Posted: Friday, August 14, 2015 – 10:05 AM
By Laura Coleman
Unlike some of Lalo Schifrin’s most recognizable tunes, like the iconic Mission Impossible theme song currently pulsing through the ears of millions of moviegoers now taking in the franchise’s latest blockbuster, Rogue Nation, the Beverly Hills composer cannot be distilled down to one catchy phrase.
Like a symphony in its own right, Lalo’s life is the journey of an Argentinian child piano prodigy driven by a desire to compose that eventually took him to Paris and later inspired Dizzy Gillespie to entice him to America.
“I didn’t know anything but music,” recalled the 83-year-old four-time Grammy-winner who began taking piano lessons at 5 years old in Buenos Aires. “I didn’t know any possibility of having a future without music.”
Music was not just a part of Lalo’s life, it was in his blood. His father was concert master of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic which played at Teatro Colón, just over a block from Lalo’s house. One uncle was the philharmonic’s principal cellist, another was a violinist in a different orchestra. His mother’s two brothers were likewise musicians, and his grandfather had been a trumpet player.
Lalo’s life was further textured by his religion. As a young Jew in the 1940s, he recalled watching his country’s then-Fascist government, enamored with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, build a concentration camp on the land where today stands Buenos Aires’ main airport.
“World War II was very traumatic for me,” he said. “It was geographically far, but not emotionally.”
As a teenager, Lalo threw himself into learning the nuances of music, probing into the “why” composers chose to write the chords. His inner curiosity led him to listen to American jazz. Movies of the swing era, like New Orleans, mesmerized him and he started to play the music by ear. From Dixieland swing and the music of Louis Armstrong, Lalo moved to bebop, discovering Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. All the while, he studied classical musicians’ themes and variations.
Lalo marvelled at what Dizzy was doing; whereas classical musicians did variations on the chords or the harmony, and Armstrong did variations around the melody, Dizzy did variations on the chords of the harmony.
“Jazz was responsible for me to study composition,” Lalo explained simply.
At 16, Lalo enrolled in the Instituto de Educación Superior, further bolstering his inquisitive mind with the brilliance of philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, while simultaneously studying composition with Juan Carlos Paz, the onetime pupil of Arnold Schoenberg.
“He taught me everything,” he said. “For him, studying music composition, was studying history from the inside.”
In order to pay for private instruction with Paz, Lalo started working in night clubs playing piano. Paz eventually advised Lalo to apply for a scholarship at the Paris Conservatory. Once accepted, Lalo thought his biggest challenge would be to tell his parents as his father was set on him becoming a doctor or lawyer.
However, a summons by the “Special Section” of the Argentinian police suddenly became a paramount fear. Years before, his uncle had been sent there, where he was horribly tortured. It had been that instance, in fact, that had precipitated Lalo’s desire to leave Argentina, despite the joy of his childhood and a strong love of his country.
He still remembers the terror he felt on entering the building.
“From the basement, you hear sounds of screams and tangos,” he recounted of the “factory of torture” where the records were played loud to mask the sounds of human pain.
Lalo eventually found himself in a room with only a desk and photos of Juan and Eva Peron on the wall. A policeman stood guard while Lalo’s interrogator, attired in a grey flannel suit, a tie and high black boots, questioned him on why he wanted to leave the country.
“Why do you have to go to France?” he wanted to know. Was not the instruction adequate in Argentina, he demanded to know.
Lalo keyed in to just what his interrogator needed to hear, praising Argentina and explaining just how prestigious the scholarship was.
“I said, ‘Oh yes, why do you think I got a scholarship?” he recalled.
Eventually, the man opened a desk drawer, took out Lalo’s passport and stamped it.
Lalo spent the next three years in Paris at the conservatory, learning from some of the best teachers of the era. Olivier Messiaen taught him composition. He learned orchestration, fugue and harmony from a disciple of Maurice Ravel.
“It was fantastic,” he said.
Early on, Lalo connected with French music publisher Eddie Barclay who paid him handsomely to compose jazz tunes.
“I never saw so much money on my own,” he recalled.
He eventually opened a bank account. Later, he started playing in jazz clubs in the St. Germain quarter.
After he finished his time at the conservatory, Lalo returned to Buenos Aires, forming his own modern jazz orchestra for a new generation of listeners.
Lalo had only been back for a matter of months when Dizzy Gillespie came to Buenos Aires with his all-star band. Lalo’s idol was scheduled to perform for a week straight there as part of a world tour sponsored by the U.S.
“Of course, I went to all the concerts,” he said, noting that his band mates did as well.
One evening, just before Dizzy was to depart, a friend arranged to have Lalo’s orchestra perform in order to show the American jazz legend how Argentinians played jazz. The performance lasted about 45 minutes.
“When we finished, people applauded,” Lalo explained.
“Dizzy did not applaud,” he continued.
Instead, Dizzy came running up to the stage and asked Lalo who had written the music.
“I said, ‘I did.’ He said, ‘Would you like to come to the U.S. with me?’” Lalo recalled of the kismet moment.
They met for lunch the following day, and then Dizzy continued on his world tour, where he was scheduled to play elsewhere in South Ameri- ca, before heading to Asia and the Middle East.
Together with his first wife, Lalo moved to New York, whereupon he called up Dizzy, who he was still on the world tour. So Lalo kept calling, and every time, Dizzy’s wife would say something like, ”He’s in Japan now;” or “He’s in Pakistan.” Eventually, Lalo gave up his persistent calls.
One day, Lalo saw in The New York Times that Dizzy was going to perform at Birdland at Broadway and 52nd Street; so he went.
“He said: ‘Oh Lalo, I heard you were in New York. Why don’t you call me?’” Lalo recalled Dizzy chastising him fondly when he approached him at the end of the set. “He said: ‘Why don’t you write something for me.”
In a matter of weeks, Lalo composed Gillespiana, a marvelous jazz symphony in five movements. Even before Lalo had fully finished the triumphal composition, Dizzy had his impressario, Norman Granz, book a studio for them to record in anticipation. And while Lalo was furiously finishing the composition, Dizzy called and asked him to be his new pianist. How could he refuse?
Gillespiana was an extraordinary success. For the next three years Lalo lived all that New York had to offer at the cutting edge of the jazz era. It opened the door of the greatest minds working in music and cinema of the day to him. A Hollywood agent prevailed on him to come to California and write music for film and TV.
Immediately, Lalo moved to Beverly Hills.
“Where else are you going to live if you come to Los Angeles?” he asked. “You move to Beverly Hills.”
The first movie Lalo scored was Rhino by MGM.
“It was a low budget movie but the beginning of a very nice career,” he said.
Lalo then got his first big-budget film gig, Les Félin starring Jane Fonda, in part because his French allowed him to effectively communicate with director Alain Delon, and in part because he was able to provide him with “precisely what he wanted.”
From there, Lalo went on to choreograph dozens of film and television scores including the Mission Impossible theme song, and music for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films and other seminal films, such as Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman.
Lalo recalled Mission Impossible creator Bruce Geller, who as it turned out, lived in a house just a street away from Lalo, giving him instructions on what he wanted for as the theme song for the TV pilot in 1967: “Bruce told me, ‘I want you to write a theme that has to be recognizable. It has to be a signature.” The goal, Lalo explained, was so that a person not watching the television when the show came on would instantly know it was MI, just from the song.
Today, Lalo lives in the onetime Beverly Hills home of Groucho Marx, which he shares with his wife of 41 years, Donna. Together, the two raised Lalo’s children from his first marriage, Frances and William (whom Donna adopted), as well as their third child, Ryan. The children went to Hawthorne and graduated from Beverly Hills High School. They count three grandchildren.
And everyday, Lalo, who has scores of awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, takes to the piano and works on composing.
“Paris in the 1950s, New York in early 60s, and Beverly Hills now–it’s probably the best,” Lalo mused, underscoring how passionate he remains about Argentina. “Beverly Hills is a kind of paradise.”