ASMAC Celebrates 75 Years

Jan 29 • In the News

Famed music arrangers gather to honor their craft by Jon Burlingame

STUDIO CITY, Calif.—Nearly 350 people attended the 75th anniversary celebration of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC) Sunday afternoon, Jan. 27, at the Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City.

Composer Michael Giacchino (Ratatouille, Up) served as master of ceremonies for the event, which celebrated the history and achievements of the nation’s leading organization devoted to the art and craft of arranging and orchestration. It was founded in 1938 and, as ASMAC vice-president Brad Dechter put it, its membership through the years is a “pantheon of musical giants.”

ASMAC President, Broadway and film arranger/conductor Larry Blank called the group “the non-political arm” of the Broadway and Hollywood music business, more about “good fellowship and sharing information” than anything else. He reminisced about his first meeting with ASMAC members, who warned him that “if you don’t have time for lunch, you’re not fast enough to be working in this business.”

Giacchino told the crowd: “You guys are genius composers in your own right. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me over the years.” His own orchestrator and conductor Tim Simonec later surprised him by conducting the “ASMAC Chorale” in a kazoo version of Giacchino’s waltz theme for the film Up.

97-year-old composer Van Alexander

Van Alexander, composer of the Ella Fitzgerald standard “A Tisket, A Tasket” who at 97 was notably the oldest ASMAC member in the room, brought the house down with funny one-liners like “I was a young man when I got here today” and “Hollywood is the only city in the world where a person can die from encouragement.” An arranger, he reminded the crowd, “is a songwriter’s best friend.”

Veteran composer-arranger Johnny Mandel (The Sandpiper, M*A*S*H) – who studied with Alexander – said that, back in the swing era, he thought an arranger was “somebody who moved chairs around” but quickly discovered that “it’s not the song, it’s the way the band plays it. Somebody wrote the music for that band. It was an arranger!”

Composer Laurence Rosenthal (The Miracle Worker, Becket) reminisced about three legendary orchestrators he knew and worked with: Alexander “Sandy” Courage (“the intellectual… the most inventive ways of expressing something orchestrally”), Herbert Spencer (“so elegant… the most unbelievable finesse… unexpected countermelodies”) and Arthur Morton (“a wit… a real virtuoso”).

Broadway orchestrator Doug Besterman spoke of ASMAC as “our community, our neighborhood… a living, breathing, vital organization” and marveled that “we get to put music in front of the best musicians in the world and hear them play it.”

British-born composer-arrangers John Altman and Ian Fraser also took the podium to regale the crowd with their own experiences (for Altman, watching the legendary Robert Farnon and Angela Morley work; for Fraser, listening to Anthony Newley sing “Pure Imagination” on the phone for the first time and having to take it down in order to send it to Walter Scharf, who was preparing the score for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the film for which it was written).

Also speaking were composer-historian Alex Rannie (who discussed early Disney arrangers, songwriters and composers), big-band leader Chris Walden (who recalled arriving from Germany but “being welcomed and accepted by the people I have admired all my life”), composer Bruce Broughton (who cited Alexander’s seminal book First Arrangement as an early influence), arranger Jimmie Haskell (who recalled studying with longtime ASMAC member Spud Murphy); arranger-producer Jorge Calandrelli (who spoke of his “profound passion for arranging”); and husband-and-wife arranger-composers Conrad Pope and Nan Schwartz.

Video tributes included a history of ASMAC narrated by “the other” Ray Charles (produced by Jeannie Pool) and a rundown of its many award-winners through the years narrated by Ian Freebairn-Smith (produced by Charles Fernandez).

The Elliot Deutsch Big Band performed (including Alexander’s “A Tisket, A Tasket” and “Pure Imagination” whose Deutsch arrangement won the 2012 ASMAC-Bill Conti arranging and composing competition). Pianist Mike Lang also performed the Henry Mancini standard “Days of Wine and Roses.”

Often mentioned during the four-hour event were ASMAC’s workshops and master classes, which began in 1958 and continue today. The 36-page program included a detailed history of the organization written by event producer Jeannie Pool.

©2013 Jon Burlingame

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