Neal Hefti was born October 29, 1922 to an impoverished family in Hastings, Nebraska. He started playing the trumpet in school at the age of eleven, and by high school was spending his summer vacations playing in local territory bands to help his family make ends meet.
Growing up in a big city like Omaha, Neal was exposed to some of the great bands and trumpeters of the Southwest territory bands, and he was also able to see some of the virtuoso jazz musicians from New York that came through Omaha on tour. His early influences all came from the North Omaha scene. He said,
“We'd see Basie in town, and I was impressed by Harry Edison and Buck Clayton, being a trumpet player. And I would say I was impressed with Dizzy Gillespie when he was with Cab Calloway. I was impressed with those three trumpet players of the people I saw in person... I thought Harry Edison and Dizzy Gillespie were the most unique of the trumpet players I’d heard.”
These experiences seeing Gillespie and Basie play in Omaha foreshadowed his period in New York watching Gillespie play and develop the music of bebop on 52nd Street, and Neal’s later involvement with Count Basie's band.
In 1939, while still a junior at North High in Omaha, he got his start in the music industry by writing arrangements of vocal ballads for local bands, like the Nat Towles band. Harold Johnson recalled that Neal's first scores for that band were "Swingin' On Lennox Avenue" and "More Than You Know," as well as a very popular arrangement of "Anchors Aweigh". Some material that Neal penned in high school was also used by the Earl Hines band.
Two days before his high school graduation ceremony in 1941, he got an offer to go on tour with the Dick Barry band, and traveled with them to New Jersey. He was quickly fired from the band after two gigs because he couldn't sight-read music well enough. Stranded in New Jersey because he didn't have enough money to get home to Nebraska, he finally joined Bob Astor's band. Shelly Manne, drummer with Bob Astor at the time, tells that, even then, Neal’s writing skills were quite impressive:
“We roomed together. And at night we had nothing to do, and we were up at this place — Budd Lake. He said, "What are we going to do tonight?" I said, "Why don't you write a chart for tomorrow?" Neal was so great that he'd just take out the music paper, no score, [hums] — trumpet part, [hums] — trumpet part, [hums] — trombone part, [hums], and you'd play it the next day. It was the end. Cooking charts. I’ll never forget - I couldn't believe it. I kept watching him. It was fantastic.”
After an injury forced him to leave Bob Astor, he stayed a while in New York, playing with Bobby Byrne in late 1942, and then with Charlie Barnet for whom he wrote the classic arrangement of “Skyliner.” During this time in New York, he hung around the clubs on 52nd Street, listening to bebop trumpet master Dizzy Gillespie and other musicians, and immersing himself in the new music. Since he didn't have the money to actually go into the clubs, he would sneak into the kitchen and hang out with the bands, and he got to know many of the great beboppers.
He finally left New York for a while to play with the Les Lieber rhumba band in Cuba. When he returned from Cuba in 1943, he joined the Charlie Spivak band, which led him out to California for the first time, to make a band picture. Neal fell in love with California, and after making the picture in Los Angeles he dropped out of the Spivak band to stay in California.
After playing with Horace Heidt in Los Angeles for a few months in 1944, Neal met up with Woody Herman who was out in California making a band picture. Neal then joined Herman's progressive First Herd band as a trumpeter. The Herman band was as different from any band that he had played with before. He referred to it as his first experience with a real jazz band. He said:
“I would say that I got into jazz when I got into Woody Herman's band because that band was sort of jazz-oriented. They had records. It was the first band I ever joined where the musicians carried records on the road... Duke Ellington records... Woody Herman discs [and] Charlie Barnet V-Discs... That's the first time I sort of got into jazz. The first time I sort of felt that I was anything remotely connected with jazz.”
Even though he had been playing with swing bands and other popular music bands for five years, this was the first time he had been immersed in the music of Duke Ellington, and this was the first music that really felt like jazz to him.
First Herd was one of the first big bands to really embrace bebop. They incorporated the use of many bebop ideas in their music. As part of the ensemble, Neal was instrumental in this development, drawing from his experiences in New York and his respect for Gillespie, who had his own bebop big band. Chubby Jackson, First Herd's bassist, said:
“Neal started to write some of his ensembles with some of the figures that come from that early bebop thing. We were really one of the first bands outside of Dizzy's big band that flavored bebop into the big band — different tonal quality and rhythms, and the drum feeling started changing, and that I think was really the beginning of it... I fell in love with it, and I finally got into playing it with the big band because Neal had it down. Neal would write some beautiful things along those patterns.”
During these years with Herman's band, as they started to turn more and more towards bop ideas, Neal started to turn more of his attention and effort to writing, at which he quickly excelled. He composed and arranged some of First Herd's most popular recordings, including two of the band's finest instrumentals: "Wild Root" and "The Good Earth".
He contributed to the band a refinement of bop trumpet style that reflected his experience with Byrne, Barnet, and Spivak, as well as an unusually imaginative mind, essentially restless on the trumpet, but beautifully grounded on manuscript paper.
He also wrote band favorites such as "Apple Honey" and "Blowin' Up a Storm". His first hand experience in New York, hanging around 52nd Street and listening to the great Dizzy Gillespie, became an important resource to the whole band.
His bebop composition work also started to attract outside attention from other composers, including the interest of neo-classicist Igor Stravinsky, who later wrote "Ebony Concerto" for the band
What first attracted Stravinsky to Herman was the five-trumpet unison on "Caldonia," which mirrored the new music of Gillespie... First it had been Neal's solo on Herman's “Woodchopper’s Ball, then it became the property of the whole section, and finally, in this set form, it was made part of Neal's arrangement of "Caldonia."
Neal's work successfully drew from many sources. As composer, arranger, and as a crucial part of the Herman ensemble, he provided the Herman band with a solid base which led to their popularity and mastery of the big band bebop style.
While playing with the First Herd, Neal married Herman's vocalist Frances Wayne, well remembered for such recordings as “Out of This World,” “Gee It’s Good to Hold You” and “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe.” Playing with the band was very enjoyable for Neal, which made it doubly hard for him to leave when he wanted to pursue arranging and composing full time. Talking about Herman's band, Neal said,
“The band was a lot of fun. I think there was great rapport between the people in it. And none of us wanted to leave. We were always getting offers from other bands for much more money than we were making with Woody, and it was always like if you left, you were really letting down the team.”
The Heftis finally left Woody Herman in late 1946, and both free-lanced from 1946–1950, recording for Musicraft, Keynote and Exclusive Records. Neal wrote charts for Buddy Rich’s band, the Billy Butterfield band, and also wrote and played trumpet for the best of Harry James’s bands in the late forties. During this period, Neal and Frances teamed to produce a bevy of beautiful records featuring Frances on vocals with the Neal Hefti Orchestra. Twenty-eight of these tracks, most of which were recorded under the Coral label, were eventually re-mastered and released on CD in 2008 under the title, Mr. & Mrs. Music.
One of the serendipitous highlights of his work in the late forties was the recording of his Cuban-influenced song "Repetition" using a big band and string orchestra, for an anthology album called The Jazz Scene intended to showcase the best jazz artists around at that time. Neal had written the piece with no soloist in mind, but Charlie Parker was in the studio while Neal was recording, heard the arrangement, and asked to be included as soloist. In the liner notes to the album, producer Norman Granz wrote:
“Parker actually plays on top of the original arrangement; that it jells as well as it does is a tribute both to the flexible arrangement of Neal and the inventive genius of Parker to adapt himself to any musical surrounding.”
This recording became an instant classic, as did an album arranged and conducted by Neal for another inventive young instrumentalist, the great Clifford Brown, entitled Clifford Brown with Strings, recorded years later in 1954. Many historians consider this album to be the finest “jazz soloist with strings” album ever made.
In 1950,Neal started arranging for Count Basie and what became known as the New Testament band. According to Neal in a Billboard interview, Basie wanted to develop a stage band that could appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. Although the New Testament band never became a show band in that sense, it was much more of an ensemble band than Basie's previous orchestras. Neal's tight, well-crafted arrangements resulted in a new band identity that was maintained for more than twenty years. In his autobiography, Count Basie recalls their first meeting and the first compositions that Neal provided the new band:
“Neal came by, and we had a talk, and he said he'd just like to put something in the book. Then he came back with "Little Pony" and then "Sure Thing," "Why Not?" and "Fawncy Meeting You," and we ran them down, and that's how we got married.”
Neal's compositions and arrangements featured and recorded by the orchestra established the distinctive, tighter, modern sound of the later Basie. His work was popular with both the band and with audiences. Basie said, "There is something of his on each one of those first albums of that new band."
One of the new Basie band's most popular records was titled Basie and subtitled E=MC²=Count Basie Orchestra + Neal Hefti Arrangements, now more commonly referred to as Atomic BasieI, an album featuring eleven songs composed and arranged by Neal, including the now-standard ballad "Lil' Darlin" and "Splanky." Also on the album were "The Kid from Red Bank" featuring a gloriously sparse piano solo that was Basie's hallmark, and other songs that quickly became Basie favorites, such as "Flight of the Foo Birds" and “Double-O” with Eddie Lockjaw Davis’s flying tenor solos, “Duet” with the pairing of Joe Newman & Thad Jones mutes, growls, and dozens of different manipulations of trumpet sounds, "Fantail" (used for years on The Dating GameI television show) with Frank Wess’s soaring alto solo, and the masterpiece ensemble lines of "Teddy the Toad". These pieces and all the rest are evidence of both Neal's masterful hand, and the strong ensemble that Count Basie had put together.
During the Fifties, Neal didn't get as much respect as a musician and bandleader as he did as composer and arranger. In a 1955 interview, Miles Davis said:
"If it weren't for Neal Hefti, the Basie band wouldn't sound as good as it does. But Neal's band can't play those same arrangements nearly as well."
This disparity is not so much a reflection of Neal's ability as a musician, as it is a reflection of his focus as a writer. In the liner notes to Basie, critic Barry Ulanov says:
“In a presentation of the Count Basie band notable of its justness, for its attention to all the rich instrumental talent and all the high good taste of this band — in this presentation, not the least of the achievements is the evenness of the manuscript. Neal Hefti has matched — figure for figure, note for note-blower — his talent to the Basie band's, and it comes out, as it should, Basie.”
Much the same way that the influential Duke Ellington matched his scores to the unique abilities of his performers, Neal was able to take advantage of the same kind of 'fine-tuning' to bring out the best of the talents of the Basie band.
As composer, Neal garnered many accolades. In addition to Ulanov's praise, Neal won two Grammy awards for his composition work on Basie. The success of the album had Basie and Hefti in the studio six months later making another album. This second album was also very successful for Basie. Basie recalled:
“That is the one that came out under the title of Basie Plays Hefti. All the tunes were very musical. That's the way Neal's things were, and those guys in that band always had something to put with whatever you laid in front of them.”
Basie recorded some 45-50 Neal Hefti compositions, and these pieces were greatly responsible for Basie’s incredible comeback in the late ‘50’s. Such compositions as “Little Pony,” “Cute,” “Whirly-Bird,” “Li’l Darlin’,” “Splanky,” “Why Not,” “Plymouth Rock,” “Softly With Feeling” and “Teddy the Toad” not only became best-selling records, but thousands of musicians cut their teeth playing the published big band versions. Lyrics were later added to many to them: “Why Not” became “Kiss Me First;” “Softly With Feeling” became “Oh, What a Night For Love;” “Plymouth Rock” became “Cool Blue;” and “Li’l Darlin’” became “Don’t Dream of Anybody But Me.”
Neal's influence on the Basie sound was so successful, his writing for the band so strong, that Basie used his arranging talents even when recording standard jazz tunes with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Basie said:
“So we went on out to Los Angeles and did ten tunes in two four- hour sessions [with Frank Sinatra]. All of those tunes were standards, which I'm pretty sure he had recorded before (and had hits on). But this time they had been arranged by Neal Hefti with our instrumentation and voicing in mind.”
Again, by matching the individual parts of the arrangements to the unique abilities of Basie's band, Neal was able to highlight the best of their talents, and make the most of the ensemble.
Overall, Basie was very impressed with Neal's charts:
“I think Neal did a lot of marvelous things for us, because even though what he did was a different thing and not quite the style but sort of a different sound, I think it was quite musical.”
Outside of his work with the new Basie band, Neal also formed a big band of his own during the fifties. The band’s recording of his “Coral Reef” was a huge hit, was performed and recorded by many other big bands, and was featured theme music on countless radio programs around the world. Other hits of this period were “Lake Placid” and “Sure Thing.” In 1951, the band featured his wife Frances on vocals. They recorded and toured off and on with this and other incarnations of this band throughout the 1950s, eventually releasing a trio of LP’s featuring Frances – Frances Wayne, Songs for My Man and The Warm Sound of Frances Wayne.
Later in the 1950s, Neal finally abandoned trumpet playing altogether to concentrate on scoring and conducting. He had steady work conducting big bands, backing singers in the studio during recording sessions, and appearing on the television shows of Arthur Godfrey, Kate Smith and others.
Neal moved back to his beloved California in 1960, formed his first publishing company, Encino Music, and in 1961 took the position of director of artists and repertoire for Frank Sinatra’s new label, Reprise Records. While there, he joined with Sinatra for Sinatra and Swingin’ Brass, arranging and conducting the album's twelve cuts. Early March found Harry James and his Orchestra in the studio recording ten Hefti compositions that were released in the album, Harry James Plays Neal Hefti.
1961 also found Neal teamed with the Everly Brothers for a two-song single release, “Pomp & Circumstance” and “Black Mountain Stomp,” which charted under the nom de plume Adrian Kimberly. In 1962 he arranged the historic and previously mentioned “Sinatra-Basie” studio album and received a Grammy nomination for his own album Jazz Pops, which included recordings of "Li'l Darlin’," "Cute," and "Coral Reef.” The following year, Neal and Basie again came together to produce the last of their three collaborative albums, On My Way & Shoutin’ Again!.
This time period marked Neal’s transition to writing music for film and television, where he enjoyed tremendous popular success. He scored much theme and background music for motion pictures, including the films Sex and the Single Girl, (1964), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Synanon, Boeing Boeing (1965), Lord Love a Duck (1966), Duel at DiabloI (1966), The Odd Couple (1968), Barefoot in the Park (1967) and Harlow (1965), for which he received two Grammy nominations for the song “Girl Talk.” While most of his compositions during this period were geared to the demands of the medium and the directors, there were many moments when he was able to infuse his work with echoes of his jazz heritage.
He also wrote theme and background music for television shows, including Batman and The Odd Couple. He received three Grammy nominations for his television work and received one award for his Batman television score. His Batman Theme, a simple cyclic twelve-bar blues-based theme, became a Top 10 single for Neal, and in 1966 was the most recorded song in the world. His theme for The Odd Couple movie was reprised as part of his score for the television series of the early 1970s. He received two Grammy nominations for his work on The Odd Couple television series.
Neal Hefti retired from composition in 1976 and, between living in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, put his full efforts into the administration of his copyrights through Neal Hefti Music. He died on October 11, 2008, at his home in Toluca Lake, California.
Academy of Television Arts & Sciences:
American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers: