“Blues for Brando” (1953) Leith Stevens/Shorty Rogers, with Bud Shank, Milt Bernhart and Bob Cooper


“Blues for Brando”

Composed  by Leith Stevens; arranged by Leith Stevens with probable assistance by Shorty Rogers.(*)

Recorded by Leith Stevens with Shorty Rogers on August 14, 1953 in Hollywood, California.

Leith Stevens, directing: Milton M. Rajonsky (Shorty Rogers), trumpet; Milton G. “Milt” Bernhart, trombone; Clifford E. “Bud” Shank, and James “Jimmy” Giuffre, alto saxophones; Robert “Bob” Cooper, tenor saxophone; Russ Freeman, piano; Carson Smith, bass; Shelly Manne, drums.

The Story: My admiration for Marlon Brando as an actor is great. After studying at the Actors’ Studio in New York (the “Method Acting” school) in the 1940s, Brando hit Hollywood like a cyclone in 1951 with his explosive portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in the film adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire, a role that he had originated successfully on Broadway. One of Brando’s greatest screen performances was as Terry Malloy, a small-time prizefighter in On the Waterfront in 1954. His portrayal of the motorcycle gang leader Johnny Strabler in The Wild One the year before created a lasting rebellious image in popular culture. When seen now, the subculture of Brando’s early-1950s motorcycle gang seems less menacing than it was when the film was made.

“In the beginning there was Marlon Brando. The new ‘method’ school of acting that put an emphasis on naturalism and improvisation translated irresistibly to Brando’s bad-mannered, brooding rebel outsider Johnny Strabler in director Laslo Benedek’s cult biker B-movie The Wild One. Here was a role model for disaffected youth coming out of the post-war era looking to free themselves from the ‘phony’ values being impressed upon them by their parents. Brando was speaking their language, both in the verbal and bodily sense. It was one that adult society couldn’t and wouldn’t understand. In the film Brando is cool, surly, and a sexual time bomb – his character entirely stripped of the kind of clean-cut image that young Americans would have had in the 1950s. Adolescent fantasies were being unraveled on the big screen. Cinema was about to play a crucial role in spreading the word.” (1)

What is little known about Brando is his love of jazz, swing and great American Popular Song. When Brando was ascending to the heights of fame as a Hollywood screen star in the 1950s, he was often invited to parties. Frequently, he showed up with a set of bongos, which he played usually to great acclaim by his fellow party-goers. (Brando is shown with bongos at left.) He was also know to burst into song at parties. One of his favorite party-pieces was his vocal rendition of “Music, Maestro Please,” a sentimental ballad from the late 1930s, that was made famous by Tommy Dorsey’s band, with the sultry Edythe Wright singing.

The film The Wild One is hardly one of Brando’s best. Nevertheless, it contains some good acting by him and fellow hell-raiser Lee Marvin, and snippets of a lovely musical score, written by Leith Stevens. Included in that score is the enchanting pastel-hued “Blues for Brando.”

Although credit for the arrangement of “Blues for Brando” presented here has been attributed to Leith Stevens, who certainly was a competent arranger (2), it nevertheless sounds like much of the music that was arranged and played by Shorty Rogers (1924-1994) in the mid-1950s. In addition to being the world’s slowest talking jazz musician, Rogers was a very talented trumpeter and arranger. He served an apprenticeship in many swing and other big bands through the 1940s and into the 1950s. Most notable of these were Woody Herman’s and Stan Kenton’s. By the early 1950s, he had settled in Los Angeles and was doing studio work as both a performer and arranger, usually employing many other young jazz musicians. Rogers was also one of the leaders of the West Coast school of jazz in the early 1950s. The music played by West Coast jazz players was decidedly cool, having soft musical colors that to me have always evoked the warm climes of southern California. (Above right: Shorty Rogers in the early 1950s.)

The music: This performance is a very intimate one, beautifully recorded and realized, of a lovely theme which is stated in the first chorus by alto saxophonist Bud Shank, a long-time musical and personal associate of Shorty Rogers. Note the warm, varied textures created by Rogers as a background for Shank’s cool alto sax sound using relatively few instruments. Trombonist Milt Bernhart follows with an open horn solo, played at first against a background created by Rogers’s muted trumpet, and  then by low register saxophones. Tenor saxophonist Bob Cooper takes the final solo, which is brief but expressive. Once again, listen for the shifting, colorful sonorities behind Cooper. (Alto saxophonist Bud Shank is shown above left in the mid-1950s.)

Unfortunately, very little of “Blues for Brando” can be heard on the soundtrack of The Wild One. And what is there is an alternate big band version that, as I recall, has little of the charm of this small band version.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

(*) I have seen later (after the 1950s) attribution of the arrangement on “Blues for Brando” solely to Shorty Rogers.

(1) This summary is excerpted from moochinabout.com

(2) Leith Stevens was one of a group of conductors who led various bands presented on the legendary CBS radio show Saturday Night Swing Club in the late 1930s, so he clearly was conversant with jazz.

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