Bill Mays: Inventions, Conventions and Dimensions
BM: When I moved to New York I hooked up with Emil Charlapnow retired, he was the film contractor in New York. Maybe I did six or seven movies a year, instead of two a week. I got to keep my hand in that. I guess the last movie I did was Julie and Julia.
AAJ: You were on one of my favorites, Fargo.
BM: Yes, I played piano and celeste, as I did on Julie and Julia. You know the celeste?
AAJ: That tinkly fairy sound?
BM: It's four octaves, and it produces that sound by a hammer striking a metal bar. Its most famous application is in the Nutcracker Suite, in "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy." If you listen to the sound track of Julie and Julia, you'll hear the celeste in unison with the orchestra. In Fargo, it's used in any number of waysit can be a solo instrument or played in unison, to add a little color and icing on the cake.
AAJ: I don't think the celeste was used in that infamous wood- chipper scene. .
BM: No. It's used in the very beginningthe theme is DA-da-da-da- DOOH... [sings]. In fact, I do a program called "Mays at the Movies" where I play some stuff from that album. The theme from Fargo isn't on that recording, but I incorporate it into the program since I played on the soundtrack. People get a kick out of knowing that, and also hearing what can be done in a jazz way with that theme.
AAJ: Tell me more about your movie work.
BM: The last movie score I played on before I moved to New York was Gremlins, and Jerry Goldsmith was the composer. There were three keyboard playerswe had piano, I think we had celeste and harpsichord, and we had synthesizers. But the movie I did that had the most keyboard playersin fact, the whole scorewas written by Lalo Schifrin. It was called Roller Coaster It was a horrible movie about a serial killer blowing up roller coasters Judy and I still couldn't get through it the other night, when we tried to see it againbut Lalo wrote a great score. There were eight or nine keyboard players. We did it at Universal. He used pipe organ, harpsichord, tack piano, celeste, piano, Fender Rhodes. Don't know if we had synthesizers.
AAJ: What's a tack piano?
BM: It's an upright piano where you put thumbtacks in the hammers that strike the strings; it gives you that old Western barroom piano sound. And it's a great sound. [Mike] Post and [Pete] Carpenter used it on Magnum P.I., a TV show I played on. They used a tack piano in unison with guitar to get a very unique sound. Composers use all kinds of interesting techniques.
Remember that horrid little "Chucky" character [1988's Child's Play]? I played on one of those movies, and again it was Lalo Schifrin who did the score. He used a Yamaha console piano manufactured in Japan. That piano has a middle pedal that's a mutethe Yamaha corporation made that piano for apartments in Japan that had very thin walls, so people could practice and not disturb their neighbors. It gives a very non-piano, weird sound.
Lalo had that piano in the studio; I'd never played one before or since. He had me keep the piano muted, and they put three mics down inside with a lot of reverb so the sound is other-worldly, and you don't really know what it is.
I'll tell you another interesting use of the piano, on a movie called Sphere. The score was by Eliot Goldenthal; we recorded it in New York maybe ten years ago. It had a nine-foot Steinway granda $125,000 pianowith a big orchestra. But I didn't play one note on the keyboard.
You know that thing that covers the keys on a pianoevery piano has one, it's called a "fallboard?" He had me playing in rhythmic unison with the cellos, the basses, and the low tuba and trombones. I had the sustain pedal depressed so that all the notes were sounding sympathetically, and my hands on the fallboard, slamming it down with the tempo and in unison with everyone else.
AAJ: So you weren't actually playing the pianoyou were playing the fallboard?
BM: Isn't that unbelievable?
AAJ: And that was in Sphere, with Dustin Hoffman?
BM: I don't remember. I never saw the movie.
BM: Yeah. Just another day at the office! But we were joking in the studio that you have a $125,000 piano here, and you're treating it like that.
AAJ: I was thinking about how eclectic you are when I saw you playing such wonderful stride. Not many jazz pianists will do that.
BM: Many don't know how. Many don't care to.
AAJ: It's very demanding, technically, no?
BM: It's like playing a classical piece. A fellow asked me how much of the rags was improvised and I said, very little. "Grandpa Spells" was almost note for note, and I also did "Black Beauty"that's a Bill Dobbins transcription of an Ellington solo, and it's ver-noteum.
"Carolina Shout" I take a few liberties with, just rhythmic liberties, but it's pretty much James P.'s original version [James P. Johnson was a pioneer of the stride style]. That's an interesting one because there are six different sections to it. It's a great piece of writing, and a bitch to play. It's the kind of piece where you start learning the left hand separately and then the right hand, about this fast (snaps, slowly)and eventually you play it like this (sings it, fast).
I think being a studio musician was great on a number of levels. It taught me how to listen to other instruments, which you have to do as a jazz player, phrase with them. Also, being an accompanistif you're a good one, you're breathing with a singeryou're playing as little as possible while being supportive.
When I worked with Sinatra, it was a few concerts. Bill Miller was his longtime accompanist; they had decided to try him conducting, so I got the call to come play piano. Bill didn't work out as a conductor, so they put him back in the piano chair where he operated best, and got Frank Sinatra Jr. to conduct.
Anyway, I digress. When I went to the first rehearsal, there was an orchestra, and we were playing all those great Gordon Jenkins and Nelson Riddle and Billy May charts that I'd heard for years. And now I'm in the middle of the orchestra, hearing it live. That was really heaven!
There was an entry for some song, and I had chord symbols, and also had some written-out stuff. I added a few little things, and Bill Miller said, "Simplify itway less!" But Sarah Vaughan, on the other hand, liked elaborate intros sometimes and let me stretch out. Every singer's different. You learn to be flexible.
So: I think the studio work, the accompanying, all helped me be a better comper behind horns in a jazz setting. And my church experience as a kid, playing in the choirthat helped too. I love playing duo, I love solo, trio, I love playing with horns. Nothing I prefer over another. I like to do it all.