The Private Eye Who Made Cool Jazz His Calling Card The late-'50s detective series Peter Gunn was popular, but Henry Mancini's music for it became iconic. NPR's Linda Wertheimer finds out what makes the jazzy score so indelible.

The Private Eye Who Made Cool Jazz His Calling Card

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In the late 1950s, detective shows were all over black-and-white television.


CRAIG STEVENS: (As Peter Gunn) Ten thousand dollars for a couple of uniforms, new car with a paint job to make it look official - shouldn't be too difficult to dig up a siren and a red light.

WERTHEIMER: That is actor Craig Stevens as the suave gumshoe Peter Gunn. The show ran from 1958 to 1961. It was popular. Today, the TV series may have faded from memory, but the theme music remains unforgettable.


WERTHEIMER: Henry Mancini's score is a classic. It's been covered over the years by everyone from guitar slinger Duane Eddy to jazz singer Sarah Vaughan to progressive rockers Emerson Lake and Palmer. Now there is a new album with a big brassy arrangement for a symphonic jazz orchestra played by Harmonie Ensemble/New York.


WERTHEIMER: Steven Richman is conductor and music director of Harmonie Ensemble/New York, and he joins us from our bureau there. Welcome.

STEVEN RICHMAN: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

WERTHEIMER: So why did you decide to reach all the way back to Peter Gunn?

RICHMAN: We actually were able to get our hands on the original arrangements. Now to my knowledge, this is the first recording since 1958 which Mancini himself did. This the first recording of Mancini's original arrangement.


WERTHEIMER: As I recall the show, one of the places where a lot of the action happened was in a kind of a bar which had a jazz ensemble playing.

RICHMAN: That's true. It was called Mothers. Peter Gunn would stop in from time to time and, of course, his girlfriend, who was named Edie Hart, sang a bit. And they had - it was an opportunity because they had some famous jazz musicians, you know, in the background. But you could see them. There were actually some cameo appearances by the great trumpeter Shorty Rogers and the great drummer Shelley Manne.

Now you have to understand also that they used the smaller group for the actual television show. It might vary slightly from week to week because Mancini wrote that he had a $2,000 budget per week. Now this was 1958. For the recording that he made, he used a somewhat larger - I believe it was 22 which is what we used.

So I kind of like to go back to the beginning because the originals are often the best. And it's also - it's what I grew up with. In a sense, my most recent projects over the last few years have been kind of reliving my childhood I guess.


WERTHEIMER: Why was this music - this particular kind of music - do you think it was important to the television series? And why was it woven into the TV series?

RICHMAN: I think it was enormously important to the television series. And in fact, Mancini was getting twice the amount of fan mail than the show itself. And the music of course took on a life of its own.

WERTHEIMER: One of the things that I thought was interesting was there are a number of different styles that are reflected in this album. Here are a couple of excerpts that are contrasty, I guess. There's a track that has a hint of early rock 'n roll from that time.


WERTHEIMER: It sort of sounds like it's going to wheel in to "Night Train," but it doesn't.

RICHMAN: Exactly.

WERTHEIMER: And here's a very different one. This is something that seems to hearken back to an earlier Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw.


WERTHEIMER: Do you think that was typical of Henry Mancini to try to evoke different musical styles of the time sort of depending on what the scenes were?

RICHMAN: Absolutely. And he had paid his dues and learned his craft, you know, over several years working at Universal where he had to write for absolutely anything.

You know the story about how this music came to be. At a certain point, Universal let go their entire music department. And so Mancini was out of a job and - but he still had a pass. And so he went back to the studio, and he went to get a haircut.

And when he came out, Blake Edwards, the famous producer, director was standing there. And they knew each other. They had worked before. And he said I'm looking for somebody to write a jazz inflected score for my television show. I think he wanted somebody also with big band background which Mancini had. And of course, Mancini jumped at the chance.


RICHMAN: We performed this I think three years ago at St Peter's, the jazz church in New York City. And at that point I didn't have an intention to record it, but the audience reaction was so intense and positive I thought, man, maybe we should record this. And the record company, Harmony Amundi, was very interested.

So a year later, we performed it again in the same venue. And I should mention that Ginny Mancini, who is Henry Mancini's widow - she's 90 years old. I mean, if you saw what she looks like, she looks like she's maybe 60. She look - and just loaded with energy.

So she came to the performance, and she was just ecstatic. I didn't get to ever speak, you know, with Henry Mancini, but just have contact - I still maintain contact with her. And she's very, very excited about this CD.

WERTHEIMER: Steven Richman is conductor of Harmonie Ensemble/New York. Their new CD is "Music For Peter Gunn." Thank you very much.

RICHMAN: Thank you. My pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Rachel Martin is away on maternity leave. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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