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Most references state that Manny Albam was born in the Dominican Republic. In fact, his mother and father were trying to emigrate from Russia to the U.S. and his mother delivered him while the ship was en route to a landing in Samana in the Dominican Republic.
Albam's parents settled in New York City, and Manny grew up listening to his mother's opera records. When he was around seven, one of his neighbors played him a record by Bix Beiderbecke, and Albam was fascinated by the sound, so different from opera. He took his first opportunity to pick up a musical instrument, and by the age of 16, he was good enough to quit school and go to work full time.
He played with a number of different bands in the late 1930s and early 1940s, including Muggsy Spanier's Dixieland combo and saxophonist Georgie Auld's band. He got his first taste of arranging with Auld, but he later said that "I didn't do much writing for that band, but I sure learned how to write by playing in it." Albam grilled fellow bandmember Budd Johnson, who was the primary arranger, and he also spent many hours with the budding bebop-er, Dizzy Gillespie.
From Auld's band, Albam moved to Charlie Barnet's,and then Charlie Spivak's. For nearly two years, Albam worked as one of Spivak's lead arrangers, cranking out an average of two arrangements every week. "It was the best learning period I ever had," he remembered. He had a short exposure to a more innovative big band sound with Boyd Raeburn's band, but within a few months of that he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
After the war, he went back to the business of playing and writing, rejoining Barnet's band for a long stretch. He grew more and more interested in writing and less and less in playing, so he was ready to retire his horn when the big band era began to fade. In 1950, he left Barnet's band to work as a freelance arranger and composer.
Over the next 10 years, Albam became one of the busiest and best-known arrangers for jazz ensembles. He arranged for numerous big-name performers such as Stan Getz, Buddy Rich, Gerry Mulligan, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, and others, but he also cut records under his own name.
Of these, his best known is probably "The Blues is Everybody's Business," featuring Phil Woods on also sax, Al Cohn on tenor, and Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone. It's no coincidence that all three performers went on to try their hands at arranging. Albam was an enthusiastic mentor, and teaching would become the focus of his later years. His arrangements feature tight choral work for brass and reeds, subtle and swinging but not showy. His collaboration with Ernie Wilkins, Drum Suite, is one of the best examples of percussion exotica, moving beyond simple gimmickry with well-crafted arrangements.
Albam was particularly taken with the big jazz band form, and looked for opportunities and excuses to pull together his favorite players for studio jobs or ad-hoc sessions. Bassist Bill Crow recalled that "Manny was one of the good guys. His sweet nature endeared him to everyone who met him, and he wrote music that we loved to play."
He was also known for his distinctive moustache, a huge shaggy black handlebar he refused to cut. "It was a moustache of world-class splendour," producer George Avakian once remembered.
At about the same time, he arranged selections from ""West Side Story" for jazz band. Leonard Bernstein was so impressed by it, he invited Albam to write for the New York Philharmonic. But the offer so intimidated Albam that he soon after began taking lessons from the famed classical composition teacher, Tibor Serly. "He taught me quite a bit about form," Albam recalled. "He had me take Mozart piano sonatas and arrange them for string quartets and make them bigger and bigger by adding instruments."
Albam also took numerous commercial jobs during this time, including scores for some short movies and music for television commercials. But he found this experience unsatisfying artistically: "I've felt at times I might as well be in Poland, because I didn't know what they were talking about." Albam also wrote pieces for television shows such as "Hong Kong" as well as for a number of movies, including "Four Clowns," "Black Pearl," and "Chamber Music."
In the mid-1960s, Albam joined producer Sonny Lester as the musical director for Lester's new label, Solid State, a subsidiary of United Artists. He composed and conducted a jazz suite, "The Soul of the City," for Solid State.
By this time, however, Albam had begun to shift his attention to education. Beginning in 1964, he taught summer workshops at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He later joined the faculties of Glassboro State College in New Jersey and the Manhattan School of Music. In 1988, he helped establish the BMI Jazz Composer's Workshop to help aspiring young talent, and took over as director from Bob Brookmeyer a few years later.
He continued to write, if less energetically, until his final bout with cancer. Phil Woods and Bud Shank each recorded versions of his "Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra," and he arranged the somewhat controversial album "Celebrating Sinatra" for saxophonist Joe Lovano. Controversial, that is, for using two of the standard tricks of the trade of the space age pop era: harps and a vocal chorus..
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