Lennie Niehaus, who set Eastwood's films to music, dies at 90

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Lennie Niehaus, who set Eastwood's films to music, dies at 90
Clint Eastwood's movie “Bird”. by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Lennie Niehaus, who became well known as an alto saxophonist and arranger for jazz bandleader Stan Kenton in the 1950s before turning to a career as a composer of film scores, notably for Clint Eastwood movies like “Bird” and “Unforgiven,” died May 28 at his daughter’s home in Redlands, in Southern California. He was 90.

His son-in-law, Owen Sheeran, said the cause was probably heart-related.

Niehaus had been with the Kenton band for several months when he was drafted into the Army in 1952. He played in the base band at Fort Ord in Northern California and in a quartet that performed at noncommissioned officers’ clubs where Eastwood, a jazz lover, was a regular.

He returned to Kenton’s band in 1954 and remained until 1959, but he did not reconnect with Eastwood until the 1970s. By then, Niehaus was orchestrating scores for composer Jerry Fielding, including some for movies starring Eastwood, including “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976).

Eight years later, Niehaus wrote the score for “Tightrope,” a murder mystery set in New Orleans that Eastwood produced and starred in as a police officer.

Eastwood wanted the score at times to reflect the “cacophony of music” that burst from clubs on Bourbon Street. So he flew with Niehaus to New Orleans, where they walked along that historic French Quarter street.

“Listen, hear those snippets of music on the left and right sides of the street?” Niehaus recalled Eastwood saying when he was interviewed for the website JazzWax in 2009. “Can you get that effect in the score?”

Niehaus’ solution was to record eight different tunes in different styles by different musicians, then fade the tracks in and out in scenes where Eastwood’s character walked down Bourbon Street.

With his score for “Tightrope,” he became inextricably linked with Eastwood, composing scores for 14 films that Eastwood directed, including “Pale Rider,” “Heartbreak Ridge,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Absolute Power” and “Space Cowboys.” Beginning in 2003, he orchestrated the music for six others, most recently “Gran Torino” (2008). (Eastwood himself wrote the scores for four of those films.)

For “Bird” (1988), the Eastwood film about pioneering jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, who was known as Bird, Niehaus not only composed and supervised the music but also taught Forest Whitaker, the star, how to play and hold himself onstage as Parker had.

As the music supervisor, Niehaus removed the piano, bass and drums from some of Parker’s recordings from the 1940s and ’50s because of their poor quality, leaving only the sound of his sax, and then brought in musicians to record new tracks.

“I told the engineers, ‘Don’t sacrifice Bird’s sound,’” Niehaus told The New York Times in 1988. “So we got the best-sounding Bird we could, and we added a rhythm section that was compatible.”

Whitaker, who had played baritone horn in high school and could read music, had been practicing in a loft before starting his tutelage under Niehaus.

“When I got the part, I bought a sax from a pawnshop,” Whitaker said in a phone interview. “When we met, he said, ‘That sax is broken, let me get you one that works.’ I had struggled so hard to get a good sound, and when I got the sax from him, I got a normal sound.”

They worked intensively so that Whitaker could master the fingering and play the melody lines (although his playing was not heard in the movie). Sometimes they played duets.

Niehaus said that Whitaker was “terrific” as Parker, but that he had one particular flaw: He rolled his shoulders while playing, something Parker never did.

“Bird played as though his shoes were nailed to the floor,” Niehaus told JazzWax. “So I put my hands on Forest’s shoulders to hold them still so he’d understand. But it was still hard for him, and a bit of that comes through in the film.”

Leonard Niehaus was born June 1, 1929, in St. Louis to Aaron and Clariss (Weissman) Niehaus. His mother was a homemaker. His father, a Russian immigrant, was a violinist who played in an orchestra that accompanied silent films in theaters. In the mid-1930s, after talking pictures had taken hold, he moved the family to Los Angeles, where he played in Hollywood studio orchestras.

Lennie learned the violin from his father, then began playing the oboe in grade school. The big-band music of the early 1940s made him a jazz fan and changed his focus to the saxophone, which enraged his father. In the JazzWax interview, he recalled his father telling him, “You’ll end up playing in a house of prostitution!”

He bought his first alto saxophone because it was cheaper than the tenor he wanted.

While in high school he began playing in a band led by Phil Carreon, for whom he also began writing charts in the new style known as bebop. He auditioned for Kenton soon after graduating from Los Angeles State College (now Cal State LA), where he had majored in composition.

The Kenton band played Gerry Mulligan’s “Limelight,” and Niehaus had the first solo. Kenton liked his work on that and other tunes and hired him.

Niehaus proved to be a deft sideman and arranger before leaving for the Army in 1952. After his discharge two years later, he was welcomed back by Kenton and became one of the leading musicians in West Coast jazz circles. His arrangements for Kenton could be heard on every track of “The Stage Door Swings,” a 1958 album of Broadway show tunes.

Tired of touring — and concerned by the drop in jazz’s popularity — Niehaus left the band in 1959 and worked in Hollywood as an orchestrator for the television series “Hogan’s Heroes” and films like “Straw Dogs” (1971), “The Killer Elite” (1975) and “The Bad News Bears” (1976).

Even during his years as a film composer and orchestrator, he performed with combos in the Los Angeles area. His final album was “Sunday Afternoons at the Lighthouse Cafe" (2004), on which he led an octet.

Niehaus is survived by his wife, Patricia (Jarvis) Niehaus; his daughter, Susan Lehrman; and two grandchildren.

His love of jazz, satisfied in Eastwood films, was further satisfied when he got to write the Emmy-winning score for “Lush Life” (1994), a Showtime movie directed by Michael Elias about two jazz musicians (played by Whitaker, as a trumpeter, and Jeff Goldblum, as a saxophonist).

“Other than ‘Bird,’” Niehaus told The Times, “it was the highlight of my career for film scoring. I got to do what I wanted, which is rare.” Like Eastwood, he said, Elias was knowledgeable about jazz.

“I’d say a piece should sound like Sonny Rollins’ ‘St. Thomas,’ and he’d know it,” he said, “which can’t be said about too many directors.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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