October 16, 2008

HERDSMAN (via Glenn Dryfoos):

Neal Hefti, 85, Jazz and Hollywood Composer, Dies (BRUCE WEBER, 10/16/08, NY Times)

[H]is greatest sphere of influence was as an arranger and composer for other jazz artists. His early travels with jazz bands took him to New York, where he was mesmerized by the bebop playing of Dizzy Gillespie, and joined the Herman band — known as First Herd — in 1944. He was influential in moving that band from its swing roots in the direction of bebop.

He spent only two years with the Herd; when he left in 1946, he took the singer Frances Wayne, his new wife, with him. But by then he had created new arrangements for Herman’s compositions like “Woodchopper’s Ball” and “Blowin’ Up a Storm,” and composed tunes like “Apple Honey,” “Wild Root” and “The Good Earth.”

He toured with Harry James and he arranged tunes for Buddy Rich. Though he also toured and recorded with his own bands, sometimes with his wife, he never achieved real success as a bandleader. For him, the decade of the 1950’s was characterized by his association with the Basie band, for which he wrote perhaps his best known jazz tunes, including “Splanky,” “Little Pony,” “Li’l Darlin’,.” whose tempo Basie famously slowed down to a luscious and sensual crawl, and the perky “Cute.”

“If it wasn’t for Neal Hefti, the Basie band wouldn’t sound as good as it does,” Miles Davis said in 1955. “But Neal’s band can’t play those same arrangements nearly as well.”

Starting in the 1960s, Mr. Hefti found great success writing television and film scores. In addition to writing the theme for “The Odd Couple” (1968), which would be burned into the memories of baby boomers with the creation of the television series in 1970, he composed the scores for two other Neil Simon films, “Barefoot in the Park” (1967) and “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” (1972). His other film work included “Duel at Diablo” (1966), a brutal Western; Elaine May’s farce “A New Leaf” (1971), and the gleeful sex comedies “Sex and the Single Girl” (1964), “Boeing Boeing” (1965) and “How to Murder Your Wife” (1965).

There was a politically incorrect strain to Mr. Hefti’s work, possibly tongue-in-cheek; for the 1965 biographical film “Harlow,” he and Bobby Troup wrote the bluesy, winkingly sexist tune, Girl Talk.” (For the same movie, Mr. Hefti wrote “Lonely Girl,” the Bobby Vinton hit.)

“He felt his true work was done for the movies and television,” Paul Hefti said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. What his father especially liked about writing for the screen, he said, was that he was not restricted by a band’s instrumentation, that he could write for whatever combo, for whatever musicians he wanted.

Oddly enough, his most famous tune is among his least musically interesting, even if it was somehow brilliantly apt: the jauntily arch and repetitive theme for the television series “Batman.” Mr. Hefti said that the show was so campy it took him weeks to come up with a suitable melody. It won him his only Grammy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 16, 2008 12:02 PM
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