The Oregon Symphony's Norman Leyden reflects on his career spanning from Glenn Miller's big band to Portland's Pink Martini
by: Jim Clark,

Glenn Miller on the stereo. A photograph of Pink Martini on the wall. Welcome to Norman Leyden's music studio/library, where the big-band legend and the Portland-based pop orchestra serve as bookends to Leyden's nearly 70-year career as conductor, music arranger and clarinetist.

Leyden, the Oregon Symphony's laureate associate conductor, has worked with both Miller (as an arranger in Miller's Air Force Band) and Pink Martini (as a conductor and musician). He turns 91 this month, and he's still working, though some people think he's retired. 'I thought so, too,' he says, laughing.

He did retire in 2004 when he ended his 34-year tenure as music director of the symphony's pops series - including 29 seasons as associate conductor - and received his lifetime laureate title honoring his impact on the symphony organization. But Leyden continues to perform and conduct; a year ago he celebrated his 90th birthday with a big-band concert, followed by a New Year's Eve concert with Pink Martini and four Oregon Symphony performances in April.

Coming up: a clarinet solo that Leyden will play with the Portland Jazz Orchestra in December, and a pair of Oregon Symphony concerts that he will conduct next May.

'There are so many projects to do,' Leyden says. Not the least of which is organizing his personal library, which includes more than 1,200 symphonic arrangements and at least 320 big-band arrangements, along with all the choral parts for the Norman Leyden Singers, his pops choir.

He practices his clarinet every day - 'you have to, to keep your mouth in shape,' he says.

'I've had so many good breaks in my life, Glenn Miller was a lucky break,' he says of the fellow jazz musician and band leader, whom he met when both were serving in the Army during World War II.

Portland, his home for 40 years, has been good to him, too. Leyden says he's been able to do anything he's wanted during his years with the Oregon Symphony - arrange and conduct all of his favorite music, lead his own singers, guest-conduct with the Boston Pops and other leading American orchestras.

Why would he want to leave Portland? 'Would you leave?' he asks, smiling. 'It was just lucky timing, and I was just there with the right material.'

Musical notes in Leyden's career

• The Glenn Miller years: Capt. Miller asked Sgt. Leyden to conduct 'Winged Victory,' an Army Air Force music spectacular that opened on Broadway in November 1943. Leyden also served as an arranger in Miller's band.

'Here's the epiphany of my career,' Leyden says as he plays a cassette tape recording of a March 25, 1944, broadcast of the Glenn Miller Air Force Band. 'Here's Sgt. Johnny Desmond singing Sgt. Norman Leyden's arrangement of what we predict will be one of the year's top tunes - Long Ago (And Far Away),' ' Miller announces as the band soars into a performance of the romantic big-band number.

That moment 'gave me the courage to ask something else from (Miller,'), says Leyden, who served with Miller's band in Europe.

• The post-war years: In 1946, Leyden became chief arranger in Tex Beneke's reorganized Glenn Miller Orchestra. In 1949 he left the band, became a freelancer and worked as a staff arranger for RCA Victor, writing for different performers and conducting orchestras. He arranged songs for such recording artists as Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughan as well as bandleader Mitch Miller.

'The greatest thing I did for Mitch, which I got the least amount of money for, was the Sinatra session,' Leyden says. Frank Sinatra was supposed to record a couple of Leyden arrangements with Miller's orchestra but said he 'hated those dumb songs,' Leyden recalls.

A couple of months later, 'a new kid named Al Cernik came in and did the recording,' Leyden says. Cernik changed his name to Guy Mitchell, and the song he recorded, 'My Heart Cries for You,' reached No. 1 on the show 'Your Hit Parade' in January 1951.

Leyden also was Arthur Godfrey's musical director. And he worked on one of Jackie Gleason's television shows: 'Eight weeks and it was off the air,' he says. 'It was a disaster.'

• The Pink Martini connection: Leyden has known Thomas Lauderdale, the orchestra's leader and pianist, since Lauderdale's days as a 'piano prodigy' - he won a competition to perform with the Oregon Symphony with Leyden conducting and performed with the symphony several more times. Then Lauderdale went off to Harvard, 'and the next thing I knew, he'd returned to Portland and started this band,' recalls Leyden, who played the clarinet solo on the title track of Pink Martini's second album, 'Hang on Little Tomato.'

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