The music scene
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1970
Usually the wrong purpose for music in a film is to compensate for what’s lacking in it; but that’s also the most common one. It dates right back to the silent movie era, when there was a pianist or later an orchestra in the pit, supporting scenes, trying to make them more believable. This technique continued probably right up into the ‘Fifties: somewhat of a revolution in film scoring started then, all of a sudden.
In the days of the silents, when the villain came on the orchestra played this music that today sounds very funny. But to those audiences it was very real: they used to literally tremble, and they felt very good when the hero came on, then the girl and they played a love scene. It was atmosphere music. The audiences weren’t nearly so jaded as they are: now they listen to it and laugh.
As a matter of fact, it’s been done in quite a camp style. One of the best nouveau silent movie camp scores I ever heard was the one John Addison did for Tom Jones. He did that very much tongue–in–cheek: but then he’s got a marvellous sense of theatre, anyway. He’s a very good film composer.
Film scoring has been my life for at least the last ten years. Before I did a film under my own name, I worked anonymously on many others. Which was fine, because it was how I learned my craft. In fact, I’m still learning it; it changes all the time. The first one that actually had my name on it was I Want To Live.
That was in 1958, and it was the first really all–jazz score that any picture had. I mean, there were other movies that had some jazz in them. I think Leith Stevens really wrote the first scores using jazz for The Wild Ones, Private Hell 36 and a couple of those. Elmer Bernstein had himself a success later on with The Man With The Golden Arm.
But these were still only partial jazz scores: wherever they got into dramatic action. they reverted to traditional underscoring. The nature of I Want To Live lent itself. Plus the fact that I had resolved to do the entire score with jazz. And by jazz I didn’t mean tempo, either. You get into a problem of semantics when you say jazz. It’s very amusing to read a cross–section of the Leonard Feather Blindfold Tests: now, you may find, say, Shelly Manne talking about Archie Shepp and saying “That isn’t jazz.” whereas somebody else will listen to the same record and say: “Yes, that’s good jazz.” In other words, you can’t even get jazz musicians to agree as to what jazz is. So it’s an unexplainable word.
As far as I’m concerned, for the purposes I’m describing, I’d say it’s a means of interpretation rather than anything else. Regardless of what you’re playing, I mean, if Gerry Mulligan is playing the “Brandenburg Concerto”, or if Miles Davis is rephrasing a passage of Bach, or when Bill Evans was doing those things with symphony orchestra. To me, whether it’s ad libbed or not, it’s a matter of the way one plays—the attitude towards the music.
Jazz is often mistaken to imply tempo. And, unfortunately, in cinematic terms, tempo almost always means motion of some sort. Maybe not motion on the screen, but some sort of agitation, even if it’s in someone’s mind. So I avoided tempo in a lot of cases, but I used jazz players. Even if they weren’t ad libbing, they were interpreting music in their way, as opposed to the way a symphony player would interpret it. And in that respect I wrote all jazz.
In an awful lot of the scores I’ve done since, I used jazz musicians, even if it’s not a jazz score. I haven’t tried to write another all–jazz score, because I realised after that I was just setting limitations on myself. It’s not the music that’s important, really. Sometimes music will stand out, but very seldom will music ever make a picture. And even less seldom, if ever, can music save a picture.
Overall, I’d say: if you walk out of the theatre saying it was a really good picture, it was a successful score. If you walk out saying the picture was terrible, but the music was good, I’m not so sure that the score succeeded, except maybe from the standpoint of the composer. It’s another way of up–staging.
Unless—now, here’s one of the exceptions—your attention is called to the music, deliberately. Which it is, sometimes, when nothing else is going on on the screen and,. for instance, a whole scene is conceived with the idea of music being an adjunct. Perhaps there’s no dialogue; the music links up with the action in some way. This happened in A Man And A Woman quite a bit.
Scoring the scenery! I did this in Sandpiper; I did a rather flagrant thing there, which usually would be inexcusable. Most of the locale was in a mountainous area of California called Big Sur; it’s an imposing place and it had some of the best photography of that area I’ve ever seen. No matter what the story was, the topography of that picture was so immense it would dwarf Olivier. So I scored the scenery. And the fact that there weren’t any real climaxes in the picture as such made it even more mandatory. The music stood out, but it wasn’t meant to, really; it was just that the scenery is what everybody couldn’t help looking at. This was about the only way to go. But that’s an exception.
If a scene is written with music carrying it in mind, then, of course, that’s how it’ll be. Naturally, a thing like Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, which Michel Legrand did—a screen opera, more or less (and the major achievement of the ‘Sixties, I think, out of anyone’s work in films)—that, essentially, called attention to the music. And I thought it was far more effective in French than in any other language it’s been translated to since. Another one was Black Orpheus —for the same reasons.
In some of the other pictures I’ve enjoyed composing for, the attention was called to the music, too, such as The Russians Are Coming. In Harper you heard a lot of music—a Paul Newman picture; it might have been called The Moving Target in this country. Also one that’s soon due for release here, a comedy with the title M.A.S.H., which stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital: I don’t know whether it’ll come out with the periods left in or not. It’s an extremely funny picture. Now, in this I use an awful lot of source music: that is, music that appears to come from loudspeakers of various sorts, obviously records. It takes place about the time of the Korean War, although it’s not a war picture. I used quite a bit of some of the very earliest Japanese attempts at playing American jazz.
I don’t know if you ever heard it or not, but Japanese boogie woogie of the early ‘Fifties sounded like jazz of the late ‘Thirties, done with Japanese time. They’ve since gotten terribly good at it, but at that time it was just beginning and the results were pretty hilarious. They represented the worst of both cultures; to hear boogie woogie sung in Japanese is a very funny thing.
When it comes to comedy writing in general, the old school is to use funny instrumental sounds. That is, unless you’re camping it up; I’ve had to do this before. We call it Mickey–Mousing. You know, somebody takes a pratfall, and you catch it.
Standards of humour have changed so much in the last ten years. If a picture is truly funny, it doesn’t need to be made funny by funny music. If anything, you play against the action, and you can make it funnier that way.
Here’s a good example: I used to amuse myself sometimes by, maybe, putting on a Wagner Overture from “Tannhauser” and turning on the wrestling matches on television with the sound off—things like that. And you get some very funny coincidences. Yet here’s two things that are not meant at all for the same purpose, but the result is much funnier than if you scored the wrestling match.
If you have to make a picture funny by its music, the picture is in trouble. Or if you have to make a scene believable these days with music, unless it was designed for music, there’s something wrong inherently with the scene. It didn’t come off, and you’re being asked to make a crutch to help it along. I have a feeling that under–score for those purposes will more and more become a thing of the past.
The new school of writing for films is not just jazz–orientated. Certainly, Henry Mancini and I came out of bands. But then we got a very thorough education later on, and can write a total symphonic score without any hesitation, with no jazz implications at all. It merely serves to give us that added flexibility. But it’s also the fact that movies, and the times, the whole system of values and what people laugh at have also changed right along with it. If they hadn’t, people like Mancini and myself might have trouble earning a living. Maybe not Hank, but I know I would!
It’s true to say that realism is what is most important today. I don’t think young audiences like to be conned any more. And in a sense, what we used to do with film music was trying to con the audience into thinking a scene was better than it truly was. Of course, the audience wouldn’t know this, because they never saw the footage without music. We go in and look at pictures with just silent footage; then you really see where the cracks are and what has to be plastered over.
Really, the early movie composers were heroes in that respect. People like Alfred Newman, who’s still a marvellous writer, or Max Steiner, Bronislaw Kaper, Victor Young and others too numerous to mention. This was taken for granted: producers and directors thought: well, this was what you did. If people only knew how many ,pictures these men saved in their day . . .
You listen to any of those early movies on television, of pre–World War 2 vintage and just afterwards; they’re practically, from beginning to end, solid music. The problem with that is, of course, the more music you have, the less you’re inclined to hear it after a while. It just becomes sort of like wallpaper music. So now you have to use music much more sparingly than they did in the past: then when you really need it, it does count.
Writing started for me when I was twelve years old, simultaneous with my starting playing. I was a trumpet player, and then I switched to trombone shortly after. At the same time I was studying and at thirteen I had the good fortune to go to a man named Van Alexander, who at that time was pretty well–known as the leader of a big band and a recording artist around the Eastern part of the United States. He was a marvellous teacher, because I never learned how to be afraid. Before I knew any better, he had me writing for orchestras.
He’d go to his closet, pull out a record that he’d made maybe in the last year or two, and also pull out the score to it. He’d play it for me and show me the score. So right away he set up an association in my mind between the sound and the written note.
And it was for dance bands, which was exactly what I wanted to do. I wasn’t interested in writing for symphony orchestras or anything like that. I wanted to learn about orchestrating as such; I hadn’t even thought much about composing.
And for twenty years, I’d say, all I ever did was write arrangements of other people’s songs. I didn’t start composing, really, until sixteen years or so after I first started writing music. Oh sure, if you’re going to be creative as an arranger, you’re composing all the time; sometimes you get quite extemporaneous and keep going, that sort of thing.
I’m so thankful that I learned how to write so early, because later on, when I went to the conservatories, I saw kids coming in with a lot of talent, but who were so scared by all the don’ts that were thrown at them that they never became anything. They became thoroughly inhibited, and ended up as teachers. Because schools can’t teach you how to write. They can’t teach professionals anything, really. Apart from giving a basic grounding (a lot of which I got’ there, and greatly appreciated), after a certain point they can only orient you towards teaching and obtaining degrees. You can’t teach composition, any more than you can teach somebody to write or to paint; all you can teach is technique.
There was a long period of transition for me between band writing and actually getting into movie writing. In 1948 I started doing radio shows; from ‘50 to ‘52 I was doing that big Sid Caesar–Imogene Coca show. I worked with Irwin Kostal on it, who taught me as much as anyone I know about that kind of writing : it was a great education for me. Before that, while I was in bands, in ‘47 and ‘48, I’d gone to Manhattan School Of Music and Juilliard; then I kept studying privately.
Finally I picked up my horn again and went with Basie for the year of ‘53. After that I worked around with Zoot Sims for a while, which was great, before making up my mind to stop playing completely. By then I’d moved to California, where I sort of scrounged for a living. I did an awful lot of Vegas–type acts and shows, everything in the world, which was really good experience. Then writing for records, for jazz artists: I wrote a lot of things for Chet Baker, Stan Getz—people like that.
I started writing for singers specifically after doing that first Reprise album for Sinatra, “Ring–A–Ding–Ding”. At one time or another I wrote for practically every singer, including a lot for Andy Williams, Vic Damone, Peggy Lee. And then later on I wrote with Peggy “The Shining Sea” for one, which came out of The Russians Are Coming; we’ve got some others we’re still working on.
Somewhere in the middle there the pictures started coming in, and then I got typed as a jazz artist; that was a dirty word in Hollywood in 1958. So it was a long time between pictures. I did one other, and finally, around 1963, I d just done a long session for Nancy Wilson, and it was pleasurable and all that, but I decided if I was ever going to compose I was going to have to stop arranging. You know, you could go on for ever doing that. I was going to compose, regardless. The funny thing is, as soon as I stopped, I began to get the movie assignments. First I did Emily; then The Sandpiper and a lot more since.
Out of Sandpiper came my most successful song “The Shadow Of Your Smile”, with Paul Francis Webster’s lyrics. Sure, the royalties from it aren’t too bad, but—you know something?—I have really no conception of what they have amounted to, or what they even will amount to. How can you possibly have an idea even, when you write something like that, that it’ll assume those proportions? If you tried to do it, you couldn’t. That laid around for six months before it happened, too. It didn’t look like that song was going to go anywhere. A few singers caught hold of it right away, but they got it off on the wrong start. Then I went in and made a record with Tony Bennett the way I wanted to actually have it done. And from then on the thing took off.
The one and only Blossom Dearie sings it well. Blossom and I go back so far. We met when we were with Alvino Rey’s band in 1946. She was always the same good musician that she is now; she’s really totally unchanged. The purity is there, the total musicality that this girl has. I think she’s fascinating. She’s the only one of her kind: she plays as well for herself as she sings. Blossom pulls out some great songs, and I’m certainly happy mine are included within them. Not only that—she writes good ones, too. I have nothing but the highest regard for her.
I don’t know about being a full—time songwriter, but I’m by no means satisfied that film composing is my ideal field. No, I have no idea where it’s going to go. My outlook is wide open. As a matter of fact, I want to get much more into composing—particularly for records—than I have. I’ve stayed away from records because I haven’t decided what I want to do with them. I’ve had several contracts that have never been consummated, because I’ve just been sitting back and thinking about it for a long time. I think I’ve just passed that crossroads; I’m going to start making some records. And it’s coming on this spring.
The difficulty is when you’re not a performer any more. And I never really could consider myself an outstandingly good performer, even when I was playing well. Oh, there was a time when I was a pretty decent trombone player, but that time is long past; I couldn’t get a sound out of it now. Every once in a while I pick it up and look at it and put it back in the case.
Do I miss it? There’s times I do: whenever I hear a good band I miss it, yes. But it’s a full–time job; I just could never manage to handle both of ‘em at the same time. When I’d get a spate of writing I’d have to stop playing. I finally gave the horn up altogether because I got tired of making excuses for not having any chops. It was just that. The choice had to be made; at that time there were no bands to speak of to play in, anyway, and there were a lot better players around by then than I was. Plus there was more writing than I could handle, anyway.
You suffer certain withdrawal symptoms as it goes, but they get less and less; it’s been fifteen years now. I heard an Ellington concert recently and got it again! It’s hard, but I just can’t do everything.
Making records is difficult, too. Because if you’re not a performer, you have a built–in disadvantage. When you write something, you conceive it, but you have to depend on other players to interpret it. In other words, you don’t have your own sound. It’s not like I’m Stan Getz who writes. I don’t make the sound myself—I’ve got to make it with the pen. And once I make it, and if I get a record that hits, then anybody else can make it.
Like, say, Herb Alpert was able to nail it down because he played; he got a certain thing and it was his. It’s a performer’s business, really; it’s not a writer’s business.
Copyright © 1970 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.