Lennie Niehaus is one of the giants of the West Coast linear jazz sound. Along with Bill Holman, Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan and Pete Rugolo, Lennie arranged prolifically for West Coast small groups and big bands in the 1950s, introducing a new dynamic, swinging approach. A highly trained classical musician, Lennie by 1954 was fast becoming known for his orchestral punch and harmonic reed writing. Rather than arrange for vocalists with the advent of the 12-inch LP in 1956, Lennie preferred to score charts for Stan Kenton's band in the mid-1950s and very early 1960s. Like Bill Holman, Quincy Jones, Johnny Mandel and Lalo Schifrin, Lennie spent the decades that followed in the Hollywood studios, giving movie soundtracks and television shows a sophisticated and authentic jazz flavor.
Lennie approached contrapuntal jazz from the perspective of an alto saxophonist, which meant a greater sensitivity to the higher end of the reed section when creating voicings. And his sound on the alto sax bears the influences of Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz. Retrospectively, Lennie is known primarily for three major areas of work: his Stan Kenton arrangements and solos, his small-group leadership dates for Contemporary Records, and his many movie and TV scores, including a long association with actor and director Clint Eastwood. [Pictured: Lennie Niehaus and Bill Trujillo in the mid-1950s]
In Part 1 of my four-part interview series with Lennie, 80, the alto saxophonist and arranger talks about growing up in the Midwest; playing the violin, saxophone, oboe and bassoon; how he became interested in bebop, and the saxophonists who were in the reed section of his first band job:
JazzWax: You were born in St. Louis. How did you wind up in Los Angeles?
Lennie Niehaus: My father was a violinist. He played in a 60-piece orchestra that accompanied silent movies in large theaters in the 1920s. He was the concertmaster. When someone on the screen said “I love you,” you'd see it written out on the screen, and the orchestra would play Tchaikovsky or Brahms. I still remember when I was five years old seeing a movie and watching my father playing. It was like a dream.
JW: What happened when talkies began in the late 1920s?
LN: Sound movies didn’t start all at once across the country. Talkies were something of a novelty early on. Smaller movie theaters continued to play the older silent movies with live music behind them. The big theaters got the new movies with the sound. But as the years went on and talkies took hold, the live orchestras were cut down to smaller groups, and then to just a violin and piano and drums for local theaters. Finally, the work just dried up.
JW: What did your father do?
LN: As soon as talkies began to take hold, the Hollywood studios started to set up their own orchestras. My dad heard about opportunities in the studio orchestras out there, so he packed up our family and moved us to Los Angeles.
JW: What was your first instrument?
LN: The violin. My dad was my teacher. He was born in Russia and had attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Jascha Heifetz. It was a strict place. If a kid played a wrong note, they would hit him over the knuckles with a ruler.
JW: Was your dad a good teacher?
LN: My dad was a great violinist but had no patience for kids who didn’t get it immediately. With the violin, you hold your thumb arching backward so your fingers can reach all the strings and you can play fast. My thumb would creep over the instrument’s neck. My father kept telling me to keep my thumb down. One day he hit my thumb and the violin fell and cracked. That was it for violin lessons [laughs].
JW: In school, what did you play?
LN: In grade school, my music teacher urged me to play the oboe because the orchestra needed one. It was still the Depression. I told my teacher that I didn’t think my family could afford one. So the teacher gave me an oboe that belonged to the school. I started to play the instrument little by little. I was a ferocious practicer. Violin lessons had taught me about playing and helped me learn other instruments quickly.
JW: How did you become interested in jazz?
LN: By listening to the big bands. I liked Harry James, and when I heard tenor saxophonist Corky Corcoran play The Mole in 1942, I wanted to play the tenor saxophone. My father was in shock. He said, “The saxophone! You play either the piano or violin, not the saxophone. You’ll wind up playing in a house of prostitution” [laughs] Actually he was right. I did play in small funky clubs later.
JW: Did you buy a tenor?
LN: I tried. I worked in a restaurant at a local Grant's, which was like Woolworth's. I'd collect the dishes and put them on a dumbwaiter that I raised to get the dishes washed. I made a few bucks that way. When I thought I had saved enough, I went to the music store and asked about a tenor sax. The man said it was $125. So I asked the price of the Martin alto saxophone that was there, too. He said $75. So I bought it and became an alto player.
JW: Did you take to jazz?
LN: It consumed me. I’d go home and practice the oboe and alto saxophone all afternoon and evening. When I was in high school, they needed a bassoon player so I volunteered. I quickly learned how to play it, and by the end of high school could play all three instruments plus the violin pretty well.
JW: When did you first hear bebop?
LN: I became interested in Bird [Charlie Parker] and bebop in late 1945 when Bird came to the West Coast. I went to see him at Billy Berg’s, even though I was underage. The music blew me away. I couldn’t play as fast as Bird then, but hearing him didn’t discourage me. I wanted to play like him. I also became interested in Lee Konitz in the late 1940s. My playing back then evolved into Bird’s bebop with a Lee Konitz edge. Lee had studied with Lennie Tristano, and they were doing interesting things with modal scales.
JW: Did you have a band in high school?
LN: Yes. I was starting to arrange then, too. In high schooI I met Phil Carreon, who wanted to start a band that sounded like Count Basie's. He bought stock arrangements of the band’s charts, and I started writing for the band. Phil liked what I was doing.
JW: How big a band?
LN: Big. He had five saxes, three trumpets and three trombones plus a rhythm section. I was writing a lot of charts for him. One day I was playing a dance in my high school and Phil walked in. A lot of the guys in the band recognized him and started nudging each other, saying, “Hey, there’s Phil Carreon, the bandleader.” Phil came right over to me and said, “How would you like to play for my band?” The other guys were amazed. So in high school, in my spare time, I became a lead alto player in Phil's band and was writing charts.
JW: What did you arrange for Carreon?
JN: Original bebop charts and tunes with tightly written sax solis. One arrangement that stands out was a chart of Lover Man. I used to listen to Sarah Vaughan’s version a lot, where she’d sing the melody and Dizzy Gillespie played a solo on the bridge. I made her vocal line a trumpet solo for the band. Then I transcribed Dizzy’s solo and harmonized it for the sax section, the way Supersax was voiced years later.
JW: How was the Carreon band?
LN: Great. The sax section at different times featured Herb Geller, Herbie Steward, Teddy Edwards and Warne Marsh. Billy Byers was in the band, too.
LN: The whole Four Brothers sound was actually started by Gene Roland in a rehearsal band he had out in L.A. in 1946 that included Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Jimmy Giuffre and Herbie Steward. It was before Jimmy Giuffre wrote Four Brothers for Woody Herman in 1947. My unison reed section writing also was early comparatively. Whenever I'd arrange, I'd always add a sax soli.
Tomorrow, Lennie talks about getting cold feet when seeing Dizzy Gillespie at Billy Berg's, graduating high school a year early and attending music school in L.A., how he came to join Stan Kenton's band in early 1952, his first arrangement for the band, being drafted in 1952 and spending his army years playing oboe in a marching band.
JazzWax clips: Here's the recording that convinced Lennie to become a saxophonist. It's Harry James with tenor saxophonist Corky Corcoran in 1942 on The Mole...
And here's a taste of Lennie's movie writing for Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers (2006)...