Lennie Niehaus, a Los Angeles alto saxophonist and prolific composer for big bands and his own octet starting in the 1950s before moving on to television and Clint Eastwood-directed films, died May 28. He was 90.
Lennie was one of the giants of the West Coast linear jazz sound. Along with Bill Holman, Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Pete Rugolo and Dave Pell, Lennie arranged prolifically for West Coast small groups and big bands in the 1950s, introducing a new dynamic, swinging approach.
A highly trained classical musician, Lennie by 1954 was fast becoming known for his orchestral punch and harmonic reed writing. Rather than arrange for vocalists with the advent of the 12-inch LP in 1956, Lennie preferred to score charts for Stan Kenton’s band in the mid-1950s and very early 1960s. Like Bill Holman, Quincy Jones, Johnny Mandel and Lalo Schifrin, Lennie spent the decades that followed in the Hollywood studios, giving movie soundtracks and television shows a sophisticated and authentic jazz flavor.
Lennie approached contrapuntal jazz from the perspective of an alto saxophonist, which meant a greater sensitivity to the higher end of the reed section when creating voicings. And his sound on the alto sax bears the influences of Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz. Retrospectively, Lennie is known primarily for three major areas of work: his Stan Kenton arrangements and solos, his small-group leadership dates for Contemporary Records; and his many movie and TV scores, including a long association with Eastwood.
Here’s my complete 2009 interview with Lennie.
JazzWax: You were born in St. Louis. How did you wind up in Los Angeles?
Lennie Niehaus: My father was a violinist. He played in a 60-piece orchestra that accompanied silent movies in large theaters in the 1920s. He was the concertmaster. When someone on the screen said “I love you,” you’d see it written out on the screen and the orchestra would play Tchaikovsky or Brahms. I still remember when I was 5, seeing a movie and watching my father playing. It was like a dream.
JW: What happened when talkies began in the late 1920s?
LN: Sound movies didn’t start all at once across the country. Talkies were something of a novelty early on. Smaller movie theaters continued to play the older silent movies with live music behind them. The big theaters got the new movies with the sound. But as the years went on and talkies took hold, the live orchestras were cut down to smaller groups, and then to just a violin and piano and drums for local theaters. Finally, the work just dried up.
JW: What did your father do to surviv?
LN: As soon as talkies began to take hold, the Hollywood studios started to set up their own orchestras. My dad heard about opportunities in the studio orchestras out there, so he packed up our family and moved us to Los Angeles.
JW: What was your first instrument?
LN: The violin. My dad was my teacher. He was born in Russia and had attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Jascha Heifetz. It was a strict place. If a kid played a wrong note, they would hit him over the knuckles with a ruler.
JW: Was your dad a good teacher?
LN: My dad was a great violinist but had no patience for kids who didn’t get it immediately. With the violin, you hold your thumb arching backward so your fingers can reach all the strings and you can play fast. My thumb would creep over the instrument’s neck. My father kept telling me to keep my thumb down. One day he hit my thumb and the violin fell and cracked. That was it for violin lessons [laughs].
JW: In school, what did you play?
LN: In grade school, my music teacher urged me to play the oboe because the orchestra needed one. It was still the Depression. I told my teacher that I didn’t think my family could afford one. So the teacher gave me an oboe that belonged to the school. I started to play the instrument little by little. I was a ferocious practicer. Violin lessons had taught me about playing and helped me learn other instruments quickly.
JW: How did you become interested in jazz?
LN: By listening to the big bands. I liked Harry James, and when I heard tenor saxophonist Corky Corcoran play The Mole in 1942, I wanted to play the tenor saxophone. My father was in shock. He said, “The saxophone! You play either the piano or violin, not the saxophone. You’ll wind up playing in a house of prostitution.” [laughs] Actually he was right. I did play in small funky clubs later.
JW: Did you buy a tenor?
LN: I tried. I worked in a restaurant at a local Grant’s, which was like Woolworth’s. I’d collect the dishes and put them on a dumbwaiter that I raised to get the dishes washed. I made a few bucks that way. When I thought I had saved enough, I went to the music store and asked about a tenor sax. The man said it was $125. So I asked the price of the Martin alto saxophone that was there, too. He said $75. So I bought it and became an alto player.
JW: Did you take to jazz?
LN: It consumed me. I’d go home and practice the oboe and alto saxophone all afternoon and evening. When I was in high school, they needed a bassoon player so I volunteered. I quickly learned how to play it, and by the end of high school could play all three instruments plus the violin pretty well.
JW: When did you first hear bebop?
LN: I became interested in Bird [Charlie Parker] and bebop in late 1945, when Bird came to the West Coast. I went to see him at Billy Berg’s, even though I was underage. The music blew me away. I couldn’t play as fast as Bird then, but hearing him didn’t discourage me. I wanted to play like him. I also became interested in Lee Konitz in the late 1940s. My playing back then evolved into Bird’s bebop with a Lee Konitz edge. Lee had studied with Lennie Tristano, and they were doing interesting things with modal scales.
JW: Did you have a band in high school?
LN: Yes. I was starting to arrange then, too. In high schooI I met Phil Carreon, who wanted to start a band that sounded like Count Basie’s. He bought stock arrangements of the band’s charts, and I started writing for the band. Phil liked what I was doing.
JW: How big a band?
LN: Big. He had five saxes, three trumpets and three trombones plus a rhythm section. I was writing a lot of charts for him. One day I was playing a dance in my high school and Phil walked in. A lot of the guys in the band recognized him and started nudging each other, saying, “Hey, there’s Phil Carreon, the bandleader.” Phil came right over to me and said, “How would you like to play for my band?” The other guys were amazed. So in high school, in my spare time, I became a lead alto player in Phil’s band and was writing charts.
JW: What did you arrange for Carreon?
JN: Original bebop charts and tunes with tightly written sax solis. One arrangement that stands out was a chart of Lover Man. I used to listen to Sarah Vaughan’s version a lot, where she’d sing the melody and Dizzy Gillespie played a solo on the bridge. I made her vocal line a trumpet solo for the band. Then I transcribed Dizzy’s solo and harmonized it for the sax section, the way Supersax was voiced years later.
JW: How was the Carreon band?
LN: Great. The sax section at different times featured Herb Geller, Herbie Steward, Teddy Edwards and Warne Marsh. Billy Byers was in the band, too.
JW: Wow talk about a reed section.
LN: The whole Four Brothers sound was actually started by Gene Roland in a rehearsal band he had out in L.A. in 1946 that included Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Jimmy Giuffre and Herbie Steward. It was before Jimmy Giuffre wrote Four Brothers for Woody Herman in 1947. My unison reed section writing also was early comparatively. Whenever I’d arrange, I’d always add a sax soli. [Photo above of Gene Roland, standing, with Stan Kenton, courtesy of University of North Texas]
JW: In high school, did you arrange for any other bands besides Phil Carreon’s?
LN: No. I was still a kid. But I did have ambition. One day I took my arrangement of Lover Man down to Billy Berg’s where Dizzy Gillespie’s band was rehearsing. I had planned to go up to him and tell him about my arrangement but I chickened out. I was afraid I would put the parts down on the stands and the musicians would say, “What are all these 16th notes?” We played the arrangement with Phil’s band, though, and it sounded great.
JW: When did you graduate high school?
LN: I skipped a grade in high school and graduated in 1946. I had just turned 17 years old and started college right after graduation. World War II had just ended, and a lot of the vets were studying on the G.I. Bill. In classes, they’d give me looks like, “What’s this kid doing in college?” [laughs] The classes were made up mostly of 25-year-old guys. It was good for me. I grew up fast.
JW: Where did you go to college?
LN: First I went to Los Angeles City College and then Los Angeles State College music school. I majored in composition. I had very good teachers, including Leonard Stein, who was an authority on Arnold Schoenberg and became director of the Schoenberg Institute at USC. I was studying classical and playing jazz in a band off-campus. That band had some great players: [pianist] Dodo Marmarosa, [guitarist] Tony Rizzi and others.
JW: How did you wind up joining Stan Kenton’s band in 1951?
LN: When I was 22, Stan [Kenton] called me and said, “Art Pepper is leaving the band. We’ve tried several guys but we haven’t found someone with the right sound.” Stan said he was looking for a jazz alto player. That’s the second alto, the chair that takes the solos. He said he was auditioning at the Florentine Gardens in L.A. and asked me to come down. The date we set also happened to be the same day I had to go take my physical for the Army. Up until that point, my years in college had kept me out of the draft.
JW: How did you do?
LN: I went down to the Florentine Gardens at 11 a.m. The first tune Stan called was Gerry Mulligan’s Limelight. I was in the second alto chair, reading the jazz chart. Here comes the end of the chorus and the first solo is me. So I play it, and Stan liked my sound. We tried a couple of other things, like Deep Purple. Stan asked me to read the first alto part to see how I’d do on that. After we finished, Stan and I sat down, and he said, “Lennie, I like the way you play. Want to play in my band?”
JW: What was going through your mind?
LN: I was thrilled. I looked at Stan and remember saying to myself, “Jesus, this guy is old.” He was 39 at the time [laughs]. Which was exciting and intimidating for someone who’s just starting out. To Stan’s credit, he didn’t want to sound like Woody Herman or Count Basie or anyone else. Which is why he’d constantly change the band’s sound. When I joined the band, Stan had begun to shift away from the jazz-classical approach he was exploring with his Innovations Orchestra and going with the kind of swinging music that a lot of the guys in the band wanted to play.
JW: What did Stan tell you?
LN: He said the band was going out on the road. He asked me to play second alto. Bud Shank was playing first alto. Soon after I got the job, Bud left and Dick Meldonian was hired to play first alto. In April 1952, several months after I began with Stan, we were playing in Boston when I got my draft notice. I told Stan, and he said, “That’s a shame, you were just getting started.” I said to myself, „This is the end of my career.“
JW: What happened in the army?
LN: I did my basic training on the West Coast and met Clint Eastwood there. He was in the same training camp. Basic was supposed to last 16 weeks—8 weeks of training and, if you made it through, you spent another 8 weeks learning how to shoot a gun.
JW: This was in the middle of the Korean War.
LN: Yes. After the first eight weeks, I realized I knew several guys in the Army band. I went over to say hi. I wanted to get into the band. A friend said the band needed an oboe player. Oboe players were very difficult to find. So I auditioned and got the position. We played parades in San Jose and Monterey. I rehearsed with the band in the morning and practiced in the afternoon.
JW: Did you play anything other than parades?
LN: Yes, we played transcriptions of classical pieces and recorded them once a week for airing on the radio on Saturday mornings. We also played and marched around the field on Saturday mornings, and the general would come forward and give out medals for different reasons. We even were in a competition of marching bands.
JW: How did you do?
LN: The bandleader asked me to write a marching band composition. So I did. We didn’t win first prize but I won second prize. It was called the Infantry Blue. It was like a John Philip Sousa march.
JW: Were you looking forward to returning to Kenton’s band?
LN: Yes, very much so, if there was a spot open. The first arrangement I wrote for Stan before I went into the Army was Pennies From Heaven. I also wrote a couple for Stan’s singer at the time, Jerri Winters, including What a Difference a Day Makes. One day in 1953, I was on a furlough and came down to Los Angeles. I was sitting in a restaurant in Malibu with my wife, who wasn’t my wife yet, having a hamburger. The place had an old jukebox. All of sudden I heard my arrangement of Pennies From Heaven. Sure enough, Stan had put it out as a single. The first arrangement I wrote for Stan, and the band had recorded it. I was floored. [Photo above of Stan Kenton and Jerri Winters, courtesy of University of North Texas]
JW: In 1954, when you were discharged from the Army. Did you reconnect with Kenton?
LN: As soon as I got out Stan called me and said, “You’re just in time. Lee Konitz just left the band.” So I rejoined Stan’s band and recorded as leader of small groups. Soon after I rejoined Stan, we went out on tour with Art Tatum, Slam Stewart, Shorty Rogers and His Giants, guitarist Johnny Smith, and Charlie Ventura with Mary Ann McCall.
JW: What do you remember about the West Coast scene back then?
LN: I remember the argument over which was better—West Coast or East Coast jazz. It was all ridiculous, since you had West Coast guys like Zoot Sims living back East and Shorty Rogers, an Easterner, on the West Coast. But hey, record companies were recording West Coast musicians, so who was to argue [laughs].
JW: Was there truly a difference in sound?
LN: Not much. West Coast music was perhaps a little more cerebral. I don’t say that in a judgmental way. It’s just that many of the guys who played it came out of music school. For me, the sound came naturally after studying counterpoint in college. Similarly, many of the guys on the West Coast were studying counterpoint with Wesley LaViolette and other classical theorists. All of us were experimenting with different types of linear writing.
JW: Yet the sound was unified.
LN: We would let a guy blow in an arrangement, but we’d always supply a linear background for it. We’d add interludes, but the backgrounds and endings had to make sense. We’d always tie it up at the end. That’s the way it came out.
JW: Did you enjoy recording Kenton’s Contemporary Concepts album in 1955?
LN: It was great. On our tour, Stan had left Bill Holman in New York to arrange the whole thing. It took Bill about three weeks to complete the six charts, and the result was fantastic. Bill had a way of taking a tune and making it his own. The band loved Bill’s Stompin‘ at the Savoy. We’d always eagerly wait for Stan to call that one.
JW: On that album, different members of the band were featured soloists on different songs.
LN: Yes, that was the concept. Bill wrote each song with a different soloist in mind. For example, alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano was the soloist on Stella by Starlight. He played it beautifully. Tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins had Yesterdays. Bill wrote Cherokee for me. There are versions of that song that I recorded at different places during our tour that year. Each time we played the song, it got faster and faster [laughs]. I was playing it every night. Bill’s arrangement sent chills down my spine.
JW: Was traveling with Kenton rough?
LN: The pace was grueling. We would travel, play a one-nighter and travel again for weeks at a time. The dances we played usually lasted from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. If we played a concert, it would last from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. Then when a concert or dance was over, we’d get on the bus and travel up to 400 miles to our next gig. Many times there was no time to check into a hotel when we arrived because we had traveled so far. I don’t think the gigs were particularly well planned [laughs].
JW: What do you mean?
LN: I doubt whoever was back at the booking office was thinking out the best route for the band or taking into account the distances we had to travel. The guys used to joke that someone must have been throwing darts at a map. Sometimes we’d pass through towns that we had raced through two days earlier.
JW: What was life like on the bus?
LN: We’d eat and sleep there, wake up in the morning and stop for breakfast. For lunch, we’d go into a store for bread and peanut butter, and make sandwiches. We’d arrive at a job with just enough time to change into our uniforms and get on the bandstand. We were always tired. But as soon as the band began to play, that old feeling would come back and you were energized.
JW: Was Stan a tough boss?
LN: Things were said about Stan, that he was stiff or a taskmaster. But he was really a sincere guy. He always encouraged the players and gave everyone solo spots. He urged arrangers in the band to write, and he played their charts. Charts he didn’t like he’d leave in the band’s book and just didn’t call them. Stan never created a mean-spirited climate of competition among his players or arrangers.
JW: The Kenton band’s sound changed a couple of times while you were there.
LN: Yes. The first turning point was probably in 1952 when he commissioned Gerry Mulligan to write arrangements. Stan didn’t know what Gerry would do, but he was confident it would be interesting. When I joined the band in 1952, Gerry came in with 10 arrangements, including Walkin‘ Shoes, Limelight, Young Blood, Swing House and some ballads. [Photo of Gerry Mulligan, standing with handkerchief in breast pocket, and Stan Kenton, seated, courtesy of University of North Texas]
JW: What impact did Mulligan’s arrangements have on the band?
LN: They lightened up the sound. Gerry wrote unison, contrapuntal lines, and he didn’t have the band play triple forte all the time. Those charts had a big influence on me. They taught me that when someone’s playing a solo, the background needs to be supportive and engaging, not deafening. After Gerry, the key was not to mow down the soloist but echo and support the sound.
JW: Did you ever tell Mulligan how much he influenced you?
LN: No. Gerry sort of came and went. He was aloof. But he still left his mark. As the years went by, Stan remained attached to Gerry’s sensibility. The second big turning point came in 1954 when Bill Holman and I began writing charts that took Gerry’s sound to a new level. Stan always favored highs and lows in the band—the trumpets on top and the bass trombone and baritone saxophone on the bottom. But after Gerry’s arrangements, Stan liked a lot more interchange with the band’s different sections.
JW: Your arrangements for The Stage Door Swings in 1958 placed a new emphasis on the reed section.
LN: Stan wanted an album based on Broadway show tunes. He locked me in a room in a Chicago hotel. With my work ethic, if I had an idea at 3 a.m., I’d get up and start writing. They brought an electric piano into my room and I had headphones so I wouldn’t disturb other guests. After 2 1/2 weeks, I had produced 12 songs, about one a day. I was on a mission. I get like that still. Even if it’s 2 a.m., I have to finish.
JW: Did Kenton give you any instructions before locking you away?
LN: He asked me to base the different tunes on riffs—you know, musical patterns that repeat. So with Lullaby of Broadway, I thought, hey, I’ll base it on Intermission Riff. So I changed the standard’s chords, and that became the hook.
JW: And Baubles, Bangles and Beads opens like Johnny Richards‘ arrangement of I Concentrate on You from the Back to Balboa album recorded earlier that year.
LN: That’s right. I didn’t consciously decide, „I’m going to pick up Johnny’s thing.“ I think it was more of me using it as a way to tell Johnny, „You know that great line you had? I’m going to use it as a springboard.“ The listener who knew the earlier album thinks it’s going to be I Concentrate on You but instead it becomes Baubles, Bangles and Beads. So there’s recognition by the listener and then surprise and finally delight when the song becomes something else.
JW: What did Kenton think of your charts?
LN: Stan loved the album. Producer Lee Gillette said it was one of the best albums the band had released. Those were the days when stereo was coming in and guys in the engineer’s booth were thinking about which instruments should come out of the left and right speakers. Lee said, “You did a great job putting it in stereo.” I wasn’t thinking along those lines, but it came out that way [laughs].
JW: Your arrangement of and solo on End of a Love Affair from Stan Kenton at the Tropicana remains stunning 50 years later.
LN: Of everything I recorded with Stan, that’s my favorite ballad solo. I don’t know why it turned out so well. I arranged it so it would start with just bassist Red Kelly and me playing. Along the way I added brass and reeds and built the instrumentation softly. I wanted that Gerry Mulligan sound with the band. No Kenton arrangement had ever opened like that—with just bass and alto saxophone.
JW: You wrote the ending so it would have a regretful feel, almost a sigh, to play off the song’s title.
LN: I wrote the ending so it would close on dissonant notes. That was my training. While it’s not a pure 12-tone row, I wanted that atonal feel. That’s what I heard in my head when I was writing the chart. Also, there are chords in my arrangement that weren’t in the original tune. I had to write them out so that if I left the band, someone else could play the alto solo [laughs].
JW: In mid-1961, Kenton recorded Sophisticated Approach, an album that also was arranged completely by you.
LN: Yes. By then I had left Stan, but he hired me to arrange a band he had assembled with four mellophoniums. Stan had used French horns in the past but the instrument’s bell turned away from the audience, and collectively they weren’t a strong enough sound. Stan loved the trombone sound and was one of the first to use five in a section. So Stan went to the folks at C.G. Conn and asked them to make a French horn but with traditional valves and a straight bell. Once he had what he wanted in the mellophonium, he needed arrangements that complemented them.
JW: What did Kenton suggest you do for Sophisticated Approach?
LN: Stan wanted to remove one of the alto saxes. And he wondered what we should put under the one that remained. I said two tenor saxes and two baritone saxes, because one of the baritones could drop out and one of the bass trombones could come in and fill that gap. I told him we could still do all the familiar standards.
JW: How many arrangements did Kenton want?
LN: There was no number. All he said to me was, „Keep writing.“ I said, „Write what?“ He said, „Anything you want.“ So I went to work. I loved writing for Stan’s dance band. After I left, I must have written 100 arrangements for him. And they were all for his dance band, which I loved. Remember, when I had first joined Stan’s band in 1952, they had difficulty playing a dance.
LN: Because it was too much of a jazz band. The arrangements were too fast, the arrangements never settled into a groove, and people couldn’t dance to what the band was playing.
JW: You also arranged the album Adventures in Standards, which only had limited distribution on Kenton’s Creative World label.
LN: These were arrangements written at about the same time as the Sophisticated Approach charts. Except I arranged Broadway tunes for the mellophonium band. All had that inhale-exhale, ballad feel.
JW: So when you look back over the three Kenton albums you arranged, which one is your favorite?
LN: I liked what I did on Sophisticated Approach. But I’d have to say that The Stage Door Swings is my favorite. It’s more dynamic and rushes at the listener.
JW: You recorded five albums for Contemporary and one for EmArcy as a small-group leader in the 1950s.
LN: When I got out of the Army, I had offers from three labels—Pacific Jazz, Contemporary and Stan Kenton Presents. I was stuck and wasn’t sure which way to go. So I said to Shelly Manne, “I don’t know what to do. Dick Bock at Pacific Jazz has a good stable. And Stan uses the guys from his band on his labe. But I’m not sure how well it will go. And then there’s Les Koenig at Contemporary.”
JW: What was Manne’s advice?
LN: Shelly told me to go with Contemporary. He said, “Les Koenig will let you do anything you want. He’ll just record you.” At the time, I wanted to record a new sound. I loved the concept of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, with its contrapuntal exchanges. But I wanted a richer, more textured result in my small groups.
JW: Your first Contemporary album, in 1954, was a quintet session.
LN: On that album, I found a way to voice the three saxes—me, Jack Montrose on tenor and Bob Gordon on baritone—so that we sounded like six saxes.
JW: How did you do that?
LN: I wrote a voicing that resulted in a special sound. First I’d find the notes in a chord that I wanted to use. Then I’d voice those notes so they produced overtones.
JW: How so?
LN: It’s similar to what happens when you hit a note on the piano and hold it down with the sustaining pedal. You first hear the initial note. Then as the note rings, you start to hear the overtone, or other notes that color it. The notes I wrote for the saxes resonated like that.
JW: What does the average ear hear?
LN: By picking the right notes, I wound up with a fuller sound. The overtones create the sensation that there are three more saxes on the date. In other words, by spreading out the three saxes just right, your ear thinks it hears notes that aren’t there. As a result, you think additional saxes are playing—without the density that would occur if six saxes were playing.
JW: What did this voicing and use of space do for the soloist?
LN: Instead of voicing closely, I did close voicing. Which just means a little less close [laughs]. I spread the chord open. This open feeling gave the person improvising more freedom. In the past, small groups had everyone play a line and then each of the musicians took turns soloing. To me, that was a boring formula. Instead, I wanted a light line leading up to a solo, then the solo followed by an interlude with all saxes playing before the next soloist started. This created a more swinging feel.
JW: Did you have Gerry Mulligan or Dave Pell’s octet of 1953 in mind?
LN: No. I was developing my thing separately. I loved Gerry’s group, and Dave’s octet was interesting. But I wasn’t thinking about anyone else except what I wanted to do. You have to understand that the linear sound in small groups was prevalent back then. I wanted to find a way to make what I was doing different.
JW: Was there a method to your choice of sidemen? You used different horn players on each session.
LN: I tried to get the best players I could for what I wanted to do. I always used Shelly Manne on drums and Monty Budwig on bass. The unifying factor was that the sidemen had to be great sight-readers and have a special sound with the ensemble and while soloing. [Publicity photo above of Shelly Manne in 1960]
JW: On your first octet album in 1954, you used Lou Levy on piano.
LN: Lou was a great player. At one point in 1951 he decided to leave the music business and go into real estate back home in Minnesota. When we toured the state with Stan in 1954, Lou would hang out with the band. A year later he came out to Los Angeles to see about playing opportunities. I liked what he was playing around town so I asked him if he wanted to record. The first album he did when he returned to L.A. was my first octet recording in 1954. [Publicity photo above of Lou Levy in 1961]
JW: In 1955, you began to use tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins in your small-group sessions.
LN: Perk had the perfect sound for what I wanted to do. He, too, was interested in finding a new sound, and he liked playing forgotten tunes, like Rockin‘ Chair and things like that. He had a beautiful sound. Many tenor saxophonists on the West Coast back then had a soft, Lester Young sound. Perk had a soft, velvety sound, but he could play that sound hard.
JW: Yet Perkins didn’t maintain that sound throughout his career.
LN: Over time Perk played more in line with what Wayne Shorter was doing. Even in the 1990s, people would ask him to play Yesterdays like he did back in 1955 with Stan Kenton on Contemporary Concepts. That would irk him. He’d ask me, “Why do they want me to sound like I did 40 years ago?” But when he played with me on dates in the 1990s, he’d unconsciously revert to playing like he did back then. You can hear him do that on Live at Capozzoli’s, which we recorded in Las Vegas in 1999 for Bob Lorenz. I didn’t tell Perk how I wanted him to play on that date. He just followed me. I think he felt it was right for the situation.
JW: Some of your sideman dates in the 1950s were out there, like Duane Tatro’s Jazz for Moderns in 1954.
LN: [Laughs] Duane was a friend of producer Les Koenig’s. He went into engineering but quickly grew tired of that and realized he wanted to be a musician. So Les hired him. When we recorded that album in 1954, the music seemed off the wall. But as time went by, it sounded more and more like classical music. It still sounds pretty modern.
JW: Did that type of modal music come easily to you?
LN: Yes. In music school I studied 12-tone music with Ernst Krenek. It was a relatively small class, and Krenek taught me to be more creative harmonically and to get a 12-tone row without implying a chord. That was always the challenge with 12-tone rows—to create three-note interval lines without making it sound like a chord. I had always loved Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, so 12-tone music seemed natural to me.
JW: You also wrote for the Hollywood Saxophone Quartet in 1955.
LN: This was built on my contrapuntal sax soli concept [saxes playing in unison]. But the group wasn’t comfortable without a rhythm section. So we added a bass and drums. I didn’t want a piano because it was just going to get in the way of all the moving parts. I wrote one whole album plus four tunes for another album.
JW: In March and April 1955, you recorded what I feel was your finest Contemporary small-group LP, The Quintets & Strings (Vol.4).
LN: When I started recording for Les, he said, “Do anything you want—just keep recording albums.” So it was my choice. I had always wanted to incorporate strings into the linear format. But not the way strings had been customarily used, as accompanists. I wanted them running lines, the way a saxophone would. I had attended music school with violinist Christopher Kuzell. I called him and said I wanted three violas and a cellist for the date. Chris played one of the viola parts and brought in the other three string players.
JW: But the strings had to have a jazz feel since they were an integral part of your small-group sound.
LN: That’s right. I arranged the strings as though they were part of a sax section with me on top on alto. It was the first time I had written for strings since music school. To get the sound right, we rehearsed at my home. For a jazz feel, I told the string players not to read the eighth notes like eighth notes. Otherwise they would have played them too stiffly.
JW: What did you tell them?
LN: I told them to play two eighth notes as though they were a quarter note and an eight note, with a No. 3 over it, more like a triplet. I wrote in parenthesis: “two eighth notes = a quarter note and an eighth note.“ Then I added a „3“ over the top to indicate that the notes were to be played like triplets. All of this is technical stuff. The result was a hipper, swinging feel.
JW: Did the string players get it right away?
LN: After we rehearsed, yes. Then I asked Monty Budwig to come and rehearse with us so the strings had the feel of playing against the time-keeping of the bass. Shelly Manne just came to the date and recorded his part perfectly. [Photo of Monty Budwig above with saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre]
JW: The instrumentation on your second octet album in 1956 came close to the Miles Davis’ nonet.
LN: I wasn’t out to copy Miles Davis’ group. But I liked that feel for my octet. However, I dropped the piano and trumpet, which Miles had, and added a tenor sax, which wasn’t in his nonet. French hornist Vince DeRosa couldn’t play jazz but he could play with a feeling that I liked and wanted.
JW: Why did you record just four tracks on this octet date?
LN: When the 12-inch LP arrived in 1956, Contemporary began reissuing its earlier 10-inch LPs on the new larger format. But the 12-inch LP had more room. So Les Koenig asked me for four more tracks to add to the new 12-inch release, to stretch it out. At first, instead of longer tracks to fill an album, producers just wanted more tracks. Each had to be three to four minutes long.
LN: Radio airplay was still a big consideration then. Which was fine by me [laughs].
JW: You’ve had a long association with actor-director Clint Eastwood. How did you two meet?
LN: In 1952 I was inducted into the Army and did my basic training at Fort Ord in California. Part of basic training included jumping off a high diving board into a pool and swimming across. Clint was sitting there making sure no one panicked and drowned. He had already completed basic training. So I went off the board, hit the water, swam the length of the pool and climbed out. After, I hit the showers, I was walking too fast and slipped. When I fell, I split the skin between my big toe and the one next to it. There was blood all over the place. [Photo of Clint Eastwood in the Army, courtesy of the Clint Eastwood Archive]
JW: What happened?
LN: A sergeant started yelling at me to get up and get going. Clint appeared and said to the guy, “Can’t you see this soldier has a gash and is bleeding?” The sergeant realized what had happened and cooled down. Clint helped me up and got me over to the medics. I limped over, and once I was lying on a table, a medic came in and, without a shot, sewed up the gash. Clint stayed there the whole time while I got stitched up. That was it. We went our separate ways.
JW: Just like in one of the Westerns he’d soon be in.
LN: [Laughs] Yes.
JW: Did Clint hear you play the saxophone back then?
LN: Yes, but later. When I was still in the Army in 1953, I had a quartet and we played several non-commissioned officer clubs. They sold low-alcohol beer, and Clint was the bartender. He used to listen to me play as he was serving. On Sunday afternoons, I’d also play a club in nearby Santa Cruz. Clint would come in, order a beer and put his legs up and listen. He was still in the Army then.
JW: After the Army and after your years with Stan Kenton, you began writing for TV and the movies in 1960. How did you break into the business?
LN: When I left Stan in 1959, there was an enormous amount of work in television in Hollywood. Every TV show needed music, particularly the celebrity specials. There also was lots of work orchestrating for the movies.
JW: For those who don’t know, what’s the difference between arranging and orchestrating?
LN: When you arrange, you take a song and write your own intro and select the instrumental mix to go with the song’s chords and melody. When you orchestrate for the movies, you take a composer’s rough sketch of a theme and score it for the different instrumental parts. In some cases the composer knows what he wants done with the movie’s theme and tells you. In other cases the theme’s composer gives you the freedom to do as you wish. In effect, you’re taking what the composer has written down and putting it to score paper. In architecture, it would be like taking a designer’s sketch and creating detailed blueprints. In the process, as an orchestrator, you’re often filling in the blanks with your vision.
JW: How did you start orchestrating for the movies?
LN: I started by working with Jerry Fielding. He had been blacklisted by Hollywood in the early 1950s, and in the late 1950s he was at the Royal Las Vegas Hotel as musical director of their floor shows. When he’d come to L.A., he’d ask me over to his home to orchestrate songs for entertainers. It was mostly cue writing. Jerry would tell me what he wanted, and I’d write the cue music. [Photo above of Jerry Fielding]
JW: Why didn’t Fielding handle the orchestrations himself?
LN: Jerry was a great composer but he couldn’t get started writing. He used to agonize quite a bit. I’d tell him, “Just write down whatever you’re thinking. Whatever you have in your head.”
JW: What did Fielding say?
LN: He’d said, “But I need the song to be structured this way or that way.“ I’d tell him, “Fine. But write down what you think it should be, and you can change it later.“
JW: Are you a fast writer?
LN: Yes. I sit and think and write down little ideas and stitch them together. I never agonize, “Is this good or bad?” I just write down what I’m thinking, and it all comes together.
JW: How did Fielding hear about you?
LN: In the late 1950s, Jerry called and said, “I understand you can orchestrate.” In L.A., they put you in a box. You’re either a jazz composer or an arranger or a conductor or this or that. I had studied orchestration in college and played with a concert band in the Army. So I knew every range of every instrument in the orchestra. Word got around town, and that’s how Jerry and I teamed up. Orchestrating for Jerry gave me enormous experience writing for the clock, meaning synchronizing the music against things that were happening on the screen.
JW: When did Fielding return to composing for the movies?
LN: In 1962, Otto Preminger asked him to compose for Advise and Consent. It was a big break for him. Then more movie work rolled in and his plate filled up. During this period and in the 1970s, I orchestrated for his movie projects and arranged for TV, including shows with the King Sisters, Dean Martin, Carol Burnett and many others.
JW: What was the first movie score you composed—meaning all of the music was yours?
LN: Clint Eastwood’s Tightrope in 1984. Clint called me and said, “I have this little movie. I think you’re the perfect guy for the job.”
JW: Did Eastwood remember watching you get stitched up in the Army?
LN: [Laughs] No. Even when I reminded him of it he didn’t recall. But he knew me more from the clubs in the early 1950s and knew that I had been with Stan and that I had orchestrated for Jerry.
JW: How did you approach Tightrope?
LN: Clint asked me to meet him at his office. When I arrived, he said, “I want you to take you to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. It’s like a cacophony of sound there.” I had been to Bourbon Street before when I played there with Stan Kenton, so I knew what he was talking about. But I still needed to get a feel for what he wanted exactly.
JW: When did you two leave?
LN: [Laughs] About an hour or so after he told me. Clint told me to have my wife, Pat, put together a small bag for the weekend. Then we flew out on Warner Brothers’ private jet. When we arrived, we walked along Bourbon Street. Clint said to me, “Listen, hear those snippets of music on the left and right sides of the street?” As we strolled along, you could hear Dixieland, then country, then strip music across the street, then jazz and so on.
JW: What did Eastwood say?
LN: Clint said, “Can you get that effect in the score?” I said, “Sure, but I’ll have to write complete tunes for each. We won’t know how much music from each club we’ll need until you walk along Bourbon Street.”
JW: Did Eastwood green-light your idea?
LN: Yes. He said, “Great. Write eight different tunes and styles, and we’ll do the dubbing at the studio.”
JW: So how did that work in real time?
LN: First I composed the eight different pieces. Then I arranged the tunes and brought in different musicians to record each of them. Then when I had film, I watched as Clint walked along Bourbon Street. Then I’d fade out one track of music and bring up another and repeat this as he walked along to create the effect Clint and I had heard in New Orleans.
JW: What are your favorite Lennie Niehaus scores for Eastwood films?
LN: Probably Absolute Power  and Space Cowboys . On Absolute Power, I used interesting cues that were sort of atonal. On Space Cowboys, I was able to use an Aaron Copland-esque approach, an Americana feel to express the patriotism and idealism of the movie’s theme. There’s a cue I especially like when the astronauts are walking down a walkway to the rocket.
JW: For The Unforgiven (1992), who wrote Claudia’s Theme?
LN: Clint did. It’s a lovely, haunting melody. Then I incorporated the theme into the orchestration throughout the film.
JW: How long does it take you to compose a movie score?
LN: About four to five weeks.
JW: On Bird (1988), I heard that a complete replica of 52nd Street was built on the set. That must have seemed both exciting and surreal.
LN: I had never been to 52nd Street during its heyday, but the set still gave me the chills. Every detail was precise and in place.
JW: Were Charlie Parker’s recordings used in the movie’s soundtrack?
LN: Yes, but just Parker playing without piano, bass or drums. We dubbed those in with musicians to give Bird’s solos a current sound.
JW: Why bother to do that?
LN: Otherwise, Bird’s music would have sounded like old records rather than fresh music you were seeing being created in the movie’s storyline.
JW: How did you do this?
LN: I had to find recordings of Bird and remove the piano, bass and drums, which took a long time. Back then you didn’t have the digital technology you have today. In 1987, when we worked on the film, that meant a box that some guy hooked up. He turned knobs until all the other instruments were faded down as much as possible.
JW: Which recordings of Bird’s worked best?
LN: Ones where there wasn’t too much going on around him. There was one of Bird playing All of Me with Lennie Tristano on piano and Kenny Clarke playing brushes on a telephone book or something. Lennie and Clarke were far off from the mic, so we could isolate Bird. It was too difficult to isolate Bird on recordings with Max Roach, for example, who dropped those terrific bombs on the drums. [Photo of Lennie Tristano and Charlie Parker]
JW: You also used alto saxophonist Charles McPherson in places with trumpeter Jon Faddis.
LN: I used Charles for cues and incidental music, like after Bird in the movie swallows iodine in a suicide attempt and he’s looking in the mirror. Charles McPherson plays a single line there on the alto.
JW: How did you decide to use McPherson?
LN: Clint called me in to look at Last of the Blue Devils, a documentary on Kansas City jazz. Many names of saxophonists were thrown around, some of them who were dead. Then I saw Charles in the documentary and he played beautifully. After the meeting, I asked fiends about him, and they said Charles could play and sound like Bird. So I brought him in.
JW: Why didn’t you play alto in the places where you needed it?
LN: [Laughs] Because I don’t sound like Bird. I have a touch of Lee Konitz in my sound.
JW: How was Forest Whitaker’s impersonation of Charlie Parker?
LN: Terrific. I had to teach him how to hold the alto and finger the notes in place. But he was a quick study. [Photo above of Forest Whitaker as Charlie Parker in Bird]
JW: What needed work?
LN: Forest had a tendency to roll his shoulders while playing. Bird never did that. Bird played as though his shoes were nailed to the floor. So I put my hands on Forest’s shoulders to hold them still, so he’d understand. But it was still hard for him and a bit of that comes through in the film. There also were times during rehearsals where he was taking breaths when Bird was blowing. I told Forest that in places where he didn’t know the solo cold, he should just breathe through his nose to stay in sync and avoid an on-camera problem. Everything had to be rehearsed and worked out in advance. Clint likes one or two takes, max.
JW: Did you re-arrange the strings for the Bird with Strings scene?
LN: Yes. Bird performed live with just four strings, a harp and an oboe along with a rhythm section. It was a financial matter, but he had always wanted to appear live with a far larger orchestra. In the movie, we used 20 strings for a big full sound plus an oboe. I had to show Forest the fingering on several held notes. Otherwise, when the movie came out, my phone would have rung off the hook from people saying he had fingered the wrong ones [laughs].
JW: What’s one of your favorite Lennie Niehaus cues?
LN: I like the music I composed for The Bridges of Madison County . There’s a scene where Clint is standing in the rain and Meryl Streep is deciding whether or not to get out of her husband’s pickup truck and go with him.
JW: Which part exactly do you like?
LN: The music for the whole scene but in particular where Meryl has her hand on the truck’s interior doorknob. Her husband’s truck winds up behind Clint’s and she can’t decide if she should get out of the truck and get into Clint’s. I was writing music for a build-up to her hand on the doorknob. The scene starts with a piano playing. It’s soon joined by strings. Then there’s a crescendo at the doorknob moment to emphasize the pathos of the dilemma and her indecision.
JW: You really remember every detail about this scene.
LN: Even though I wrote the music, I’m still moved every time I hear it back.