Henry Mancini: A Mancini Anniversary by John Caps

Unexpected: the realization that 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of a film music icon, Henry Mancini. Disbelief comes from seeing how easily Time gets away from one; but also from the fact that so much Mancini music still seems young, even though it was born way back when phrases like "living stereo", "color television", and "Cold War" were actually new. For this anniversary commemoration, we parse the Mancini legacy into three career categories; three disciplines he mastered: (a) his work as arranger/orchestrator, (b) as a screen dramatist and (c) as an original melodist (but not necessarily a songwriter, as we will see).

Henry Mancini as arranger/orchestrator

Henry Mancini Mancini was an arranger/orchestrator first and foremost, having heard all those 1930s popular bands over distant New York radio stations as a teenager, then trying to write-out the orchestrations for himself. His own first distinctive "charts" were for the post-war Tex Beneke band: an aggressive rendering of Palladium Patrol with unpredictable accents and a powerful brass climax – a stylish Bagatelle with leapfrog phrasing and a clever trade-off between tenor and baritone sax. Before long, he had married the band's singer, Ginny O'Connor, and settled in Hollywood as staff arranger for Universal Studios. There he started to gain a reputation – for instance creating clean, youthful rock-oriented arrangements for their beach-party musicals: scoring original pieces like Theme for a Crazy Chick and Young Love using a smart combo of guitar, piano, accordion, bass, two saxes, two trumpets. When Orson Welles swept through Universal with a one-time film project, Touch of Evil, Mancini knew just how to bolster that same aggregation up to a blaring Mexican bordertown pitch – this time emphasizing a brace of trumpets, sleazy saxes, and sharp Latin percussion.

But it was his small combo arranging and original jazz-fillers for the new TV series Peter Gunn that launched his career, basically relying on two ensembles: one a powerful band of four trumpets, four trombones, four horns, winds doubling reeds, and a piano/guitar/vibes rhythm section for action music like Blue Steel, Fallout! or the main Gunn theme – the other a small club combo to be used for hipster asides like Sorta Blue and ballads like Soft Sounds, sometimes backed by a smooth brass choir as in the iconic Mancini serenade Dreamsville. Trading trumpets for a Hammond organ and a sizeable string section, his scoring for the subsequent TV series about a posh gambler, Mr. Lucky, had a whole different tone – more pop-oriented where he supplied his own tunes and more lushly scored: in the tune called Night Flower four winds blend with twenty divisi strings while the series' main theme seems to wallow glamorously in 7th and 9th string harmonies. Often there was a more blatantly humorous tone to the show's scoring, since lighter stories prevailed: a playful marimba and chortling bassoon playing a cue called One Eyed Cat; a high-stepping beat and running figures in the strings for the charming March of the Cue Balls, etc. This was all attention-getting music; charismatic such as few had heard behind ordinary screen stories before – young and mod-feeling.

Henry Mancini And since he started releasing some of his screen music as record albums for home listening, the powers-that-be encouraged him to start producing a series of commercial jazz-pop albums featuring other people's music, arranged with the same kind of creative and colorful charts that were beginning to be known as The Mancini Touch. (Examples: the classic Bijou with its active writing for piccolos and flutes with strong passages for strings and for the trombone section; Robbin's Nest with its bold baritone sax and string bass solos; Big Noise from Winnetka with its droll introduction that nonetheless builds into a potent big band drama; or the ultra-suave cosmopolitan air of the reeds/winds duet in Cool Shade of Blue). Elsewhere, for contrast, he pared his band down to just twelve players for imported interludes like Moanin' and Far East Blues including solos for harpsichord and vibes, and periodic close-harmony passages reminiscent of the past combo work of writers like Artie Shaw or Raymond Scott.

Latin ensembles were always rewarding for Mancini the Arranger, and so we get some original pieces like The Dancing Cat for alto sax and Brazilian piano, or the sultry Lujon with its sensual A-minor melody relieved by a Fmajor7 bridge whose strings are so seductively harmonized a la Ravel (four parts in the violins and four doubled an octave lower in the violas and cellos). By the mid-1960s, still programming other people's standards like Night Train, Mancini had added electric bass to his jazz-pop rhythm section, and ventured into more extended piano solos on tracks like Duke's Place and French horn solos in original tunes like Lonesome or imported ones like House of the Rising Sun. He boldly let a trumpet solo go unaccompanied for eight long bars before the rest of a bluesy ensemble joins in on the famous Monk lament 'Round Midnight. He marshaled four bass flutes for dark effect playing Elmer Bernstein's Walk on the Wild Side and that Ravel formula used to great effect again in an orchestration of a Mutiny on the Bounty movie theme. But whether inside or offside from the movies, it seemed that Mancini had become the main jazz-pop arranger of his day. His satiric theme (tenor sax in front of a sharp big band) for The Pink Panther leapt way beyond its original screen contexts to become a pop classic orchestration. By our time, it seems to be his main claim to fame, though as we are seeing, there was so much more to him. (Check out the eight flutes against four soprano saxes in Sweet!, the bed of horns, flugelhorns, and trombones behind the sax torch song Night Owl, or some of his perfectly shaped piano settings – both plush (Elegant) or rascally (Wiggy) – they are all striking examples of Mancini as arranger of jazz-pop miniatures. As has been written about cutting-edge jazz arrangers of the past, so it can be said of Mancini, "(The) best arrangements were not mere orchestrations but carefully organized structures in which all the details of instrumentation, of timbral relationship, of rhythmic and harmonic counterpoint, were realized as integral compositional elements. His 'arrangements' were more like re-compositions..."

By the 1970s, in keeping with industry fads, he began adding electric keyboards to supplement typical studio bands and, in scoring 1980s films, several times used just five synthesizers backed by twenty strings (Welcome Home; Physical Evidence; Fear). But by the 1990s, the industry had changed again and he found himself producing a new/old series of pop albums – sometimes film themes, sometimes classics from the so-called Great American Songbook, scored in that new era for symphony-sized orchestras – but arrangements as smooth and natural as ever.

Henry Mancini as screen dramatist

Henry Mancini Mancini as screen dramatist is the second category here. Through his presence, soundtrack music for the 1960s was no longer just a background accompaniment but an active film component. An impromptu gallery of scenes and scoring includes: the hotel-room murder in Touch of Evil where random Latin music wafting up from the street below grows more and more frenzied as though taking-on the violence of the killing, or the similar sequence in a Peter Gunn episode called "The Torch" where the walking bassline on the soundtrack grows through instrumentation, volume, and dissonance as cops pursue an arsonist to a flameout climax. Or consider Mancini's scoring for a country girl adrift in Manhattan in Breakfast at Tiffany's. It's decision time for her and on the soundtrack we hear an agitated minor key version of the gentle folk-song, Moon River, we've been hearing throughout the film, now fragmented, alternating between 7/4 and 5/4 time, all distressed. The score tells us more than the script, there. Or what about music that combines the swagger of a cheeky cartoon cat with the mystery of a suave jewel thief, using the sound of a tenor sax and a big swinging band over the opening credits of The Pink Panther; or the twin pianos, tuned sour by a quarter-tone to evoke the unbalanced villain in Wait Until Dark, or the free-form jazz piano (actually a precise Mancini composition) played in secret by Soviet dissident Leonid to express his defiance in The Girl from Petrovka, or the lumbering tuba solo that accompanies the humongously overweight food critic in Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?

Each scoring moment there represents an individual decision for Mancini: whether to use music to emphasize the setting, the situation, or the surface action of each film scene. Character analysis can be another more subtle goal for screen music and Mancini was an astute contributor there, too: he specifically sought-out Stephane Grappelli's sensual violin sound to explore the unhappy couple at the heart of Two for the Road – and he constructed a particularly obsessive, hesitant piano motif to underline and, in some ways, undermine the infinitely sad A-minor melody he had written for Mommie Dearest, that salacious film exposé on the lonely crazy life of movie queen Joan Crawford. And for another Hollywood melodrama, Sunset, he wrote a shy, vulnerable-sounding piano cavatina on behalf of an innocent young girl whose safety is at risk before unscrupulous producers. High or low moods, intimate dramas or broad adventure stories all are represented in Mancini music: the Arctic whale hunt in The White Dawn or the meek and muted Theme for Losers from Me Natalie; the utterly joyous elves' workshop march called Making Toys or the utterly bleak elegy from Paul Newman's film of The Glass Menagerie. Solid music-making meets sharp story-telling there.

Henry Mancini as original melodist

Henry Mancini What about Mancini as songwriter? No, he always protested that: "Just a word about the songwriting thing", he once told us. "I never did and still don't think of myself as a songwriter. Most of the songs in my career have been written as instrumental themes for scores. I write themes that can be used in different ways and developed in the course of dramatic scores. Only sometimes are lyrics added later so that they become singable songs. But they're conceived on their own terms, on the page and at the piano." Indeed, it becomes clear if you study them: a lot of Mancini melodies are just not naturally or easily vocalized. Mancini tunes, rich and varied, smart and sensitive as they are, were indeed written as piano pieces first and often live best there. That theme for Mr. Lucky floats along, pleased with itself, but it is suspended between 7th and 9th chords that make for tough singing – though words were added later, it is a jazz piano piece at heart. Even rougher is the very chromatic, "worried waltz" from 1983, Little Boys, whose diminished chords form some perilous ledges for a singer. (In fact, it took a rather flat-voiced, nasal singer to record the song because she could be pitch-perfect navigating the difficult chromatic line.)

A medley of melodies that stand out? Don't dismiss the early hits just because they're famous. Moon River gets chided for being simple and maudlin but, actually, its emotion is quite discreet and that very simplicity is enlightened by some worldly 7th chords along the way. That sophisticated sense of polite "cool" had been in his melodic vocabulary all along: 1956's Free and Easy relieves its bouncy A-minor tune with a perfect D-major bridge; the tropical souvenir The Whispering Sea played around with half steps and tonic/dominants in a naïve but distinctive way. Plain consonant melodies were a Mancini specialty too: the friendly samba Nothing to Lose, the hymn-like Tomorrow is My Friend, the Salvation army carol It's Christmas Again, the folk song Ask Me No Questions. And then there were those three particularly serious piano "essays" made of long conjoined phrases that flow like confessions: It's Easy to Say (maybe the most sincere, personal statement he ever made – hardly ever sung because of its awkward lyric and because it's so clearly a piano piece) or the more bluesy Life in a Looking Glass with its reflective truth-speaking chord changes (43 of them over 28 bars) -- or the recurring theme of Two for the Road that, for the longest time, never had a lyric because, again, it was a carefully thought-out and wordless instrumental... a personal statement that both Henry and Ginny came to call their favorite of all his themes. (For a song written in the tonic of G, it's daring that the first chord here is F#minor7th, sending us off in unpredictable directions.) All three of these are thoughtful road-of-life songs and they maneuver deftly between major key foundations and minor key speculations, making each especially introspective.

Henry Mancini: The Best of Henry Mancini - album cover Sometimes Mancini experimented, writing longer singspiels with multiple moving parts: the energetic dance number, Le Jazz Hot; an unfinished soliloquy, sixty measures long, Do I Laugh or Do I Cry? based on a George Bernard Shaw play; or the complex, seductive nine-page introit-song, Paris By Night, written to open what would have been Mancini's first Broadway show. The Mancini archive contains a memorable batch of simpler modal melodies, too, especially moving in Mancini's hands for being reticent about emotion – pieces like Soldier in the Rain or Once is Not Enough. And there are moody chromatic blues like Harry and Son whose recurring accidentals keep the actual key signature a mystery for so long. Ethnic scales and settings were yet another inspiration to the melodic Mancini and the archive is full of charismatic "foreign sounding" melodies: the Japanese scale cleverly Westernized in Fumiko; some exotic Arabic arabesques called Façade and We've Loved Before; the Irish-inspired Hills of Yesterday; and the dark African anthem called Hatari exploiting the primitive interval of the minor 7th.

In the end, when Mancini was so sick he had to be helped to the keyboard to record one final demo with daughter Monica, there is one last song composed for charity and called simply With Love – an optimistic, harmonically rangy tune laid out in one long sentence – no bridge, no recapitulation, no time left to look back -- and yet with a surprisingly generous feeling of good things to come. As a song, as a melody, it reminds us of the blessed world of Dreamsville, except with all the leaning jazz chords removed. It is Mancini the melodist, clear-eyed and full of grace.

It's been twenty-five years since his death – he would be age 95, otherwise – but the best of his music still seems new: the orchestrations, those scene-setting, scene-stealing soundtracks, and those melodies, whether or not they turned into singable songs. Some say that his jazzy Pink Panther music or the raucous Peter Gunn theme is his exemplar; others mark melancholy tunes like Moon River, Days of Wine and Roses, or even Crazy World from Victor/Victoria. But let us say that Dreamsville represents the best Mancini: part sympathy, part nostalgia, with a quiet air of sophistication – the modern ideal music, at once personal and universal. Check out his website HenryMancini.com.

The author: John Caps

John Caps has written on music for High Fidelity/Musical America, National Public Radio and the New York City Opera; and on film music for Film Comment, Film International, The Cue Sheet, and the University of Illinois Press's "Music in American Life" series.

Most relevant for this retrospective on Henry Mancini is the fact that John Caps wrote the definitive biography on the composer, called "Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music" and this book is available from these links at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. Caps has also written several articles for mfiles on a range of film composers and film music topics:


All material in mfiles is copyright © 1999-2019 Music Files Ltd. All rights reserved.