Neal Hefti, one of jazz's most intuitive big-band arrangers and composers of the 1940s and 1950s whose scores so perfectly matched the bands he wrote for that they often became their best-known recordings, died on October 11. He was 85.
For six decades, Hefti's keen ear and fast pen enabled him to move effortlessly between swing, bebop and cool jazz styles as well as meeting the demands of Hollywood's studio system. From his first recorded arrangement in 1942, Hefti's tasteful and swinging composing and writing sensibilities won the respect of both jazz's most skilled soloists and best-known big band leaders. Hefti's now nearly forgotten prowess as a trumpet player and improviser in the 1940s put him in the recording company of Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter and Lucky Thompson.
The magic of a Hefti arrangement often began with a bouncy theme. As the theme advanced, different sections of the band would join in with strong, inventive harmony lines. The arrangement would then continue to rise ambitiously to new levels of intensity. Finally, the tune would plateau with a crescendo passage that sealed the deal for the listener and made you want to hear it again. From a musician's standpoint, even a straightforward Hefti arrangement could be deceptively demanding, requiring strong reading skills and an innate ability to swing. As a result, Hefti's charts often made quick work of dilettantes and poseurs.
While many arrangers during the late 1940s and early 1950s reached for moody post-war European classical motifs, Hefti remained true to the swing tradition. Whether he was arranging for Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman, Harry James [pictured] or Count Basie, Hefti always understood that the reeds did the talking, the trumpets did the shouting and the trombones did the badgering. To keep an arrangement interesting, Hefti always wrote as though the band's different sections were having conversations among themselves across some imaginary fence. And yet, Hefti's charts for one band sounded nothing like his charts for another. The bandleader who commissioned Hefti received compositions and arrangements that suited that orchestra's personality.
Hefti's first known recorded arrangement was Daisy Chain in 1942 for Charlie Spivak [pictured], in whose band Hefti played trumpet. Hefti joined Woody Herman's trumpet section in 1944 and freelanced as a member of several ensembles, including Flip Phillips' Fliptet, a bop ensemble that included Bill Harris on trombone, Ralph Burns on piano, Billy Bauer on guitar, Chubby Jackson on bass and Dave Tough on drums.
Caldonia was Hefti's first hit arrangement for Herman [pictured] in early 1945. By the fall, Hefti had carved out a new explosive bop sound for the band with The Good Earth, Black Orchid, Wild Root and Blowin' Up a Storm. The hard-charging arrangements were so impossibly difficult and performed so flawlessly that they instantly set Herman's band and musicians apart. Much of Hefti's bop feel was learned firsthand while hanging out in kitchens of jazz clubs on New York's 52d Street.
In 1946, Hefti freelanced on trumpet and arranged for Benny Carter, Georgie Auld [pictured], Herbie Fields, Charlie Ventura, Buddy Rich and others. His first recording session as a leader came in December 1946, fronting a group that included Kai Winding, Charlie Ventura, Billy Bauer, Chubby Jackson and singer Frances Wayne, whom Hefti would later marry.
In 1947, Hefti recorded for RCA with Lucky Thompson [pictured] and His Lucky Seven. The now almost-forgotten session included Hefti on trumpet, Benny Carter on alto, Thompson on tenor, Bob Lawson on baritone sax, Dodo Marmarosa on piano, Barney Kessel on guitar, Red Callender on bass and Lee Young on drums.
Hefti's first big career turning point came at age 25. In December 1947, as Hefti rehearsed an orchestra at Carnegie Hall prior to recording two compositions for Norman Granz's [pictured] The Jazz Scene album, Charlie Parker wandered onto the stage. Fresh from his own Granz recording session in the hall, Parker enjoyed the song being played so much he asked Neal if he could solo on top of it. Rather than rewrite the intricate arrangement, Hefti merely had the orchestra play the song twice, with Parker soloing on the second run through. Renamed Repetition, the song not only was an early example of linear writing and an inspiration for cool jazz, its success led Granz to record Parker with strings in 1949, 1950 and again in 1952.
Following this 1947 date, Hefti continued to arrange for Woody Herman as well as Harry James, resulting in James' only bebop efforts and many believe his most exciting work. Throughout his career, Hefti retained a close working relationship with both Herman and James.
Hefti's first arrangement for Count Basie was an octet session in 1950 that resulted in Neal's Deal, Bluebeard Blues and others. The following year Hefti began arranging in earnest for Basie's big band. He wrote and arranged compositions such as Little Pony, Plymouth Rock, Cherry Point, Cute, Coral Reef, Splanky and others that would become the "New Testament" band's musical fingerprint. Hefti's arrangements also added enormous drama to Basie's swing, purposefully holding Basie's role to here-and-there chords and individual notes played in between the orchestra's brass and reed lines. This cooler sound created an electrifying contrast between a minimalist bluesy piano and a roaring band that could take your head off. In effect, it was the musical equivalent of a seasoned driver cockily handling a Mack truck with just two fingers on the wheel. Hefti's work for the Basie band reached a peak with Atomic Basie (1957) and Basie Plays Hefti (1958).
Included on Atomic Basie is Lil' Darlin', one of Hefti's best known ballads. Not long ago I spoke with saxophonist Hal McKusick [pictured], who recorded with Hefti's bands in the 1950s, about the song and its slow, un-Hefti-like tempo:
"When I asked Neal about it, he said he originally wrote Lil' Darlin' as a medium-uptempo tune. But after Basie ran it down the first time, he asked Neal if the band could try it really slow. Basie said, 'I'm hearing something.' Neal said sure. He knew Basie's instincts were always spot on. Basie said, 'Let me beat it off.' He proceeded to count off Lil' Darlin' at the much slower pace. After it was over, Neal said all he could do was smile and say to Basie, 'You did it.' "
Throughout the 1950s, Hefti arranged for many other orchestras as well as studio bands that he assembled for a range of semi-jazz, easy-listening projects. In 1962, Frank Sinatra recorded Sinatra and Swingin' Brass, an album of standards arranged by Hefti and featuring Ben Webster on tenor saxophone. Around this time Hefti began scoring for the movies and television. Among Hefti's most popular TV themes were for the Batman and The Odd Couple series. His best-known movie scores were for Sex and the Single Girl, Boeing, Boeing and Barefoot in the Park.
"I would say I got into jazz when I got into Woody Herman's band  because that band was sorta jazz-oriented. They had records. It was the first band I ever joined where the musicians carried records on the road...That's the first time I sort of got into jazz. The first time I sort of felt that I was anything remotely connected with jazz.
But anyway, when I was stranded in New York [in 1946] before I joined Charlie Barnet and during the time that I waited out my six-month transfer period in New York, Dizzy was playing on the Street at many of the clubs that were there. Sometimes as a leader, sometimes as a sideman. So I used to go down there quite often. Got to see him. Got to know him. Got to know all the musicians one way I could go hear them play without paying for it, cause I didn't have any money anyway. I didn't drink so I wasn't going to be able to sit at the bar. So I'd sort of hang out back in the kitchen with them. So I got to hear a lot of that. I presume that I started bringing those things [that I heard] into [the songs I wrote for] Woody's band."
JazzWax tracks: Rather than feature a five-foot long list of Hefti's recordings, I thought I'd simply list my favorites:
The Good Earth (Woody Herman, 1945)
Repetition (Neal Hefti's Orchestra and Charlie Parker, 1947)
Neal's Deal (Count Basie Octet, 1950)
Coral Reef (Neal Hefti and His Orchestra, 1951)
Plymouth Rock (Count Basie and his Orchestra, 1953)
Portrait of Jenny (Clifford Brown with Strings, 1955)
Flight of the Foo Birds (Atomic Basie, 1957)
Two for the Blues (Hefti, Pardon My Doo-Wah, 1958)
How to Murder Your Wife (soundtrack, 1965)
Barefoot in the Park (soundtrack, 1967)
The Odd Couple (movie theme, 1968; TV theme, 1970)
JazzWax clips: How to Murder Your Wife (1965) is my favorite Neal Hefti soundtrack. The movie is dopey, but the theme is pure joy. You can hear the score here in the trailer (once you get beyond the sappy narrated intro). This one deserves a reissue. I have it on vinyl, and Hefti's jazzy 1960s sound is pure bliss all the way through.
Hefti's score for Barefoot in the Park's comes in a fast No. 2 for me. Here's the trailer, which gives you snippets of Hefti's waltz used for the theme. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the film's intro, which is one of the sweetest love letters to Central Park. It features a just-married Jane Fonda and Robert Redford riding in a Hansom cab through the park on a winter afternoon on their way to the Plaza Hotel.
Love Hefti's The Odd Couple theme as I do? Here's the original movie theme with vocals. Based on Sammy Cahn's lyrics, I'm not sure they showed Sammy the film or filled him in on the storyline. And here's the TV theme from season No. 1. Here's season No. 2's intro. I guess the second season required some 'splainin'.