“The Hardest Piece I Ever Wrote”

June 30, 2012 § Leave a comment


1973 Baldwin Jr. High School album featuring a tune by jazz trumpeter Neil Hefti

Metal Music: The Baldwin Junior High School Band plays Neil Hefti, among others

The music on this New York-area junior high school’s album of rock and jazz covers is about what you’d expect (or maybe a little better, as the school’s music program seems to have been quite good; Dr. Zurcher had played tuba with George Shearing in the late ’50s and still has a website detailing many of his teaching methods). The cover, however, is kind of charming, I think. What stood out most for me in the end, though, was that one of the tracks they perform was written by Neil Hefti, who had a long career as a trumpeter, composer and arranger for people such as Woody Herman, Count Basie and Frank Sinatra. Despite that, he is perhaps best remembered today by most people as the composer of music for film and TV, including the themes for the film The Odd Couple and the Batman television show.

The Batman theme apparently didn’t come easy to Hefti. As spaceagepop.com relates,

Hefti really struggled with the tune. “Hardest piece I ever wrote,” he later commented. “I agonized over it for six weeks.” “I couldn’t get inspired (to do the song),” he says. “I’d watched two hours of film footage and thought, ‘This is the campiest thing I’ve ever seen.’ But then I felt what I was writing was not as good as the show. I never had a moment of ‘Eureka!'” When he met with the show’s producers, he went “… reluctantly, apologetically, shuffling my feet and looking like Tom Sawyer. I thought they would throw it back in my face.” Once the tunes’ success was proved by reaching the pop Top 40 charts and winning the Grammy for Best Instrumental Song of 1966, Hefti could breathe a little easier.

As Hefti explained it to Jon Burlingame, author of the 1996 book TV’s Biggest Hits, “Batman…was not a comedy. This was about unreal people. Batman and Robin were both very, very serious. The bad guys would be chasing them, and they would come to a stop at a red light, you know. They wouldn’t break the law even to save their own lives. So there was a grimness and a self-righteousness about all this.”

Hefti’s “musical solution to a combined dramatic and comedic problem,” Burlingame writes, “was perfect: bass guitar, low brass and percussion to create a driving rhythm, while an eight-voice chorus sings ‘Batman!’ in harmony with the trumpets. It was part serious, part silly: just like the series.”

The theme has been covered by a surprisngly large number of well-known bands, including The Who, The Kinks, Link Wray, The Ventures, Snoop Dogg and The Flaming Lips. It is also said that George Harrison, a big fan of the show, based the music for Taxman on Hefti’s deceptively simple tune.

Here are a few of those versions:

A piece on jazz.com by Jeff Sultanof points out that despite the popularity of the composer’s efforts in Hollywood, “knowledgeable fans realize that there was a lot more to Hefti than his work for the small screen. He was one of the most distinctive big band writers of his generation, and possessed an uncanny knack for creating swinging charts that appealed to both jazz devotees and the general public….He left his mark on the jazz world, and was a very nice guy. I don’t think you can do much better than that. I shall miss him a lot.”

Hefti passed away in 2008 at the age of 85, apparently while watching TV. His crypt at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles bears the inscription “Always in Tune.”

Composer and arranger Neil Hefti posing with Frank Sinatra during a break from recording in 1962

Everything seems to lead back to Frank: Hefti and Sinatra in 1962

Here is a recording of Hefti’s 1957 tune Lil’ Darlin’ as played by Count Basie’s band:

Lil’ Darlin’

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