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Interview: Lennie Niehaus (Part 5)

SOURCE: Published: 2009-11-14
Lennie Niehaus Lennie Niehaus has been writing music for major motion pictures since the early 1960s. And since 1984 he has worked on virtually every movie Clint Eastwood has appeared in and directed. These include Bird, Absolute Power, Space Cowboys, Bridges of Madison County, The Unforgiven and The Rookie and many others. In each case, Lennie was given free rein to create impressionistic and inventive orchestrations. The results are without fail exceptional. What you hear are poetic themes that feed perfectly into the movies' storylines. You also hear a strong undertow of modern jazz sensibilities that originated in the 1950s. [Photo of Clint Eastwood and Lennie Niehaus in 2003 by Hank O'Neal]

In Part 5 of my series of conversations with Lennie Niehaus, the alto saxophonist, arranger and composer talks about meeting Eastwood, how he began composing for film, what he had to ask Forest Whitaker not to do in Bird, and his favorite composed cue for an Eastwood film:

JazzWax: You've had a long association with actor-director Clint Eastwood. How did you two meet?
Lennie Niehaus: In 1952 I was inducted into the army and did my basic training at Fort Ord in California. Part of basic training included jumping off a high diving board into a pool with all your gear and swimming across the pool. Clint was sitting there making sure no one panicked and drowned. He had already completed basic training. So I went off the board, hit the water, swam the length of the pool and climbed out. After, I hit the showers. I was walking too fast and slipped. When I fell, I split the skin between my big toe and the one next to it. There was blood all over the place.

JW: What happened?
LN: A sergeant started yelling at me to get up and get going. Clint appeared and said to the guy, “Can't you see this soldier has a gash and is bleeding?" The sergeant realized what had happened and cooled down. Clint helped me up and got me over to the medics. I limped over, and once I was lying on a table, a medic came in and, without a shot, sewed up the gash. Clint stayed there the whole time while I got stitched up. That was it. We went our separate ways.

JW: Just like in one of the Westerns he'd soon be in.
LN: [Laughs] Yes.

JW: Did Clint hear you play the saxophone back then?
LN: Yes, but later. When I was still in the army in 1953, I had a quartet and we played several non-commissioned officer clubs. They sold low-alcohol beer, and Clint was the bartender. He used to listen to me play as he was serving. On Sunday afternoons, I'd also play a club in nearby Santa Cruz. Clint would come in, order a beer and put his legs up and listen. He was out of the army by then.

JW: After the army and after your years with Stan Kenton, you began writing for TV and the movies in 1960. How did you break into the business?
LN: When I left Stan in 1959, there was an enormous amount of work in television in Hollywood. Every TV show needed music, particularly the celebrity specials. There also was lots of work orchestrating for the movies.

JW: For those who don't know, what's the difference between arranging and orchestrating?
LN: When you arrange, you take a song and write your own intro and select the instrumental mix to go with the song's chords and melody. When you orchestrate for the movies, you take a composer's rough sketch of a theme and you score it for the different instrumental parts. In some cases the composer knows what he or she wants done with the theme. In other cases you're given the freedom to do as you wish. In effect, you're taking what the composer has written down and you're putting it to score paper. In architecture, it would be like taking a designer's sketch and creating detailed blueprints. In the process, as an orchestrator, you're often filling in the blanks with your vision.

JW: How did you start orchestrating for the movies?
LN: I started by working with Jerry Fielding. He had been blacklisted by Hollywood in the early 1950s, and in the late 1950s he was at the Royal Las Vegas Hotel as musical director of their floor shows. He'd call me in L.A. and ask me to orchestrate songs for entertainers who were coming into the hotel. It was mostly cue writing. Jerry would tell me what he wanted at different points in the show, and I'd write the cue music. The Vegas work gave me enormous experience writing for the clock, meaning synchronizing the music against things that were happening on stage.

JW: Why didn't Fielding handle the orchestrations himself?
LN: Jerry was a great composer but he couldn't get started writing. He used to agonize quite a bit. I'd tell him, “Just write down whatever you're thinking. Whatever you have in your head."

JW: What did Fielding say?
LN: He'd said, “But I need the song to be structured this way or that way." I'd tell him, “Fine. But write down what you think it should be, and you can change it later."

JW: Are you a fast writer?
LN: Yes. I sit and think and write down little ideas and stitch them together. I never worry, “Is this good or bad?" I just write down what I'm thinking, and it all comes together.

JW: How did Fielding hear about you?
LN: In the late 1950s, Jerry [pictured] called and said, “I understand you can orchestrate." In L.A., they put you in a box. You're either a jazz composer or an arranger or a conductor or this or that. I had studied orchestration in college and played with a concert band. So I knew every range of every instrument in the orchestra. Word got around town. When entertainers came to his home in L.A. for new arrangements, they would bring their piano accompanists and they'd give Jerry a sense of what they wanted. Then Jerry would call me.

JW: When did Fielding return to composing for the movies?
LN: In 1962 Otto Preminger asked him to compose for Advise and Consent. It was a big break for him. Then more movie work rolled in and his plate filled up. During this period and in the 1970s, I orchestrated for his movie projects and arranged for TV, including shows with the King Sisters, Dean Martin, Carol Burnett and many others.

JW: What was the first movie score you composed--meaning all of the music was yours?
LN: Clint Eastwood's Tightrope in 1984. Clint called me and said, “I have this little movie. I think you're the perfect guy for the job."

JW: Did Eastwood remember watching you get stitched up?
LN: [Laughs] No. Even when I reminded him of it he didn't recall. But he knew me more from the clubs in the early 1950s and knew that I had been with Stan and that I had orchestrated for Jerry.

JW: How did you approach Tightrope?
LN: Clint asked me to meet him at his office. When I arrived, he said, “I want you to take you to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. It's like a cacophony of sound there." I had been to Bourbon Street before when I played there with Stan Getz, so I knew what he was talking about. But I still needed to get a feel for what he wanted exactly.

JW: When did you two leave?
LN: [Laughs] About an hour or so after he told me. Clint told me to have my wife Pat put together a small bag for the weekend. Then we flew out on Warner Brothers' private jet. When we arrived, we walked along Bourbon Street. Clint said to me, “Listen, hear those snippets of music on the left and right sides of the street as we walk?" As we strolled along, you could hear Dixieland, then country, then strip music across the street, then jazz and so on.

JW: What did Eastwood say?
LN: Clint said, “Can you get that effect in the score?" I said, “Sure, but I'll have to write complete tunes for each. We won't know how much music from each club we'll need until the actors in the movie pass along the set's street."

JW: Did Eastwood green-light your idea?
LN: Yes. He said, “Great. Write eight different tunes and styles, and we'll do the dubbing at the studio."

JW: So how did that work in real time?
LN: First I composed the eight different pieces. Then I arranged the tunes and brought in different musicians to record each of them. Then when I had film, I watched as Clint and his co-star walked along Bourbon Street. Then I'd fade out one track of music and bring up another and repeat this as they walked along to create the effect Clint and I had heard in New Orleans. [Photo of Lennie Niehaus conducting in 2003 by Hank O'Neal]

JW: What are your favorite Lennie Niehaus scores for Eastwood films?
LN: Probably Absolute Power [1997] and Space Cowboys [2000]. On Absolute Power, I used interesting cues that were sort of atonal. On Space Cowboys, I was able to use an Aaron Copland-esque approach, an Americana feel to express the patriotism and idealism of the movie's theme. There's a cue I especially like when the astronauts are walking down a walkway to the rocket.

JW: For The Unforgiven (1992), who wrote Claudia's Theme?
LN: Clint did. It's a lovely, haunting melody. Then I incorporated the theme into the orchestration throughout the film.

JW: How long does it take you to compose a movie score?
LN: About four to five weeks.

JW: On Bird (1988), I heard that a complete replica of 52nd Street was built on the set. That must have seemed both exciting and surreal.
LN: I had never been on 52nd Street during its heyday but the set still gave me the chills. Every detail was precise and in place.

JW: Were Charlie Parker's recordings used in the movie's soundtrack?
LN: Yes, but just Parker playing without piano, bass or drums. We dubbed those in with musicians to give Bird's solos a current sound.

JW: Why bother to do that?
LN: Otherwise, Bird's music would have sounded like old recordings rather than fresh music you were seeing being created in the movie's storyline.

JW: How did you do this?
LN: I had to find recordings of Bird and remove the piano, bass and drums, which took a long time. Back then you didn't have the digital technology you have today. In 1987, when we worked on the film, this meant a box that some guy hooked up. He turned knobs until all the other instruments were faded down as much as possible.

JW: Which recordings of Bird's worked best?
LN: Ones where there wasn't too much going on around him or tracks that weren't well-miked. There was one of Bird playing All of Me with Lennie Tristano on piano and Kenny Clarke playing brushes on a telephone book or something. Lennie and Blakey were far off from the mic, so we could isolate him. It was too difficult to isolate Bird on recordings with Max Roach, for example, who dropped those terrific bombs on the drums.

JW: You also used alto saxophonist Charles McPherson in places with trumpeter Jon Faddis.
LN: I used Charles for cues and incidental music, like after Bird in the movie swallows iodine in a suicide attempt and he's looking in the mirror. Charles McPherson plays a single line there on the alto.

JW: How did you decide to use McPherson?
LN: Clint called me in to look at Last of the Blue Devils, a documentary on Kansas City jazz. Many names of saxophonists were thrown around, some of them who were dead. Then I saw Charles [pictured] in the documentary and he played beautifully. After the meeting, I asked fiends about him, and they said Charles could play and sounded like Bird. So I brought him in.

JW: Why didn't you play alto in the places where you needed it?
LN: [Laughs] Because I don't sound like Bird. I have a touch of Lee Konitz in my sound.

JW: How was Forest Whitaker's impersonation of Charlie Parker?
LN: Terrific. I had to teach him how to hold the alto and finger the notes in place. But he was a quick study.

JW: What needed work?
LN: Forest [pictured] had a tendency to roll his shoulders while playing. Bird never did that. Bird played as though his shoes were nailed to the floor. So I put my hands on Forest's shoulders to hold them still, so he'd understand. But it was still hard for him and a bit of that comes through in the film. There also were times during rehearsals where he was taking breaths when Bird was blowing. I told Forest that in places where he didn't know the solo cold, he should just breathe through his nose to stay in sync and avoid an on-camera problem. Everything had to be rehearsed and worked out in advance. Clint likes one or two takes, max.

JW: Did you re-arrange the strings for the “Bird with Strings" scene?
LN: Yes. Bird performed live with only four strings, a harp and an oboe. It was a financial matter, but he wanted to appear with a far larger orchestra. In the movie, we used 20 strings for a big full sound plus an oboe. I had to show Forest the fingering on several held notes. Otherwise, when the movie came out, my phone would have rung off the hook from people saying he had fingered the wrong notes [laughs].

JW: What's one of your favorite Lennie Niehaus cues?
LN: I like the music I composed for The Bridges of Madison County [1995]. There's a scene where Clint is standing in the rain and Meryl Streep is deciding whether or not to get out of her husband's pickup truck and go with him.

JW: Which part exactly do you like?
LN: The music for the whole scene but in particular where Meryl has her hand on the truck's interior doorknob. Her husband's truck winds up behind Clint's and she can't decide if she should get out of the truck and get into his. I was writing music for a build-up to her hand on the doorknob. The scene starts with a piano playing. It's soon joined by strings. Then there's a crescendo at the doorknob moment to emphasize the pathos of the scene and her indecision.

JW: You really remember every detail about this scene.
LN: Even though I wrote the music, I'm still moved every time I hear it back.

JazzWax tracks: You can download or buy the soundtracks of Clint Eastwood's films individually. Or there's a CD compilation that features many of Lennie's compositions and orchestrations for Eastwood called Music for the Movies of Clint Eastwood. It includes a 10-part suite Lennie Niehaus wrote for Eastwood called Clint Eastwood: An American Filmmaker Suite. You can hear samples here.

JazzWax clip: Here's the scene Lennie was referring to in The Bridges of Madison County. Dig the piano intro, the strings and the crescendo he scored...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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