Lennie Niehaus Day

June 11, 1929 – May 28 2020

The West Coast arranger and altoist is remembered

Alto saxophonist and arranger Lennie Niehaus passed away on May 28, 2020, at the age of 90.

He was born on June 11, 1929, in St. Louis, Missouri, into a musical family that included his father (a professional violinist) and his sister (a concert pianist).

Niehaus played the violin and bassoon early on before switching to alto sax when he was 13.

After graduating from Los Angeles State College, making his recording debut on four titles with tenor saxophonist Johnny Barbara in 1948, and playing and arranging for Phil Carreón’s orchestra in Los Angeles, he became a member of the Stan Kenton Orchestra for six months during 1952-53 before being drafted.

After his discharge in 1954, Niehaus rejoined Kenton, staying for five years and gaining a strong reputation as both an arranger and an altoist.

Niehaus recorded five highly-rated small group sessions for the Contemporary label in the mid-1950s, wrote and played with Kenton, and after 1959 became busy in the studios writing for singers and, by the mid-1960s, for soundtracks.

Starting in the 1980s, Lennie Niehaus became a regular contributor to the soundtracks of Clint Eastwood’s films, including most notably “Tightrope” (1984), “Pale River” (1985), “The Bridges Of Madison County” (1995), and “Bird” (1988), in which he isolated the solos of Charlie Parker and added in more recent jazz musicians.

Niehaus occasionally returned to playing alto in his later years.

At the time of his passing, Niehaus was one of the last survivors (along with Terry Gibbs, Bill Holman, and Johnny Mandel) from the West Coast jazz scene of the 1950s.

Here is Lennie Niehaus playing “Stella By Starlight” with a big band from the early 21st century.

-Scott Yanow