André Previn was a charming man and a rare and wonderful anomaly: a musical polymath who excelled as a serious composer, an orchestral conductor, a classical pianist, a jazz pianist, and a film composer. Many artists adept in one creative area wander toward other artistic pursuits as casual interlopers for pleasure. Not André. He threw himself fully into each genre he explored and produced work in that genre at a world-class level.
Even as a teenager, André worked as an arranger for films; he’d been introduced to the professional music world by a distant cousin, Charles Previn, a music executive and composer at Universal Pictures, and he quickly made himself indispensable. Not only did he produce music for films, but he was also recruited as a pianist for Hollywood celebrity parties.
At these parties, André was a keen-eyed observer. Later, gifted raconteur that he was, he captivated his friends with accounts of his immersion in the rarefied Hollywood milieu. And he didn’t eschew self-deprecation if there was a good story to be told. Here’s what he told Nathaniel Rosen, his principal cellist in the Pittsburgh Symphony: At one of these parties, Ava Gardner was hanging around the piano listening attentively. On a break, she said to him, “I want you to take me home.” He was utterly unprepared; he didn’t have a car. He wasn’t even old enough to drive. Abashed, he sputtered an admission to her that he didn’t have a car and she turned and walked away. He encountered her again at a party a couple of years later. By now he had a car, so he approached her with confidence and said, “Remember me, André Previn? I have a car now. I’d love to take you home.” She gave him a withering look and said, “Sorry, fella. You had your chance.” Such was the life in which he’d landed; his natural charm and charisma no doubt helped him navigate it.
André worked steadily in Hollywood throughout the ’40s, but in 1950, during the Korean War, he ended up in an army band in San Francisco. His main assignment was to write arrangements. Since it was a requirement of the job that he play an instrument, he picked the flute, which he later admitted he never really played. After his two-year hitch, André gave the flute—now quite the worse for wear—to my father, Lester Koenig (who produced many of André’s jazz albums), for “safekeeping.” It graced my father’s office as a decoration for a couple of decades. I returned André’s flute to him in the late ’70s after my father died.
Many of André’s friends in the army band were jazz musicians, among them Chet Baker. This jazz contingent introduced André to the Black Hawk club, where they often went to hear the greats of the day. André became serious about jazz after hearing Art Tatum and realized its wealth of possibilities for expression. He was also initially influenced by Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie, whose records he heard in the barracks, and later by Charlie Parker.
Back in civilian life, André continued playing jazz in public and on record, by now with colleagues from the studios like Shorty Rogers and his best friend among jazz musicians, Shelly Manne. He recorded several solo and trio albums with Shelly and bassists Red Mitchell or Leroy Vinnegar. Most of these were produced by my father on the Contemporary label, some under André’s name and some under Shelly’s. One of the latter, My Fair Lady, was the No. 1 jazz album for the better part of a year between 1956 and 1957. André also made jazz albums for other labels, played on some classical dates for Contemporary, and worked as a sideman on several of my father’s records by Benny Carter, Barney Kessel, and the former Basie singer Helen Humes. By the time Helen and my father were planning her third Contemporary album, she’d already recorded with both André and Wynton Kelly. Helen asked my father, “Could you please get me that little piano player?”—meaning André, of course.
As a jazz musician, André was the embodiment of taste, restrained virtuosity, and professionalism. He was more a lyrical soloist than a swinging one; for me, he was at his best on ballads where he could bring to bear his sophisticated harmonic sense, which was also evident in the “serious” pieces he composed and the repertoire he was attracted to as a conductor.
In the early ’60s, feeling Hollywood would be a creative dead end for him, he decided to return to his first love, classical music. Nathaniel Rosen, whom André had accompanied in concertos, sonatas, and chamber pieces, described working with him: “As an accompanist, he was perfection itself. He always seemed to be happy playing music, whatever the genre. He was such a natural. Whatever he was thinking in terms of rhythm and phrasing, that’s how it came out. On the spot. He wasn’t a tyrant. Ever. He just helped musicians play the music.”
Nominated for 14 Oscars, he won four, plus 10 Grammys and a Grammy lifetime achievement award.