At the outset of the first part of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Henry V has just died. The French army, besieged by the English at Orléans, launches an offensive, but is beaten back. Joan la Pucelle—that is, Joan of Arc—enters and assures the French soldiers that English valor will fade with Henry’s memory.
Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself
Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought.
In 1958, André Previn was one of the biggest stars in jazz. 1958 was a good year for Previn. He recorded eleven albums, five as a leader or co-leader. MGM’s biggest film release of the year, Lerner and Loewe’s musical Gigi, its score arranged and conducted by Previn, was a critical and box-office hit, bolstering Previn’s reputation as a uniquely versatile musical Renaissance man. The album of jazz versions of songs from My Fair Lady that Previn had made with Shelly Manne and Leroy Vinnegar in 1956 was, two years later, still the best-selling jazz album in the country, according to Billboard. “Like Young,” a bluesy, Previn-penned piano-and-strings number that he recorded with David Rose, was about to become a hit single. At year’s end, when the readers of Downbeat magazine were polled on their favorite jazz pianist, their choices were Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Erroll Garner—and Previn, who finished just ahead of Bill Evans.
Previn, still only 29, had been playing jazz professionally for some fifteen years. In many ways, jazz was Previn’s entry into the music business, and, for many years, it would be a main focus of his talent and energy. By the late 40s, he was a headliner, his major-label debut album, the technically glittering and preternaturally sophisticated André Previn at the Piano, a solid hit. By the late 50s, he was a star, his name billed alongside jazz legends, his records sales in the hundreds of thousands and more. Previn was prominent enough in jazz to attract extravagant praise and criticism. He was a performer of estimable virtuosity; he was a performer of suspicious facility. He was a versatile musical polyglot; he was a glib, inauthentic musical dilettante. Whatever you thought, he was there, in the media, in the record stores, in the conversation, in the mix. Previn sat in with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie; he recorded with Benny Goodman and Gerry Mulligan. In 1964, for a Downbeat blindfold test, Leonard Feather asked Wynton Kelly, who had just finished his long stint with Miles Davis, which of his fellow pianists he would get out of bed to go see and hear. Previn, Kelly said—“whatever he does, he does well.”
And then, by the end of the 1960s, Previn was done with jazz, having pivoted to a classical-conducting career that would be, along with his many years scoring music for Hollywood films, the main focus of the obituaries following his death in 2019. For a decade, André Previn was a leading figure in American jazz. And then he wasn’t.
This is a survey of every jazz and jazz-adjacent recording André Previn ever made. Why do it? For one thing, I’m not sure anyone else ever has, at least not to this extent. Still, there’s a deeper story to be told here. While I have come to the conclusion that a great deal of this music is a lot better than a lot of people remember, this is not an attempt to canonize Previn as a forgotten jazz immortal, or something similar. But it is a story about canonization: how musical style and the music industry and commentary and personality and circumstance all intersect, how countless individual decisions coalesce to bring some musical activity into the future and leave other musical activity behind. It’s a story of music’s dovetails and dichotomies: virtuosity and eloquence, style and substance, race and opportunity, innovation and proficiency.
Some notes on methodology. The albums listed are the original releases; because of both his early popularity and the later licensing vagaries of much of his output, Previn’s jazz recordings have often been repackaged and re-released in varying states of historic coherence and fidelity. (This process began early; Previn’s recordings for RCA Victor, for instance, turned up again and again throughout the 1950s in an assortment of long-playing configurations.) Except for a few examples where Previn’s jazz gets a spotlight, either on screen or on record, I’ve not included his film music. I’ve tried to put the albums in the order they were recorded, rather than released, making educated guesses when the recording date is unknown. And I’m reasonably confident that I’ve tracked down every recording there is—but only reasonably. Even just listening to the material can be its own sort of challenge. Some of it is hidden on streaming services, buried in odd compilations or unfamiliar titles. Much of it is tucked away in the corners of YouTube and the like. And some of it is just out-of-print, only available on the original vinyl. In an era when labels and conglomerates have monetized their intellectual property to the hilt, Previn’s back catalog remains scattered.
In 1986, a quarter-century into his conducting career, just after he had returned to California as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Previn was the subject of a profile in the New York Times, in which he deflected his one-time jazz prominence. “I never considered myself a jazz musician,” Previn said, “but a musician who occasionally played jazz.” Three years later, he would return to recording and performing jazz, in a way that, perhaps, accorded with that self-appraisal. But the entirety of Previn’s jazz output belies such modesty. (And, to be sure, Previn’s habitually charming self-effacement was always of that type exclusive to those who are absolutely sure of their abilities.) Previn pursued jazz at a high level for a long time, with considerable success. Revisiting what he did—and how it was perceived—can tell us something about how music works, in every sense.