Remembering André Previn (1929-2019)

In this great classical musician’s life and work, the love of jazz was a recurring theme

André Previn in 1973
André Previn in 1973 (photo: Bert Verhoeff/Anefo)

Upon his Feb. 28 passing at his home in Manhattan, 89-year-old André Previn was praised as many things: a well-respected composer, arranger, orchestrator, conductor, and concert pianist. His musical gifts were such that he was often compared to Leonard Bernstein, 20th-century America’s most famous musical polymath. Previn won four Academy Awards for film scores and 11 Grammys, composed the well-received opera A Streetcar Named Desire, and worked with many of the finest symphony orchestras in the world.

Yet another important and pervasive element of Previn’s musical profile was his love of jazz piano—and his skill at playing it. He worked prodigiously in the worlds of film, concert music, and Broadway, but he pivoted to club dates and recording studios in the jazz trio format at seemingly every chance.

Born Andreas Ludwig Priwin in Berlin on Apr. 6, 1929, Previn came to America with his family in 1939 and became a naturalized American citizen in 1943. His family settled in Los Angeles, and he was working on the MGM lot as an arranger and composer while still a teenager. In May of ’45, Previn performed on the Jubilee radio broadcast for U.S. service personnel. Host Ernie “Bubbles” Whitman asked him how it was that a classical pianist loved jazz so much. Previn responded: “I heard Art Tatum play ‘Sweet Lorraine’ and that did it.” He was 16.

Schooled in the classical piano literature by his music-teacher father, Previn certainly had an affinity for the 10-fingered paterfamilias of jazz piano. But although his early recorded efforts were in the Tatum mold, more elements entered his playing as the years passed and he developed his own identity.

By the mid-1950s, the pianist had established a strong connection with drummer Shelly Manne, whose appetite for dynamic trio interaction and musical spontaneity matched his own. In 1957, Previn pinpointed the reason for his maturity as a jazz pianist. He told DownBeat’s John Tynan, “Not only is Shelly my best friend, but he’s the best jazz musician I know … he taught me how to swing.” As Manne became the first-call jazz drummer in L.A. and a busy studio player, he always seemed to make time for—and relish—his recorded and live collaborations with Previn, who routinely worked with the best players: Manne, bassists Red Mitchell and Ray Brown, and guitarists Barney Kessel, Joe Pass, and Herb Ellis.

Under the name Shelly Manne & His Friends, Previn, Manne, and bassist Leroy Vinnegar recorded a clutch of albums for Contemporary. My Fair Lady (’56) was the first jazz album to be composed entirely of tunes from a single Broadway show. It became a runaway hit, but the musicians and the label feared a lawsuit. Previn’s liner notes offered this prophylactic: “There has been no willful distortion of the tunes simply to be different, or to have a gimmick, or to provoke the saying, ‘Where’s the melody?’ We are all genuinely fond of every tune and have the greatest respect for the wonderful score in its original form, but we are paying our own sincere compliments to the show by playing the score in our own métier.” The album set off a wave of jazz treatments of musical scores; Contemporary would shorthand the vogue through the title of Marty Paich’s The Broadway Bit (’59).

The gospel-rooted bebop of pianist Hampton Hawes was a pervasive influence on L.A. jazz pianists, and Previn’s loose right hand and bluesy swing on “Get Me to the Church on Time” reflected a good grasp of the Hawes grit. He could also slyly spike the melodic line of “I Could Have Danced All Night” with dissonant chords.

Novel arrangements, playfulness, well-chosen grace notes and swing were big parts of Previn’s playing. Even during his busiest movie years (by age 27, he had worked on 26 pictures), he returned to jazz whenever he could. Swing and rhythmic daring were as big a draw for him as harmonic sophistication. A regular lecturer in SoCal university music classes during the late ’50s, Previn spent a lot of classroom time on jazz. He loved the thrill of sitting in with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band at Hollywood’s Peacock Lane club, and made time to catch the first L.A. appearance of the Bill Evans Trio.

Previn won his first Oscar for the score to Gigi (’58), and a series of albums in the late ’50s and early ’60s (Like LoveLike YoungLike Blue) saw him composing orchestral accompaniment to his jazz trio playing.

In 1974, Previn hosted the BBC’s Omnibus show, with pianist Oscar Peterson. He was reverent and deferential toward his guest, offering intelligent questions in the interview segments. Yet on a two-piano duet at a fast tempo, where Peterson played all-out, Previn more than held his own. It must have been a high point of his musical life, as was the ’89 After Hours (Telarc) album with Pass and Brown.

Though not a trend-setting stylist on piano, Previn was a canny synthesist who could draw from innumerable sources. He always loved jazz, and always respected it by giving his best when he played it.