Tue Oct 14, 2008 2:45 pm (PDT)
Neal Hefti, who died on Saturday aged 85, was a composer and arranger whose work
played a crucial role in the success of two great jazz orchestras, that of Woody
Herman in the mid-1940s and of Count Basie from 1950 onwards; he went on to
write award-winning scores for Hollywood films and television shows.
From the very beginning Hefti seemed to have a natural affinity with the
big-band format of brass, saxophone and rhythm sections. At its best, his
writing sounds deceptively simple, with neatly interlocking melodic lines,
clearly contrasting textures and an unfailing instinct for the swinging phrase.
Neal Paul Hefti was born into a musical family at Hastings, Nebraska, on October
29 1922. His mother was a music teacher and, together with his three brothers
and two sisters, he received lessons in piano and basic musical theory from an
early age. He was given a trumpet for Christmas, aged 11, and took to it
immediately, winning numerous prizes in school band competitions.
While still in high school he began writing arrangements for carnival bands, and
soon his scores were being bought by the local Howard White agency for the use
of dance bands on their books. He was almost entirely self-taught, picking up
ideas from bands he heard on the radio.
In 1941 Hefti moved to New York, where he played trumpet in the bands of Charlie
Barnet and Charlie Spivak. He travelled with the latter to Hollywood in 1943 to
appear in the film Pin Up Girl, starring Betty Grable, and stayed on when the
band returned to New York.
After playing for a while in Los Angeles with Horace Heidt's band, Hefti joined
the Herman trumpet section. It was here that his composing and arranging first
made an impression on the jazz world at large. Herman had perhaps the most
exciting and adventurous big band in the world at that time. Young, enthusiastic
and packed with talented soloists, it combined the directness of the swing era
with the audacity of the rising bebop generation. During the year he spent with
Herman, Hefti composed four of the band's most popular and characteristic
pieces: Wild Root, The Good Earth, Apple Honey and Blowin' Up a Storm.
In October 1945 Hefti married Herman's vocalist, Frances Wayne. The couple left
the band soon afterwards, and settled in New York to pursue freelance careers.
Hefti became a studio arranger and conductor. 'Whatever the studio wanted me to
do, I learned how,' he recalled. 'I did big bands, vocal 'doo-wahs', pop
artists, catalogue music. I loved it all.'
The big-band business collapsed dramatically at the end of the 1940s, and by
1950 most bandleaders had given up the struggle. Count Basie was forced to cut
down to an eight-piece, and Hefti was called upon to supply some material for
it. He came up with two numbers, Neal's Deal and Bluebeard Blues, which remain
unsurpassed for the ingenuity with which the slim resources are deployed. Basie
managed to start a second big band the following year and, for its first
recording session, Hefti produced another masterpiece. This was Little Pony, a
bravura feature for the tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray, whose lithe elegance
contrasted delightfully with the weight of the full orchestra.
Hefti contributed regularly to Basie's repertoire over the next decade, most
notably the 1957 album E=mcï¿½, which came to be known as The Atomic Basie,
containing such pieces as The Kid From Red Bank, Flight Of The Foo Birds and
Lil' Darlin'. This won two Grammy awards. It is often said that it was Hefti's
attractive themes and exuberant arrangements which made the Basie band an
international draw. It is also said that Basie's instructions to later
arrangers, to 'do it just like Neal', had an ultimately stultifying effect on
the band's music.
Hefti's output over the two post-war decades was quite remarkable, both in
productivity and in its consistently high quality. In addition to 60 scores for
Basie, he produced string accompaniments for both Charlie Parker and Clifford
Brown; albums with Coleman Hawkins, June Christy, Georgie Auld; and, most
notably, Harry James, plus numerous recordings under his own name. He scored a
minor hit in 1951 with a catchy tune entitled Coral Reef and made a superb
album, Songs For My Man, with his wife in 1956.
When Frank Sinatra started his own label, Reprise Records, in 1961, he persuaded
Hefti not only to arrange for him but also to become his producer. Although not
keen on the production role, he liked and admired Sinatra and they made two
albums together, Sinatra-Basie and Frank Sinatra And Swinging Brass (both 1962).
After this, Hefti devoted himself to film and television work. His most
successful scores included How To Murder Your Wife and Sex And The Single Girl
(both 1964), Barefoot In The Park (1967) and The Odd Couple (1968).
His 1965 score for Harlow included the hit song Girl Talk. In 1966 he gained a
Grammy Award for his theme to the Batman television series.
Following his wife's death in 1978, Hefti gradually withdrew from active music
making. In later years he concentrated on 'taking care of my copyrights'.
Neal Hefti is survived by his son; a daughter predeceased him.
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