Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Clint Eastwood Remembers Lennie Niehaus

The actor, director, and jazz aficionado pays tribute to his decades-long arranging and compositional partner (6/1/29 – 5/28/20)

Lennie Niehaus and Clint Eastwood
Lennie Niehaus (right) discussing a score with Clint Eastwood in 2007 (photo: Hank O’Neal)

A few weeks ago, I was [filming Cry Macho] in New Mexico, and I got the word that he had passed on. I hadn’t seen him in a few years. We go back to the Army at Fort Ord in ’51 and ’52.

In the evenings, I used to bartend at a junior NCO club. He was in the army, but in the music department. He used to come in with a trio and play in this room with no stage or anything. They just played in the corner, kind of. That’s how I got to know him. I listened to him a lot, and I heard some of his records after we got out of the service and went our separate ways.

Later on in the years, [composer/arranger] Jerry Fielding did a couple of scores for us. Lennie was in the band. I said, “Is that the same Lennie that I knew in the Army?” so we got reacquainted. I listened to some of his records on jazz programs and felt how much he had progressed since we were in the service together.

Jerry used to use him all the time. When Jerry passed away [in 1980], I just moved over to Lennie, and I used him for quite a few films after that. I don’t have enough memory to remember exactly why or what people were available. All I know is Lennie did a good job. For quite a few years there, I used him exclusively.

Before Nat King Cole’s daughter started doing the blending with her father on some of his music, we were doing it with Bird. When I first brought it to Lennie, I said, “I want to do this picture, and I have this script.” He said, “Who would you get to play [the music of] Bird?” and I said, “We’re going to get Bird to do it.” So I traveled to France and met with Bird’s former wife and got all the material I could get from her and other various materials.

When they started blending it in, Charles McPherson did a couple of little things when there was absolutely no track, but most of the stuff was Bird’s tracks because his wife had gone to all these concerts, put a standing mic up there, and recorded Bird’s solos. The trouble was, as soon as he stopped soloing and the band went off, she turned the [machine] off to save tape. There were some wonderful solos with the Woody Herman Orchestra and Stan Kenton and various things he had done, but they only had his solo and not the rest of the orchestration. Lennie filled in the orchestration, took the Bird solo, and blended that in. We did the picture on Charlie Parker with Charlie Parker himself playing.

[1992’s] Unforgiven, I [worked] with him on that. I wrote a theme on the way to the location, and I said, “I’ve got this theme. Why don’t you orchestrate this?” I wanted a lonely guitar feeling, and I wanted Laurindo Almeida to do it. There was something about the way he played that was kind of uncomplicated, but he always had a good feel. I just felt he would do this one tune. I said, “You arrange it; I’ll give you half the tune.”

We had a good relationship. He was always reliable and malleable. The musicians loved him, and I loved him. He was a good player, but he could also get you what you wanted. He understood what you were trying to do to enhance the movie. It was very smooth sailing.

Lennie was not a real extroverted kind of person. Most of his expression was through playing. But he could play pretty damn good. Those records he did since we were in the Army were quite intricate and a lot of fun. He didn’t tout himself or anything; he was a humble guy. He wasn’t self-promotional in any way. If you were just talking in general, you’d think he worked behind the counter at a bank or something. But if you started talking music, he could speak right up.

[as told to Morgan Enos]

In Memoriam: Tributes to 2020’s Departed Jazz Greats