Lalo Schifrin's American Rhapsody One of the most quintessentially American composers of the 20th century was not an American. But as a boy in Argentina, Schifrin discovered George Gershwin and Louis Armstrong, setting him — and his celebrated film scores — on a path to fame.
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Lalo Schifrin's American Rhapsody

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Lalo Schifrin's American Rhapsody

Lalo Schifrin's American Rhapsody

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To a man now who helped define the way our movies, and especially our TV shows, sound. His name? Lalo Schifrin. His master work: "The Theme from Mission Impossible." Now 76 years old, Schifrin was born in Argentina. He has a new autobiography out. It's called, fittingly, "Mission Impossible: My Life in Music."

Funny thing, the books spends just a few lines on his signature tune. Most of it is devoted to varied and remarkable stories of a composer living all over the musical map. Sara Fishko of member-station WNYC sat down with Schifrin to talk about his journey.

(Soundbite of film, "Rhapsody in Blue")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) George, I want you to write a serious concert piece based on the blues.

SARA FISHKO: As often happens with people from faraway places, composer Lalo Schifrin's first glimpse of America was in the movies.

(Soundbite of film, "Rhapsody in Blue")

Mr. ROBERT ALDA (Actor): (As George Gershwin) Blues themes, jazz rhythms, of course, a rhapsody in blue.

FISHKO: He was a child growing up in Buenos Aires.

Mr. LALO SCHIFRIN (Composer): I was really young at that time, maybe 12 or 13 years old, and we went to see the movie "Rhapsody in Blue" with my mother and my father, and I really liked it.

FISHKO: "Rhapsody in Blue" was the 1945 Hollywoodized version of the life of George Gershwin, and it was the music even more than the movie that floored young Lalo.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: In "Rhapsody in Blue," he uses the blue notes. It was fantastic.

(Soundbite of song, "Rhapsody in Blue")

Mr. SCHIFRIN: I didn't know anything about Gershwin. I went right away to a book store that sold American scores, and I bought it, and I learned.

FISHKO: Next thing you know, he'd mastered them.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: And as a matter of fact, I played it. I played in Buenos Aires with the symphony orchestra, and it was very good, and then the next year, I played "Concerto in F"

(Soundbite of song, "Concerto in F")

FISHKO: You could say this was the beginning of a lifetime, Lalo Schifrin's lifetime of falling in love with, pursuing, influencing, embracing the American sound.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: A few years later, when Louis Armstrong came to perform in Buenos Aires, that clinched it.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: It was like I became converted. It was like a religious conversion because I came from a classical background. My father was a concert master of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic. My first piano teacher was Enrique Barenboim, who was the father of Daniel Barenboim. So I didn't know anything about jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: His awakening continued through high school.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: Of course when I discovered modern American jazz, I converted to that. So Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, (unintelligible), all the great players of that school.

I remember the first time I heard a Charlie Parker record, it was (unintelligible). I was very moved by it.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: By the time Dizzy Gillespie came to Buenos Aires as part of a 1956 State Department tour, Lalo Schifrin was in his 20s, and he'd formed his own big band. He'd swallowed the sound whole, and he was asked to play for the great Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy heard Schifrin and asked him what was by then the obvious question.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: He said would you like to come to the United States? I thought he was joking, but here I am. The handshake of Dizzy was better than any contact that you can find with lawyers. He said that, and I came.

FISHKO: Schifrin spent the early '60s playing and touring with Dizzy Gillespie's band. This is Schifrin soloing at Carnegie Hall in 1961.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: And on tour in Paris with the band.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: And at the Museum of Modern Art in New York around that time.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: Through Dizzy, he met everyone and played everywhere.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: I played with Coltrane, with (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SCHIFRIN: I did records with, oh, everybody. I mean, the greatest musicians of that year.

FISHKO: And that's all very nice, but none of this is what made Lalo Schifrin famous. What we know him for in this country is his work as a very North American composer of film and television scores. He blames that on his early boyhood, too.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: I like opera. My father introduced me, when I was even a child, to opera.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SCHIFRIN: I was fascinated by the idea of dramatic story that develops with music. I paid attention to Verdi, Puccini, Bizet.

FISHKO: Especially the Verdi "Otello" seemed to Schifrin to be just like movie music.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: So that gave me the basis of becoming a film composer, "Otello" and all the others, "Carmen" and "Tosca."

FISHKO: Although the composer hastens to add.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: The movies I had to do were not "Tosca"

(Soundbite of song, "Theme from Mission Impossible")

FISHKO: The shows and movies Schifrin scored were, indeed, not "Tosca," but somehow he took his European influences, classical music, opera and so on, and wrapped them in his conversion to American jazz and made something distinctively, popularly, American. The "Mission Impossible" theme, for example, is still one of the most memorable, imitated, parodied and beloved tunes in existence, as well as being one of the more inevitable sounding uses of 5:4 time, five beats to the measure.

(Soundbite of television program, "Mission Impossible")

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) This recording will decompose one minute after the breaking of the seal.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: He went somewhere else again with the score to Norman Jewison's "The Cincinnati Kid" about the battle between a junior and a senior poker player.

(Soundbite of film, "The Cincinnati Kid")

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) (Unintelligible), this is (Unintelligible), The Cincinnati Kid.

FISHKO: Steve McQueen, the arrogant youngster to Edward G. Robinson's old hand.

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) They tell me you're quite a stud player, young man.

FISHKO: And there's the celebrated "Cool Hand Luke" music.

(Soundbite of film, "Cool Hand Luke"

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As character) You remember, what we've got here is a failure to communicate.

Unidentified Man #6 (Actor): (As character) What we've got here is failure to communicate.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: We became iconic. I learned a lot about bluegrass music because it happens in the South, in a Southern prison during the Korean War.

FISHKO: Another movie, another American style.

(Soundbite of film, "The Amityville Horror"

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: And another in "The Amityville Horror." If Lalo Schifrin had his way, we'd be combining all these forms.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: There's an imaginary world in which (unintelligible) Vienna intersects an avenue from New York, and in that corner, there is a tavern, and in the tavern, there is a piano, and there you can (unintelligible) Gustav Mahler to Beethoven and Dizzy Gillespie, and they are exchanging ideas.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SCHIFRIN: A gigantic jam session takes place.

FISHKO: That gigantic fantasy jam session is pretty much what goes on in Lalo Schifrin's brain with every piece he writes. For NPR News, I'm Sara Fishko.

SEABROOK: There's more about Lalo Schifrin, and you can listen to some of his tunes at the music section of our Web site,

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