Manny Albam

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Emmanuel Albam, saxophonist and composer: born 24 June 1922; twice married (one son, two daughters); died New York 2 October 2001.

"I have what might be called a traditional approach to the idea of swinging." Manny Albam's comment did not reflect the fact that he was at the forefront of jazz orchestration in the Fifties and Sixties.

His rise paralleled that of Gil Evans, although the work of the two men was vastly different. They were amongst the most influential orchestrators of their times. "I never forget," Albam said, "that the soloists are at least as important as the writing, if not more important." Whilst the charts written by Evans put pressure on the soloists to respond in a certain way, Albam's writing was more strictly disciplined and smart, leaving spaces for the soloists to fill as they wished. Both men drew out the best of the top jazz musicians in New York.

In his early days Albam had a fierce black moustache that covered his upper lip completely. "It was a moustache of world-class splendour," said George Avakian, of CBS records. "His secret: 'Never cut.' " Albam was a small man and it seemed as though the moustache was dragging him around. In later years it mellowed, whitened and grew bushy.

The record books say that Albam was born in Samaná, on one of the Caicos Islands in the Dominican Republic. This is not correct. In 1922 his parents sailed from their native Russia to Florida. The ship was not allowed to dock and the captain set sail instead to Samaná. Manny Albam was born en route at sea. The family eventually was allowed into the United States, and Albam was brought up in New York. "I remember winding up the Victrola and playing the opera records my mother had bought," he said.

I'd hear her singing along with them while she was busy doing other things in the kitchen. I was only six or seven when I went into a friend's house and heard a record his older brother was playing. It was by Bix Beiderbecke, and it really hooked me. It let me know there was other music in the world. In high school I finally got a clarinet in my hand and learned how to use it.

Graduating when he was 16, Albam decided not to continue his studies and went on the road with the Dixieland trumpeter Muggsy Spanier. After touring army camps with Spanier's band he joined that of Bob Chester, where he met future jazz stars such as Bill Harris, Nick Travis and John La Porta. He next helped the saxophonist George Auld to put a band together. "I didn't do much writing for that band, but I sure learnt how to write by playing in it," Albam said.

Another saxophone player, Budd Johnson, was writing for the band, and Albam grilled him each time he brought an arrangement in. "Why did you do this? Aren't those two notes going to clash?" Johnson spent hours explaining, and thus Albam learnt how to write music. He also spent a lot of time with the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie who had recorded with the Auld band. "He could stay at the piano for hours showing me what Thelonious Monk had done the night before. Everybody was trying to teach you something at that time."

Albam admired the playing of Duke Ellington's baritone sax player Harry Carney and he took up the instrument himself. He next moved to Charlie Barnet's band, where he was hired as much as a writer as a saxophone player. When Barnet's band broke up, Albam joined the more commercial orchestra led by the trumpeter Charlie Spivak. "For a few years I wrote two arrangements a week for the band. It was the best learning period I had." In 1943 he joined the avant-garde band led by Boyd Raeburn until he went into the army in 1945. On his discharge he worked and wrote for similar bands until 1951, when the demand for his writing was so great that he was able to give up playing to concentrate on writing.

During the next two decades he recorded many albums with studio bands made up from the top jazz stars and had his arrangements recorded by Gerry Mulligan, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, Stan Getz and many others. He wrote for singers like Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae and Dakota Staton. "In about 1957 I wrote the jazz version of West Side Story," he said.

Leonard Bernstein heard it and liked it and said "Any time you want to write something for my orchestra, send me the score." He was the conductor of the New York Philharmonic at the time and, well, that scared the hell out of me! So much so that I went to Tibor Serly and studied composition with him for a couple of years. He taught me quite a bit about form. He had me take Mozart piano sonatas and arrange them for string quartets and make them bigger and bigger by adding instruments. So, without him knowing it, Bernstein was the guy who put the fear into me and made me go out and learn more.

In 1957 Albam made what many consider to be his best album. It was a single piece called "The Blues is Everybody's Business". Parts of it were with strings and parts with a big band that included the jazz soloists Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone, the altoist Phil Woods and the tenorist Al Cohn. At the time it was largely dismissed as obscure, but it now seems that it may have been one of the major works of jazz orchestration.

Between 1955 and 1962 Albam recorded albums for RCA, Coral, Dot, United Artists and Impulse. Although he made an album of film themes in 1962 he wrote for only three short films, one of which, Record Hop (1959), featured the Charlie Barnet Band. Orson Welles narrated and Albam wrote the music for Around the World of Mike Todd (1968) and Albam also wrote the score for Four Unknowns (1969), a collection of films by comedians including Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton. "Watching a movie without music is like eating with a bad cold: you miss the flavour," Albam said. "A good score provides the seasoning for the impact of the script."

In 1964 Albam switched his focus to jazz education and, after students at the Eastman School, New York's eminent music college, had used Albam's "The Blues is Everybody's Business" as a study piece, he was invited to teach there. He worked also in workshops with Bob Brookmeyer, another distinguished educator, and he continued to write. Two of the world's finest alto saxophonists, Phil Woods and Bud Shank, each recorded versions of Albam's Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Jazz Orchestra, Shank's version being recorded in concert in London in 1985 with the Royal Philharmonic. One of Albam's later albums, Celebrating Sinatra, written for the ubiquitous saxophone player Joe Lovano and using voice and a multitude of harps to back the saxophone, remains controversial.

His hobby was fishing. "You get a lot of thinking done staring at that thin line disappearing into the water. I'm glad I'm in music. It's a good community. There's always a hand that reaches out to you."

Steve Voce