Neal Hefti: Celebrated jazz arranger who wrote for Count Basie and Woody Herman – and the theme music for 'Batman'

Thursday 16 October 2008 00:00 BST

It is grotesque that Neal Hefti, one of jazz's greatest orchestrators, should be best remembered for a 12"x12" picture of an atomic bomb exploding.

The album The Atomic Mr Basie (1957), for which Hefti wrote all the music, was an embarrassment for him and Count Basie, both in its title and the cover picture, but it made a fortune for them and for the record company and remains one of the most memorable big band albums of all time. Hefti's beautiful ballad "Li'l Darlin' " from that set stuck in the public's memory and the Basie band played it regularly in concert ever after.

Later on, in the Sixties, he made a huge amount of money from writing the theme to the Batman television programme. From then on he was lost to jazz, concentrating instead on writing for Hollywood and television.

In 1945 Hefti was regularly counted in the top 10 of jazz trumpet soloists in the jazz magazines. He played the horn only sporadically in the Fifties and by 1960 he had given it up altogether and was on his way to becoming one of the most celebrated jazz composers and arrangers of the last century. He was a contemporary of Quincy Jones and Ernie Wilkins and the three writers established a style for the Count Basie band that was to dominate jazz for 50 years.

Hefti's mother was a piano teacher and when he was 10 he was given a second-hand trumpet for Christmas. "We were a poverty-stricken family and my parents believed that music was the only way out of the Depression and the Dust Bowl," he said. "My older brother John had every Duke Ellington record, and that was my introduction to jazz."

His first job was a disaster. He joined the Dick Barry band to tour, but was fired a couple of weeks later when the band was in New Jersey because his sight-reading was not good enough. He joined a local band and then worked in 1942 with the bands of Bobby Byrne and then Charlie Barnet in New York. He was already an accomplished arranger and while he was with Barnet he wrote the classic arrangement of Barnet's hit tune "Skyliner". After a brief time in Cuba with Les Lieber's Rhumba Orchestra he returned to New York, joined the Charlie Spivak band and moved to Los Angeles with it. It was here that he was to live for the rest of his days.

After some months in the city with Horace Heidt's orchestra, he joined what was to become, with the aid of Hefti's writing and playing, the classic Woody Herman First Herd. The band played a unique mixture of pop novelties, such as "It Must Be Jelly ('Cause Jam Don't Shake Like That)", and progressive jazz compositions by Hefti and the band's pianist Ralph Burns. It rose to become for a time the leading band in the country.

"It was the first band I played solos with and the first chance I ever had to have a tune of mine recorded," he said. "And the first time I ever got a royalty check was for 'Apple Honey'. Oh, and I got married in that band." "Apple Honey" was played almost every night by every Herman band for the next 40 years.

In October 1945 Hefti married Frances Wayne, the band's singer and one of the finest vocalists of the era. They remained devoted until her death in February 1978, after which Hefti became reclusive and was only seen by his fellow musicians as he pottered about the supermarket buying his groceries. After the death of Frances he never worked again.

But his time with the Herman band in 1944 and 1945, when he began to reflect the Bebop ideas of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, brought him much glory, not just from compositions like "Wild Root" (a good tune named after a radio sponsor's hair oil), "Apple Honey" (named for another sponsor's tobacco) and "The Good Earth", but also from his imaginative updating of Herman classics like "Woodchopper's Ball" and his skilful organising of the band's improvised riff tunes such as "Blowin' Up A Storm".

Giving up playing to concentrate on composition, he wrote for the bands of Charlie Ventura and Harry James in the late Forties. In 1947 he wrote for a large orchestra and recorded a piece called "Repetition", a feature for the alto saxophone of Charlie Parker. Hefti recorded with his own studio bands in the early Fifties and, out of character, recorded an album featuring his trumpet solos, Left and Right, in 1956.

The first tune he composed and arranged for the Basie band was the 1950 "Little Pony", a stomping showcase for the tenor player Wardell Gray. He also wrote numbers to feature Basie's flautist Frank Wess and some powerful charts for Wess and Frank Foster on tenor saxes. He wrote many memorable jazz numbers for Basie from then until 1962.

"From 1946 through 1960 my playing time as a trumpeter became more and more sporadic as I was concentrating on composing," he once said. "I haven't seriously touched the trumpet since 1960 and don't even own one, having given my last one to an orphanage years ago. But I miss it. I would like to become a born again trumpeter some day."

Steve Voce

Neal Hefti will be remembered for the thumping blues of his "Batman" theme tune, quoted everywhere from Wayne's World and The Simpsons to Flushed Away, writes John Riley. But his big band experience meant that for 20 years he was regularly called on when something jazzy was needed to evoke metropolitan sophistication, often with a knowingly comedic wink.

Jamboree (1957) was an inauspicious start, though the already clichéd story of a feuding singing duo gave plenty of opportunities for songs and rock star cameos. Things improved with the tongue-in-cheek romantic comedy Sex and the Single Girl (1964), in which a gutter journalist (Tony Curtis) attempts to ascertain whether a female sexologist (Natalie Wood) is really a virgin. Hefti's long experience of conducting made him the ideal candidate to take the reins (as he often did), especially as it was played by his regular cohorts, the Count Basie Orchestra. Hefti pointed the contrast between the characters, with the shameless magazine and its despicable "journalist" getting swaggering music, while the sexologist is – naturally – portrayed by the dry, unerotic sound of the harpsichord.

Sex and the Single Girl was the first (and best) of several films with director Richard Quine. The following year saw the more darkly satirical How to Murder Your Wife, about a cartoonist who accidentally gets married when drunk. Beginning with a woozily hung-over vibraphone, the first few minutes, narrated by Terry-Thomas and supported by Hefti's swinging score, extol the joy of New York batchelordom. But the same year saw more serious fare with the drama Synanon, about the revolutionary drug rehabilitation unit, though it maintains the jazz equals drugs formula of films such as The Man with a Golden Arm.

Nevertheless, Hefti seemed to be finding it difficult to escape the sex comedy and Boeing Boeing (1965) is a slightly predictable farce about a bed-hopping playboy (Curtis, again) juggling a threesome of air stewardesses. Their international roots facilitate various musical styles, from American band music to German oom-pah, but the whole thing feels a bit like a retread.

The slightly absurdist Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad (1967) did little to break the curse of films with long titles but it did give Hefti a store of themes for future films. Alan Arkin uses one as a seduction tool in the bleak midlife crisis comedy The Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), a collaboration with the writer Neil Simon and the director Gene Saks. Prior to that they had made Barefoot in the Park (1967), about newly-weds setting up house, and the prickly Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau comedy The Odd Couple (1968). Both led to spin-off TV series, which retained Hefti's distinctive, insouciant theme tunes.

For the kooky Lord Love a Duck (1966) Hefti wrote a poppy theme song to accompany the search for 12 cashmere sweaters. But whatever the project, Hefti never abandoned his roots: for the same year's western Duel at Diablo, he managed to write jazzy yet traditional-style cowboy music.

Harlow (1965), a biopic of the troubled platinum-blonde film star, enabled him to dabble in earlier jazz styles and he was Emmy-nominated for the song "Girl Talk". He returned to the style for his filmic swansong Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976).

He was nominated for Grammy awards for several scores, including The Odd Couple and Batman, winning for the latter. Batman also generated hit singles for The Marketts (1966) and, a year later, Hefti himself. "It did not come easy to me," he said of its composition. "I just sweated over that thing, more so than any other single piece of music I ever wrote. I was never satisfied with it."

Neal Hefti, trumpeter, composer and bandleader: born Hastings, Nebraska 29 October 1922; married 1945 Frances Wayne (died 1978; one son, and one daughter deceased); died Los Angeles 11 October 2008.

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