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Steven Richman revives Henry Mancini’s effort to bring jazz to American TV

Cover of the recording being discussed
Cover of the recording being discussed

In the fall of 1958, television in the United States made a bold move into the genre of film noir. Blake Edwards created a series entitled Peter Gunn, which ran for three seasons, two on NBC and one on ABC, producing a total of 114 30-minute episodes. For the most part the actors involved in this series (with the possible exception of Herschel Bernardi) have been forgotten; and the show seems to have been overlooked even by those cable channels that specialize in “vintage” television. The one name people are likely to recognize is that of Edwards himself.

Actually, there was one other. Edwards approached a jazz musician named Henry Mancini to provide soundtracks for the television program. This was an understandable choice. Mancini had just finished scoring Orson Welles’ film Touch of Evil, which was the most recent in a long list of Hollywood projects. Those who remember Peter Gunn can imagine Edwards sitting at a screening of Touch of Evil, paying more attention to the music than the action and thinking, “That’s what I want for my new TV show!”

Edwards definitely knew his stuff. It would be an exaggeration to say that, by December of 1958, the Peter Gunn theme had been played by every high school band on every high school football field in the country; but it would not be that all much of an exaggeration. Mancini homed in on a sound that suggested “progressive” jazz without confusing the “mad men” television audience for Peter Gunn with any of the complexities of a Cecil Taylor or a Charles Mingus.

Furthermore, as Rick said at the end of Casablanca, Mancini’s connection with Edwards turned out to be “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Mancini became a household name, providing soundtracks and title songs for films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Days of Wine and Roses, and all of the Pink Panther films. All of those achievements are now so well known that it is no wonder that the music for Peter Gunn has been forgotten.

Last week, however, harmonia mundi released a new recording of fifteen of the selections that Mancini composed for the television series. This project was the work of Steven Richman, conductor of the group called Harmonie Ensemble/New York, whose previous recordings have involved “revival” performances of some of the more elaborate compositions of George Gershwin and Duke Ellington. At the very least, Richman’s efforts amount to homing in on a new direction in which to take “historically-informed performance.”

However, having been in one of those high school bands on a football field in the fall of 1958, I have to confess that this recording does not revive old memories, nor does it compel me to listen particularly attentively. I suspect that a major reason is that no one (including Mancini) ever felt that this would be music for listening. It was “necessary background music” that probably contributed to the success of the television series; but it was only a part of what made the whole package successful. (On the other hand, shows like Pete Kelly’s Blues, which took their jazz far more seriously, did not last very long.) The music Mancini wrote was never in the same league as, for example, Ellington’s jazz arrangement of Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s suite from his Nutcracker ballet; but it was never meant to be in that league.

At best Richman’s recording provides the listener with some sort of time machine; but it transports to a time that, for the most part, has been forgotten (and not without reason).

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