NEAL HEFTI circa 1946.

I wonder have you ever stopped and thought about how brilliant composer Neal Hefti was. As a young child, he remembered his family relying on charity during the holidays. 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. Born in Hastings Nebraska on October 29th 1922, He grew up close to Omaha, where he was lucky enough to hear bands and trumpet players of the Southwest Territory bands. He was also able to experience the virtuoso playing of several New York jazz musicians that passed through that way on tour.

The composer in later years.

Hefti often said that he was influenced at an early age by the North Omaha scene. He remarked about how impressed he was with the playing of both Harry Edison and Buck Clayton and Dizzy Gillespie when he was with Cab Calloway. All three trumpet players were a great inspiration to Hefti, as was the band leader Count Basie.  Seeing both Gillespie and Basie perform in Omaha, was a pre cursor to him experiencing them again in New York and seeing Gillespie develop his own style of bebop on fifty second street.  In 1939, Hefti, was still at junior North High school in Omaha, and he managed to get a start in music by writing arrangements of vocal ballads for local bands such as Nat Towels band.

Hefti’s first big arrangements for them being Swinging on Lennox Avenue and More Than you Know and a very popular re-working of Anchors Aweigh. A handful of his arrangements were also used by Earl Hines band. In 1941 Hefti was due to graduate from high school but just before he did he was offered the chance to go on tour with the Dick Barry Band, which was something he felt he could not turn down. He travelled with the band to New Jersey, but after just two engagements he was fired because he was unable sight read the music well enough. After being stranded in New Jersey because he had no money Hefti managed to join the Bob Astor band, where he met drummer Shelley Manne, who has on occasion recalled that even at a very young age Hefti was an impressive composer and arranger. But he focused more upon playing trumpet in Astor’s band for a couple of years before turning more to arranging and writing music. An injury forced him to leave the Bob Astor band and for a while he remained in New York, he played with Bobby Byrne in the latter part of 1942 and then with Charlie Barnet for whom he did an arrangement of Skyliner which proved to be a great success. It was during his time in New York that Hefti began to frequent the clubs on 52nd street, when I say frequent, but he never had any money to go into them but often would sneak into the kitchens and talk to the performers whilst at the same time trying to soak up all the new music that he was hearing. It is here that he got know many of the great beboppers.


He left New York and went to Cuba to play with The Les Leiber Rhumba Band, when he returned from Cuba in 1943, he got a place in the Charley Spivak band, and this led him to play in California and whilst there made a band movie. Hefti adored California and decided to try and settle in Los Angeles.  

It was not until the 1960’s that Hefti began to become involved in the writing of film scores, during this time Hefti wrote several memorable scores for films such as Duel at Diablo, Sex and the Single Girl, How to Murder your Wife, The Odd Couple, Synanon, Boeing Boeing, Barefoot in the Park, Lord Love a Duck, and Harlow.

It was also in the 1960’s that the composer/arranger collaborated with Frank Sinatra, on the singers “Sinatra and Swinging Brass” album. Hefti being credited as conductor, arranger on all the recordings twelve tracks. It was also during this period that he wrote the still popular Batman theme for the TV series and contributing to the TV series of The Odd Couple. In which he reprised his already familiar theme.

He received three Grammy Award Nominations for his TV work, and an award for his score to the Batman TV series. After the death of his wife in 1978, Hefti was never the same again, and retired from an active role in music. He passed away on October 11th 2008.

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