Johnny Mandel began his professional career in the early 1940s as a trumpet player. Unhappy with his playing, he switched to trombone. Meanwhile, arranging lessons with band legend Van Alexander gave Johnny an opportunity to realize his dream: to write for the big bands he heard on the radio. After a stint in Henry Jerome's band, which included tenor saxophonist Al Cohn and drummer Tiny Kahn, Johnny joined Boyd Raeburn's band in 1945. The orchestra was ahead of its time and put Johnny in contact with cutting-edge bop musicians of the time, including Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Pettiford, Lucky Thompson and Dodo Marmarosa. But while bop was increasingly popular among more skilled and hipper musicians, traditional bandleaders were still stuck in the swing era, often resulting in creative tensions.
In Part 3 of my interview with Johnny, the legendary arranger-composer talks about his experiences in the mid-to-late 1940s with Buddy Rich, Alvino Rey and Woody Herman, and shares Rich's early views on Charlie Parker and Max Roach:
JazzWax: Once you learned the fundamentals of arranging from Van Alexander, did you find you had a natural talent for it?
Johnny Mandel: I had a burning desire to arrange, that’s for sure. I figured I’d learn it and be good at it. I was driven. The first band I got to play one of my arrangements when I was still at the military academy was a nonunion group led by a guy named Paul Allen. Tenor saxophonist Al Cohn [pictured] was in there. But once the band played my arrangement, I realized the stuff I had written was all wrong. The trombones were off the charts. Everything was wrong. So I took it in and went on from there. You really learn to arrange by screwing up. You find something that sounds good and then think about moving it to a different section of the arrangement.
JW: What band did you join after leaving Boyd Raeburn in 1945?
JM: I joined Jimmy Dorsey for a short time, when it looked like Boyd’s band might break up.
JW: What was Jimmy Dorsey like?
JM: Jimmy Dorsey was a nice guy and a hell of an instrumentalist, but not much of a bandleader. He was a sideman at heart. I had never met Tommy Dorsey but I know he liked my arrangements. He died before I ever got to hook up with him. In Jimmy's band, I had to play the high trombone solos because the book for some reason was originally written for Tommy. Jimmy was a groove. He was a nice guy. I was there for just a few months.
JW: Why did you leave Boyd Raeburn's band for Buddy Rich in 1946?
JM: One of the musicians in Boyd's band went over to Buddy and took me with him. Buddy was a big name then. But all of a sudden playing music wasn’t fun. I was the first trombone in Buddy’s band, and it was dull.
JM: In 1946, Buddy was still thinking in terms of swing. He liked Benny Goodman’s sound. Frankly, I can’t even imagine Benny and Buddy in the same room together. They had such different temperaments. When I’d play bop in Buddy's band, Buddy would pound me on the chest with his finger and say, “I hate bebop, I hate Charlie Parker.”
JW: But as we know, Rich would wind up playing with Parker.
JM: Yes. Buddy's change in thinking came sometime in 1947, I think, and probably was a result of survival. All of the big bands were adapting bop in their arrangements. Buddy eventually realized he could stick to swing and go out of business or get with what was happening. By the time I re-joined Buddy’s band in 1947 after playing with Alvino Rey, Buddy had changed, which is why I went back.
JW: What was Buddy's issue with bop in 1946?
JM: I don't know. He had just left Tommy Dorsey to go out on his own, and just as he did the music changed. I'm sure that was a part of it. No one who is on top like Buddy wants to hear that their approach is dated. Either way, he was an all-around drag in '46. Buddy's band then was like a pre-war swing band transported to a new era. Apart from having Earl Swope on trombone, Buddy's band that year wasn't a place where I enjoyed myself, which is why I left.
JW: Drumming was changing fast in 1946, wasn't it?
JM: Smaller bebop groups were suddenly getting a lot of attention. At this time, Buddy was fiercely jealous of Max Roach. All of sudden Max was the man and Buddy wasn’t. He hated that. As late as early 1947 Buddy was still trying to be a swing drummer with a swing band. Personally, I think Buddy always sounded better in other people’s bands than his own. All of that notwithstanding, I still think he’s the greatest big band drummer.
JW: When you were in Buddy Rich's band in 1946, Tadd Dameron was there, too. Did Tadd have an influence on you?
JM: Some, but not a lot. I was listening more to Jimmy Mundy, who I think wrote the best stuff for Benny Goodman; Benny Carter; Bill Finegan; Billy May, who made Glenn Miller's band come alive; Sy Oliver; Van Alexander; Duke Ellington and Count Basie. I quickly found I could take music off records and score the whole thing. All the arrangers then were in my thinking.
JW: How did you wind up with Alvino Rey in 1946, in between your Buddy Rich stints?
JM: After I left Buddy’s band, I continued playing in what was known then as “farm team” bands. These were bands from which the major bands recruited. For example, Buddy’s band and Georgie Auld's band were farm teams for Woody Herman's band. Alvino Rey was a farm team for Claude Thornhill.
JW: How did Rey's band differ?
JM: It was a gargantuan orchestra, upward of 30 musicians. There were six trumpets, five trombones, seven saxophones, that sort of thing. Billy May was writing for the band and dividing it up into two five-man brass sections. Based on the pictures I had seen in the magazines, I had always thought Rey was a short Spanish guy. It turns out he was tall and his real name was Alvin McBurney and that he was from Ohio. [laughs]
JW: Was he a nice guy?
JM: Rey was marvelous, a great guy to work for. Somebody told me when I joined, "Look, when you’re playing with Alvino, if someone grabs you by the shoulder from behind, don’t worry. It’s Alvino trying to learn to ride the unicycle."
JW: The unicycle?
JM: He was the kind of guy who wanted to learn to ride it so he could pedal up to the microphone with his guitar and announce numbers. That came to an end when he slipped a disc and couldn’t continue. But he was out there. That's how he was able to maintain such a large band. Audiences were entertained.
JW: Rey seemed to enjoy gimmicks.
JM: He did. He loved his technology. One of the musicians would stand backstage with a mike on his throat. The wire was attached to Alvino's steel guitar. The guy backstage would mouth words, and it would appear as if Alvino's guitar was playing the words. So Alvino would be playing as this guy backstage was saying, “Alvino Ray and his singing guitar.” It looked like the guitar was doing it.
JW: Why did you leave Rey?
JM: When I was with him in 1946, the whole band business caved in. Soldiers came home from the war and married girls they had been dancing with before the war. They bought houses and settled down, and started using their spare dollars to pay babysitters rather than going out to hear music or dance. We were playing to empty ballrooms by the end of that year. All the bands from Benny on down folded their bands in the last weeks of 1946.
JW: What did you do after you left?
JM: In 1947 I enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music in New York and did a summer session at Juilliard. I wasn’t happy back in school, but it was a good time to go back and fill in my musical gaps.
JW: In 1948 you returned briefly to Buddy Rich's band.
JM: Yes. By then, Buddy had fully embraced bop. He was actively looking for guys who played and wrote bop charts. He had to. All of the big bands were hipper. Audience tastes had changed slightly. Buddy had me write mostly ballads. Many people think I arranged Buddy's version of Oop Bop Sh'bam. I didn't, and I can't remember who did.
JW: By the end of 1948 you were arranging for Woody Herman.
JM: Yes, around that time I started thinking about moving to California again. I never liked New York except when I worked there as a musician. It was a great place to be to play and listen. So I moved back to Los Angeles. I had gone back to the West Coast one time with Buddy's band in 1946 to play the Hollywood Palladium for four weeks. Back then I stayed with Rob Swope and Ben Lary at a house down in Manhattan Beach. One of the guys, Jackie Carmen, had a car. So we'd drive up to the Palladium to play. I loved it out there.
JW: But by the late 1940s, after the war, it wasn’t easy for a musician to just move to L.A. and get work, was it?
JM: Right. I had to get a union card. A lot of guys wanted to live in California and not have to hack the winters back East. The biggest businesses in California back then were oil and the movies, and all the studios had staff orchestras. The work and weather were big draws for musicians. So the union cracked down on easy transfers into Local 47 from other union branches. If you wanted a union card there, you had to work doing something else for six months. This was to prove you were committed to residing there and not just jumping in to work, take some other local musician's job and return to New York or wherever when it was convenient or times changed for you.
JW: What did you do?
JM: I knew I’d have to live there for six months to work off my union card. So I worked as a shipping clerk downtown. When Woody’s "Four Brothers" band came to town with all my friends in it, I couldn't play with the band. But under union rules, I could arrange. So I started writing for Woody in 1948.
JW: How was that band?
JM: Unbelievable. I wrote Not Really the Blues in 1948. The title came from a book clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow had written called Really the Blues. In the book, Mez said that anything other than Dixieland was a bunch of crap. I wrote this chart that started out as a blues but turned into a 32-bar song. So I called it Not Really the Blues. Woody and the band liked it very much. But they didn’t’ play it at first because trombonist Bill Harris felt it was too much for the trombones to play. But they started to play it after a while and recorded it in 1949.
JW: Your signature arrangements back then opened instantly with high energy and a ton of brass.
JM: Traditionally, when a band played theaters, you’d always open with something very fast. That's because we'd be coming up from the orchestra pit on those lifts, which audiences loved. It was very dramatic. The point was to wake up the people who had gone to sleep watching the movie, especially in early shows. I remember with Buddy's band, I had written Fine and Dandy with the intention of it being a pit opener. Not Really the Blues also was designed to be an opener. In fact, the original recording for Woody was too slow. I played it with my own band much faster.
JW: That arrangement starts the way gates snap open at the racetrack.
JM: Exactly. That’s a perfect simile.
JW: That's also true of your arrangement of Krazy Kat for Artie Shaw's bop band of 1949.
JM: Wow, what a band. Artie picked a bad time to start a band. He had been out of the business for quite a few years. He said that his 1949 band was the best one he ever had. Tadd wrote some of the charts. So did George Russell. I wrote some ballads for him. Gene Roland was writing great stuff for that band, too.
JW: The reeds weren't half bad either.
JM: The saxophones were incredible. Zoot [Sims], Al [Cohn] Herbie Steward, Frankie Socolow and Danny Bank. Jimmy Raney was on guitar. Don Fagerquist was on trumpet. Wow, what a player. And Sonny Russo. If I recall, some of the older-sounding arrangements were by Ray Conniff and Roger Segure.
Tomorrow, Johnny talks about playing in Count Basie's "New Testament" band in 1953, why he stopped playing trombone, what Hoagy Carmichael taught him and how he learned to write for the movies.