The Jazz Side of Henry Mancini, Part One

The Jazz Side of Henry Mancini, Part One

Written by Rudy Radelic

Among the first records I played as a toddler were a handful of albums by composer Henry Mancini. My nightly ritual was to stand next to the upright Admiral console in our basement and load up the changer, and two of the couple dozen or so favorite records of mine were the soundtracks to the films The Pink Panther and Charade. Back then, most of the basement records were monaural, but at that age I didn’t really care – it was music.

Digging through some of the boxes of records in the basement, I found a few others I took a liking to, like the soundtrack to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mr. Lucky Goes Latin, and a record that, to this day, I swear I did not scratch – The Latin Sound of Henry Mancini. We got our stereo Magnavox console when I was around the age of five or six, and a few years later I discovered the folks had bought Uniquely Mancini and Several Hours Past Sunset, the latter being one of Hank’s piano albums…yet I never heard them play either one.

At some point in the journey, my mother’s aunt gave me her old VM Triomatic console, and a handful of records. Three of them were Mancini albums: The Music from Peter Gunn, More Music from Peter Gunn, and Mr. Lucky, all three being the soundtracks to television series circa 1960. A fourth was another cool RCA big band album by the Stanley Wilson Orchestra: The Music from ‘M Squad’; Mancini had set the cop/detective music ball rolling and popularity of that sub-genre soared.

As I got a little older, I’d end up buying a few Mancini records myself or getting some as gifts, and had everything from cop show theme albums and another Pink Panther soundtrack to Mancini’s take on country music, and two records he did with Doc Severinsen. Once I had gotten settled in life, I started filling in a lot of holes in my Mancini collection via used record stores – I have most of his albums now, with the important late ’50s to late ’60s albums on RCA Victor completely represented.  Many of those are original Living Stereo releases, which cover the albums from 1959’s Peter Gunn to 1963’s Our Man in Hollywood and have exemplary sound quality.  Even the Dynagroove releases in the mid 60s have some gems among them.

Overall, Mancini’s catalog is a wide assortment of musical styles, yet many would write all of Hank’s music off as orchestral fluff, or “old fogey music” (as my classmates may have called it). One style that really interested me was the jazz side of Henry Mancini.

According to his autobiography Did They Mention The Music?, when Hank was hired to write the musical soundtrack to the Peter Gunn television series, he had no intentions of recording an album. RCA approached Shorty Rogers to record the music from the series, but Rogers insisted that Hank record it himself. Which he did, to good effect, on what would be his first of many albums for RCA Victor. Back in the 1950s, Shorty’s jazz albums were considered good sellers at around 80,000 copies each; The Music from Peter Gunn sold over one million! Demand was so high at one point that RCA ran out of album jackets, and had to issue some of those records within a “house” generic jacket.

Mancini’s score was purely in the jazz idiom, although his twist to a traditional big band lineup of trumpets, trombones and saxophones (who doubled on flute) was to augment it with French horns, as heard on the following track, “Dreamsville,” one of his most recognized tunes.


Mancini’s group on record featured the cream of the crop of West Coast jazz musicians. And his writing could create tension, starting with a walking bass and alto flute, slowly adding instruments until reaching a dynamic conclusion. The following theme opened each episode, prior to the familiar “Peter Gunn” theme we know all too well. Here is “Fallout.”


Mancini had the ability to capture the mood of a scene, from a smoky nightclub vibe that copies the shimmering guitar/vibraphone/piano sound of George Shearing in “Soft Sounds”…


…to the whimsical “Timothy” (from More Music from Peter Gunn) utilizing piccolos carrying the melody and cup-muted trombones doing an “oompah” accompaniment:


Mancini also had a knack for placing familiar instruments into unfamiliar settings. This cut from the album Combo! finds the Bobby Timmons tune “Moanin’” led by a harpsichord. I should point out that the harpsichord and piano player on this album (and other Mancini recordings from this era) went on to some soundtrack fame himself. Jazzing up the harpsichord here is none other than John Williams.


A flute player himself, Hank was instrumental in bringing some popularity to the bass flute. On his Grammy-winning album with a large jazz ensemble, here is “The Blues,” from The Blues and The Beat, the bass flutes setting the ominous tone before the full band joins in on the melody.


In 1961, Blake Edwards would again hire Mancini, this time to pen a soundtrack for the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Based in New York City, the film’s soundtrack has a cosmopolitan twist to it, and would include a tune eventually covered by dozens if not hundreds of others: “Moon River,” featuring the lyrics of Johnny Mercer. The album has a mix of strings, vocals and jazz horns, but that doesn’t mean is lacks some good jazz charts. “The Big Blow Out” was a tune used by Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) to drown out the sound of one of her love interests pounding at the door, and it’s a proper jazz blow-out:


After one of her romantic fallouts, she and Paul “Fred Baby” Varjak (George Peppard) attend a strip club, where the amusingly-named tune “Hub Caps and Tail Lights” could be descriptive of the activity on the stage. “Do you think she is handsomely paid?” Hank pours the burlesque into this one, using a baritone sax to lead the melody, appropriate “stripper” drumming, and the tack piano to set a great mood here.


Next issue, we’ll continue featuring more of Mancini’s jazz works following this film, including an album that to me, epitomizes the best of his big band talents. Stay tuned!

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