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April 20: Tribute To Composer Jack Elliott At Hartt

Hartford Musician Feted by Hartt, Dionne Warwick


April 15, 2012

A major Hollywood composer and arranger for many decades, Jack Elliott, a one-time child prodigy who was born in Hartford and grew up in West Hartford, wrote scores for hit TV shows, including all those once eminently whistleable themes for"Charlie's Angels," "Love Boat," "Police Story,""Barney Miller" and "Starsky and Hutch."

A 1951 graduate of what is today called The Hartt School at the University of Hartford, the multi-gifted, prolifically productive Elliott also composed for Hollywood movies, often for his good pal Carl Reiner for such comedies as "The Comic," "Where's Poppa?", "The Jerk" and "Oh, God!" Elliott served as music director for the Academy Awards, Emmy Awards, Kennedy Center Honors, the 1984 Summer Olympics as well as for the Grammy Awards for an amazing run of 30 consecutive years.

As an all-round music man, he was the first-call arranger for a galaxy of stars ranging from Judy Garland in her last TV series (his first giant break on the West Coast) to Andy Williams (a long-running TV gig) to sometimes sharing his renowned musical savvy with such divas as Dionne Warwick (a close friend and fellow Hartt alum) and Julie Andrews, whom he accompanied as music director on a grand tour of Japan. In one of his return trips to Hartford in 1984, he conducted his New American Orchestra in a concert with Andrews at the old Hartford Civic Center.

Have Pen Will Travel would have been this paladin composer/arranger's perfect calling card.

Elliott died Aug. 18, 2001 of a brain tumor that had not been diagnosed until just three weeks earlier. . It devastated friends and family alike with its relentless speed from detection to death at the UCLA Medical Center, only 12 days after his 74th birthday.

Although he sometimes made the transcontinental flight from Los Angeles to visit old friends and family or to perform at special musical occasions in his hometown, the name Jack Elliott, even despite his numerous Hollywood successes, today probably doesn't quite resonate in Hartford as it once did six decades ago when he was a brilliant undergrad at Hartt College of Music, located in a picturesque, turreted, castle-like landmark on Broad Street, across from the old Hartford Public High School.

Dashing, well-dressed (with his youthful jazz earnings he bought his impeccably styled clothes downtown at the upscale Henry Miller Clothiers on Trumbull Street) and extremely well-read, Elliott was not only a whiz kid in academia, but was also widely known as a first-rate jazz piano player and cocktail lounge pianist. He seemed to know every tune and played everywhere in Hartford and beyond at virtually every kind of gig, from weddings to bar mitzvahs.

Often the gifted, young musician worked frequently with Connecticut's high society bandleader, Paul Landerman, one of Jack's many lifelong friends back home in Hartford.

Because of his talent, wit and charm, old Hartford friends have long celebrated Elliott's Hollywood triumphs, and even still today cherish his early days of bright promise as a student at Hartt and as the consummate peripatetic pianist playing gigs at popular local nightspots like The Hedges in New Britain.

Some of that old Elliott luster is being restored thanks to The Hartt School, which on Friday at 7:30 p.m. celebrates a donation made by the Elliott family of the composer/arranger's priceless private collection of 350 commissioned compositions and arrangements by nearly 100 contemporary American composers. All the works in this windfall gift for Hartt's archives were commissioned by Elliott's Foundation for New American Music, a reflection of his longstanding support for living American composers.

Hartt School Dean Aaron A. Flagg has hailed The Elliott Collection, citing its enormous potential both as an invaluable teaching tool and as rich material for live performances and recordings.

To celebrate Hartt presents a concert/celebration at Millard Auditorium on the UofH campus, featuring the school's debut performances of works from The Elliott Collection, as well as a non-singing, speaking appearance by Warwick, who will speak on her friendship and musical associations with Elliott since they first met years ago and immediately bonded over their mutual connection with and love for Hartt School.

Donated to Hartt by Elliott's widow, Bobbi Gershon Elliott, The Elliott Collection features works by such household names as Henry Mancini and other iconic screen composers ranging from the legendary Erich Korngold to John Williams of "Star Wars" fame; along with Elliott himself, plus a legion of jazz luminaries, including, among many others, Ray Brown, Claus Ogerman, Modern Jazz Quartet music director John Lewis and the great Oliver Nelson.

Many pieces in The Elliott Collection are largely symphonic works with jazz influences, mixing jazz and classical elements into what the noted American composer Gunther Schuller once called "third stream music." Some works were performed by two orchestras that Elliott, a classically trained musician with a passion for jazz, had formed to play these especially commissioned works, which will now be digitized, preserved, perused and performed.

"I think Jack would be thrilled by the donation to Hartt School," says his widow, Bobbi, who selected Hartt as the recipient of the collection. "Jack was very much a sentimentalist, and, you know, you never forget your roots," she says by phone from their home of many years in Beverly Hills.

Bobbi, who's the aunt of the famous Hollywood actress Gina Gershon, grew up in Beverly Hills, and met Jackon a blind date. They were introduced, she recalls, by a budding musician whose family owned Goodman's Matzo. The heir-apparent to the matzo empire had met Jack while they were both studying one summer at the music school in Tanglewood where Jack, always willing to help out with his musical knowledge, gave the matzo baron-to-be, help with his homework assignments.

Bobbi and Jack married in 1962, had three kids, but his unexpected deathprevented him from ever seeing his grandchildren.

There is something about his life, Bobbi suggests, of a Hollywood biopic, what with its narrative arc ascending from his early days as an amiable boyhood genius, first living in Hartford's North End before moving at age 14 with his closely-knit family to West Hartford, on through his climactic, Midas-like musical touch and happy Hollywood triumph with himself crowned as a much-respected, well-liked musical mogul.

Along his odyssey from Hartt to Hollywood fame and fortune, there were triumphant baby steps, including such scenarios as his early gigs as the rehearsal pianist, first for Perry Como, then for the renowned Broadway choreographer/dancer Peter Gennaro, who eventually hooked him up with Judy Garland.

More cinematically, there were Elliott's tours of Europe with the famous French chanteuse Jacqueline François, and the good times of hanging out in Paris, enjoying the Bohemian life with his fellow expatriate American pals, Quincy Jones and Burt Bacharach, who became lifelong friends. Bobbi's bio-pic would light up with close-up shots of young Jack as the smart, debonair piano man entertaining the swells at New York's famous Stork Club, winning the hearts and minds of café society's elite. Among his blue-blood fans back then was Gloria Vanderbilt.

Jack, whose warm charm was as unerring as his perfect pitch, had a special gift for making not just friends, but, quite often, lifetime friends, Bobbi says. During his Hollywood reign he loved to hang out with Reiner and their close buddy Henry Mancini, three amigos who enjoyed palling around together with their mutual good friend, astronaut John Glenn.

Aside from his people skills, Jack's musical bio-pic would also zoom in on his jazzier side, catching him as he swings at The Embers, a once world famous, Manhattan jazz spot where he was broadcast nationally on NBC radio's live pickup show called "Monitor." At the mic, a young, then obscure yet later quite famous announcer named Hugh Downs gives the lowdown on this piano phenom from Hartfordplaying in a jazz room that was also home to such piano royalty as Marian McPartland and George Shearing.

No matter where he worked — Hartford, the Big Apple, Paris or Hollywood — Jack connected with everyone, Bobbie says.

Even when he was a draftee plucked right out of UConn in his first semester, he eventually wound up stationed in post-war Germany, arranging for a 35-piece military band where he formed a lasting friendship with a young singer named Tony Bennett. Bennett's military specialty on the post was as caretaker of the band's music library.

When recited by Bobbi, Elliott's musical connections over the decades are a litany of top pop figures of the era, including Patti Page, Robert Goulet, Johnny Mathis and Irving Berlin, among many others.

His lasting link with Berlin, one of the giants of American popular music, reflected Elliott's then-rising reputation as a skilled music writer on Broadway. His early Broadway work eventually posed a dilemma, making him come face-to-face with a wealth of choices that anyone in showbiz might well envy.

Through his connection with Gennaro, Elliott first broke into Broadway work as an arranger/orchestrator beginning with the musical, "Tenderloin." In his final contribution to Broadway, he worked on Berlin's "Mr. President." His skillful efforts earned him Berlin's stamp of approval, an imprimatur that was no small thing back then coming from the iconic, almost godlike composer who had, after all, composed such revered, virtually sacred songs as"God Bless America,""White Christmas" and "Easter Parade."

"We have letters from Irving Berlin all over the house, some of them framed, some of them not. On Irving Berlin's 100th birthday, he sent us first editions of every one of his songs, done in gold leaf. I always called him Mr. Berlin," Bobbi recalls, still, after all these years, deferential to Mr. Berlin.

With Elliott's proven ability on the Great White Way, however, came a "troublesome" dilemma, which was actually a kind of wonderful embarrassment of riches.

What happened was that Elliott simultaneously received two juicy, potentially career-making offers: one to hunker down in New York and write for the musical "Fiddler On The Roof," or, the second, to opt for Hollywood and work on a movie called "The Unsinkable Molly Brown."

"Jack asked me, 'What should I do?" Bobbi recalls. "I told him, 'Well, it's your choice, but you've never done a movie.' So he missed out on 'Fiddler,' but got an Academy Award nomination for 'Molly.' So it was really a no lose situation," she says.

Being married to Jack — a multi-faceted, fun-loving man who was a connoisseur of good wine, food and witty conversation; was crazy about Paris, which they visited frequently; spoke French fluently and, in later years, taught himself to be a first-class photographer — was a great, enjoyable, richly varied, never once boring adventure, Bobbi says.

"We had a lot of fun. And we still get residuals today from 'Police Story,' and I think that's from 45 years ago. And 'Charlie's Angels' put all three of our children through college," she says, laughing to herself, thinking about their many good times in Beverly Hills.

"Jack had a great sense of humor and loved hanging out with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. He loved writers, and Larry Gelbart (TV and movie writer, playwright and developer of the classic CBS dark comedy series, "M*A*S*H) was one of his truest friends. But most of all, of course, he adored music," she says.

Elliott's rare brand of musical omniscience dazzled friends and fellow musicians virtually all his life. And it was obvious early on, even when he was just a kid in the Hall High School band beating a big bass drum (the piano was too heavy to carry) marching in West Hartford's Memorial Day Parade in the 1940s, an all-American, small-town ritual right out of a Norman Rockwell painting for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Elliott's sister, Paula Z. Homonoff, who is eight-years his junior, recalls him as "a wonderful big brother," who, while at Hall High (Class of '45), used to rehearse his band in the family living room in their home on Ballard Drive in West Hartford. Elliott, who changed his name from Irwin Elliott Zucker to Jack Elliott for professional reasons, was the son of Al Zucker, who owned a plumbing supply firm, United Plumbing, originally located on Hartford's Front Street, and his mother, Ida Zucker, loving parents who were very proud and supportive of their musical son.

"He was an all-round guy who loved not just music but art, sculpture and golf, and played tennis and ice-skated at Elizabeth Park. He was not a nerdy kid. Even with success, he was extremely unassuming" Paula says by phone from her home in Framingham, Mass.

Even as an undergrad at Hartt — an exuberant Golden Age for the school which was teeming with recently discharged servicemen there under the GI Bill — Elliott impressed one of the faculty members, Edward Diemente, with his avid reading, Renaissance Man's knowledge of the arts and enlightened, humane view of the world.

"He was not just a piano player," Diemente recalls, "but a brainy guy who exuded confidence and ability. He was very friendly and everybody liked him a lot. I used to listen to his arrangements and they were stunning even then — right up there with Earl Hines (titan pianist and big band leader) and the great Benny Goodman arrangers."

A mutual love of literature — a passion for discussing and analyzing everything from the modern poetry of e.e. cummingsand Wallace Stevens to the Catholic symbolism mysteriously lurking in the worldly novels of Graham Greene — led to the lifetime friendship between Elliott, one of Hartt's legion of just returned military vets, and Diemente, a noted composer and a professor emeritus at Hartt where he taught for nearly four decades before retiring in the late 1980s.

Even aside from his TV and movie music credits, Elliott's career included a variety of other significant roles including as co-founder and music director of the American Jazz Philharmonic (formerly the New American Orchestra), director of the Henry Mancini Institute and founder of the Foundation of New American Music, from which his commissions for composers flowed.

A large turnout of friends and family, including a big contingent from the West Coast led by the irrepressible Bobbi Elliott, will be there Friday night for the hometown tribute at Hartt

"Jack, absolutely had a real affection for Hartt School, and in the business would be the first to hire a Hartt graduate. Jack was gifted, but he had a really big soul and always wanted to help," Bobbi says.

JACK ELLIOTT'S tribute, Hartt's "Collaborative Concert of American Music," with remarks by Dionne Warwick, is Friday, April 20, at 7:30 p.m. at Millard Auditorium, on the UofH campus, 200 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford. The Hartt Symphony Orchestra and students from the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz collaborate in presenting Hartt's debut performance of six symphonic pieces from The Elliott Collection, conducted by Edward Cumming. Also featured are selections from works by Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin performed by The Hartt Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hartt alumnus Michael Barrett. Noted jazz bassist/composer John Clayton will be featured in a solo work and introduce his own arrangement of "The Star Spangled Banner" as performed at the Super Bowl by the late pop diva Whitney Houston, who was Dionne Warwick's cousin. Warwick will speak on her long friendship with Jack Elliott and their various musical collaborations. Admission: $20 with discounts for students and seniors. Information and tickets: http://www.hartford.edu/hartt and 860-768-4228.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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