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Interview: Dick Hyman (Part 3)


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Pianist Dick Hyman is as precise with his words as he is with his notes. During our conversation, Dick often stopped mid-sentence momentarily when answering a question, as if rolling his choice of words around in his palm before selecting them. His pauses weren't abrupt or disconcerting. They were lyrical, like his playing, coming almost like quarter-note rests in a swinging measure of music. What's even more interesting about these pauses is that there were no “uhhhs" or other unconscious devices to buy time. They were just brief, Pez-like moments of space as his mind politely gave the rest of his sentences a chance to catch up. [Photo of Dick Hyman backstage at New York's 92nd St. Y in 2003 by Hank O'Neal]

In Part 3 of my three-part conversation with Dick, the pianist, composer and arranger talks about recording on the organ and Moog synthesizer, and working with Benny Goodman, Woody Allen and Norman Jewison:

JazzWax: How did you wind up playing organ on so many albums in the 1960s and beyond?
Dick Hyman: Alvy West, a fine alto saxophonist who played in radio and television orchestras, asked me to try it. The organ was always sitting in the studios where we recorded. At the time, he had a small band for a radio show and needed someone to play the organ to accompany an accordion and three horns. So I filled in.

JW: A good move?
DH: Yes. I'm glad I began playing it so early because the instrument quickly grew in popularity and was in demand starting in the 1960s. At NBC I played soap operas and game shows. For a time, I played more record dates as an organist than a pianist. I went from a Hammond to a Lowery organ, which could do certain things a Hammond couldn't. But you needed the Hammond to get that Jimmy Smith sound.

JW: You're the one playing the organ on Surfboard, from a Certain Mr. Jobim in 1967.
DH: Yes [laughs]. I remember almost getting dizzy because the song and arrangement were so highly syncopated. Three bar phrases against four. The band is playing the composition in 4/4 but the whole thing is built on three-beat phrases. And it never lets up and doesn't resolve for 16 bars [pause]. I'm still fond of the bossa nova.

JW: You were one of the first jazz-pop musicians to record on the Moog synthesizer in the late 1960s and you had a hit in 1969 with The Minotaur.
The album was for Command Records, which was founded by Enoch Light, with Bobby Byrne running the A&R department. They were always on the lookout for new things that were happening sonically. They asked me to do it, and I had great help from Walter Sear, who was Robert Moog's business partner.

JW: Did you have to practice on the Moog?
DH: No. You couldn't. The Moog was just a keyboard with notes that produced sounds. It had to be programmed. One or two tracks on the album were arranged. The rest we just layered as we went along. Walter would suggest sounds and we'd overdub them. I have to confess that the album isn't quite as remarkable as it sounds when you listen to it.

JW: Why?
DH: You can't play more than one sound at a time on the instrument. So we'd start off with the drum track. Then we'd add a swooping melody. Then a sitar-like drone sound. Then the bass. That 's typically how it worked. The virtue of what we were doing is that it was simple.

JW: How did you and Sear work together?
DH: It was great fun. I'd say to Walter, “I want to start with some kind of ethereal background, like arpeggios on a piano. Then he would set it up. That would suggest to me a particular melody or rhythm. Some of the things were arranged as though for organ. Two keyboards and a pedal board, but with extra things you could do with it, like swoops and sweeps.

JW: In 1985 you played a big role in the Let's Dance tribute to Benny Goodman for PBS.
DH: I was flattered when Benny made me the music coordinator of what turned out to be his last TV show. I never had an issue with Benny the way others said they did. He was precise and wanted things just right. I completely understood. The only issue that came up during the show was his legendary fiddling with the sections of musicians. When I assembled that band, Benny would change his opinion about who should play which part.

JW: Was that unnerving?
DH: No, not at all. That was nothing new. In fact I expected it. Throughout his career, Benny was highly picky. Benny often changed the status of players in the brass section, for example, forcing guys to switch chairs and parts to get a different sound. For instance, during that 1985 performance, he assigned Laurie Frink to be lead trumpet without any notice before the show began. And throughout the program, he wasn't quite sure he liked having a fifth saxophone--the baritone. He had dedicated the evening to Fletcher Henderson and perhaps wanted to cast the sound in that direction. So on some songs he had Danny Bank play low fourth tenor. [Photo of Benny Goodman by Herb Snitzer]

JW: Talk about perfectionists, what was it like working with Woody Allen as composer and arranger for many of his movies?
DH: He gave me a delightful amount of freedom after we set some ground rules. Those rules might be discussing the kind of music he wanted for a particular scene. Or if I came up with a song or theme, I'd have to audition it on the piano for him first. For the most part, though, when it came down to the writing, I was completely on my own.

JW: Was Allen there when you recorded?
DH: Yes, sometimes. When Woody came in, he'd stay in the back room and transmit comments through the person running the session.

JW: Did he ever want something changed or altered?
DH: Once or twice I guessed wrong and wrote something that didn't quite work.

JW: For example?
DH: On the movie, Everyone Says I Love You, there's a scene where the Indian Sikh cab driver [Robert Khakh] is driving back from LaGuardia Airport and suddenly bursts into song. He's singing Cuddle Up a Little Closer in Hindi. First of all, we had to get the song translated into Hindi, so we had to find someone who could do that. Then we had to find someone who could sing it so we could dub it in later. We found a fellow [Sanjeev Ramabhadran] who was attending college in New York. We added the orchestration later.

JW: So far so good.
DH: Yes, but when I began to orchestrate, the first thing that came to mind was a sitar-sounding instrument and gongs and percussion.

JW: Did Allen have a problem with that?
DH: Let's just say that I learned about comedy very fast. Woody said my concept was too much on the mark. He said, “You don't want to be that literal." So I tried it again, this time with a syrupy string background. The visual combined with the singing became much more ludicrous with an Andre Kostelanetz-like background.

JW: What was it like working with Cher on Moonstruck?
DH: I never saw Cher. I worked with director Norman Jewison. We recorded the soundtrack in Toronto. Norman lives up there. We brought up only one New York musician, accordionist Dominic Cortese, who was absolutely right for the session. For the rest, we used local musicians, including saxophonist Moe Koffman [pictured]. He had had a hit in the late 1950s with Swingin' Shepherd Blues.

JW: Did everything go smoothly?
DH: Almost. We had trouble figuring out how to open the film. The first time they screened it publicly, no one in the audience laughed for a half hour. They didn't understand that the film was a comedy. It was clear something had to be funny a lot sooner.

JW: What was the issue?
DH: The movie was based on the opera La Boheme, and we knew we needed something Italian-American pop-ish, like an Italian-American wedding band playing bits of Puccini. I knew that perfectly well after playing plenty of those weddings coming up in the business. I also had made lots of records of Italian love songs with guitarist Tony Mottola and others.

JW: How did the wedding music idea go over?
DH: I thought it would be great to write a tarantella for the opening, but Norman didn't like it. We wound up using the tarantella later in the film. No one knew what to do. Someone suggested using the overture to La Boheme, but there isn't one. Besides, we needed to set a humorous tone for the audience so they knew the film was a comedy.

JW: How was the problem solved?
DH: The film editor had been listening to the radio and heard Dean Martin singing That's Amore. I put that on the soundtrack and from then on audiences understood immediately what the movie was about [laughs].

A JazzWax thanks to photographer Hank O'Neal for the image at the top of this post. Said Hank in an e-mail: “The funny thing about this photo is that it is not a setup. Dick did this all the time--warming up while reading The New York Times. Of course he had to stop using both hands when he turned the pages. I first saw him do this at engineer Rudy Van Gelder's studio nearly 20 years ago."

JazzWax tracks: Dick Hyman playing organ on Antonio Carlos Jobim's Surfboard can be downloaded here off A Certain Mr. Jobim, a spectacular bossa nova album from 1967 with arrangements by Claus Ogerman.

Moog: The Electric Electrics of Dick Hyman, featuring Dick on the Moog synthesizer, is a fascinating period album that still holds up. Recorded in 1968, the album has a groovy, turned-on feel. But don't expect jazz. You have to put this instrumental recording in its proper historic context. What you have here is an electronic mash with the blended feel of the Mamas and the Papas' California Dreaming, Simon and Garfunkel's 59th Street Bridge Song, George Harrison's Within You, Without You, Paul Mauriat's Love Is Blue and even the Doors' Hello, I Love You. Today, the album would probably be considered “lounge" music. But viewed through lavender-tinted granny glasses, it's an electronic folk-rock trip, man. Unfortunately this one is out of print but may appear as a download at e-retailers.

Dick's upcoming release, a re-issue of Great American Songbook first released in 1994, is due out January 12th. It can be pre-ordered here.

Dick Hyman hits: Dick had three entries on Billboard's Top Pop Singles Chart. They were Moritat (1956), Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo (1956) and The Minotaur (1969).

JazzWax clip: Here's a clip from Benny Goodman's Let's Dance PBS special in 1985 that Dick orchestrated. Dick is on piano, Louis Bellson on drums, and down the end of the sax section is Danny Bank on baritone, with (moving left) Loren Schoenberg and Ken Peplowski on tenors...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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