Obituary: Johnny Mandel

The composer of Shadow Of Your Smile, trombonist with Count Basie, orchestrator for Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé and others and non-millionaire writer of Suicide Is Painless

Johnny Mandel, composer, arranger and instrumentalist, died at his home in Ojai, California on 29 June. He was 94. He will mainly be remembered as composer of Suicide Is Painless, the theme song for the movie (1958) and TV series M*A*S*H (the less than distinguished lyrics being provided by director Robert Altman’s 15-year old son Michael). But also (in collaboration with Johnny Mercer) for Emily, in The Americanization Of Emily (1964), and the Oscar-winning The Shadow Of Your Smile for The Sandpiper (1965). Tony Bennett said that song alone was enough to earn Mandel “his standing as one of the finest composers of our time”.

Mandel had a lifelong love for and involvement with jazz and swing. His score for the movie I Want To Live is perhaps the finest integrated jazz score for a motion picture

He also provided orchestral charts for other stellar vocalists including Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé, Diana Krall, Peggy Lee, Barbra Streisand, Hoagy Carmichael, Anita O’Day, Natalie Cole and Shirley Horn. During his Hollywood career Mandel scored over 30 films including I Want to Live (1958), which featured Gerry Mulligan, Bud Shank, Art Farmer, Frank Rosolino, Pete Jolly, Red Mitchell and Shelly Manne, The Last Detail (1973), Being There (1979), and The Verdict (1982).

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John Alfred Mandel was born in Manhattan on 23 November 1925. His father, Alfred, was a garment manufacturer, and his mother, Hannah, an aspiring opera singer. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1934, where Mandel was given piano lessons. Three years later, back in New York, following his father’s death, Mandel studied arranging with Van Alexander (who had co-written A-Tisket, A-Tasket, Ella Fitzgerald’s first hit), and memorably told him “What you have to do is learn to see with your ears and hear with your eyes.”

He also listened to big bands on the radio and further developed his interest in arranging. Interviewed on Jazz Wax he recalled “Lying in bed glued to the radio listening to and playing the same songs, I said to myself about the arrangements, ‘What’s the big deal?’ Those broadcasts were like a laboratory for me. It wasn’t about the songs. It was how about the band interpreted the song.”

During World War II, and after abandoning the piano (“I wanted to play an instrument you could kiss”) he spent summers playing trumpet at Catskills holiday resorts, but switched to trombone when he appeared in the bands of Joe Venuti, Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman and Count Basie during the late 1940s and early 50s. He recalled that playing with the “New Testament” Basie band “was the greatest job I ever had”. Mandel then completed his musical studies at the New York State Military Academy, the Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, and began arranging for Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Elliot Lawrence and Chet Baker.

Mandel had a lifelong love for and involvement with jazz and swing. His score for the movie I Want To Live is perhaps the finest integrated jazz score for a motion picture. As Mulligan’s biographer Jerome Klinkowitz writes, “I Want To Live is the first Mulligan project to display such a broad range of sounds and dynamics, all the more remarkable when coming from just a seven-piece group with only one player [Bud Shank on alto and flute] doubling.” Mandel remembered that the director, Robert Wise, “just wanted me to do my best. The people working on the film didn’t really know how to do authentic jazz for the movies, so they left me alone. All the stuff the musicians were playing was written by me, except, of course, the solos.”

Major jazz artists themselves quickly recognised Mandel’s gifts as composer and arranger, and their tribute albums are significant items in his oeuvre. These include Quietly There (1966) by the Bill Perkins Quintet, The Shining Sea – Cal Tjader and Scott Hamilton Play Johnny Mandel (1981), Zoot Sims Plays Johnny Mandel: Quietly There (1984), and Bill Watrous’ A Time For Love…The Music Of Johnny Mandel (1993). Another album also entitled Quietly There by the Harry Allen / Jan Lundgren Quartet (2014), featured nine Mandel compositions, including Emily, A Time For Love, The Shadow Of Your Smile and Suicide Is Painless.

Deserving of special mention is Mandel’s appearance as conductor and laconic commentator on Johnny Mandel: The Man And His Music: With The DIVA [all-female] Jazz Orchestra (2011), recorded over two nights at Jazz At Lincoln Centre.

Again, his compositions were particular favourites of Bill Evans (Emily), Stan Getz (Hershey Bar), Woody Herman (Not Really The Blues), Chet Baker (Tommyhawk) and Count Basie (Low Life and Straight Life).

Although M*A*S*H was ‘shown a hundred times a day, it’s in syndication. Usually the rates for cable are very low. So everyone thinks I’m a millionaire or billionaire. They treat me with great deference, and I’m tempted to say “forget it”. But I don’t.’

When Frank Sinatra launched his Reprise label with the upbeat album Ring-a-Ding-Ding! (1960), it was arranged and conducted by Mandel, who said that his three favourite tracks were the title song, In The Still Of The Night and The Coffee Song. He wrote the introductions, codas and instrumental passages of Easy To Love and When I Take My Sugar To Tea, and reflected “I would have loved to have done a ballad album with Sinatra.”

In 1993 Mandel received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music, and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010. In an interview he said “I don’t have a method or a style and I never wanted one. I just work with what’s there and try to do the best with what’s there.” A year later, he was recognised by the National Endowment for the Arts as an American Jazz Master. In 2018 he received The Grammy Trustees Award to “individuals who, during their careers in music, have made significant contributions, other than performance, to the field of recording”.

Mandel commented wryly on the widespread assumption that Suicide Is Painless had made him a rich man. Although M*A*S*H was “shown a hundred times a day, it’s in syndication. Usually the rates for cable are very low. So everyone thinks I’m a millionaire or billionaire. They treat me with great deference, and I’m tempted to say ‘forget it’. But I don’t.”

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