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Pictures, Word and Music

Matt Schudel

Today is one of those rare days of obituary synchronicity, when two people in complementary fields have died at the time. The photographer William Claxton, who chronicled the West Coast jazz scene in beautifully evocative images, and composer-arranger Neal Hefti, whose swinging arrangements defined an insouciant, carefree style of music, are both memorialized in The Washington Post today (Oct. 15).

Joe Holley's brilliant obituary of Claxton is in effect a psychological portrait, explaining how the photographer's "soft" personality allowed him to gain the trust of his sensitive and prickly subjects, who came to include many leading movie stars of the 1960s, incluidng Robert Mitchum and Steve McQueen.

My obituary of Neal Hefti gave me a chance to write about two things dear to my heart: jazz and my home state of Nebraska. (Hefti was born in the small central Nebraska city of Hastings and grew up in Omaha, attending Omaha North High -- the same high school that jazz bassist Charlie Haden graduated from in the mid-1950s.)

Hefti, who was only a moderately talented trumpeter, was a brilliant composer whose work for Woody Herman and Count Basie sounds lively and fresh more than 50 years later. Hefti eventually ended up in the Hollywood studios, composing two TV theme songs familiar to anyone who remembers the 1960s and 1970s: the punchy theme "Batman" and the bouncy, sophisticated theme sone of "The Odd Couple."

Hefti's son told me that the seemingly simple "Batman" theme -- for which Hefti won a Grammy Award -- caused his father more trouble than anything else he worked on. In the end, he wrote it as a series of two-note phrases pounded out like a jackhammer, punctuated by the single word "Batman!" Hefti liked to joke that his composer's credit should have read "Word and Music by Neal Hefti."

He was in his early 50s when he retired in 1976 to live off his royalties. His son said that his father had simply had enough and told him, "There comes a time when the business leaves you."

By Matt Schudel  |  October 15, 2008; 1:02 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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Comments

Not to mention two other obits in today's paper: two longtime members of Congress --
Matthew Rinaldo and Paul Rogers.

Posted by: Pat | October 15, 2008 3:15 PM | Report abuse

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