Bundled off to a series of boarding schools after his father's death in 1937, Johnny Mandel threw himself into jazz and the trumpet. Transfixed by the radio and the excitement of live big band remotes from hotel ballrooms, Johnny soon began trying to write arrangements. Listening intently to different bands, Johnny decided to devote himself to writing the kind of explosive charts that were making names for big bands nationwide. [Oil painting of Johnny Mandel by Merryl Jaye]
In Part 2 of my five-part interview with Johnny, the legendary composer and arranger talks about learning how to arrange from band legend Van Alexander, playing bebop with Alan Greenspan and Leonard Garment, switching from trumpet to trombone and joining Boyd Raeburn's groundbreaking band of 1944:
JazzWax: I can understand your ambition as a teen to play trumpet in a band. But to become an arranger?
Johnny Mandel: 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. 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 has 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 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. "Otherwise, you’ll never know what you wrote," he said, “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’ band for a few months until the band broke up. Then I joined trumpeter Henry Jerome [pictured] and his Stepping Tones. Lenny Garment and Alan Greenspan played tenor saxophones in that band and were already there a couple of years before I had 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 Theater 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' 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 [pictured] arranging skills when I had come into New York from the military academy to study with Van Alexander. I was a big fan of Al's. 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 saxes.
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 [pictured] 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.
JazzWax tracks: Johnny Mandel's bop band arrangements can be heard on the CD, The Henry Jerome Orchestra: 1944-45 (The First Band Ever to Play BeBop). The band included Jack Eagle and Manny Fox (trumpets), Johnny Mandel (bass trumpet), Bill Vitale, Alan Greenspan, Len Garment and Al Cohn (saxes), Gene di Novi (piano) Tiny Kahn (drums).
Johnny's arrangements for Eagle Flies and How Deep Is the Ocean were recorded in December 1945 and can be downloaded from Boyd Raeburn: Body and Soul at iTunes or Amazon. The personnel: Tommy Allison, Alan Jeffreys, Johnny Napton and Dale Pearce (trumpets) Jack Carman, Ollie Wilson and Si Zentner (trombones), Leonard Green and Hal McKusick (alto saxes) Stuart Anderson and Frank Socolow (tenor saxes), Guy McReynolds (baritone sax), Boyd Raeburn (bass sax), George Handy (piano), Hayden Causey (guitar), Ed Mihelich (bass) and Jackie Mills (drums).