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JOHNNY MANDEL KEEPS ONE STEP AHEAD OF FAME

Johnny Mandel’s fame has not yet caught up with his talent. After almost 30 years as a composer for motion pictures (including “The Sandpiper,” from which the love theme known as “The Shadow of Your Smile” won him both an Academy Award and a Grammy), the former name-band trombonist remains relatively obscure to those for whom Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones are household names.

Due to appear this evening at the Wiltern Theatre, where he will conduct a program of 1920s jazz and Gershwin music, arranged by Bill Potts, for the “Jazzvisions” video and compact-disc project, Mandel is as busy as any writer in town.

“I just finished work on a Loretta Young Christmas special to air Dec. 22 on NBC,” he said the other day during a break from work at his Malibu home. “I’ve been hard at work on the music for a three-hour special about Lyndon Johnson, also for NBC. It’s Grade A stuff.

“After Jan. 1, I’m going to work on ‘Brenda Starr,’ a movie with Brooke Shields. Things are going great for me, but I want to get a lot more work conducting, especially in the area of jazz.”

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Jazz has never been far from his mind during a career that began when he played trumpet for Joe Venuti’s band, then trombone for several others. “I was lucky to be with several big bands at their peak: some of the best Georgie Auld bands and Buddy Rich bands, and most memorably Count Basie.”

The Basie connection came about after he had written some arrangements for the Count. “One day he had an opening in the brass section and called me. I thought someone was kidding--I said, ‘Sure, you’re Count Basie and I’m Snow White.’ But he said, ‘No, really. Meet me at the Woodside at noon; the bus leaves from there.’ That was the start of one of the happiest years of my life; I never had a bad moment with that band.”

Leaving Basie to settle in California, Mandel at first regretted the move. “I missed the band so much, and I was scuffling, just writing for singers and Las Vegas shows.” When the big break came, in 1958, it was spectacular: he was assigned to do the music for “I Want to Live,” the first movie to integrate jazz successfully into a score.

After that triumph, the phone rang more often. Mandel wrote TV underscore music for such shows as “Mr. Roberts” and “Ben Casey” as well as numerous movies, most notably “The Americanization of Emily” in 1964.

“That was sort of a turning point, because I’d been in the business 20 years but didn’t realize I could write songs.” His “Emily,” with a Johnny Mercer lyric, was the first in a long series of exquisite melodies that seem likely to endure: songs written with such lyricists as Peggy Lee (“The Shining Sea”), the Bergmans (“Cinnamon and Clove”), Paul Williams (“Close Enough for Love” from the film “Agatha”), “Suicide Is Painless” (from “MASH”) and “A Time for Love” with Paul Francis Webster, who was also his collaborator on “The Shadow of Your Smile.” (These and others are in a first-rate album, “Sue Raney Sings the Music of Johnny Mandel,” Discovery DS 875.)

“Very soon,” Mandel says, “I want to do some writing and conducting for jazz musicians. I’m already set to write pieces for Hubert Laws, Bud Shank and Stan Getz, and for large orchestras.

“I want to go out and do an evening with people like that, playing some of my own stuff; I could sort of become the jazz Percy Faith or Nelson Riddle. Guys in that category aren’t around now and I think there should be a demand for this kind of thing.”

Mandel today has a degree of success far beyond anything he could have dreamed of when he was on the road in the Count’s brass section in 1953. Yet you feel he is only half kidding when he says, “You know, there are times when I think I should never have quit the Basie band.”

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