Rarely cast into the limelight, the role of ‘arranger’ was pivotal to the development of jazz and its infiltration of popular culture via film and television. As we’ll discover in this article, perhaps no arranger had such a wide reach as Neal Hefti, whose work spanned 4 decades.
From Woody Herman and Count Basie to The Odd Couple and Batman, even if Neal Hefti’s work is not too familiar to you, chances are you’ve heard it.
Whilst he started out as a trumpeter from a poor family in Nebraska, he ended up the talk of Hollywood, via years spent redefining the large ensemble sound in jazz with many of the famous big bands of the 40s and 50s, along with fellow luminaries like Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
Not convinced? Stay tuned until the end when I’ve listed 10 essential Neal Hefti songs to (re)discover!
Let’s start at the beginning though…
Neil Hefti: The Early Years
Born in Hastings, Nebraska on October 29, 1922, Hefti grew up in a poor family where, at the age of eleven, he started learning the trumpet at school.
Citing early influences like Buck Clayton and Harry Edison (from the Count Basie Orchestra), and bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie (touring with Cab Calloway’s band) he spend his summers playing in local bands to earn money.
It wasn’t long – and still in High School – before the young Neal Hefti began writing arrangements for local groups and ended up landing a gig with Dick Barry’s band.
His sight-reading was not good, though, and his first professional gig ended in disaster, being fired after just two nights. He found himself abandoned in New Jersey with no funds to get him back home and every incentive to quit…
The Emergence of a Jazz Arranging Whizz
Joining the band of Bob Astor to earn enough money to get back to Nebraska he found himself rooming with drummer Shelley Manne.
During this time, Manne recalled that when relaxing in between gigs Hefti would sit in their room with a piece of manuscript paper humming parts for different instruments and writing them down. By the following day, he’s have a full arrangement for the band to play that night.
In 1942 he joined the band of Charlie Barnet and wrote the classic arrangement for the band on the tune ‘Skyliner’ which became a big hit for Barnet.
Hefti’s arrangement swung, was complex enough to keep the band interested in playing it, and most importantly accessible enough to have broad appeal with the record buying public.
Further acclaim and success were just around the corner for Heft and in 1944 he met clarinettist Woody Herman and joined his big band that became known as the First Herd.
Herd It Here First!
Herman’s First Herd quickly established a reputation as being one of the more progressive big bands of the time.
Willing to accept that the music scene was changing and that bebop was a new and vital musical force that was not about to disappear soon, Herman and his band began to incorporate the new music into their repertoire and charts.
Key to this was Neal Hefti, who was readily able and willing to embrace the fundamentals of bebop into his writing and arrangements and had been following closely the playing in this new music of one of his early idols, Dizzy Gillespie.
Growing in confidence and ability, Hefti began to compose more original material as well as arranging the music of others for Herman’s Herd and composed the tunes ‘Blowin’ Up A Storm’ and ‘Apple Honey’ that became firm favourites in the band’s shows.
Hefti’s arrangements encompassed music from many different types of jazz, and his writing of the bebop vernacular for big band was second to none.
He was also able to take fragments from one source and develop the idea further into full-blown compositions. A prime example of this is his trumpet solo on Herman’s tune ‘Woodchopper’s Ball’ which became a five-trumpet unison in Hefti’s arrangement of the tune ‘Caledonia’.
Neal Hefti left Woody Herman in 1946 to concentrate full time on writing and arranging, working for bandleaders including Charlie Ventura, Buddy Rich and Harry James. The decade closed for Hefti with an invitation to contribute to an anthology which showcased some of the top jazz artists of the time.
Titled ‘The Jazz Scene’ and released by Norman Granz in 1949, the album featured music from Duke Ellington Orchestra, Bud Powell Trio, Flip Phillips, Willie “The Lion” Smith and Coleman Hawkins’s classic solo tenor saxophone recording of ‘Picasso’.
In such heady company, Hefti contributed a piece influenced by Cuban music called ‘Repetition’ which is credited to the Neal Hefti Orchestra and Charlie Parker. The composition was written by Hefti for big band and string orchestra as a through composed piece with no solos.
During the recording sessions, alto saxophonist and bebop legend Charlie Parker was present and upon hearing the arrangement expressed an interest in being a guest soloist on the tune.
When writing ‘Repetition’, Neal Hefti had left no space in the arrangement for an improvised solo, but in the original liner notes to the album, producer Norman Granz recalls that:
“Parker actually plays on top of the original arrangement: that it gels as well as it does, is a tribute both to the flexible arrangement of Hefti and the inventive genius of Parker to adapt himself to any musical surrounding”.
Neal Hefti and Count Basie
In a big opportunity for him, in 1950 Hefti welcomed in the new decade by working for Count Basie and his Orchestra. His writing for Basie is most distinctive and denotes a marked change in the Basie band sound.
Looking to establish a sound for his orchestra, which became known as the ‘New Testament” band, a more modern, tighter and structured concept he certainly got that with Neal Hefti.
After presenting Count Basie with arrangements of ‘Fawncy Meeting You’, ‘Why Not’, ‘Little Pony’ and ‘Sure Thing’ the Count was sold on Hefti’s work for the new sound that he was striving for.
Hefti’s influence on Basie cannot be underestimated and is nowhere better to be heard than on The Atomic Mr Basie, one of the most famous jazz albums of all time.
It was, in fact, originally titled ‘Basie’ with the subtitle at the foot of the album cover reading E=MC²=Count Basie Orchestra + Neal Hefti Arrangements.
It was perhaps in acknowledgement of Hefti’s immense contribution not just to the album but the success of the Basie’s New Testament band in general.
The band positively sizzle with energy on the recording, as per our review here.
Hefti’s original compositions are all gems, often written to feature specific soloists within the band on each of the eleven titles. The opening ‘The Kid From Red Bank’ features Basie in a particularly sparse and well-phrased solo that sets up the rest of the album beautifully.
Other notable compositions include ‘Flight of the Foo Birds’ featuring Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis on a suitably rumbustious solo, and ‘Fantail’ with its punchy ensemble passages from the brass section and altoist Frank Wess’s flight of fancy set against Sonny Payne’s drums.
Hefti’s innovative use of the instruments and musicians at this disposal is exemplified on the track ‘Duet’ that pairs the trumpets of Joe Newman and Thad Jones.
One of Hefti’s most famous compositions and often covered is the exquisite ‘Lil’ Darlin’’ with its subtle shadings from the horns, Unusual to close such a vibrant and exciting album with a ballad it maybe, but this beautiful composition is absolutely right.
With ‘Lil’ Darlin’’ the emphasis is not on the solo but the band.
The tempo is paramount and, despite being taken at a slow tempo, it swings throughout; it’s the simple theme played impeccably by the whole orchestra that makes the piece so memorable though.
Recorded on the 21st and 22nd November 1957 and released in January of the following year, the impact of the album was such that Hefti picked up two Grammy awards for his work on The Atomic Mr. Basie.
Firstly for ‘Lil’ Darlin’’ and also for ‘Teddy The Toad’ and ‘Splanky’.
Off the back of this success, Basie and Hefti recorded some more arrangements six months later as Basie plays Hefti, and the Count Basie orchestra with Neal Hefti also worked and recorded with Frank Sinatra.
Discover our pick of the 10 best Count Basie songs here.
Hefti Hits Hollywood
By the end of the 1950s, Hefti had given up playing trumpet completely to concentrate on writing and arranging.
By 1960 he’d relocated permanently to California and spent the rest of his professional life arranging in Hollywood, writing music for film and television.
His most popular work from this time would be his music for the film and TV series The Odd Couple and the Batman TV series starring Adam West in the leading role.
The title tune for Batman TV show would also become a top ten hit for Hefti as well as the instrumental pop group, The Marketts.
In 1965 another of Hefti’s compositions, ‘Girl Talk’ was also nominated for a Grammy award and has subsequently become a jazz standard and one of his best loved pieces.
The End of An Era
Neal Hefti retired from the music industry in 1978 shortly after his wife passed away. He died in October 2008 at the age of 85, leaving behind a legacy of recorded work that will continue to be recorded and loved for many more years to come.
Essential Neal Hefti Songs
Regardless of whether you’ll be hearing these for the 1st of 10,000th time, here are 10 Neal Hefti classics to dive into on your favourite listening platform…
- Lil Darlin’
- Flight of the Foo Birds
- The Kid from Red Bank
- Teddy the Toad
- Lonely Girl
- Girl Talk
- The Batman Theme Tune
What’s your favourite? Feel free to use the comments section.