Jazz pianist and French hornist David Amram wrote the scores for three major films—Splendor in the Grass, The Young Savages and The Manchurian Candidate. All shrewdly combine jazz and classical motifs, and each pack an enormous creative punch. To David's credit, these forward-thinking movie scores were able to take significant musical risks without abandoning the genre's essential ingredients—an unforgettable main theme and pieces that foreshadow storyline anxieties and looming threats.
Up until now, my interviews with David focused on his jazz work from 1951-1959—including musical encounters and performances with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Bobby Jaspar, Charles Mingus, Oscar Pettiford, Kenny Dorham, Cannonball Adderley and many others.
To read my previous installments, check the JazzWax archives in the right-hand column under these dates:
Part 1: October 15, 2007
Part 2: October 16, 2007
Part 3: November 8, 2007
Part 4: November 19, 2007
In the fifth and final installment below, David talks about the events leading up to each of the three films, why he avoided writing full time for Hollywood, and his surprising encounter with Frank Sinatra in 1963:
"My very first movie score was for Echo of an Era, a 1956 documentary on the dismantling of New York's Third Avenue elevated subway line. In 1957 I started writing for Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park series, which led to my writing for off-Broadway theatrical productions.
Then in 1958, director Elia Kazan asked me to compose the music for J.B., a play by Archibald MacLeish about a banker whose life becomes ruined as his faith in God is tested. It was written completely in verse and was based on the Bible’s Book of Job.
Kazan said he had asked every other classical composer in New York to sign on but they were all busy. So I was hired. He wanted me to compose incidental music—which is used for overtures and underneath speeches given by the characters on stage.
I used a wide range of music styles—from jazz to classical—and Kazan liked what I did. I even added scat music and had to teach Christopher Plummer how to sing it. The play was a success and won the 1959 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Splendor in the Grass
Fresh on the heels of J.B., Kazan in 1959 asked me to score a film he was due to direct called Splendor in the Grass. It was written by William Inge and explored sexual restrictions in the 1920s and what it was like to come of age at that time. Kazan said the job was mine but first I had to meet Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers, in New York.
Apparently, Warner didn’t want me on the picture. I was an unknown with zero Hollywood credentials. But Kazan insisted—pointing out that he had gotten Alex North and Leonard Bernstein to write their first film scores. North composed the music for A Streetcar Named Desire and Bernstein scored On the Waterfront. Both composers had become huge afterward, so Jack Warner agreed to meet me.
When I met Warner, he was like a Catskill comic who couldn’t get a job as a comic. He was always telling jokes that weren’t very funny—though all the people around him laughed at virtually everything he said. Warner said to me, 'Well, you’re nobody, but Kazan wants you, and Leonard Bernstein was nobody until he wrote the score for On the Waterfront. He turned out to be pretty good. And who’s greater than Leonard Bernstein?'
'Beethoven,' I said.
Warner looked at me with a blank stare. Not only did he think what I said wasn't funny, I’m not even sure he knew who Beethoven was. I thought for sure I was finished on the film. Kazan must have smoothed over Warner after I left because I got the job.
Before I started working on Splendor in the Grass, Kazan told me he didn’t want a hack score. He just wanted my best ideas. The story took place in the 1920s, so it needed jazz. Kazan was big on authenticity and had me write and record jazz music so when the actors rehearsed they could hear it playing and feel the mood.
Kazan also told me to get real musicians to appear in the on-camera bands. So I got Scott LaFaro, Wilbur Hogan, Buster Bailey and others, and I played as well. Most of the jazz band scenes were shot at an armory in Harlem.
Splendor in the Grass was Warren Beatty’s first film. Warren was a good piano player, and Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood’s husband, was a big jazz fan. Beatty’s father had played in the Arlington Symphony, an amateur orchestra in Washington, D.C. I had played in that orchestra as a kid, and Warren’s father had remembered that I had played with them.
Warren was fun. I used to take him to clubs where I was playing jazz. He had never been in a movie before, so he could just hang out without being swarmed by fans.
For Splendor in the Grass, I was given a huge budget for a full orchestra and jazz ensemble. Kazan told me to get the best classical and jazz players I could find. So I filled the orchestra with classical musicians who played chamber music and in string quartets. Most of them had never been on a recording date before.
For the jazz ensembles, I used George Barrow on sax, Eddie Wilcox on piano, Buster Baily on clarinet, Arthur Phipps on bass and Al Harewood on drums. I played French horn. It was a wonderful opportunity to combine orchestral music with jazz.
Back then, my cost of living amounted to around $65 a month, and what Warner Brothers agreed to pay me seemed at the time like a fortune. Of course, anyone in Hollywood then would have said I made a colossal mistake. And I probably could have earned millions in film work if I had had paid someone else write scores for me, which was standard practice back then. But that just wasn't me.
When the music publisher on Splendor in the Grass saw my score, he was furious. He said it had too many chord changes and would never produce a hit song. He also said it was too weird. When the music publisher told Kazan what he thought, Kazan reamed him out. Kazan told him to let me do what I wanted. He stuck up for me creatively, all the way.
Though the theme I wrote for the film has been recorded by Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Percy Faith and others, a soundtrack was never recorded or released, probably because of that music publisher. I really don’t care. For my compositions for the film to have been recorded, I would have had to have written a different score, which would have meant compromising and wrecking the movie.
Kazan loved my score. It was the best music I could write and play at the time, and I’m proud of every note. I put as much care and love into it as anything I’ve ever done. In 1962, Inge won the Oscar for Best Writing/Story and Screenplay—Written Directly for the Screen, and Natalie Wood was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
The Young Savages
While I was writing Splendor in the Grass, John Frankenheimer asked me to write a score for a film he was about to direct called The Young Savages. The film was written by Evan Hunter and was a drama about Puerto Rican and Italian youth gangs in New York. Burt Lancaster and Dina Merrill were in it. Frankenheimer wanted me because I was able to compose in many different music genres of the time, including Latin and jazz.
The Young Savages was different than West Side Story, though both films were released in 1961. The Young Savages was a gritty New York City story based on a true story, and it didn’t glamorize gangs.
During the recording of my music, I got into a fight with the film's producer, Harold Hecht. I had chosen my own concert master— Stanley Plummer—who had played with Yasha Heifetz. A concert master is an orchestra's first violinist and he or she plays all the score's solos.
Stanley had never played on a Hollywood studio date, and Hecht insisted that the orchestra wouldn't play well if he was in that chair. I insisted and told Hecht that Stanley would be great. So Stanley sat up in the front of the orchestra and everyone gave him the hate rays. He sat there quietly and played beautifully.
At the time, the wife of trumpeter Manny Klein was a prominent musical contractor. She came to the session just to hear my score. She heard Stanley and liked him very much, which kicked off a whole new career for him playing in film-studio orchestras.
Hecht also didn't want me to use saxophonist Harold Land—even though Land had played with Max Roach, Clifford Brown and so many other great jazz artists. Hecht told me Land was an unknown and too big a risk. I told Hecht that not only was Land great, he had to get a double pay scale. Hecht refused, so I paid Land out of my own pocket. Everyone was blown away that I had done that.
After Land played and Hecht heard him, Hecht asked me where Land was from. I told him 10 blocks from the studio. Land lived in L.A. Columbia recorded The Young Savages soundtrack, but it's still sitting unreleased in the Sony vaults.
After Splendor in the Grass and The Young Savages, I was offered some really horrible films and passed on them. Hollywood arrangers I knew at the time told me that if I could avoid going out to Hollywood to work on films full time, I’d save my life. They said that there was a terrible cycle out there: If you got hot, you'd make tons of money but they'd ask you to write as many as eight film scores a year. If what you wrote was accepted, you would have no choice but to hire ghostwriters to write the scores for you just to keep up.
I felt that putting my name on scores I didn't actually write would take away the gift we are given to be composers. That type of work, no matter how financially rewarding, sucks the creative life right out of you.
The Manchurian Candidate
In 1961, Frankenheimer told me he was going to direct a film called The Manchurian Candidate. He said that Frank Sinatra was signed on and that he and Frank wanted a composer who wasn’t a Hollywood hack. There were great composers and arrangers out in Hollywood at the time—Alex North, Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Hermann and others. But most of them didn’t have the 1950s jazz touch, and those who had the touch didn’t have the classical background.
Frankenheimer wanted someone outside the loop who was a real composer. 'This film is so different than anything that’s been done before,' he said. 'I want you to do it, and Frank [Sinatra] likes your music, too.'
So I read the script. It was great. I had never seen anything like it. I agreed to write the score. I flew out to Hollywood and holed up at a hotel during the filming. They gave me a small piano and a Moviola used by film editors. I'd turn the Moviola's crank to see parts of the film that were already in the can. Then I’d sit at my piano and work out ideas.
For a month they’d bring in different chunks of the film. I'd see bits of scenes with other parts missing and replaced with notes that said, 'To be filled in later.' I asked Frankenheimer what the film was about based on these fragmented scenes. He'd only say, 'It’s not a Chinese war movie. Do the best you can do. Do jazz. Do whatever you want.'
I remember watching one scene where there was a slow pan of the camera showing soldiers on a stage having a tea party. Suddenly all the Southern ladies on the stage turned into interrogators. Remember, I had not seen the whole film yet—no one had—only bits and pieces. That scene blew my mind.
Based on the scene I saw, I figured they must have messed up. I watched the scene a few more times and thought I was going nuts. When I called Frankenheimer, I told him I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown watching the scene. 'That's the idea,' he said. 'That’s how prisoners feel when they’ve been given drugs and have been brainwashed.' I decided to write a minor-key waltz with a harpsichord and piccolos to capture the feeling of going insane at a tea party.
In another scene, I used jazz for the scene at the servicemen's club. I created a long jazz piece and told Frankenheimer to use excerpts. This way, when actors walked into the bar, the band would be well underway, which is how music is truly heard when you enter a club.
I wrote the film's main theme—played by Manny Klein's bold, almost patriotic trumpet in the overture—to create a specific impression of Laurence Harvey's character. This was a film about a noble guy who was doomed by forces beyond his control, like in a Greek tragedy. The theme needed to convey the sound of a good guy struggling futilely against the fates.
On trumpet, Manny Klein was incredible. He captured that feeling perfectly. Manny had the same ability to get to the core of great European classical playing and the core of the jazz experience, and he respected and loved them both.
On The Manchurian Candidate Theme (Jazz Version), I had trombonist Lou Blackburn open with theme, followed by Harold Land on tenor. After Land’s solo, the whole orchestra comes in, then a wind and brass ensemble echoes what the orchestra had just played. Baritone saxophonist Jack Nimitz and flutist Paul Horn are on the date as well.
During the recording sessions, I borrowed Vince DeRosa's French horn to play in a spot on the middle of Cantina Latina, Korea 1952. I also played piano on tracks and conducted throughout.
I didn't meet Frank Sinatra until a year after the movie came out. During the time I was in Hollywood, everyone was so petrified of him they were too afraid to introduce me.
So one night in early 1963, when I was playing at the Village Gate, actor Martin Gable came up to me and said, 'Frank is downstairs and wants to meet you.' I said, 'Frank who?' 'Frank Sinatra,' he said.
When I went down, Frank was sitting at a table with friends. He invited me to sit down next to him and said he loved my music for The Manchurian Candidate. 'You wrote a perfect score,' he said. ‘But how come you never came to see me when you were out there?’ I just said, ‘You were really busy at the time.’
We talked about music and Italian opera and his time with Tommy Dorsey and the jazz greats he knew. I asked Frank about whether Tommy Dorsey had a big impact on his singing. He said Tommy influenced his breathing but the passion and timing came from jazz musicians and the traditional Italian bel canto school of singing. He said he loved Italian opera, classical music and jazz—which is why he could understand completely where I was coming from in the movie’s score.
After about a half hour, I had to go back upstairs and play. Sinatra said, 'You know, I don’t’ know why they never put a record out of the music.' I shrugged. I didn't know either. The answer is probably the same as the one for Splendor in the Grass—they couldn’t figure out what it was or how to market it.
After The Manchurian Candidate was finished, all of the music just disappeared. In those days, they’d throw out all the old scores. Years later, I wrote the Library of Congress about another piece I had written. The Library found it for me—along with a copy of the original score for The Manchurian Candidate. Apparently it was sent there by the music publisher. So I got the score back.
When the remake of The Manchurian Candidate was made in 2003, Rachel Portman was hired to composed contemporary music for the film. But they also wanted to include my music from the original film. But no soundtrack had been made.
Then Tina Sinatra produced a three-track recording of the original recording from her safe. Fortunately Frank must have had it recorded at the time or had acquired it. When I met Frank Sinatra Jr. in recent years, he told me that Frank and the whole family used to watch the film and loved the score.
As a result, the first 32 minutes of the new movie soundtrack is my music from the original film, remastered.
The lesson I learned during my early film-writing years is that you must remain creative and true to yourself at all costs—and never let yourself become part of some hack, factory scene. You always want to work in your artistry. Then you'll never have to worry about selling out. Even though you may not get the big money or top credit, you will have done a good day's work, which is good for your health.
To this day, no matter what type of music I create, I’m always trying to find the right notes that reverberate feelings that are beyond me."
JazzWax tracks: David Amram's score for The Manchurian Candidate is sensational. Its theme is haunting and catchy, and you'll have trouble shaking it from your head once you've heard it.
David's score can be found on two different CDs. There are 32 minutes of remastered music from the original film here. Or you can pay $40 for an out-of-print copy of a bootleg version of the full score (the CD sounds great).
The Young Savages' soundtrack on Columbia isn't available on CD, but an LP-to-CD conversion of something is here for $130. I don't know much more about it, so I suggest you try to contact the seller to find out what's being sold before you buy.
While there is no soundtrack recording available for Splendor in the Grass, you can download David playing the theme on piano at iTunes. It's on David Amram: At Home/Around the World. And believe it or not, Percy Faith recorded a terrific version here on Percy Faith: Hollywood's Greatest Themes.
JazzWax videoclips: Go here for an interesting conversation about the making of The Manchurian Candidate with Frank Sinatra, John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod, who wrote the screenplay.
To hear David Amram's theme from the movie, go here. Forget about the clip, since it's not actually from the film. Instead, listen for David's penetrating theme when The Manchurian Candidate logo appears on the TV screen in the video.
You can hear David's music and theme for Splendor in the Grass by going here to view the movie's trailer.
Unfortunately, I there are no clips up on the web from The Young Savages.