of my career in the 1960s and beyond.

JW: You wrote the score to I Want to Live in 1958. It was your first film. Were you back in L.A.?

JM: I moved back to California in 1958 to write the score. I had never done a picture before. I had ghosted for some people. They had given me the cues, and I orchestrated by doing the math—music against the clock. But I had never handled a film from start to finish on my own. So when I first got the project, I was scared.

JW: How did you get beyond your initial fear?

JM: I quickly realized I had already done a lot of stuff with sight cues, acts for dancers and for Sid Caesar on television. At the time of the movie assignment, I hadn't written many big band arrangements in some time because the era of the bands had passed. I had done plenty of nightclub revues and floorshows and things like that. I Want to Live was going to be a band album. Fortunately, I was used to catching sight cues for music in acts for dancers. So when I started on I Want to Live, I realized, heck, where have I been all my life? I’ve been writing and arranging by the clock and catching sight cues for dancers for years. I just put the two together and was able to do movies. I had the background and didn’t know it.

JW: How was it working on that film?

JM: I had a wonderful director who didn’t get in my way. Robert Wise just wanted me to do my best. The people working on the film didn’t really know how to do authentic jazz for the movies so they left me alone. It was a great experience for me. All the stuff the musicians were playing in the film was written by me, except, of course, the solos. That was my introduction to film, and I found I loved working on movies.

JW: In 1960, Frank Sinatra chose you to arrange Ring A Ding Ding, the first recording date for his new Reprise label.

JM: I was writing Vic Damone’s act in Vegas at the time. Sinatra was at the Sands. I had done a lot of arrangements for Damone, and Sinatra wanted to know who wrote them. Someone told him.

JW: What happened?

JM: Bill Miller, Frank's pianist, called me, and we went out to meet Frank. He was working on the film, The Devil at 4 O'clock, at the Columbia Ranch, where they shot a lot of films. That was my first contact with Frank.

JW: How did it go?

JM: What struck me most when I first met him was how he looks at you. He looks right through you, man, with those blue eyes coming at you. He was 100% there with you when he was talking to you. He was very amped up about starting this new company. He said they were going to have vinyl records with all different colors. He’d fill the room, and the energy would come off of him.

JW: How was Frank to deal with?

JM: I was blown away to have the job. The only rough word I ever heard from him came when I called and asked him if he wanted me to treat the project like a Billy May or Nelson Riddle date. He said [imitating Frank's voice], “If I wanted them, I’d of called 'em.” I told myself, “OK, schmuck, shut up.” 

JW: How did you work together on the music?

JM: He gave Bill Miller his choice keys, and Bill gave them to me. Frank would never rehearse. Even if he did, he wouldn’t sound like Frank Sinatra. He’d sound like a nervous singer voicing his way through the arrangement. He could hear an arrangement down once and know it cold the second time. He was like that.

JW: Did he like what you did?

JM: You could tell how much he liked the charts by the way he was. I never had to redo any of them. I did run out of time on the project, though, because I was slow and there was little time to complete them all. So I had to farm out some of the charts.

JW: Which ones?

JM: I think I farmed out Be Careful It’s My Heart, I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm and When I Take My Sugar to Tea. The rest were mine.

JW: Who wrote the ones you just mentioned?

JM: I’d rather not name names. I didn’t like the charts. They were alright. But not great.

JW: How did you work with the ghost arrangers?

JM: I’d write an intro and maybe a modulation or something and that would be it. I’d have someone else do the rest. My favorite tracks of mine on the album were Ring A Ding Ding, The Coffee Song and In the Still of the Night.

JW: In 1964, The Americanization of Emily was released with your wonderful score and title song, which remains a jazz and pop classic.

JM: I had never written a pop song before Emily. Of course,I had written plenty of original instrumentals, you see, but not a so-called pop song with lyrics. My problem is I had spent too many nights at New York's Brill Building years earlier.

JW: What happened there?

JM: To get three or four arrangements done by the following day in the 1950s, I'd have to ask guys I knew who worked at the Brill Building to loan me their offices overnight. These arrangements often had to be recorded the next morning, and that kind of crap. While I was there in the evenings, I’d see songwriters with sheet music under their arms looking totally depressed. They'd be going from office to office begging publishers to play and buy their songs.

JW: What did you think?

JM: I’d say to myself, “Thank god I can arrange and don’t have to do that." When I started to write songs for the movies, it was hard for a while to get over those images. So I stuck to jazz and became the jazz film-score guy for a while. The old school film composers looked at me as if I was some sort of interloper. Many of those guys were doing movies and TV shows at that point.

JW: Why didn't you do more TV work?

JM: I hated writing for television. It was like doing movies, but for a third of the money and a third of time in which to do it. It was like factory work. You had to turn out episodes every week. I always thought of it as crap work. I did a few of shows but I didn’t like it. I loved doing movies, though. I did some TV movies and a few pictures in the early '60s I’d just soon forget, like The Lawbreakers, The 3d Voice and Drums of Africa with Frankie Avalon.

JW: How did The Americanization of Emily come about?

JM: I was lucky to get that job. I was asked to write a theme song. This was the beginning of the era of movie theme songs. So I wrote a melody that I felt fit Julie Andrews's character: an uptight English nurse who had no love for the Americans stationed in England during World War II. She was very Brit, and the English had been doing without for a long time over there before the Americans arrived. The theme I wrote was Emily. The studio liked it and said, “We'd like to make a song of it." I said, “OK, I’ll need a lyricist." They said, “Who do you want?" I said, “We may as well start at the top. How about Johnny Mercer?" So Johnny was brought on to write the lyrics. That experience changed my attitude toward songwriting quite a bit. The song, of course, was a hit.

JW: How did you work with Mercer?

JM: He just put lyrics to the theme I wrote. I had five weeks to score the movie. The song was just what I pictured for Julie Andrews, and it worked for the airport scene in the rain and when Julie and James Garner were getting it on.

JW: Emily is a beautiful waltz with a melody that moves in so many different directions.

JM: I've always loved key changes or lines and chords that sounded like key changes. That’s where my ear takes me when I’m writing a song. You have to push yourself to go somewhere else after eight bars. I was always doing that instrumentally.

JW: A year later, you wrote The Shadow of Your Smile for The Sandpiper.

JM: When I took on the project, I called Johnny Mercer right away. But after I played him the melody I had come up with, Johnny said, “I can’t write that song." I was stunned. I said, “Why not?" He said, “It’s a steal." I said, “My god, a steal from what?" He said, “From Hoagy's New Orleans."

JW: You must have flipped.

JM: When Johnny said that, I wanted to fall through the floor. I said, “Wait a minute, New Orleans is the last thing I'd think of." Whatever similarities exist were in other parts of the song and all that sort of thing. 

JW: Why did Johnny think it was a lift of New Orleans?

JM: It wasn't. But later I realized he was thinking like a songwriter when he heard it. The first thing a songwriter looks for in a melody is a title for the song [sings a few notes of New Orleans]. Well the first five notes may sound similar but they resolve completely different. That's what his ears were hearing, the title notes. It was really out of left field for me. Johnny said, “I can’t do this to Hoagy." They had written quite a few things together.

JW: What was Mercer afraid of?

JM: Johnny feared Hoagy would get upset and angry if he wrote the lyrics to a song that sounded like one of his own. The two songs don't sound anything alike, but Johnny got hooked on that one series of notes, which weren't even an inspiration for me. Fortunately, he sent me to Paul Francis Webster, whom I had never met. Paul turned out to be a lovely guy.

JW: Given how massive The Shadow of Your Smile became, Mercer must have been kicking himself for years after taking a pass.

JM: Several years later, probably in the early 1970s, I ran into Johnny. He told me a funny story. Johnny said he and Hoagy liked to drink together. One time in the late 1960s, they were at a bar and Hoagy asked him why he never wrote the lyrics to The Shadow of Your Smile. Hoagy said, “You had just written Emily with Johnny Mandel with great success." Johnny said he told Hoagy the story about fearing Hoagy would think the song was a steal of New Orleans. Johnny told me Hoagy paused and thought for a minute. Then Hoagy said, “I never even noticed" [laughs].

JW: Johnny must have groaned.

JM: Every time Johnny Mercer and I would meet, he'd hit himself on the head with his open palm and say, “I turned that song down, what a dummy” [laughs].

JW: In 1970 you wrote Suicide is Painless for the movie M*A*S*H, another classic.

JM: Director Robert Altman and I were friends. I had scored a picture for him a year earlier called That Cold Day in the Park, with Sandy Dennis. At that time, I was intrigued with music from the 19th century. You know, mechanical musical instruments, orchestrations, music boxes and so on. I scored most of Cold Day with a disc music box and wrote orchestral arrangements around it. Bob and I had gotten pretty friendly. We loved to hang out. So I got hired onto M*A*S*H.

JW: How did you work on the project?

JM: I was brought in before the movie was even shot, which was highly unusual. In most cases, you’re the last one in line to see the film when scoring it. So Bob and I were sitting around getting rather ripped one night. Bob said to me, “You know, I need a song for the film. It’s that Last Supper scene, after the guy says he’d going to do himself with a pill because his life is over, because couldn’t get it up with the WAC the night before." I said, “A song for that?" He said, “Yeah, that Last Supper scene where the guy climbs into the casket and everybody walks around the box dropping in things like scotch, Playboy and other stuff to see him into the next world. There’s just dead air there."

JW: But if I recall, the scene features just a guy singing with an acoustic guitar.

JM: Right. Bob said, “We’ve got one guy in the shot who can sing and there's another guy who knows three chords on the guitar so we can’t use an orchestra." Bob also said the song had to be called Suicide Is Painless. “Since [Capt.] Painless commits suicide with a pill, that would be a good title," he said. Then Bob said, “It’s got to be the stupidest song ever written."

JW: What went through your mind?

JM: I said to myself, “Well I can do stupid." Bob was going to take a shot at the lyrics. But he came back two days later and said, “I’m sorry but there’s just too much stuff in this 45-year-old brain. I can’t write anything nearly as stupid as what we need."

JW: So who wrote the lyrics?

JM: Bob said, “All is not lost. I’ve got a 15-year-old kid who’s a total idiot." So Michael Altman, at age 15, wrote the lyrics, and then I wrote the music to them. It was the first scene in the movie that they were going to shoot. They had to have the song for it as a pre-record, so the actor could mouth the words, allowing for a dub later.

JW: So if you had seen the movie before composing Suicide, the song that has become so famous would likely have turned out quite differently, and perhaps not nearly as endearing.

JM: Oh sure, it's quite possible.

JW: When you gave them the song, what did Bob think?

JM: He loved it. In fact, he loved it so much that they started trying it over the title credits.

JW: What did you think?

JM: I said, “You guys are crazy. It doesn’t fit." You have these army medic helicopters flying in a war zone with this soft melody playing. It felt odd. But I wasn’t about to get into a fight over it. So I left the screening room. Sure enough, when I saw the film, the song was used over the opening credits. Then it was used on the TV series in 1972.

JW: Bill Evans recorded Suicide Is Painless, Emily and quite a few of your compositions. Did you ever talk to him about his interpretations?

JM: No, we never talked about them. He was always kind to me. I’m glad he liked Suicide Is Painless. Nobody could play like Bill.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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