Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Schifrin, Lalo (Boris Claudio)

Movie audiences may know Lalo Schifrin for his themes to Bullitt, Cool Hand Luke, Enter The Dragon, Rush Hour and Mission: Impossible, but jazz lovers know the pianist, arranger and composer as a master of orchestral works, such as his Gillespiana suite, written for his early idol and mentor, Dizzy Gillespie.

Lalo Schifrin

Boris Claudio Schifrin was born on June 21, 1932, into a musical family in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His father, Luis, led the second violin section of Argentina's foremost orchestra at the Teatro Colón for three decades. One of his cousins, Luis Enríquez Bacalov, also became well known for his own excellent film scores. He was nicknamed "Lalo" in his youth, and legally adopted this name after he became a U.S. citizen in the 1960s.

It was at the age of six that the young Schifrin began a six-year course of study on piano with Enrique Barenboim (d. 1998), father of pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim (b. 1942). This was followed by four years of self-study. At 16, Schifrin began studying piano with Russian expatriate Andreas Karalis, former head of the Kiev Conservatory, and also immersed himself in a five-year study of harmony with Argentinean composer Juan Carlos Paz (1901-72).

His fascination with jazz flowered during these years, but he also found time to successfully pursue the study of sociology and law at the University of Buenos Aires. At age 20, he applied for a scholarship to the Paris Conservatoire. While there, he attended Oliver Messiaen's classes and formally studied with Charles Koechlin, a heralded disciple of Maurice Ravel. At night, he earned his living playing jazz in the Paris clubs, and made his earliest recordings with Astor Piazzolla, Eddie Warner and Lolo Martinez.

Returning home to Argentina, Schifrin formed Latin America's first jazz orchestra, a 16-piece band which featured tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri. The group played on a popular weekly television variety show in Buenos Aires. In 1956, Schifrin met Dizzy Gillespie on the trumpeter's State Department tour of Latin America, and the young Argentinean offered to write an extended work for Gillespie's then-active big band. Schifrin completed the work, "Suite for Trumpet and Brass Orchestra" or, as it became known, "Gillespiana," in 1958, the same year he won Argentina's Academy award for his score to the film El Jefe.

Schifrin eventually moved to New York, where he found work as an arranger for Xavier Cugat's popular dance orchestra and recorded his first American album, Spectrum for Epic in 1959, followed by Piano Español for Tico in 1960. He and Gillespie, who had by this time disbanded his popular big band, met again and the trumpeter invited Schifrin to fill the piano chair vacated in his quintet by Junior Mance. Schifrin immediately accepted. Gillespie had also asked Schifrin about that piece he had composed for him.

The pair recorded Gillespiana in New York City during 1960, and it became both a critical and commercial success. It helped revive Gillespie's flagging career, he named Schifrin as his musical director. Gillespie often performed the suite, an audience favorite, during the remainder of his career, and kept "Blues," the suite's best-known piece, as a permanent part of his band's concert program.

Gillespie's group with Schifrin played at festivals throughout Europe as part of Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic tour, and recorded An Electrifying Evening With The Dizzy Gillespie Quintet live at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art for his Verve label in 1961. The fruits of their close collaboration can be heard on the exotic and exciting 6/4-metered "Kush," a staple in Gillespie's book at the time. Schifrin went on to make several more recordings with Gillespie, which include Dizzy On The French Riviera and New Wave, both for Philips in 1962, and most importantly, another Schifrin-composed suite, the beautifully bracing The New Continent, which was recorded in 1962 but only released by Limelight in 1965.

Under his own name, Schifrin also recorded with Gillespie's band sans Dizzy on Lalo = Brilliance for Roulette in 1962, as well as albums which sought to capture bossa nova's groove such as Bossa Nova, New Brazilian Jazz for Audio Fidelity in 1962, Piano, Strings & Bossa Nova for MGM in 1962 and Samba Para Dos with Bob Brookmeyer for Verve in 1963.

To this day, Schifrin proudly states that he has had many teachers, but only one master: Dizzy Gillespie. But by the end of 1962, the young composer relieved himself of Gillespie's hectic touring schedule and concentrate on writing for others. During this period, he scored albums for Stan Getz, Count Basie, Eddie Harris, Quincy Jones, Johnny Hodges, Cal Tjader and Sarah Vaughan, as well as two Grammy award-winning albums, Jimmy Smith's The Cat for Verve in 1964 and the superb Jazz Suite For The Mass Textsfor flautist Paul Horn on RCA in 1965.

At this time, he also started to work in American television and film. His first American film, the little-remembered African adventure, Rhino! in 1964, took him to Hollywood for good, where he began devoting more of his attention to composing soundtracks.

Schifrin's earliest music for films included Joyhouse, and Gone With The Wave in 1964, Once A Thief and The Cincinnati Kid in 1965, and television shows such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. His compositions were highly distinctive, and like the music of other young composers in Hollywood at the time, such as André Previn, Johnny Williams, and Jerry Fielding, had a strong foundation in jazz structures. This music often featured top-drawer playing and improvising by many of Hollywood's best session and jazz musicians, such as Howard Roberts, Ray Brown, and Shelly Manne.

A contract with Verve Records also kept Schifrin close to his jazz roots. In between his film and TV work, he managed to score the superb New Fantasy in 1964, a primer for the "Jazz Meets The Symphony" concept he would champion nearly three decades later. He followed this with Once A Thief in 1965 and the astounding Marquis De Sade in 1966, an innovative take on baroque jazz that remains to this day among his strongest work in jazz, as can be heard on such songs as "The Wig," "The Blues For Sebastian Bach," "Renaissance" and "Bossa Antique," all of which he later retooled for Jazz Meets The Symphony.

As his prominence in Hollywood grew, Schifrin shifted his attention away from jazz performance. But the best of his TV and film music retained a strong flavor from the many different shades of jazz Schifrin had mastered. "Mission: Impossible," Schifrin's most popular song, which ties "Take Five" as the most popular song in 5/4 time, as well as "Down Here On The Ground" from 1967's Cool Hand Luke, which was made popular by Wes Montgomery and Grant Green, and the entirety of the Bullitt soundtrack from 1968 stand side by side with Schifrin's best jazz work.

Some of Schifrin's best-known work in film was also done during this period, and while such films as Kelly's Heroes (1970), Dirty Harry (1971) and Enter The Dragon (1973) aren't particularly notable for their jazz, all had elements of jazz, particularly in their "source cues," or music which is part of the action, such as that which plays on a radio while characters are talking.

Schifrin returned to jazz more actively in 1976, fitting occasional recordings in between his film and TV work. Several good albums appeared during this time, including Black Widow on CTI in 1976, which featured Schifrin's dance-floor hit rendition of John Williams' "Jaws" theme, and Gypsies on Tabu in 1978. These and other albums from the period are often informed by the era's disco tastes.

Following the trio album Ins And Outs for Nautilus in 1982, Schifrin again disappeared from jazz until debuting his remarkable Jazz Meets The Symphony project in 1992. Here, Schifrin mixed his love for jazz rhythms and spontaneity with the structured appeal of classical European orchestral music, something which he had been exploring in one way or another throughout his career. He devised suites in tribute to jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Fats Waller, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Bix Biederbecke, revisited his and others' classic songs and introduced new compositions that suited the concept. Schifrin employed jazz greats like Ray Brown, Grady Tate, Jon Faddis, James Morrison and Paquito D'Rivera to bring the music home.

This project helped the composer, arranger and pianist earn recognition as a world-class conductor, fronting prestigious orchestras in Paris, London, Vienna and Los Angeles. Schifrin also returned to live jazz performances during the mid 1990s, in groups which ranged from humble piano trios to combos accompanied by large orchestras. Reenergized, he began recording much new material in a variety of genres and formed his own label, Aleph Records, in 1997 to provide an outlet for these recordings and reissues of some of his older jazz albums and soundtracks. Schifrin also revisited some of his historic work in new recordings of Gillespiana in 1996, featuring Jon Faddis, and the Jazz Mass in 1998, which featured Tom Scott. He also jumped headfirst into new and equally exciting recordings such as Latin Jazz Suite in 1999, Esperanto in 2000, Intersections in 2000 and Kaleidoscope in 2005.

Lalo Schifrin continues to maintain a hectic pace in music: conducting world-class orchestras, accepting a variety of commissions, scoring i films and exploring a wide diversity of musical genres, including jazz, tango, chamber, even hip-hop. In 2008, Scarecrow Press published his autobiography, Mission Impossible: My Life In Music which reveals that his life-long passion for music will outlive his ability to continue making it. But the initial spirit which drove him into music continues to inspire him to create. For, as Nietzche once said, "without music, life would be a mistake."

Select Discography

Spectrum. Epic 3337, 1957

Piano Español. Tico 1070, 1959

Lalo=Brilliance. Roulette Birdland 52088, 1962

Bossa Nova, New Brazilian Jazz. Audio Fidelity 5981, 1962

Piano, Strings & Bossa Nova. Verve B001196002, 1962

Samba Para Dos (with Bob Brookmeyer). Verve 8543, 1963

Explorations (with Louis Bellson). Roulette Birdland 2120, 1964

New Fantasy. Verve 8601, 1964

Once A Thief. Verve 8624, 1965

Marquis De Sade. Verve 8654, 1966

There's A Whole Lalo Schifrin Goin' On. Dot 25852, 1968

Grabado En Vivo!!. RCA Victor 4096, 1970

Rock Requiem. Verve 8801, 1971

Black Widow. Legacy ZK-65128, 1976

Towering Toccata. CTI 5003, 1976

Gypsies. Tabu 35436, 1978

No One Home. Tabu 36091, 1979

Ins And Outs. Nautilus 51, 1982

Jazz Meets The Symphony. Atlantic 82506, 1992

More Jazz Meets The Symphony. Atlantic 82653, 1993

Firebird. Four Winds 2004, 1995

Gillespiana In Cologne. Aleph 002, 1996

Jazz Mass In Concert. Aleph 007, 1998

Metamorphosis: Jazz Meets The Symphony #4. Aleph 004, 1998

Latin Jazz Suite. Aleph 013, 1999

Jazz Goes To Hollywood. Aleph 016. 1999

Esperanto. Aleph 019, 2000

Intersections: Jazz Meets The Symphony #5. Aleph 023, 2000

Return Of The Marquis De Sade. Aleph 024, 2001

Ins And Outs And Lalo Live At The Blue Note. Aleph 027, 1982/2003

Kaleidoscope - Jazz Meets The Symphony 6. Aleph 034, 2005

Lalo Schifrin & Friends. Aleph 039, 2007

Contributor: Doug Payne