By the tail end of the 1940s, Johnny Mandel had dropped the trumpet and was playing trombone for leading big bands. He also was writing arrangements that had the energy of swing but the attitude of bop. As his reputation grew, so did the demand for his pen. After working in Alvino Rey's band, Johnny began devoting more time to arranging, which took some degree of courage. The competition was fierce. The swelling ranks of top-flight arrangers included Neal Hefti, Ralph Burns, Billy May, Eddie Sauter, Bill Finegan, Sy Oliver, Ernie Wilkins, Gene Roland, Gil Fuller, Paul Weston, Jimmy Mundy, George Handy, Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans and so many others. And each was developing a following among bandleaders seeking a new, more modern sound.
Swing was out, bebop was in and dancing was less of a primary focus. Which meant that bandleaders needed arrangements that captured the new music's hip instrumental feel. Charts had to snap and explode with energy and excitement, and bands were in a constant battle for musicians who could read complex parts and improvise with a bop feel. [Pictured from bottom: Ralph Burns, Neal Hefti, Johnny Richards, George Handy, Ed Finckel and Eddie Sauter; Photo by William P. Gottlieb, 1947]
In Part 4 of my five-part interview with Johnny, the legendary arranger-composer talks about Artie Shaw, Johnny Bothwell, Count Basie, Hoagy Carmichael and writing for radio and television in the early 1950s:
JazzWax: You composed and arranged for Artie Shaw's great bop band of 1949. What was Artie like?
Johnny Mandel: If he liked you, musically, he had a great deal of respect for you. He left me alone. Unlike Benny Goodman, he didn’t pick on his players. Artie molded musicians and taught them how to play better. I don’t know what he saw in me. I suppose he liked what he heard. I never played with him. I’d write the charts and give them to his road manager, Lenny Lewis, who would give them to the copyist. Artie was always up at his Connecticut dairy farm. Lenny was a clarinetist, and he'd hire the band and rehearse it. Then Artie would come down from his farm and weed out the lesser players, some of whom were Lenny's pals. Artie's genius was he knew how to form a band and how to make the musicians play they way he wanted. He was a great bandleader. One of the best. And he could do it without beating up on the guys.
JW: You then were arranging for Elliot Lawrence's band in 1950.
JM: Elliot [pictured] was a nice guy to work for. He loved what the arrangers did and knew how to get great work out of everyone in the band. He wasn’t much of a piano player, and he didn't let the band ad lib. But he turned out to be a great conductor. Many of the original members of his band came from the Philadelphia area. He particularly liked Al Cohn, Gerry Mulligan and me. Harmonically, it was an adventurous band.
JW: You and saxophonist Hal McKusick worked in the Lawrence band of 1956 and 1957.
JM: Hal [pictured] and I were in quite a few bands together. Boyd Raeburn, Alvino Rey, Buddy Rich in 1948 and Elliot Lawrence. Hal's sound was something else. Did you ever hear how Hal joined Boyd Raeburn's band in 1944?
JM: Before Hal joined the band, Raeburn had in his reed section an alto saxophonist named Johnny Bothwell. He ran the section. Bothwell was a great player but a tyrant. He always found ways to bug the players about tuning up and things like that. Loved to get under the players' skin. In the band was Lenny Green, who also played alto and sat next to Johnny. Shortly after I came on at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, Lenny just snapped.
JW: What had happened?
JM: Whatever Bothwell was doing to him went too far. One night Lenny went out of his head and tried to kill Bothwell. Bothwell left the band in fear of his life. He took with him a lot of the lead alto parts; Claire Hogan, our singer and Bothwell's girlfriend who later became his wife; and the band boy, who looked after the band's equipment on the road. So the band was left without an alto. We had subs for a while but soon someone sent for Hal McKusick [pictured], who was playing with Johnny Otis in L.A. at the time and had already been in Boyd's band. Hal came up and joined the band. That was the first time I met him. We've known each other through the years. I did some arranging for him on his Jazz Workshop album in '56.
JW: How did you wind up in Count Basie's "New Testament" band in 1953?
JM: I got a call one day from Basie himself. He made all his own phone calls. That’s why I make my own calls in my bands today. I had already written a couple of things for Basie that he liked. He also knew I was a trombone player. When he called me, he said trombonist Jimmy Wilkins, Ernie’s brother, was leaving the band. Basie said Jimmy wanted to stay in St. Louis, where he was from. Basie said, "We’re playing in St. Louis. How would you like to join?”
JW: What did you think?
JM: I couldn’t believe it. I had adored that band since I was a kid. Actually, I first met Basie when I was still at the military academy and hung around the band whenever they came to New York. But playing in that Basie band was the greatest job I ever had. The band had been re-formed a year earlier, in '52. I was there in '53 and part of '54. There were three of us in the trombone section: Henry Coker, Benny Powell and me. I sat on the inside at the end, right next to Freddie Green. What an experience. Sometimes I played bass trumpet.
JW: Were you apprehensive at first?
JM: No. It felt like I should have always been there.
JW: How were Neal Hefti's charts?
JM: Great. Ernie [Wilkins] was writing too. Neal's Plymouth Rock and Cherry Point were terrific. So were Ernie's One O'clock Jump and Blues Go Away [scats a few bars]. I was playing bass trumpet on that one.
JW: In 1954, you stopped playing trombone entirely. Why?
JM: The last gig I played was when I was working with Zoot [Sims], Jimmy Rowles [pictured] and a bass player and drummer whose names I've forgotten. We were playing at the Haig in Los Angeles. At the time, I was writing more and more and playing less and less, and not practicing. So I was playing worse. I finally told myself that I can't do this anymore. Everyone in the arranging business had to give up something. Neal [Hefti] stopped playing trumpet. Billy Byers stopped playing the trombone. You had to. Al Cohn didn't play much when he was writing all the time. Eventually, his eye bothered him so much that he just decided to be a full-time sax player. And what a monster he became.
JW: Did composing and arranging for bands get easier at this point?
JM: Writing was always a struggle, particularly out in L.A. In New York, everything was easier because everyone was in contact at bars, on the streets and in clubs. The whole music world worked within two to three blocks of each other. So you were always at Charlie's Tavern, Junior's or another place where guys would hang out between gigs. You'd have a drink with musicians who were playing up to three recording dates a day. You'd hear what was going on, who needed arrangements and be motivated by the contact.
JW: And without cell phones—imagine that. How did everyone stay in touch in California?
JM: [laughs] Yes, before cell phones. Out in L.A., everybody lived in their cars. It was very hard for me to get started in California. There was no big break. I worked tirelessly writing for recording stars like Dave Pell, Chet Baker and others. I never did any movies until much later in the 1950s.
JW: So how did you keep up with people and stay in touch with them?
JM: You'd be on regular phones all the time or you were at clubs. That’s how you networked, as they say today. Everyone liked jazz more then, and I was taking all the work I could get, including writing acts for entertainers. I even moved to Las Vegas for a while in 1957 and wrote some of the floorshows. I’ve never been a fast writer, and I'm still not. I’m slow, to this day. But I've always worked hard and intensively. In many cases I'd have to work throughout the night to get my many projects completed.
JW: Was Hoagy Carmichael a song-writing mentor?
JM: No. I just arranged that Pacific Jazz album for him, Hoagy Plays Carmichael. We got along great. I had heard before meeting him that he could be prickly. But he wasn’t. He liked what I did for the recording session. We used to hang out together. He liked to party and drink and play piano. He loved music. He got me into ASCAP. The other guy who got me back into ASCAP after I left for BMI after BMI offered me a guarantee was Johnny Mercer. After I re-joined ASCAP in 1965, I realized I shouldn’t have been anywhere near BMI.
JW: Was Hoagy vocally comfortable with the arrangements?
JM: I liked Hoagy, and he liked what we did on that album. But he was a little out of his depth. I had beboppers on the date like Art Pepper, Joe Mondragon and others. But I also had [Harry] "Sweets" Edison. I think the modern feel was a little tough for him.
JW: Was Hoagy laid back?
JM: Not really. I had heard that if you wrote a song with him, he was like a Philadelphia lawyer, going over every single note. But I wasn’t even thinking about writing a pop song in those days. That would come later.
JW: How did you get your start writing for the movies?
JM: Andre Previn recommended me for a picture in 1958 called I Want to Live, directed by Robert Wise. Andre couldn’t do it because he had just taken on Porgy and Bess, a record project. Andre has always been a friend of mine. We both liked jazz, and I had done a couple of things for him. Andre liked the way I wrote, and we became real friends.
JW: Did you convince Robert Wise to use a jazz score?
JM: I didn't know this at the time but Susan Hayward [pictured], the film's star, was a huge Gerry Mulligan fan. Robert and Susan wanted to get him in the film. Gerry was very big at the time. That was my first movie score.
JW: But you must have arranged something for film before, no?
JM: I had done some radio in the early 1950s, before joining Basie. I worked at WMGM on Fifth Ave., one of the last of the independent broadcasters that was a wing of MGM Pictures. We had to score all those shows, like the MGM Theater of the Air and crap like that. There was a band there all the time, and my gig was to write a few arrangements a week for the band. So I had to learn how to write music by the clock, to coincide with the drama.
JW: You did no film at all?
JM: Well soon after working at WMGM, I went over to Sid Caesar's [pictured] Your Show of Shows for two years. Irwin Kostal [pictured, bottom] and I turned out all the music for that early TV show. And it was a lot. We were doing everything. No one involved in the show had a clue about what could or couldn't be done. We were putting on a 90-minute TV show each week. The process would start on Monday and end on Saturday night. A ton of music was needed. We’d do a segment from an opera, we’d do these long singing and dancing numbers, and so many others.
JW: Was it exciting?
JM: Somewhat, mostly because no one knew how to do a TV show then, so anything and everything was possible. Every week was another experiment. Boom mikes got into the line of the cameras all the time, or sets fell down while we were live on the air. It was the best training in the world. I never wanted to work on Broadway, but this was like that—except you didn’t take the show on the road. It was all live. There was no tape. And we had to do it 39 weeks a year. That experience taught me how to write music based on specific time slots. It's experience that came in handy when I was asked to do I Want to Live and in the next phases of my career in the 1960s and beyond.
Tomorrow, Johnny talks about scoring I Want to Live, composing Emily for The Americanization of Emily, why Johnny Mercer refused to write the lyrics to The Shadow of Your Smile, meeting Frank Sinatra before arranging Ring-a-Ding-Ding, and composing Suicide Is Painless for M*A*S*H.