Interview with Piero Umiliani

The Rebirth of 'A Maestro' - interview by Al Casey with Piero Umiliani 

Originally published in Giaguaro magazine.

How and where does Maestro Piero Umiliani's career begin?
My story begins right when the war ended. It was 1944 and I was seventeen years old and Italy was divided in half. The Nazis were in Bologna and the allies had just arrived in Florence and along with the Americans we played at all hours.

For us it was freedom in every sense of the word. After having suffered so many years of oppression we could eat as much as we wanted. I was paid for my music with suitcases full of food for my entire family. We could play and sing to the new freedom.

My first piano lesson was with my aunt, who taught me how to play classical pieces: to hear Radio London and the first Duke Ellington at fourteen was a dream. When I was nineteen SIAE gave me the possibility to write be bop arrangements of classical jazz pieces. I published these scores on my own publication Omega. These scores were then distributed all over Italy to various orchestras that played them and I would get a percentage through the SIAE when they were played.

I was 24 years old and had a degree in law when the Director of the Conservatory in Florence, Cherubini, told me that I should study music at the conservatory so as not to regret it later in life. He told me that even though I had talent I need instruction in order to become a real professional. I attended the conservatory to catch up and actually entered into residency into the eighth year.

It was the end of me. I lost my head for several girls and in the ninth year I realized that I was wasting my time and that I would never become a professional musician. I also realized that I didn't like that classical stuff they had us play at the conservatory but that I liked to play jazz.

In 1952 my friend introduced me to Trovajoli who need someone to do his arrangements. So I moved to Rome to be with Armando Trovajoli, with whom I began a real friendship. In 1954 I cut my first record for RCA. It was a strange record called "Dixieland in Naples" and it consisted of Dixieland arrangements of Neapolitan songs. It's a record that I'm still proud of. Rai liked it too and played it twice a week. After a year I became a hired musician at the Rai, with a Benny Goodman style quintet.

How important were jazz and light music in your career as a composer?
People played jazz, Piccioni did sometimes. My first film was "I soliti ignoti" in 1958 and I was asked to do happy, jazzy music. I took the job lightly and used pieces that I had already composed. I had the Director, Monicelli listen to them and he liked them and in fifteen days I had the soundtrack ready. There were problems finding a distributor for the film and we thought it wouldn't be successful. Instead it was a hit when it came out and I got a lot of money for a job that took fifteen days to do.

What kind of cinema do you like?
I like Bunuel's films, Malle style. I must confess that of the 150 films I worked on, I would only keep 15 of them.

Which musicians influenced you the most in your playing and composing?
Surely Duke Ellington did. The first time I heard him I was stunned.

What was the most difficult soundtrack to compose in your career?
I created my own difficulties when I really like the film. My love for films would enter into the picture and I tried to work hard to make the music more sophisticated than usual. "Smog," by Franco Rossi with Enrico Maria Salerno and Annie Girardot, is good example. I liked the film's plot and the producers had invested a lot of money for the music. In this way I was able to work with an orchestra and Chet Baker played the trumpet. I used him for five or six pieces and he was happy to work with me, a real professional.

Would you say that your most representative tune is "Manah Manah" from "Svezia Inferno Paradiso"?
Unfortunately, not that I'm ashamed of it, but evidently they were three notes that worked at the time...and apparently still work today.

How did this tune come about?
Its pretty a banal idea. I had finished everything for the soundtrack, short simple tunes, and there were five minutes left till the end of them film. I told the orchestra, Carlo Pes, Vannucchi, Majorana Podio and Alessandroni, that I wanted to do one last tune with these three notes in it. And so we did "Manha Manha". I did not insert the tune in the soundtrack I published in Italy on my label, Omicron. The Americans rediscovered the tune when they were putting together the soundtrack, they used it three times and gave it the name Manha Manha. From that moment several American television shows used it. Surely the most famous was The Muppet Show.

Of all the musicians you worked with who do you remember the best?
Gianni Basso, Oscar Valdambrini, Piana Roberto Podio, Majorana, Giovanni Tommaso, but the one I still play with today is Antonello Vannucchi. Which Italian composer do you appreciate the most? Morricone is number one. You can criticize his character but he's a film score genius, from the most banal idea to westerns. He uses ingenious ideas that I don't have. I am ready to admit this.

How did your relationship with Easy Tempo begin?
I met Rocco Pandiani around three years ago, he had never heard of me. I had him listen to a tune called "Bob and Helen," from the soundtrack to "Death rings twice." He like it a lot and decided to put it one of his Easy Tempo compilations. Rocco is a real fan, thanks to him my name is starting to get around again. He organizes events for me all over Italy. I should say that our real success was "Svezia Inferno Paradiso," a reprint that sold really well, especially in Japan, the Japanese are crazy. After "Today Sound" came out Algida wanted to use the song "Lady Magnolia" for one of their Magnum ice cream ads.

Is it possible that thirty years ago nobody was interested in this stuff? Was it too difficult?
Well, I just don't understand. At any rate, I have a great relationship with Rocco and I am happy with his work.

Which film would you have like to put music to more than any other?
Not a film specifically but a genre. Unfortunately, I have always worked on comedies, even though I like thrillers better. Actually, I've written for them too, for example "Una Bella Grinta" and "Smog". The music for that was jazz, but really dark.

How much does a film scene influence music?
In a beautiful film music should only be used in certain situations. Many directors tend to give it an importance over the images. In many of these cases the film is not a good film. When Elmer Bernstein did "Fronte del Porto," director Elia Kazan asked him to rewrite the plot because it was too the would take away from Marlon Brando's role.

With which directors have you worked well during your career?
I remember Mario Bava well. He was a very humble and intelligent man. I did "5 Bambole per una luna d'Agosto." He let me do what I wanted. I don't think he even came to hear me rehearse.

How was Liuto Records born?
As I told you, at first I only had Omega Edizioni, which I had left to my mother, then when we started to make our own albums I changed it to Omnicron, and I put it under my wife's name. Now the Record label is called Liuto Records.

Have you ever used pseudonyms as a composer?
Yes, lots of times. I produced too much, and at RAI we couldn't have too many tunes done by the same author. So they let me put the weirdest names on the tunes, Zalla, Moggi, and others that I can't remember.

What do you think of the rediscovery of your music today?
I like it a lot. I should say that I never expected something like that to happen, and now that it's happening I like it. You see, when I did music for films, once I finished my work, I never listened to it again: it was like death. Now that these young people have rediscovered my music its like I'm listening to it for the first time with them. It's an indescribable feeling.

Your next projects?
I'm really into playing live now. I like traveling around, playing my music and meeting people. I'll play in Rimini, Milan and at your Festival, if I'm not mistaken.

No Maestro, you are not mistaken. What do you want to say to "Giaguaro" readers all over the world?
To listen to real music, played with real instruments.

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