Bringing jazz out from the shadows

Bringing jazz out from the shadows
Spotlighting the composer
The Mancini Method
The continuing musicianship

Interviews made with Les Tomkins between 1963 and 1974

Strangely enough, in movie writing I've been more influenced by big bands than by any other film composer. The big bands of the 'forties and then the carry-over into the modern jazz field—Basie, Ellington, all the way up to Mulligan—these are my influences rather than, say, Franz Waxman or Tiomkin or anyone like that. I don't think in their terms.

So said the genial, pipe-smoking Hank Mancini—relaxing in his luxurious London hotel suite while he took time off from preparing the film score he recorded here with a locally-recruited personnel.

Hank (legitimately known as Henry) was himself a member of a big band in the mid 'forties, playing piano and arranging for the Tex Beneke/ Glenn Miller Orchestra. Prior to that he had written for jazz and dance bands while in the army. Later, in Hollywood; he did some radio work for Jerry Gray. Declaring a preference for writing rather than playing, Hank explains: "That area of experience was wonderful for me and I couldn't have done what I'm doing now without it."

The film-music field, he points out, is tremendously hard to get into. Hank's initial entry has a romantic connection. He made the journey West in order to marry Ginny O'Connor, whom he had met while she was singing with the Beneke band. At the time of their marriage she was a member of Mel Torme's epoch-making vocal group, the Meltones. "After Mel broke that group up she went with the Mellolarks. In I952 they went in to do a musical show for Universal International.

Being the official arranger for the group, I went into the studio with them. The head of the music department liked the arrangements I did for them and one day I got a call to go and help on a picture—Lost In Alaska with Abbott and Costello. It was a two-week deal, but I stayed two years."

He had done more than fifty scores before his name appeared in the credit titles. It was logical that the film for which this credit was received should be The Glenn Miller Story .

His work on this memorable movie was further acknowledged by an Academy Award nomination.

"My thinking was—and is now—always to get a contemporary sound into a contemporary picture. I don't necessarily mean Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy. I mean the things you might hear on your radio right now That covers a big area.

"If it calls for a Madison or a Twist, I'll do it. And if it calls for a tone row or anything in surreal music I'll do that, too. But the dance band is what has given me the kind of little edge towards the jazz field.

"It's jazz-influenced. I always have to point that out to a few critics in the States. I never did claim to be the Messiah with Peter Gunn. I was fitting the picture—and it worked well. I guess it worked too well for some of the jazz critics over there. Some of them really went out after it.

"The minute you open a bank account your stock goes down, you see. This was mostly what bothered this kind of critic." With or without complete critical approval, Peter Gunn represented an American TV innovation in I958. Not only was it a series with music written specially for it, instead of originating from a mass-production tape source; it was also unique for its brilliant recording quality. "I wanted a good recorded sound," said Hank, "and we got it."

His first mission was to bring the rhythm section out of the background. "No one would ever put a microphone on the drums, one on the bass, one on the piano and one on the guitar. But our show started out with a piece called Fallout , which had just walking bass with cymbal rhythm for about eight bars, before it went into the dramatic action. It was very effective. I guess people had never heard a bass come over the television screen like that before."

Unfortunately, Peter Gunn—featuring such jazzmen as Shelly Manne, Victor Feldman. Pete Candoli, Ted and Dick Nash, Ronnie Lang—has not been seen on British TV, although we have had some of the other Private Eye shows that it inspired. "It's like seeing all the children and never seeing the mother" says Hank. One such offspring was Johnny Staccato (music by Elmer Bernstein), which, as he explained, "had less of a jazz approach than we used. It was much heavier.

We used to do things with maybe just vibes or guitar or a single bass flute laying very thin lines like that going on." The Gunn series ran for three years, bringing the composer of its music a million-selling album and two Grammy awards. It is still a topic of warm Mancini conversation.

"Apart from the musical standpoint it was different in its approach to doing a detective series. The camera angles were unusual, the direction was excellent, and the scriptwriting was very sharp. The characters were so vivid, and there was a lot of humour, too—a lot of humorous music. It was one of the few times that jazz has been able to set up something other than a depressed feeling.

"Jazz is capable of doing much more than depicting the dope fiend and the drunk and the slinky gal. In our show there are many very funny sequences where we were able to use jazz as it can be used-in a happy way." His other TV success was Mr. Lucky . "That was another approach. We used Hammond organ on that—kind of Wild Bill Davis style—with strings."
"That's the only television I've done—by choice. It takes too much out of one to put out a show every week. Whereas in films I know what I'm going to do over a year and I can figure what time to have off." The Mancini touch has enhanced some good cinema in recent years. "The technique," he says, "is basically the same. Naturally you don't get the epics on TV. On Peter Gunn we had four trombones, trumpet, four woodwinds and rhythm-which by picture standards is very small. But it filled out the screen pretty well.

"This is when I started using the bass flutes. We didn't have strings. For the suspense element or for the very eerie things it worked out better.

"The Romeo-and-Juliet type of film writing is not so successful in TV because it is such a small medium You might record in the best studio in the world-but it still has to come out of that little three-inch speaker." So concerned is he about good sound that he makes a point of re-recording all his sound-track albums. "I don't think the picture companies are quite up to standard, especially in stereo. In commercial recording everything is separation right down the line. But there isn't any in picture stereo. In pictures it's just a matter of doing it in stereo so that if you want, say, more brass you can bring that whole thing up.

"In Peter Gunn, for instance, it was all rewritten for the album. As a result there were some big band things that were not done like that in the show. But all the small-group things were in their original form.

"I'm always trying to get different sounds, and different ways of playing the old, tired scenes-like the love scene, the chase or the fight. They're usually done the same way. I try to see them more obliquely.

"At the beginning of Breakfast At Tiffany's , the copyist thought I'd made a mistake when I started out the picture—right from the famous Paramount mountain—with just a sustained F chord in the lower strings and the voices doubling, over 3/ 4 rhythm, leading into the harmonica playing `Moon River' very softly. There was no brass in the main title. So I said: `Wait—it'll work. We may hear from a few producers when they first see it, but they'll get used to it. It's the only way the picture can start. ' "

Among his other film scores are those of The Benny Goodman Story, High Time, Bachelor In Paradise, Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation, Grip Of Fear , and Days Of Wine And Roses. Called upon to select the parts of his output with which he is most content, Hank will specify Peter Gunn and the double-Oscar Breakfast At Tiffany's. The latter most of all, "because there were other things in that picture apart from `Moon River' that were a departure from the stereotyped.

"You remember when they went on the town to do things that they'd never done before? The voices came in then and it was like a jazz-type chorus swinging in unison.

Every time anyone had ever walked down Madison Avenue before it was hard to tell it from the Champs-Elyses by the music. There was always that fast two, with the xylophones going and all of that stuff. So this new way of depicting New York worked wonderfully."

The significant thing about the jazz that is to be heard in a Mancini movie is that it is not purposely injected. He insists that he does it because this is the way he feels it.

"Like in Hatari—the John Wayne picture in Africa. For the `Baby Elephant Walk,' we used an old Pinetop boogie bass figure, played on a calliope against an E flat clarinet playing the theme.

"There are an awful lot of jazz sounds in that picture. All of the animal chases were done with that kind of feeling in mind. We had seven percussion, including Shelly Manne, Milt Holland, Larry Bunker and Jack Sperling, playing African instruments. With those boys you know that it's going to get jazz feeling, whether you want it to or not. ' One firm policy he has is never to see any part of a film before he starts work on it.

"I let them get everything they want on the screen, then I go in and take over—when it's in its final cut.

"Because, you know, we're working with footage. I think it's three feet to every second in a scene. So if you write 30 seconds of music and they cut out three seconds—you overlap. If they change it after you've written it, then naturally you have to go back and adjust, and it starts to get kind of messy."

Copyright © 1963 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved