by David Raksin
Introduction by James DiPasquale
At 86-years-young, David Raksin is the elder statesman of film composers, a man respected and revered by all of us in the Hollywood music community. Probably best known as the composer of LAURA, David's film scores include THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, WILL PENNY, FOREVER AMBER, WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?, PAT AND MIKE, A BIG HAND FOR THE LITTLE LADY, and TOO LATE BLUES. Though he started as a jazz musician and arranger in the 1930s, his career has cut an unusually wide musical path, ranging from George Gershwin to Igor Stravinsky to Stan Getz, who often referred to David as "My man."
The following is an excerpt from David's autobiography, a work very much in-progress at the moment.
One blessed unbusy day in the early Sixties I got an urgent call from Bill Stinson, an excellent film music editor who was then head of the Paramount Studio Music Department. He told me that they were in a considerable jam with a picture called TOO LATE BLUES, which was about a small jazz combo and its leader.
The director, John Cassavetes, knew that he had to start shooting in a week-and-a-half, but even with this deadline staring him in the face he had been unable to decide what to do about the music. Since the actors who would be portraying members of the band were going to be seen on the screen, the music they were supposed to be playing should have been finished weeks ago so that the actual musicians who were to pre-record the sound tracks could teach each player how to simulate his part for the camera.
So, on behalf of the Studio, Bill had stepped in and told John that unless he could think of some other way of resolving the problem he, Stinson, wanted to bring in a composer who could produce the necessary pieces in the minimal time available.
Since it was essential that the director felt compatible with the unknown composer foolhardy enough to take on this task, I went to meet John at Paramount and we got along immediately. This was a Monday, and the pieces had to be finished in a week and three days.
I had already read the script, so after lunch John and I went to work in the most straightforward way, as befit the occasion. He would point out where he needed various kinds of pieces: now a jazz piece for the Combo, then something that would be heard from a radio or jukebox, or something for Slim Gailliard; about fourteen pieces in all, plus a main theme which would first be sung on camera as a vocalise and would also become important in the underscoring.
Cassavetes would explain how he proposed to film the scenes and what he needed from the music; then I would immediately improvise something, and in almost every case he would accept my first idea. While we were doing this, John and I also discussed the personnel of the actual combo, the musicians who would pre-record the soundtrack, and since we both knew the best jazz guys we came up with a special group.
On alto sax we had the magnificent Benny Carter. On trumpet Uan Rasey, who does not improvise, but that didn't matter because all of the "improvisations" had to be composed in advance so that they could be taught precisely to the actors. The trombonist was Milt Bernhart, guitarist Barney Kessel, the pianist Jimmy Rowles, bass was Red Mitchell, and on drums dear and wonderful Shelly Manne.
John and I enjoyed working together, and by the weekend I had written about two-thirds of the numbers, so I took the next two days to make full scores for the combo so that the Paramount copyists could prepare the parts for our ensemble.
On Monday, John and I resumed work, and by lunchtime on Wednesday I had composed all of the required pieces. We began recording a few days later, but because Cassavetes had delayed the process we had to move all of our sessions to evenings.
On one of these we assembled at the recording stage to continue our work; one of the pieces we had already done was for a scene where the saxophone player has a fight with the leader, who is the pianist, and walks off the bandstand in the middle of a solo, so the leader has to take over.
The man who played the sax part, was of course Benny Carter, and the guy who pre-recorded the piano part was Jimmy Rowles, so I called this number "Benny Splits While Jimmy Rowles." The one we were recording this next evening included a solo for Shelly Manne (one of the few pieces that had an improvised section), which I named "The Rim Shot Heard 'Round the World."
When we started to rehearse I noticed that in the visitors' area adjacent to the control room there were nearly a dozen extremely well-turned-out men wearing three-piece outfits (which is why they were known as "the suits"), who turned out to be the big-brass guys from the home office in New York.
After a brief run-through we made a first "take," then gathered in the control room, where we were introduced to some of the executives. We listened to the take, and were amused to hear the suits rhapsodizing over it: "Wow!" said one portly gent, "one take!"
I saw Shelly looking at me intently, and when I said, "No, we need another!" he nodded, and we proceeded back to our places. Only John Cassavetes and Benny Carter remained behind for a moment, and it was John who told me that one of the New York guys had been impressed. Pointing to me, he had said, "That guy really knows what he's doing." "Yeah," replied John, "but he's Jewish." Benny then added a coda: "That ain't all," he said, "he's also colored!"
Copyright ©1998 by the David Rakson.
(James Di Pasquale is a film and television composer living in Los Angeles.)
Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.