Remembering jazz musician Mike Renzi who died at 80: NPR

Mike Renzi, who accompanied Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Peggy Lee, Lady Gaga and others, died last week. NPR’s Scott Simon speaks with broadcaster Murray Horwitz, who had known Renzi for more than 40 years.



(SOUNDBITE OF HARRY ALLEN AND MIKE RENZI “THE LAST BEST YEAR”)

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The great jazz pianist Mike Renzi, who died at the age of 80 on September 28. He has played with jazz greats including Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins and Gerry Mulligan. Here he is with the great saxophonist Harry Allen.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARRY ALLEN AND MIKE RENZI “THE LAST BEST YEAR”)

SIMON: But Mike Renzi was best known as an accompanist for singers – everyone from Mel Torme, Peggy Lee, to Lena Horne, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. Broadcaster Murray Horwitz has known Mike Renzi for over 40 years and worked with him on several occasions, and he joins us now.

Murray, thanks for being back with us.

MURRAY HORWITZ: Thanks, Scott. It’s an honor, really.

SIMON: What stands out for you and your memories this weekend about Mike Renzi?

HORWITZ: Well, as you say, Scott, Mike could more than get by with jazz instrumentalists, as we just heard. But he had a gift for accompanying singers. He liked the songs. He loved singers. And what made him special was that as an improvising jazz musician – remember, these people make it up; it’s really hard to do – he had a sound and a sense of taste, as well as a tremendous ability to get along with people that made him one of the few great accompanists in jazz.

SIMON: Let’s listen to one of the collaborations, and it’s with the incomparable Peggy Lee, one of his last recordings. Mike Renzi at the piano, and here is his arrangement of “There Will Be Another Spring”.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “THERE WILL BE ANOTHER SPRING”)

PEGGY LEE: (Singing) Don’t cry. There will be another spring. I know our hearts will dance again and sing again. So wait for me until then.

SIMON: Oh, my God. It’s amazing to hear. What do you hear out there that you want to draw our attention to today?

HORWITZ: Well, there are so many. First of all, it’s Peggy Lee’s song. She was a great lyricist and she wrote these lyrics to the music of Hubie Wheeler. And you can hear the dialogue that she and Mike Renzi have.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “THERE WILL BE ANOTHER SPRING”)

LEE: (Singing) Wait and see. I love you now…

HORWITZ: They absolutely loved each other as collaborators, and it’s a call and a response. But Mike – he’s never literal in his musical responses to Peggy’s lyrics. It captures the sadness and the hope that is there in the lyrics and in the music. It’s a conversation between close friends, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. And with his piano, he sets up the orchestral accompaniment that follows and further develops the song.

SIMON: Murray, what makes a great jazz accompanist?

HORWITZ: You need a great ear, a huge knowledge of harmony and theory, improvisation skills, knowledge of the repertoire, of swing. But then I called Aaron Diehl, who is one of the best jazz accompanists around today. He works with Cecile McLorin Salvant and other singers. And Aaron said that the art of accompaniment can be summed up in three words. So I said, what three words? He said, put yourself last. He said the idea is to make the singer sound better than he already does, and that means keeping your ego in check, which – how should I put it? – not all top-notch improvisers can do this. But a great accompanist can make a song performance sound like – it gets you going, yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s how it should sound. To the right. That’s it.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “CHEEK TO CHEEK”)

TONY BENNETT: (Singing) Heaven, I’m in heaven…

HORWITZ: You know, a good example is the Grammy-winning collaboration between Mike, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga from 2014, “Cheek To Cheek.”

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “CHEEK TO CHEEK”)

BENNETT: (singing) When we go out together, we dance cheek to cheek.

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Oh, I would love to climb a mountain and reach the highest peak.

BENNETT: (singing) Me too.

LADY GAGA: (singing) But it doesn’t excite me as much as dancing cheek to cheek.

BENNETT: (singing) And I love to go fishing in a river or a stream.

SIMON: You had known Mike Renzi for decades, I guess. Tell us about what you learned from him, how you worked together, how he was.

HORWITZ: You know, we’ve worked together in various settings over the years. I mainly worked in these different shows as director and scriptwriter, Mike as musical director and accompanist. And we did nightclub numbers for several singers. Audrey Levine (ph) comes to mind. We did a musical of Mose Allison’s songs called “Just Like Livin'”. We did gigs at 92nd Street Y and Carnegie Hall in New York. And he was great in all these very different contexts.

And the last time we worked together was a few years ago – I’m starting to cry – at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center at their annual Sarah Vaughan Jazz Vocal competition. Let me tell you, Scott. When these young singers came out to compete and were backed by a trio led by Mike Renzi, it showed in all their looks. It was as if they had slept on park benches, and now they were in a feather bed at the Ritz.

But maybe what I learned the most from him was diplomacy. He had this tremendous skill of always getting along with people, sometimes, you know, real tough prima donnas, getting the best out of them. He made you see that art was the only thing that mattered.

SIMON: Do you have any music you would like us to play with?

HORWITZ: You know what? Sometimes, towards the end of a great singer’s career, the voice isn’t what it used to be. The physical demands of the stage took their toll. And all that’s left is the singer’s pure artistry. Well, Mike Renzi worked very closely with Lena Horne in her later years. And there’s a recording of “Something To Live For” by Billy Strayhorn, where Mike gives him so much support. There’s a fullness and yet an emotion, and it just makes Lena Horne shine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR”)

LENA HORNE: It’s for a friend of mine who slipped away. (Singing) I have almost everything a human being could want – cars and houses, bearskin rugs to lay before my fire…

SIMON: In memory of Mike Renzi. Murray Horwitz – he is of course the playwright, lyricist and host of WAMU’s Washington, DC, Tony Award-winning show The Big Broadcast

Murray, thank you for being with us.

HORWITZ: Thank you, Scott, for giving me the opportunity to pay tribute to my friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR”)

HORNE: (Singing) I want something to live for, someone to make my life an adventurous dream…

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