King Henry

Lounge music - Stephen Smith takes the score of the man who brought jazz to the movies

Friday night generally finds me in my tux and with my humidor, picking out a stogie to go with the martini olives at Harry's Bar. But not for the past few weeks, daddy-o. Sister, don't you come a-calling. Hep cats such as myself have been staying at home with the radiogram tuned to Radio 2 for Russell Davies's appreciation of the late Henry Mancini, the man who brought jazz to the movies. With this tribute, we have reached the point in the posthumous career of an artist when a hack with 800 words or so to fill can talk confidently of a revival. For The Great Mancini is only the latest cocktail straw in the wind.

Let me take you back a month or two to the release of Sexy Beast. I know what you're thinking: "Brit gangster flick starring Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley; it marked the first time that Jonathan Glazer, a director of commercials, had his name stencilled on the back of his chair on a movie set." So far, so what? Well, if you've seen the film, you'll recall the scene in which Winstone's Costa criminal is dancing with his wife on the patio of their hacienda. Film buffs will have indulged themselves in Glazer's slo-mo, in all its glacial longevity. But how many, I wonder, will have remarked the revolutionary departure in soundtrack that distinguishes this sequence? As an adman, Glazer's best-known work was the Guinness "surfer" campaign, and for many parts of his debut feature, he employs the sort of heartbeat-meets-house-music score familiar from the commercial. But when Winstone leads Amanda Redman across the tiles, the couple are serenaded by the lush strains of Mancini's "Lujon".

This is revolutionary in the true sense of the word, for older film-goers will confirm that Mancini's scorings were once ubiquitous. He died in 1994, and is known to younger audiences, if at all, as the man who wrote the Pink Panther theme. But with Mancini's restoration from beyond the grave to the front rank of screen composers, the reputation of "the most hummed man in Hollywood" is set to come full circle. The fashion for lounge music has at last rediscovered its prime creative force. Burt Bacharach and Andy Williams, among others, have toured profitably on the back of this renewed interest. But Mancini was the liege of lounge, the capo of the Copa Room. This last reference isn't idle, because Mancini, the son of Italian immigrants to the United States, was considered to have the mien of a mobster. Standing more than six feet tall, he spoke from the side of his mouth, and was known around the back lots and rehearsal rooms as "Hank". Although by all accounts a gentle man, and uxoriously tied to Ginny, a former singer, for 46 years, Mancini had something else in common with the Mafia dons: a distaste for publicity. During the Sixties and Seventies, when pop acts were making a bigger splash than the composer, it amused him that he was quietly trousering more pelf than they were, and mantelpiecing more show-business baubles. In all, he garnered no fewer than four Oscars, as well as 20 Grammys and four Emmys. His credits include Days of Wine and Roses, the Orson Welles project Touch of Evil, and Breakfast at Tiffany's, for which Mancini penned "Moon River", Andy Williams's perennial walk-on music.

Before Mancini, soundtrack composers enjoyed the same status as the fleapit pianists who used to bash out an accompaniment to silent pictures. The idea of producing a score, a respectable corpus of sheet music that bore comparison to the director's contribution, was unheard of. Mancini changed all that, and brought in jazz musicians for film sessions to leaven the influence of orchestral players. Modestly, he once admitted: "All of us craftsmen have a tendency to borrow a bit from those we love. It's something you'd love to fight if you had the talent to - if you could be an original voice, wouldn't that be great? And sometimes it happens. With me, it happened in my use of jazz, incorporating various popular idioms into the mainstream of film scoring. If that's a contribution, then that's mine." Mancini gave an added dimension to thriller scores such as Hatari! and the Peter Gunn theme, which was dusted down in the 1980s by the modish popsters Art of Noise. And his jazz chops kept his ballads on the comfortable side of saccharine.

For composers and arrangers including Quincy Jones, Lalo Schifrin, John Barry and Bacharach himself, Mancini beat a path to Hollywood. "We've come to take that medium for granted now, but in the Fifties it was ground-breaking," says Dave Grusin, the co-founder of the jazz label GRP, and a considerable movie-scorer himself (Tootsie, On Golden Pond). "I pursued that course for some years, and eventually got to meet the Mancinis. The whimsical good humour you hear in Hank's music was there in real life as well."

Grusin has released an album of neglected Mancini airs, Two for the Road. It was engineered by Al Schmitt, who was at the knobs during many of the original recordings. With the hard-to-find "Lujon" now available on the soundtrack of Sexy Beast, latter-day lounge lizards can get their fill of the master.

The Great Mancini concludes on Radio 2 at 7pm on Friday 11 May

Stephen Smith is a Channel 4 News reporter

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, We Tories must change, or face eternal oblivion