Jazz on Film
1:58 pm
Thu February 27, 2014

Johnny Mandel: pre-eminent jazz composer for film

Johnny Mandel is one of the rarest of musicians who could write and arrange for almost any setting or purpose; 35 film scores, TV (movies and show themes), Broadway, big band, combo, vocalist. His credits include Woody Herman, Count Basie, Sinatra, Mae West, Michael Jackson, Shirley Horn and Diane Krall.   (We like the online biography at www.ascap.com, on the occasion of Mandel winning the 1997 ASCAP Mancini Award.)

 Among the Hollywood composers with strong jazz backgrounds, at 88 he is probably the elder statesman. His contemporaries—still living--include Burt Bacharach (85), Andre Previn and Lennie Niehaus (84), David Amram (83), Michel Legrand (82), Lalo Schifrin (81) and Quincy Jones (80).  Mandel was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2011. In scoring the 1958 movie  "I Want to Live," unbeknownst to Johnny Mandel, the star Susan Hayward was a huge fan of Gerry Mulligan who was quite (musically speaking) hot at the time. The soundtrack includes great combo playing that never made into the movie but the film’s house band who has a cameo at the beginning of the movie includes Art Farmer, Bud Shank, Frank Rosolino, Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, along with Gerry Mulligan  (portions of the soundtrack in this feature). With the popularity of the film and the soundtrack, Billboard magazine wrote in March of 1959 that it prompted a rush of jazz film scores and cited the hiring of Duke Ellington to score to the Otto Preminger film "Anatomy of a Murder," "The Five Pennies" about cornetist Red Nichols, and the fabulous 1960 documentary "Jazz on a Summer’s Day." For the film "The Sandpiper," Mandel originally reached out to his writing partner Johnny Mercer for the lyrics to "The Shadow of Your Smile."  Mercer listened to the melody and declined because he thought it was “a steal” from a Hoagy Carmichael’s composition for the movie "New Orleans."  Mandel didn’t hear the similarity, but he couldn’t convince Mercer who instead recommended his friend Paul Francis Webster. The song won Mandel his only Academy Award for Best Song.  Later Mercer, who was drinking buddies with Hoagy Carmichael, told Mandel that Hoagy asked him why he hadn’t written the lyrics for "The Shadow of Your Smile," and when Mercer explained his reasoning, Carmichael said he never heard any similarity whatsoever. While it has been a long time since any straight ahead jazz score or individual song took home an Oscar, lovers of classic movies can rediscover jazz arrangements in many, many great movies.  With composers such as Terrence Blanchard, Kyle Eastwood and Mark Isham all scoring films perhaps we will soon see and hear some new great jazz coming out of Hollywood.