CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Lennie Niehaus 1929–2020

A prime mover on the ’50s West Coast jazz scene—and a composer/arranger who became Clint Eastwood’s musical right-hand man—passes at 90

Lennie Niehaus
Lennie Niehaus in the 1950s

Lennie Niehaus, an alto saxophonist and composer/arranger who was best known for his numerous film scores for Clint Eastwood, died May 28 at his daughter’s home in Redlands, California. He was four days shy of his 91st birthday.

His death was announced by his son-in-law, Owen Sheeran, who contacted JazzTimes directly with the news on June 1. The exact cause of death was not disclosed, but Niehaus had been struggling with a number of health issues and was living under hospice care while residing with his daughter.

A St. Louis native, Niehaus was an essential player in the West Coast jazz scene of the 1950s. In particular, he spent several years as lead alto and house composer/arranger for the Stan Kenton Orchestra. After 1960, his primary work was for the Hollywood film and television studios, first as an arranger and orchestrator, then from the 1980s onward as a composer in his own right. His compositions were often highly influenced by the jazz music with which he’d begun his career, including the score for Clint Eastwood’s 1988 Charlie Parker biopic Bird.

Throughout his life Niehaus continued to perform jazz, and, when JazzTimes spoke with him in 2007, he revealed that he always kept his saxophone on standby. “I keep it out all the time,” he said. “Playing the horn gives me something that nothing else can. And I’m still completely connected to it. My fingers still work. I pick up my horn and, no matter how busy I am on another project, I never seem to lose the technique.”

Leonard Niehaus was born in St. Louis on June 1, 1929, the son of violinist Pere Niehaus. His sister was a concert pianist, instilling an early expectation that Leonard would be a musician. He began playing violin at seven, tried his hand at bassoon, and at 13 took up alto saxophone and clarinet.

By his teenage years, Niehaus was living in Los Angeles, graduating in 1946 from Theodore Roosevelt High School and moving on to study music at Los Angeles City College and Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles). During his studies, he began working professionally on L.A.’s nascent bebop scene, then got a job in a local swing band led by Phil Carreón.

Upon graduating from LASC in 1951, Niehaus joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra, touring with the band for three months before he received his draft notice. He joined the Army and was stationed at Fort Ord in California, where he met fellow serviceman Clint Eastwood. After his discharge in 1954, Niehaus rejoined Kenton and remained with him through 1959, serving as lead alto and increasingly as a writer and arranger. He also began leading his own bands, experimenting with various instrumentations and ensemble sizes, returning most frequently to an octet.

At the end of 1959, Niehaus left the Kenton band for the Hollywood studios, in search of a more stable lifestyle. (His arrangements remained a formidable part of the Kenton repertoire for years afterward.) He soon began doing orchestrations for film and television composer Jerry Fielding, working with him on dozens of movies and TV shows, including The Bad News Bears, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and The Outlaw Josey Wales, which reunited Niehaus with Eastwood.

He also worked with Eastwood on his first commissioned film score, 1984’s Tightrope (which Eastwood produced). They then worked together on 13 more films, including Pale Rider (1985), Bird, and the Academy Award-winning Unforgiven (1992), for which Niehaus won one of his four BMI Film Awards. When Eastwood began writing his own scores, Niehaus became his orchestrator.

Much of Niehaus’ scoring work called on him to continue working in the jazz idiom. For 1984’s City Heat, he evoked the swing of the 1930s, while Bird required him to reset Parker’s solos in newly created jazz tracks—and teach star Forest Whitaker to play the alto saxophone. He worked with Whitaker again in that context on the 1993 TV film Lush Life, for which Niehaus won an Emmy.

At the same time, Niehaus continued gigging here and there in Los Angeles; he maintained a quintet with saxophonist Bill Perkins, pianist Frank Strazzeri, bassist Tom Warrington, and drummer Joe LaBarbera. He also became an author in the 1970s, with a series of instructional books titled Jazz Conception for Saxophone that quickly gained currency in music education.

Niehaus’ final recording, 2004’s Sunday Afternoons at the Lighthouse Café, featured him at the head of his octet. His final film credit was for an arrangement of “Stars and Stripes Forever” in Eastwood’s 2011 film J. Edgar.

He is survived by his wife Patricia, his daughter Susan Niehaus Sheeran, and his son-in-law Owen Sheeran.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.