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Lalo Schifrin lit fuse of many composers

Famed writer of 'Mission Impossible' theme and others blended orchestral music, jazz, funk and rock.

February 23, 2011|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Composer Lalo Schifrin is best known for his score for "Mission Impossible."
Composer Lalo Schifrin is best known for his score for "Mission Impossible." (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Lalo Schifrin describes himself simply as a "music maker."

"I do music by taking a baton and conducting it or by writing it or by playing the piano," said the 78-year-old composer, who perhaps is best known for his Grammy-winning, jazz infused score for the classic TV series "Mission: Impossible."

But Schifrin is being unduly modest. The Argentine-born composer helped change the sound of movie scores, earning six Oscar nominations. Among his movie scores are 1965's "The Cincinnati Kid," 1967's "Cool Hand Luke," for which he earned his first Oscar nomination, 1968's "Bullitt," 1971's "THX 1138 and "Dirty Harry," 1979's "The Amityville Horror," for which he was also Oscar-nominated and the three "Rush Hour" comedies.

"He is one of the first composers to come along who could effectively combine traditional orchestral music with jazz, rock and funk," said film music historian Jon Burlingame.

On Wednesday evening, Schifrin will discuss his film career at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre with "Ed Wood" screenwriter Larry Karaszewski, between screenings of "Cool Hand Luke" and "Dirty Harry."

On a recent sunny afternoon, Schifrin is relaxing in his office at his Beverly Hills home. The room is filled with a piano, plaques celebrating his Oscar nominations, his Grammys and numerous photos and memorabilia from his career.

"Director Stuart Rosenberg asked me to go on location," for "Cool Hand Luke," Schifrin recalled. "That was his modus operandi to invite a composer to the location. I got a feel for the movie."

The two collaborated three more times on 1970's "WUSA," 1976's "The Voyage of the Damned" and "The Amityville Horror."

Burlingame said that the scores of "Cool Hand Luke" and "Dirty Harry" are among Schifrin's most influential work. "'Cool Hand Luke' is partly blue grass, partly country, partly orchestral, partly blues," he said.

"Dirty Harry," Burlingame added, "is the one of the most important scores of its time. People don't recognize this, but 'Dirty Harry' combines orchestral, elements of jazz, rock and funk and synthesizers."

Schifrin was born into a musical family in Buenos Aires. His father, Luis Schifrin, was concert master of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Buenos Aires at the Teatro Colón. At the age of 6 he began studying piano. His first teacher was Enrique Barenboim, the father of pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim. When he was a teenager, he discovered modern American jazz. "I realized that the music of Charlie Parker, Theolonis Monk was complicated in terms of harmony. I realized that the modern composers in the 20th century had a great relationship with jazz-Ravel, Debussy, even Stravinsky and Bartók."

One of his teachers suggested he apply for a scholarship to attend the Paris Conservatory. "The scholarship didn't pay for much-the journey from Buenos Aires to France. I made money by working at jazz clubs with some of the best European musician doing jazz. That was a good school for me."

Upon returning to Buenos Aires when he was 24, he was offered by the head and TV and radio in the country to start his own jazz band to do concerts, TV and radio.

Schifrin's life changed when Dizzy Gillespie came to Buenos Aires in 1956 on a state department tour. "He had some of the best jazz musicians in the United States. Quincy Jones was his fourth trumpet. He played for one week every day. I went to all of his concerts. He was doing exactly what I liked."

One evening a reception was held for Gillespie that Schifrin and his orchestra played at. At the end of the evening, the famed musician asked him to come to the United States with him. "I couldn't believe it," Schifrin said. I thought it was a joke. He meant it."

So he left for New York soon after that and began playing the piano for Gillespie and writing for him, including the large-scale compositions "Gillespiana," and "The New Continent."

"I worked with Dizzy for three years and then I got an offer to come to Hollywood to do movies [in 1963]," Schifrin said. "My first movie was called 'Rhino.' It was a low-budget movie, but it was the beginning."

susan.king@latimes.com


Lalo Schifrin at screenings of 'Dirty Harry' / 'Cool Hand Luke'

7:30 p.m. Wednesday

American Cinematheque Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

Admission: $11

Information: http://www.americancinemathque.com or (323) 466-3456

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