Jazz Pianist Hal Schaefer Passes Away at 88

Jazz Pianist Hal Schaefer Passes Away at 88

World-class jazz pianist Hal Schaefer died this past Saturday morning, December 8, at his home in Fort Lauderdale, FL. He was 88 years old and still active. Schaefer was a longtime protégé of jazz legend Duke Ellington, who gave him his 21st birthday party and routinely introduced his young performer with the words, “Now you’re going to hear a real piano player!” At 18, he was the pianist for jazz great Benny Carter in a group with such other renowned jazz artists as Max Roach and J.J. Johnson. Later he joined big bands fronted by Harry James and Boyd Raeburn. Schaefer continued to record and play live jazz piano concerts into his 80’s.

As Michael Feinstein wrote in his letter to the National Endowment for the Arts in 2009 submitting Schaefer’s nomination for the nation’s most prestigious jazz award, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship, “Mr. Schaefer now is 84-years-old and still performing faster and better than most young jazz piano phenoms.” His nomination in the “pianist” category was also supported by letters from Hollywood legend Jane Russell and renowned jazz educator Herb Wong.

Hal Schaefer had a rich and eclectic career that bridged several worlds – those of music (from classical to swing and jazz), film and singing. Considered a rising star of progressive jazz in the 1950’s, he was an extraordinary pianist with a distinctive musical approach, which combined a lush romanticism with a strong sense of swing. His journey as a professional pianist began at the age of 12 in his native New York City. While still in his teens, he joined a big band and toured the country ending up in Los Angeles in the 1940’s, in the middle of the progressive jazz scene, He played in bands led by Benny Carter, Harry James, Boyd Raeburn and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. He became an accompanist for Peggy Lee, Billy Eckstine and other singers.

Schaefer’s career spanned more than 70 years and 18 albums in addition to his Hollywood and Broadway music created for stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Mitzi Gaynor, Susan Hayward, Betty Grable and Judy Garland. He was vocal coach for many of those same performers, including Monroe, Russell and Gaynor as well as for a young Barbra Streisand. Schaefer also worked with directors and producers such as Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Walter Lang, Hal Prince and Otto Preminger.

Schaefer often composed and arranged jazz using instruments considered unconventional for this genre, including harpsichord, oboe, bassoon, timpani, alto sax trio, trombone choir and more. He wrote commissioned music for the United Nations’ 10th Anniversary in 1955, a gala event where Eleanor Roosevelt spoke, Burl Ives sang and Michael Redgrave narrated...

Schaefer’s recording career included albums for labels such as RCA Victor, Summit, Discovery and United Artists. He received co-billing with Benny Carter on the album “Can-Can and Anything Goes” – both musicians performing on all tracks and taking turns arranging the tunes. This album recently was remastered and re-released by Capitol Records on CD. Schaefer also led his own bands and orchestras, with Phil Woods, Milt Hinton and Alvin Stoller among the jazz greats playing for him.

Jazz Pianist Hal Schaefer Passes Away at 88Later, Hal worked at 20th Century Fox, where his highly specialized, very well compensated but then un-credited work was to compose and arrange film music. There he developed a specialty of teaching actors to sing. “Most of these world-famous stars were terrified to sing,” he says. “Part of my job was to work with them and get them comfortable.” During his dozen years at Fox, Hal coached such stars as Susan Hayward, Mitzi Gaynor and Robert Wagner. However, his most noted efforts were produced when he coached Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in the classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Schaefer arranged the most famous scene in the movie – Monroe’s show-stopping version of “Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend”.

Hal Schaefer also worked on the Warner Brothers production of A Star Is Born with Judy Garland. Although Miss Garland's reputation was one of being extremely temperamental, Hal recalls, “Judy was wonderful. She was a consummate artist. She was only interested in quality. She was inventive, fresh and smart.”

In 1960, Hal left the restrictive Hollywood studio system and returned to New York where he continued with a variety of stints, including A & R man for the fledgling United Artists record company, creating radio and TV jingles (including a CLEO Award winner), and writing dance arrangements for Broadway shows such as A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and Foxy. He performed in jazz clubs – his home base was Greene Street in SoHo – and he also continued to teach singing. One of his students was then 16-year-old Barbra Streisand. Other greats he worked with were Chita Rivera, Rita Moreno and cabaret singer Julie Wilson, whose 1980's career revival he assisted. Schaefer was also a member of the faculty of New York University’s School of Music Vocal Jazz Studies Department for several years.

Hal Schaefer left New York with his beloved wife, Brenda, and finally settled in Ft. Lauderdale in 1993. He was widowed early in 2000, but he continued to teach. Hal emphasized that he was a “singing teacher”, not a “voice teacher.” He seldom sang in public himself, but his ability to coax the best from would-be singers launched and revived dozens of careers.

Jazz singer Marion Cowings, who knew and worked with Hal Schaefer for more than 50 years, says, “Hal was the consummate musician and teacher who had a quick, sometimes biting, sense of humor. He was my mentor and had a profound influence on my life and career. I will miss him terribly!”

Hal Schaefer often said, “There is nothing like singing. I've been playing piano all my life and I would probably die without it. But there is nothing as spiritual as singing.”