Nothing stops Johnny Mandel. As a composer, Johnny has written dozens of pop and jazz standards, including the blockbusters Emily, Suicide is Painless, The Shining Sea, A Time for Love and The Shadow of Your Smile, for which he won an Oscar and a Grammy in 1965. Johnny has scored 36 films, including I Want to Live, The Verdict and Being There. As an album arranger, Johnny won Grammy awards for Quincy Jones' Velas, Natalie Cole's Unforgettable, Shirley Horn's Here's to Life and Tony Bennett's Shadow of Your Smile. He also arranged Ring-A-Ding-Ding, Frank Sinatra's first album for Reprise, tracks on Chet Baker & Strings and Diana Krall's When I Look Into Your Eyes.
What I find most remarkable about Johnny's music is the quiet clash of intensity and sensitivity. After seven decades in the music business, he remains as comfortable arranging a swinging chart for a big band as he is writing sweeping strings behind a singer. The same duality exists in his personality. When you speak with Johnny, you detect a slight urban gruffness in his voice, the tone of a guy who doesn't pull his punches or back down. But after that passes, you soon realize that his true nature is rooted in kindness, warmth and caring. Clearly, these are the qualities that helped make him one of the most in-demand jazz and orchestra leaders and conductors in the business. The edge just gets people to listen hard the first time.
In Part 1 of my five-part interview with the legendary composer and arranger, Johnny talks about growing up first in New York in the early 1930s, then Los Angeles in the mid-1930s, and then moving back to New York in 1937, where he was sent to boarding schools, where he fell in love with the trumpet and began taking arranging lessons from the great Van Alexander:
JW: What did your parents do?
JM: My dad was in the garment business. My mom had ambitions to become an opera singer. But back then, in order to make it in the music business, you had to sleep with the producer. She grew up in a Victorian era when nice girls just didn’t do that. So she gave up her ambition of becoming a professional singer. The result was she became very supportive of me when I wanted to become a musician.
JW: Did you have brothers or sisters?
JM: I had a sister, Audre. Her name was pronounced "Audrey," but she left the "y" off. She was creative. Audre was six years older than me. Girls grow up much faster than boys, so I was an only child in a certain sense. My sister and I were friendly, but she was grown up before I ever knew what was happening around me. I was a pest, but she put up with me.
JW: Was your neighborhood in New York tough?
JM: No, we were comfortable. I grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, on 85th St. and West End Ave. I spent a couple of years going to P.S. 9 on 82d St. and West End Ave. One day my mother dropped me off at school on Election Day in 1932, the day Roosevelt was elected president. She didn’t realize there wasn’t school that day. I started wandering around, and they found me conducting traffic on West End Ave. I was seven years old. [Pictured: New York's P.S. 9, now known as The Mickey Mantle School]
JW: What was your mother’s reaction?
JM: She had a fit. She came to pick me up after they called her. The school was prehistoric, as I remember it. We had toilets with a long trough and a bunch of seats. The trough carried everything into the sewers. I got into a fight with some kid about something one day and pushed him in there. His mother called my mother and complained that her kid caught a cold. I remember my mother saying to her, “You’re lucky that’s all he caught.” My mom was a real New Yorker.
JW: How about your dad?
JM: My dad owned a clothing company called Mandel & Cash. But he took a financial beating when the Depression hit in the early 1930s. Then Roosevelt's New Deal forced him to hire a lot of people he didn’t need or use. So in 1934, my dad finally said to hell with it and closed up shop. He had been to California on a visit years earlier and loved it. He wanted to retire there. So we moved. My mother wasn’t happy in Los Angeles at first. She had been sort of a New York swinger and liked it there. She had a bunch of buddies. They were like flappers.
JW: Did you like California?
JM: When I first got out there with my family, I looked around and realized that I hated New York. I hated all the noise. In L.A., we lived in the Hancock Park area. All the houses had been built in the Spanish Mission style in the 1920s. The area looked then pretty much the same as it does today. Back then, there was more grass and trees. I thought it was wonderful. In New York, you went to Central Park once in a while but always in groups. California was a complete change. You could run free.
JW: When did you know you wanted to become a musician?
JM: On the day my dad died at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles in 1937. I was 11 years old. My dad's sudden death of a heart attack had nothing to do with my decision. A cousin I never knew existed had come to visit, and the day my dad died I spent the day with him. His name was Mel Rosenbach. He was a drummer with Harry Reser's Clicquot Club Eskimos. Back then, the big thing for a band was to have a radio show and name the band after the sponsor. In this case, Clicquot Club was a lemon soda, like 7Up. I met Mel, and we started talking. He told me he was going out on the road with Reser. I asked why he was doing that. Mel said he was a drummer. I said, “You mean you’re a drummer all the time?” He said, “Yeah, I play with this band, and we play at different dances." I said, “Wow, is it fun?” [laughs]
JW: What did Mel tell you?
JM: He said, “Oh yeah.” I didn’t ask Mel about the girls because I didn’t know about that yet. Later I discovered that most band and jazz guys became musicians because they could get girls easily. And I was one of them. But that would come later. [laughs] When Mel told me what he did with Reser, I wanted to become a musician, too. It sounded like they had a blast.
JW: Were you already listening to music?
JM: Yes. Thanks to my mom’s interests in singing, there was plenty of music around the house. The latest sheet music was there, and the record business was starting to take off again after being clobbered in the early years of the Depression. So everyone I knew played piano for their own amusement or listened to the radio or knew the latest songs. And it was all jazz of one type or another.
JW: That's pretty fancy stuff for 1937. How could your mother afford that?
JM: We were lucky that my father had had an insurance policy. After we moved, I met Marshall Robbins, whose family also lived on the fifth floor of the hotel. Marshall and I were the same age, 12. His father was Jack Robbins of Robbins Music, the big music publisher. Jack used to take Marshall and me around to see all the big-name bands in the late 1930s. I knew by then I wanted to play a horn. It had to be a trumpet or saxophone, something you kissed.
JW: Which bands did you see?
JM: Every one of them. I hadn’t learned to differentiate yet. The records were coming out quickly then, and swing was already hot after Benny Goodman had played the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1935.
JW: How long did your family live at the Essex House?
JM: For about a year. Then we moved to the Lombardy apartments hotel on East 56th St. My dad’s insurance policy saved us, and my mother was good with money. We lived comfortably.
JW: Were you a handful?
JM: Boys were very rare in our family. My family knew how to raise girls but they didn’t know much about dealing with boys. They didn’t know how to deal with me after my dad died. I wasn’t a bad kid or anything. While we were still out in L.A., I went to the John Burroughs School [pictured]. But one day I came home with such a bad mouth that my mother sent me to a terrible boarding school called Cal Prep way out in Covina. It was an awful place. But that was a holding pen until we moved to New York. In all fairness, my mother and my sister didn’t really know what to do with a rowdy teenage boy.
JW: What did your mom do with you in New York?
JM: In New York she sent me to a good but dreadful boarding school called the Irving Institute [pictured] up in Tarrytown, N.Y., about 45 minutes north of the city. It was quite an anti-Semitic place. It was for families of rich kids, a middle school for young gentlemen founded by the writer Washington Irving. They didn’t have any use for someone like me. I spent four years at Irving. I had a few friends but stuck with my trumpet. That was all I was interested in. And I totally had my ears glued to the radio. [Click on images to enlarge]
JW: It sounds like they left you alone
JM: For the most part unless I stepped out of line. The Irving Institute was like something out of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. One day I used up all the hot water at 6 am. One of the headmasters got a switch and decided he was going to teach me a lesson.
JW: What did you do?
JM: That was the last straw. I finally told my mother, and she yanked me out of there. I then went to the New York State Military Academy [pictured] in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y. I went on a band scholarship in 1942, the equivalent of high school. The academy was very proud of its marching band, but many of the guys in the band couldn’t play very well. Our gig was to play and march. You learned to march and play at the same time.
JW: Did you enjoy it?
JM: It was a great experience. Having to wake up the whole place as the bugler helped develop my chops—when the horn wasn’t sticking to my lips in the cold. Many well-known musicians went there. The whole Brown family had gone there—Les [pictured], Warren and Stumpy. We had a dance band there that I started arranging for. I graduated in 1944.
JW: Before you graduated, what did you do over the summers?
JM: My mother sent me away to sleep-away camp. In the summer of 1942, I was a music counselor at one. I was a trumpeter in charge of forming a band. The places up in the Catskill Mountains weren’t very nice. I was working there as an employee. The following summer in 1943 I was good enough to play with [jazz violinist] Joe Venuti’s band. That was a baptism by fire.
JW: How so?
JM: We were on the road in the Catskills for about 2½ months over that summer. I was going to stay with the band in the fall but my mother talked me into going back to finish my senior year at the academy. She was right. Joe Venuti was one of the best musicians I’ve ever known. He was such a clown, a practical joker. People didn’t take him seriously but he was every bit as good as Stephane Grappelli. Our girl singer was Kay Starr [pictured]. I learned what it was like to be a professional musician with Venuti. We were on the road a lot, but the band also played in New York at Roseland. That’s how hard up top venues were for musicians.
JW: What did you do after you graduated from the military academy?
JM: One of the first jobs I had after graduating was with Billie Rogers [pictured], the girl trumpet player and her orchestra. She had been with Woody Herman, in his first band, the one known as the "Band that Played the Blues." I was writing for Billie's band and playing third trumpet, but that band broke up three months after I joined.
Tomorrow, in Part 2, Johnny talks about who taught him how to arrange, why he switched from the trumpet to the trombone, meeting a teenage Al Cohn, playing bebop with Alan Greenspan and Leonard Garment, performing professionally in war-time New York and joining Boyd Raeburn's band.