Peter Gunn, Henry Mancini, and my Jazz Roots

People often ask me how I came to play Jazz.  For a long time I was at a loss to explain.  My mother was a classical pianist who played at home every day, but the closest she came to playing Jazz was a bit of Gershwin.  My late brother Charlie, a child of the 50’s, listened to Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and their ilk on the AM radio in his  ’51 Mercury with the suicide doors and a chrome gas pedal.  My dad the Buick mechanic’s favorite piece of music was the Nutcracker Ballet, which he listened to on old 78’s. We had no Jazz records, excepting a few Spike Jones novelty tunes.  (The standard “My Old Flame” narrated by a Peter Lorre impersonator was a favorite) One evening a week, however, Jazz played for 22 minutes while mom and dad watched the Peter Gunn detective series, which aired from 1958 through 1961.  I don’t remember being taken with the music at first hearing, as my four-year old self was by the Theme for “Highway Patrol” starring Broderick Crawford. (I would listen to the opening theme and wander off until the show was over, then come back and listen to the theme again.)

 The Peter Gunn theme of course has been in the public ear ever since the show first aired and won Mancini the first Grammy for Album of the Year.  I asked my mother to get the album, which I wore out on our three speed mono record player.  I began taking formal music lessons at age ten, and asked her to get some of the music for the show, so a few weeks later a piano version of the soundtrack album arrived. It has since been lost, but I remembered many of the tunes, “The Brother Go to Mothers”, “Fallout” , “Dreamsville” and “Sorta Blue”, which I eventually transcribed for the St. George Jazz Ensemble.  I picked up the original soundtrack on CD about ten years ago, and the music still sounds fresh.  There’s lots of space in the tunes and some great players, including the young John Williams.  Listening to it now, I still smile and snap on 2 and 4.

The complete series is out on DVD, and if you’re a fan of film noir and cool Jazz, it’s worth a look.  It’s a world of smoke-filled rooms populated by hipsters and sultry vocalists where it’s always sometime between midnight and dawn, audiences listen quietly and applaud for the band,  the romance is understated and Peter’s suit always looks great, no matter how many times he gets beaten up.

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Filed under Church Music, Jazz

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