Neal Hefti Is Gone

The last thing I want is for Rifftides to become a death watch. Nonetheless, as James Moody says his grandmother once told him, “Folks is dyin’ what ain’t never died before.” Or, to use Bill Crow’s words in the subject line of a message today about the arranger, composer and former trumpet player Neal Nefti, “The parade continues.”

Neil Hefti.jpgHefti died at home in the Toluca Lake community of Los Angeles on Saturday, the same day and a few miles from his contemporary William Claxton, the master jazz photographer. Hefti was eighty-five. His writing for Woody Herman’s First Herd in the mid-forties helped lead the way in the transition from swing to bebop. His compositions included “The Good Earth,” “Apple Honey” and “Wild Root.” He breathed new life into some of the older pieces in Herman’s book, among them “Blowin’ Up a Storm” and “Woodchopper’s Ball.” He went on to write for other big bands including those of Harry James and Buddy Rich and –in the sixties–for Count
Atomic Basie.jpgBasie. His “Splanky,” “Cute,” “Little Pony” and the sinuous version of “Lil’ Darlin'” are still staples of the band Basie left behind in 1984. The album he arranged, originally called simply Basie and now known as The Atomic Basie, was one of the great accomplishments of Basie’s so-called New Testament band. Hefti arranged for Frank Sinatra. With Bobby Troup, he wrote the standard song, “Girl Talk,” and he composed for The Odd Couple, Barefoot In The Park and other films.

“Lil’ Darlin” might well have remained Hefti’s signature composition had he not been contracted to provide the music for the ABC television series Batman. Laboring to come up with a theme that would grab attention by appealing to children and their equivalents in sophistication, he wrote a blues “tune” made up of two notes that repeated up a fourth, then a fifth on the scale. The lyric consisted of the title character’s name. He enjoyed telling people, “You know, I also wrote the words.” The piece helped make the show a success, became a hit record on its own and provided Hefti with a comfortable annuity.

In 1946, Hefti married Frances Wayne, whom he met when she was the singer on Herman’s band. He wrote for her the breathtakingly beautiful arrangement of “Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe.” She died in 1978.

In the nineties, Neal was an occasional participant in an informal lunch group of which I was a part when I lived in Los Angeles. He showed up on one occasion when pianist Jack Brownlow was visiting from Seattle. It was no surprise that the two of them, hit it off. Jack talked for the rest of his life about the thrill of meeting one of his musical heroes. That day, Neal reported that he had just bought a new Bach trumpet and was practicing. He said he planned to put together a small band and play gigs. Some time later, I asked him how he was coming along with the horn. “It’s on the shelf,” he said. The band and the gigs never materialized.

For a complete obituary, see this from The Los Angeles Times.

Here’s that message from Bill Crow about Neal Hefti and Bill Claxton.

I told this story in my second book, but I’ll tell it again here for those who haven’t read it: When I first moved to New York City in 1950, Dave Lambert became my friend, and he introduced me to many musicians at Charlie’s Tavern, one of whom was Neal Hefti. After that, whenever I ran into Neal at Charlie’s, we would say hello. About a year later, Dave hired me to sing in his vocal group on a demo recording for Neal’s wife, Frances Wayne. As we walked into a rehearsal studio at Nola’s, Dave greeted Neal, and said, “…and you know Bill Crow…” I held out my hand, but Neal looked completely baffled. “Bill Crow?” he said. “Then who’s Brew Moore?” He’d been saying hello to me for a year, thinking I was Brew.

I only got to meet Bill Claxton once, when he and Dick Bock flew out to Boston to produce a Pacific Jazz album of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet at Storyville. Dick wanted to emulate a shot Dave Pell had done of Gerry’s original quartet in California, with everyone
Mulligan Storyville.jpglooking up at the camera. Bill took a lot of shots of Gerry while walking around different Boston locations, but those weren’t used on the album. We recorded the music for the album during performances one evening at Storyville, and afterward Bill set up his camera. He spread a huge sheet of blue foil on the floor of the club, stood us on it, climbed a stepladder and got his cover shot. Then we all went to a great Chinese restaurant and feasted, while thoroughly enjoying Claxton’s charm and humor. (Dick Bock picked up the check.)

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