© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Every film buff knows the names of the great movie composers, but hardly anyone knows who actually performed their scores. Musicians received no credit for their work (and still don't, unless they are singled out as featured soloists).
Among musicians, conductors, composers and arrangers, however, Uan Rasey was known as one of the best in the business, a lead trumpeter who made good music sound great.
Listen to the ballet from An American in Paris and you'll hear his soaring trumpet, especially during the jazzy passages. If you enjoy Bing Crosby's vintage radio programs, as I do, you can hear Uan's beautiful lead voice intoning the crooner's theme song Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day) And his rendition of Jerry Goldsmith's melancholy theme for Chinatown is unforgettable.
Although stricken with polio as a boy, the disability never held Uan back from scaling the heights of the music world in Los Angeles. For many years, he has taught a younger generation of trumpeters, and appears in the new documentary Trying to Get Good: The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon, discussing one of his star pupils. Since conducting this interview, I've run into Uan cheering on great musicians at Charlie O's jazz club in the San Fernando Valley. - Leonard Maltin [Uan Rasey died in 2011 at the age of 90].
LM: How and when did you first come to Los Angeles?
UR: The end of 1936; early 1937. In 1935, it got down to 65 below in Glasgow, Montana — that's without the wind chill factor. And I was in a wheelchair; I could barely move around. We lost a few kids that froze to death. My mother said, "We have to get out of here," so we came out here.
LM: How old were you then?
UR: 15 or 16 when I first got out here...but I was lucky. I heard about an audition in high school. I auditioned for the first trumpet player in Jack Armstrong’s All American Band in Monterey Park [suburb of Los Angeles], and I got that gig, on Wednesday night. It paid five bucks, which was a lot of money in 1937, a lot of money. We could live on that. Our furnished house was twelve dollars a month. Both my sisters slept in my mom's bedroom; I slept on the davenport. We had a refrigerator and a stove, so we were home free.
LM: So, you had your first professional gig.
UR: I was lucky because I didn't know, I thought everybody could play high Gs. I came down here and nobody could read. High C was a high note. I heard Cootie Williams or other guys play on the radio in Montana, and imitated them. There was a limit to what I could do; I couldn't run out and play football, so I played trumpet.
[Then] around 1938, '39, I heard about trumpeters getting together in Bronson Canyon [part of Griffith Park; near the famous “Hollywood” sign] on Saturday mornings. I went over there and I played with the guys -Frank Zinzer and especially Larry Sullivan, first trumpeter at Warner Bros. I could play higher than he could, and read just as fast. I was 16, 17 years of age. That's why I got my first gig in 1940.
LM: You were a good reader?
UR: I read well, I read fast. I learned very young. It's just mathematics, really.
LM: You didn't think there was anything special about your abilities...
UR: No, no, I thought everybody could play equal to me and better.
LM: When you started playing with these guys at Bronson Canyon, that started getting your name around?
UR: Yeah, that's right, I got other calls to play. Buddy Pepper was a young actor that had a band at the Paramount Theatre here. I was the only kid there, too.
LM: Were you still going to school?
UR: Yeah. I just went through high school, that's all. I had to start working.
LM: What was your first movie experience?
UR: 1940, at Warners. It was exciting.
LM: How big was the orchestra?
UR; A symphonic band - forty pieces, I want to say. The next picture, somebody got ill at the last minute, and I got a call to play. Later on, when I was on the road with Sonny Dunham's band, a guy named Fat Wendt was first trumpet player at Columbia. He offered me the job of third trumpet at Columbia and I turned it down. I thought it was too corny in 1940.
LM: Because you had a jazz sensibility?
UR: Along with classical. I had a lot of classical training. At 14 years of age, I won first place in classical playing in Montana.
LM: Yes, but you appreciated jazz...
UR: I like 'em both...
LM: No reason not to. But you turned down a steady studio job.
UR: Yeah, I did.
LM: How long were you out with Sonny Dunham's band?
UR: Off and on for over two years. I had a busted lip, that's the reason I gave up. I had a big blister on my lip and I finally had to stop playing and found a doctor who cut off the callus. I laid off for a month, [then] I could play, but it wouldn't vibrate. That's the only time I saw my teacher weep, when he heard me try to play like that. I got the biggest mouthpiece I could find; that helped a lot, too, and within a month I played pretty well.
LM: That must have been scary.
UR: I almost gave up. I even went to the Lockheed Employment to get a job there and the guy said, "Come back tomorrow." Then that afternoon I found thai doctor, so I didn't go back to Lockheed.
LM: What was your next job?
UR: I think Alvino Rey came into town and they’d heard about me. We played the Orpheum Theatre.
LM: That was in the days of movie theatres having 2 live show between films.
UR: That's right.
LM: How many shows a day would you play? Do you remember?
UR: Well, that was the problem. [For instance,] we were playing the Adams Theatre in Newark and the Meadowbrook [nightclub] at the same time. We played the theatre from nine 'til nine at night-six shows - then we played from ten 'til two at Meadowbrook. You play a lot, but I had the chops, pretty good and strong.
LM: You can only do that when you're young, right? When did you first meet up with Billy May?
UR: 1940, when Glenn Miller came out here they played the Palladium [and] Sonny Dunham would play one set. We didn't see each other 'til 1943 when Billy got the job with Ozzie Nelson's band; we were playing side by side, he was playing third trumpet and I was playing first trumpet. And one day for some reason, the violin player who was in charge of music for Ozzie Nelson took exception to the fact that Ozzie wanted to change [something] and, you know, [he's] entitled to change it, he's a musician, too. [The violinist] got fired and Billy became the leader, so I started working in 1943 with Billy.
LM: That was his big break, too. Was Billy a natural leader?
UR: Yeah, he was. He's got such a great sense of humor, in everything he does, just smoothes things out so well. And he didn't mind if Ozzie changed things. Then he and John Scott [Trotter] were very close and that's why I think the next year, the end of 43' or '44, I was [playing] third trumpet [on the Bing Crosby radio show] and that was a big thing. I think people heard me there 'cause I was a dumb young kid playing high notes that I shouldn't have been. I'd play Fs or high Gs, and he used to have letters from back east [asking] "Who's playing the trumpet?"
LM: I just listened to a Crosby show from the late 40s where he singled you out after you played a nice solo.
UR: He was very good about that. You couldn't converse with him, though. A very private man.
LM: But appreciative of musicians.
UR: He sure was. That was great.
LM: So you had a steady gig on the Crosby Show...
UR: Along with the Jack Benny Show, a lot of different shows, the ones you make the most money on. And I didn't want to work Saturdays — I'm a track and field nut, so I used to give up shows and they couldn't
understand that. 1 even went to the Olympics in 1948 in London.
LM: So radio was your bread and butter for a long time.
UR: Yeah, a long time, yeah, 'til '49. I used to play other studios, too. Gordon Jenkins and different guys would use me, I could play high Fs, and the only other guy who did that too, at that time, was Zeke Zarchy. But I could also play pretty good classical at the same time. That's why I was being asked to play different movies. I didn't realize I was really being auditioned by MGM, 'cause they were going to get rid of [Rafael] Mendes and hire me. It took me a long time to realize it until they finally said, "We want you out here as a third trumpet" and I turned it down four times. I said, "I want to have it listed that I want to go the Olympics in '52, and I don't want to work on Saturdays." Anyhow, after the fourth or fifth time, I said "If you write that down, I'll come out..." So I started in 1949.
LM: They met your terms.
UR: Yeah. I guess enough guys wanted me. Dr. Rozsa and a guy named Adolph Deutsch didn't like the classical playing the way [Mendes did it]. It sounded like Mendes and the orchestra, [or] it sounded like Ziggy Elman's orchestra. Ziggy couldn't really fit in as a classical player. Played great jazz, you know? But, you know when Ziggy worked with Paul Weston, [some called it] Ziggy Elman and his band, and some of those leaders don't want to have [that].
LM: So what does a musician do to blend in?
UR: Well, in a symphonic orchestra, there's a certain colloquialism. How do you hold notes? How do you end notes gracefully? The magic of sound is most important, so sound is the most prevalent thing that you hear and it overcomes the articulation you have. A lot of guys have a lot of articulation 'cause that's the easy way to play, but you want a big wonderful sound in classical playing.
LM: So you finally said yes to MGM in 1949.
UR: Yeah, you had to sign a contract. You could still work other places if the leader liked you, so [if] Andre Previn or Lennie Hayton or Johnny Green worked someplace else, you worked with them. But [they wanted] your allegiance there first. Then they stopped it because the union didn't give [the studios] a break at all for the fact that they had musicians [under contract].
LM: Was that a fifty-two week contract?
UR: Fifty-two, yeah.
LM: For some people, that was the ultimate goal, wasn't it?
UR: It was, yeah. Everybody aimed for that, especially at MGM, since they had most of the musicals.
LM: Tell me about working with Johnny Green.
UR: Johnny Green lost every job he ever had, 'cause his ego was so strong he'd just take over. I saw that when I did the U.S. Steel Show with him in 1946, I think. He got fired from that job. And he got fired from MGM also, he wasn't allowed on the whole lot for a long time there. Dore Schary [had] offered Lennie Hayton the job, and Johnny Green was second choice to be head of music at MGM. He wasn't a great writer, he was a good songwriter. He talked big about being a good conductor, but always something happened. [At] the Hollywood Bowl he'd mess up, do something wrong and you just had to take over and try to get him out of it. It was just too bad. Anyhow, he got fired. Primarily Arthur Freed was the one that really got him fired, because Roger Edens used to do the music for Arthur Freed productions. They finally had a cop at each door — there were two doors on a movie stage-just to keep Johnny Green off the stage so he wouldn't come and tell Roger how to do things. Like, "The bassoon should be louder here," or "You should make that a triplet" and so forth. Just trite things to show his authority, you know.
The only one that really put him down was [Dimitri] Tiomkin. [Green] would try [to interrupt] maybe for 20 minutes [and Tiomkin would say] "Is someone trying to get my attention?" You could hear, "Dimi, Dimi."
He'd say, "Listen," and give him three or four things. [And Tiomkin would say] "Don't you have better things to do than that?" So Johnny walked off. We did one picture, and Johnny Green was going to conduct, and by that time, he had changed [his name]. "Don't call me Johnny, call me John." And it's hard to tell an egotist, "You've got to listen to other people, too." I tried to do that gently but it never helped. He got fired from Desilu for doing the same thing. I was there when he got fired from Desilu, and Desi, literally, took ahold of his pants and got his shirt and tossed him off the stage. It was sad, it was sad. He did the same thing with Stan Wilson at Universal, [when he] told Stan Wilson, "You don't know anything about music," and he got fired from that.
LM: Talk about the preparations for doing one of those big musicals.
UR: We just came and read it, that's all.
LM: While they were rehearsing, they just used a pianist, right?
UR: The piano and sometimes a drum. The guys used to kid about it,
but they think that the suicides of at least five pianists [were attributable to] Fred Astaire 'cause he'd go over and over again, over and over again … where Gene [Kelly] was happy, and having a great time.
LM: Would someone like Gene Kelly ever come to a session?
UR: Occasionally, but not very often. He was always there for whatever he
had to do, of course. We'd just come [in] and read it. You were expected to
read it and not make mistakes, first time.
LM: There were so many great composers there and orchestrators, but not
every composer was necessarily a great conductor. Talk about that
if you would.
UR: Bronislaw Kaper — a good writer — couldn't conduct at all, and it was a tragic thing. He finally got a show on his own, maybe by 1963, '64 — the FBI show at Warners. He thought he could conduct this one show and he didn't prepare it with click tracks, which he should have done. We had a three-hour session; it went seven hours, and he had to pay the extra money for that, so gradually he was just out of business. Hugo Friedhofer couldn't
conduct, same thing, you know? Couldn't conduct.
LM: But did he know he couldn't conduct?
UR.: Yeah, Hugo did. They both did but, you know,[in TV], they don't have the money to [afford having] somebody else [to conduct] so that was both their kind of demise. But with click tracks at least you have something worked out. Andre [Previn]conducted for a lot of guys, you know, even some of the good conductors. He [subbed] for Roger Edens, for the one you just mentioned, Kaper.
LM: When you met Andre was he still a teenager?
UR: Yeah, a little bit younger than I was. When I came out there in '49, he had been conducting for Bronislaw.
LM: Did you work at all with Scott Bradley on the MGM cartoons? I'm a big fan of his.
UR: Yeah, a good writer, did a good job and kept you on your toes, you know?
LM: Those scores are very energetic.
UR: They sure are. They're fun to play. We had a good time doing it. Nice guy, too. [And with conductors] you used to say, he's a nice guy, let's go help him.
LM: So the personalities of these people really had an effect on the music...
UR: They sure did. Well, that's what Andre's alluding to in his book. George Stoll, he'd make a mistake and leave. He's talking about George in the book, but he never mentions that's who he is, though. Anybody in the whole orchestra could correct him, but we wouldn't help him at all, because George dealt very demeaningly with the band. The band was always wrong because he'd get way behind. We used to say, "Kem Tone today?" or "Dutch Boy,” what's he doing today?" [Here Uan imitates Stoll conducting, looking like a house painter making big, long strokes - Ed.] But you had to get through that, you had to play it no matter what - maybe encourage him to go faster, especially if you had another gig someplace else and wanted to get out. He was one of the worst offenders.
LM: How long would it take to score, say, a seven-minute cartoon?
UR: Three hours. Sometimes really two. We all read well; everybody read well, [it was] expected. The soloist might make mistakes, but never the orchestra. We all read quickly the first time through and you'd read it to see if there's any mistakes in the copy or the original composition, because sometimes they made mistakes, too, the composers. Most guys did it [in the] first or second take.
LM: And how long might it take to record a feature film score?
UR: Oh, depends how much [there is]. Sometimes you might have 38 minutes of music. Some guys go fast, Andre went pretty fast, you know? But Georgie Stoll literally might take, four times as long as anybody else to do that. It was so sad with Hugo Friedhofer, we had click tracks and he couldn't follow those! We're all through playing, he's still conducting. But a great writer, really, he was a great writer.
LM: When you scored movies, what time would you start recording?
UR: It all depends, Alfred Newman - eight o'clock. Most of the time, nine o'clock.
LM: In the morning.
UR: Yeah. Al would go early. For Bing Crosby, seven o'clock, then he could go play golf. One time, six-thirty.
LM: Last week my wife and I were channel surfing and TCM was showing An American in Paris. It was toward the end of the movie and, of course, we had to watch the ballet. It's an amazing piece of work.
UR: It all worked out well. It all gelled, all came beautifully. Gene Kelly's so talented — he'll listen to what's going on and go with the flow. Where [with] Fred Astaire you had to do one way and that's it. Sometimes, during the break, like, a four-beat break, he might come in a little different than a fifty-piece orchestra, but the orchestra was wrong, he was never wrong.
The love theme for An American in Paris [was orchestrated by Conrad Salinger.] Connie Salinger was one of the great writers of all time. In fact, Leo Arnaud brought back a letter [that] he read to me. Connie wanted to meet Maurice Ravel, you know? And he went back there and worked with him a few weeks through Leo Arnaud's introduction. Leo came over from France to work with Fred Waring and he didn't like it. Fred Waring's a businessman, not a musician. So he wound up at MGM. Anyhow, Connie went back there and studied with Ravel in Paris. Then Leo had this letter he got [from Ravel] that said, "You know, I learned more from Connie Salinger than I ever knew myself."
UR: Connie's a wonderful guy, a good writer. He never got the credit he should have, because he [did] all the small, little things mostly, so charming. How to have the bells, how to add the flute with the violins, [at] just the right time. He was so aware of the niceties of what music makes so settling.
LM: If I played you some sample soundtracks, let's say, from the 50s, let's say, one from Fox, one from Paramount, one from Warner Bros., one from MGM, would you be able to tell the difference?
UR: Sometimes I can, yeah.
LM: What would set each one apart for you?
UR: It's the orchestra and the room, both of them, that makes the difference. We're lucky in a sense that with brass especially, you can make your own sound that's a little more personal than any other instrument. 'Cause it's your body, the way that you aim there, or hold your air, your interaction with it, the way that you exude the sound in there. The trumpet or trombone only amplifies what your body says. Where with a violin, that's hard, unless you are talking technique. And sometimes you can tell the difference. I can tell you Manny Klein's tone, or Frank Zinzer's tone. And I can tell my tone, a lot of guys can tell my tone, too. They call up and say, "I just heard you play on so-an-so."
LM: And there's also the sound of the room?
UR: Warners had the most "live" sound, good live sound. And they changed the setting at MGM, which helped a lot. That wasn't quite as large but had a wonderful warmth to it and more life than it had before. RKO was very dull, very dull.
LM: Tell me about some of the different conductors that you worked with a lot, the composer-conductors, like Miklos Rozsa.
UR: A good conductor, knew what he wanted and knew what to write for the producer, but he couldn't write a wide variety of things. I always thought his romantic sounds lacked something. That's my own personal opinion. He did a fine job, [but] didn't understand, [since] he never played on the road with a band, that some things were more difficult than others. For instance, when you hold whole notes, that's the most difficult thing for a trumpet player or trombone to do. Finally I said, "Dr. Rozsa, give us a couple of minutes so we can] get the blood back in the lip." He said, 'Well, on the third page, you have all the whole notes, you can rest during the whole notes." It's like holding weights, you know, the weights get heavier and heavier but you
can't put them down, you just hold them. But, he was a good writer.
LM: Tell me about Adolph Deutsch.
UR: Good writer, did a lot of wonderful things,especially for singers and had good know-how;listened to reason, too. He'd come back and talk to you and ask, "What do you think? Am I getting a good feel here?" Very few guys who could do that. [He was] somebody who listened.
LM: What do you think were Andre Previn's strengths?
UR: Just being a great musician. He had a great sense of humor and [was] a great conductor. He conducted so well, he could read it off the first time and time it at the same time. Just a great musician.
LM: Having the musicians' respect, would that make a difference in the session, yes?
UR: Oh yeah, we tried hard for Andre. There was no fooling around there, no phoning it in, 'cause he was very ardent. Most guys are a big show, you know, Leonard Bernstein showed off for the audience, or the worst one, my God, was Paul Whiteman. He did a show out here two years in a row, '47, '48, a summer replacement show [on radio, and] he wasn't there at all for the rehearsal. Just came and followed the orchestra then turned around to the audience when he cut it off. A big showman, you know, big showman.
LM: But Previn knew that he could trust you guys, so [he] didn't have to push.
UR: And he was also so good to us about [giving us] the inside job. He was the only guy who would ever come back and tell us the inside story on what
LM: How about Alfred Newman?
UR: Just a great musician, a great writer for music players, too. He took time to make music important, you know? He always had good taste, The poor guy, though [he did] the Academy Awards [broadcast] only one time. I never saw him so nervous. He was scared to death, and he knocked over all his music. For the first half hour of the show, I just had to take control, you know. We had five pieces of music, three in one spot, two on the chair beside you. And as soon as they announced the winner, you had to put that one up front and play it. So I just took over and started playing ‘cause he’s down on the floor, trying to collect his music. It was sad, he was just so nervous. He hadn’t done a live show for years, you know.
LM: Am I right that if we leave Johnny Green out of the equation, Newman was the only musician who was also the head of a studio music department?
UR: That’s right. Vice President at one time.
LM: Did you ever work for Bernard Herrmann?
UR: Yeah, lots. O gosh, he was always so unthankful. It’s his attitude, you know, the music was everything. He even did, one trumpet and sixteen bassoons where the were contrabassoons regular bassoons... and it never was good enough for him. He finally did Taxi Driver, remember that picture? And he [wouldn't] conduct. Finally, I said something because he just sat there. Jack Hayes was the orchestrator so Jack said, "Let's just start playing, you know, let's do something," so we just did it and we played cues, got through it, and he sat in the booth and said very little. I guess we broke for lunch and came back and played later on, the jazz scene. So-called jazz. You know, I play ersatz jazz; I'm not a great jazz player, not at all, but I play what the leader wants. You know, you're there to please them. So he I came out and thanked us, thanked me especially, "Thank you, Uan." Uan — he used my name! My God, after all these years, maybe sixteen years —
LM: — and then he died.
UR: And he died that night. First time he ever thanked us. Ironic, at least.
LM: What was your impression of Arthur Freed?
UR: Good man, but he's a songwriter, so he had Roger Edens actually write [scores] for him. And Roger was a good piano player, good writer, and a nice guy.
LM: A lot of people say that they could never figure out Arthur Freed, but they realize his secret was hiring talented people.
UR: That's right, he hired talent. He knew good talent. Had a big orchestra, and wasn't afraid to take time, so it worked out fine.
LM: How about Victor Young? Did you ever work with him? He's one of my favorites
UR: Oh, all-time favorites. I did the Western show with him, remember the radio show? So efficient, he knew what to do. Great songs he wrote. And just great with a stick. A great musician, one of the great writers of all time.
LM: But no overtime because he would get it done so quickly.
UR: Yeah. He just wanted to play poker. Just get it done, get out of here.
LM: You know, of course, that you're famous for that solo on Chinatown that you did for Jerry Goldsmith.
UR: I couldn't believe that. I got back from an NCAA track meet in Austin, Texas, but before [I went] I called and the call at Paramount was three trumpets, so 1 thought I'm OK, I can hide, you know? I got back and it's dangerous business, because I hadn't played my horn that much at all, just watched the track meet. I walk in and it was one trumpet and forty string players, four pianos and drummers. We had to do a lot of things because they had changed it a lot. Robert Evans had done [the score] before with the guy that did A Chorus Line, not a very nice man. Some guys walked out on him back in New York because he'd insult people. Robert Evans threw the whole score out.
So, they had to have started Monday and Tuesday, we got through Tuesday night about ten o'clock, and we had to have the whole movie back for a preview, on a plane Friday night, in New York City. And I never thought it would be a big hit. It was nothing to play really. A lot of people, I guess, thought it was Bobby Hackett that played this solo. So I never thought about it, then I got a call from Paramount, [saying] "We have hundreds of calls here about who played the solo." I couldn't believe it. They finally put my name on the album, I guess.
LM: All those years, did you ever go to hear one of your scores? Did you take any pride in going into a theatre and hearing your work?
UR: Well, no, 'cause I always find complaints about it. "I should have done that better." I didn't enjoy it. Not much of a fan of myself.
LM: I suppose that was an advantage when you worked in radio: you had no chance to do it over again, so it had to be right the first time.
UR: Oh, sure. They called me Fearless Fosdick. It was fun; I dared myself. I welcome challenges, you know? That's the only growth you have, when you challenge yourself... do something a little better, a little more.”
You can listen to Uan’s haunting beautiful rendering of the them from Chinatown on the following video.