Frank Griffith writes in tribute to Lennie Niehaus: Lennie Niehaus, alto saxophonist, composer/arranger and scorer of twelve Clint Eastwood films has died at the age of 91. A consummate polymath of the demands of Hollywood and West Coast Jazz from the 1950s up to the present, Niehaus was a “jack of all trades” and a master of all.
Niehaus joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1951 and stayed (on and off) until 1959. He estimated that he contributed 100 charts to the band’s “pad”. He also recorded six albums of smaller combos (octets/nonets) for the Contemporary and EmArcy labels.
Niehaus was perhaps best known for his long-term association with actor/director Clint Eastwood. The two met at California’s Fort Ord army base in 1952 during the Korean War, Lennie playing jazz at the beer clubs and Clint tending the bar. Their musical relationship would continue until Eastwood’s 2008 film, Gran Torino. By this point, Eastwood was writing his own film themes that Niehaus orchestrated and conducted.
Of particular note was Niehaus’ score to Eastwood’s 1989 film, Bird, a biopic of Charlie Parker. Niehaus built new backing tracks involving the likes of trumpeters Red Rodney and Jon Faddis amongst others, that retained Bird’s solos sailing atop. A questionable use of technology, perhaps, but a winning result ensued. The state of the original recordings was of less than acceptable fidelity.
Niehaus’ pioneering Jazz Conception for Saxophone books published in the early 1970s made for excellent resources for saxophonists to develop phrasing and melodic ideas in the early days of jazz tutor books. I was introduced to these books in my formative years as a saxophonist and continue to use them today for teaching and duetting with others. Niehaus also composed many saxophone quartet pieces which are commonplace amongst quartets worldwide. His 1958 arrangement of Dick Robertson’s classic torch song, Yesterday’s Gardenias, for the Hollywood Sax Quartet is a particular gem.
A great alto saxophonist, composer/arranger and purveyor of educational repertoire has departed and yet his legacy will last into eternity. Goodbye, Mr Niehaus, and thanks so much for your role and inspiration in the journey of this great music.
Frank Griffith is a saxophonist, composer and educator. He is currently doing a weekly podcast, Uptown Lockdown, sharing the music of Duke Ellington for Duke Ellington Society UKLeonard Niehaus. Born St. Louis, Missouri, June 11, 1929. Died Redlands, California, May 28, 2020.