Piano Program and Plays Harry Warren were released while Previn was in the army, doing his then-required two years of service. Previn spent much of that time in San Francisco, arranging and performing for the Sixth Army Band—the membership of which, at the time, included Chet Baker—and, in his free time, beginning conducting lessons with Pierre Monteux. He was also haunting San Francisco jazz clubs, catching up with bebop. From his memoir, No Minor Chords: My Time in Hollywood:
… I managed to nurse one beer long enough to be initiated into the then mysterious new world of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, the MJQ, and Bud Powell. What I heard scared me at first, and I stopped playing until I could begin to assimilate these new and remarkable sounds. That particular year, 1952, changed my view of jazz forever, and I began to sit in with the newer crowd on the bandstands of those clubs.
I was helped with my tentative steps toward the new jazz by my army friends. In the band barracks were several battered record players and I began to hear new sounds as purveyed by names new to me. At first I simply thought Charlie Parker’s sound was too harsh and aggressive, but it didn’t take me long before I heard the beauty behind it, and the limitless invention.
On the face of it, this is a mildly startling admission: a working and reasonably well-known jazz artist remaining largely unaware of Charlie Parker as late as 1952. Given some of the stories Previn tells about the ravenous, non-stop, 24/7 treadmill of movie studio employment, perhaps it’s true. But it’s also, perhaps, a sign of how isolated Previn had remained from the larger world of jazz, even as he was devoting much of his career to jazz performance. Parker, after all, was no stranger to Los Angeles, having spent an extended period in the city in the mid-1940s. Previn’s Jubilee collaborators Red Callender and Barney Kessel had even recorded with Parker on some of his famous 1947 sessions for Dial Records. But the Los Angeles locus of Parker’s activity and style was the cluster of clubs on Central Avenue, at the heart of the city’s black community—not the studios and Hollywood nightclubs where Previn was working and networking.
Nevertheless, at whatever date he encountered it, Previn took bebop seriously. He occasionally told of sitting in with Parker for a weekend, most extensively in a 1986 New York Times profile:
It was just two nights. I don’t remember who his regular pianist was. I forget the name of the club, somewhere on Western. He needed someone for a night or two, and I went in and got educated for two nights. It was primarily an education in how amazing that kind of playing was. His fount of improvisation was bottomless, he never repeated anything. And it was unfortunately also an education in the gradual destruction of a man, because he was in very bad shape. I do remember very often that when he was playing I would actually stop playing so I could hear him. It was quite extraordinary. Like I said, it was only for two nights. I’m sure that the next day he didn’t even know my name.
(If we accept Previn’s recollection that the gig was in Los Angeles, the most likely candidate for this meeting is Parker’s last California appearance, a March 1954 engagement at the Tiffany Club in Los Angeles; sources have Joe Rotondi on piano for those concerts, but Parker’s erratic behavior (he was fired halfway through a contracted week of performances) may have created some churn of personnel. A more tantalizing possibility, though, is that Previn, then stationed in San Francisco, was on the bandstand for part of Parker’s chaotic two-week engagement at the Say When club in June and July of 1952.)
What’s equally important for understanding Previn’s jazz evolution is his inclusion of the post-bop Modern Jazz Quartet—who only formed in 1952—in his census of the bebop revolution. It hints at other profound changes that took place during Previn’s army stint. In 1951, Stan Kenton disbanded his Innovations Orchestra, a big band with a full string section, his most ambitious (and financially ruinous) ensemble. Many of the players promptly pivoted, staying in Los Angeles to work as studio musicians. They would form the core of a community that would come to be grouped under the rubric of West Coast “cool” jazz, marrying the Kenton penchant for complex, involved arrangements to the exploratory post-bop style of Miles Davis’s 1949-50 nonets. (Gerry Mulligan, a key link between Davis and Kenton, would himself settle in Los Angeles in 1952.)
When Previn got out of the army, he was able to pick up pretty much where he had left off at MGM. He earned another Academy Award nomination (for his arrangements on the film version of Kiss Me, Kate) and, while he didn’t win, he was tapped to be the musical director for that year’s Oscar ceremony. Previn also ventured into songwriting, collaborating with lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green for the 1955 musical It’s Always Fair Weather. (The movie was not a success; Previn would later say that it would have been a better film without any songs.) He also married for the first time, to big-band singer Betty Bennett, which occasioned his return to recording: Betty Bennett Sings Arrangements by André Previn (Trend, 1953) is firmly in the MGM vein, Previn providing the satiny, string-forward chamber orchestrations featuring a number of MGM studio players. (Bennett remembered Previn telling the orchestra to tune not to the oboe, but to her—an exquisitely musical way of scoring points with one’s wife.)
But it took longer to find his jazz footing. Even continuing in his old manner would have been difficult; the common threads an artist like Previn could find between jazz and pop styles were starting to fray. In 1953, Billboard reported that Joe Carlton, the head of RCA Victor’s A&R department, “indicated Victor would experiment with and promote new modern jazz works”, competing directly with recordings produced by Norman Granz for Mercury. “Carlton says he has in mind having Andre Previn concentrate for a time on modern jazz.” With his previously successful style now seemingly regarded as stale by his own label, and a critical mass of new collaborators and ideas all around him, Previn, for the first time in his career, would alternate recording as a leader with a fair amount of work as a sideman.
Around this time, Previn left an unwitting time capsule of his jazz playing as part of the soundtrack to Invitation to the Dance (dir. Gene Kelly; MGM, 1956). After the twin successes of 1951’s An American in Paris and 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly had the chance to do whatever he wanted, and what he wanted to do, to the nervous consternation of MGM executives, was to go England and make an experimental, all-dance film. The middle of the film’s three tableaux, a La Ronde-like contemporary ballet called “Ring Around the Rosy,” was choreographed and shot to music by British composer Malcolm Arnold, who remembered the score as “Stan Kenton-type jazz.” Kelly decided he didn’t like the music, so, while production on the rest of the film dragged on, he enlisted Previn, fresh out of the army, to compose a completely new score to the already-completed footage. (Why Previn? I suspect that Previn’s Oscar nomination for Three Little Words awoke Kelly’s competitive streak regarding Fred Astaire.) Among the numbers is an example of Previn employing his jazz piano skills at length for his studio employers.
Invitation to the Dance was finally finished in 1954, and then the studio sat on the film for another two years, expressing concerns about its commercial viability (a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it turned out). The delay makes the music a bit of a relic: by 1956, Previn wasn’t playing like this anymore.