Johnny Mandel: From Jazz Roots to Hollywood Fame

July 6, 2020

“If Johnny Mandel had just composed ‘The Shadow of Your Smile'”, tweeted Tony Bennett on June 30, “it would have been enough to earn his standing as one of the finest composers of our time.”

That song, with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster, was recorded by Bennett in 1966 (The Movie Song Album: Columbia). It won an Academy Award that year for Best Original Song, part of Mandel’s soundtrack for the movie, The Sandpiper. It was Mandel’s biggest hit, but he also wrote the music for “Emily” from The Americanization of Emily and “Suicide is Painless”, the theme song from the movie, M*A*S*H.  His roots, though, were in jazz.

Mandel, who died June 29 in Ojai, CA, was hired to play trumpet with Joe Venuti’s band while attending summer camp in the Catskills in the summer of 1942. After graduating from high school the following year, he played trumpet or trombone and/or wrote arrangements for bands led by Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Rich, Alvino Rey, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Elliott Lawrence, and Count Basie.  

Born on November 23, 1925 in New York City, Mandel’s interest in arranging was nurtured while listening to big bands on the radio. In a 2008 interview with JazzWax‘s Marc Myers, he recalled, “Lying in bed with my ear glued to the radio listening to bands playing the same songs . . . Those broadcasts were like a laboratory for me. It took a couple of weeks of listening when I was a kid before the light bulb went off. It wasn’t about the songs. It was about how the band interpreted the song.”

His first movie score was a jazz soundtrack for Robert Wise’s 1958 movie, I Want to Live!, starring Susan Hayward as real-life convicted murderess Barbara Graham, for which she won a Best Actress Academy Award. Mandel and Gerry Mulligan knew each other from the big band days, so Mandel hired Mulligan’s quartet to play on camera in the opening scene and on the soundtrack throughout the movie. But there was another compelling reason for having a jazz soundtrack featuring Mulligan. Barbara Graham was a big Mulligan fan. In the film, she listens to the radio in her cell and remarks, “That’s Gerry Mulligan.” The prison attendant asks, “How do you know?” and she responds, “I have all his records.”

In a radio interview in 1960 on WNCN-FM in New York, jazz critic Leonard Feather asked Mulligan if he thought I Want to Live! had received the recognition it deserved for its musical achievements. The answer from Mulligan was a clear “no”, pointing out that “they not only didn’t give Johnny Mandel an Oscar, they didn’t even nominate him.”

The lack of recognition would eventually change, of course, with “The Shadow of Your Smile”. That song and “Emily”, according to The New York Times‘ Eric Grode (July 1, 2020), “are probably better remembered now than the movies themselves.” Other movies Mandel wrote the score for included The Last Detail in 1973, Caddyshack in 1980, and The Verdict in 1982. “Suicide Is Painless” became the theme for the M*A*S*H television series, which followed the movie.

Mandel also won three Grammy Awards: Best Arrangement On An Instrumental Recording, shared with Quincy Jones, for “Velas”, 1982; Best Arrangement On An Instrumental Recording Vocals, shared with Natalie Cole, for “Unforgettable”, 1992; and Best Arrangement On An Instrumental Recording Vocals, shared with Shirley Horn, for “Here’s To Life”, 1993. In 2019, he received the Grammy Trustees Award.

The Times’ Grode pointed out that “a number of leading jazz musicians had Mandel tunes in their repertoires — Stan Getz recorded ‘Hershey Bar’, Chet Baker recorded ‘Tommy Hawk’, and ‘Not Really the Blues’ was a staple of the Woody Herman band’s book.” And, on Tony Bennett’s recording of “The Shadow of Your Smile”, he was accompanied by jazz pianist Jimmy Rowles.

In 2011, the Diva Jazz Orchestra recorded an album on Arbors Records with Mandel. It was called Johnny Mandel: The Man and His Music. Drummer Sherrie Maricle, who leads the Diva Orchestra, and vocalist Ann Hampton Callaway recalled that album in Facebook tributes to Mandel. “The honor of working with you and playing your incredible music,” Maricle wrote, “was one of the highlights of our lives. We love you, we’ll miss you, and remember you with reverence, happiness, and gratitude.” Callaway, who appeared as a guest vocalist on the album, recalled that Mandel “was charming, demanding, thoughtful, and masterful at each turn. Rest in Peace, dear Johnny, and thanks for creating such heart aching beauty.”

Livingston, NJ-based music historian and author Chuck Granata collaborated with Mandel on a not-yet-published memoir. “Getting to know Johnny Mandel personally during the years we spent working together on his memoir,” Granata told Jersey Jazz, “gave me a glimpse into why his melodies and arrangements are so beautiful and moving. An intensely private man, Johnny’s incredible reserve and emotion came out in his music. The chords he used — and the unique ways in which he used them — were like silver drops of rain. I can hear a little bit of Johnny’s soul in each of the compositions he wrote and the gorgeous songs he arranged. The music world has lost one of its most humble — yet amazingly brilliant — craftsmen.”

Mandel is survived by his daughter, Marissa.

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