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Producer and Arranger Teo Macero on His Early Career in the Music Business

Teo Macero is undoubtedly one of the most influential producers in the history of recorded music. Although he first came to prominence as a tenor saxophone player and member of Charles Mingus' Jazz Composers' workshop, Macero is most well known for his work as a jazz producer with Columbia Records from the 1950s through the 1980s, producing some of the best work of Dave Brubeck, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, and especially Miles Davis. With Davis, Macero pushed jazz through several changes, from the cool jazz of Kind of Blue to the grand orchestral gestures of Sketches of Spain, finally ushering jazz and popular music into the electronic age with his landmark work on Davis albums like Bitches Brew, In A Silent Way and A Tribute to Jack Johnson among many others. The experimental cut-and-paste method of production which he used on these albums helped put the producer-as-artist on an equal footing with musicians in creating a piece of recorded music, and paved the way for future generations of groundbreaking producers from Herbie Hancock to Prince Paul.

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Legendary producer and arranger Teo Macero discusses how he got his start in the music business, and how he came to work as a house producer for CBS.

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Teo Macero – Background on Teo Macero

Well the question is, how did I ever become a musician?  Well, my father had a nightclub.  He had a speakeasy during the late 20s and early 30s and we used to have a floor show there from New York.  We had a three or four piece band.  And I learned to play the saxophone with those great musicians that we had there.  And they were there seven nights a week.  And I became a bartender.  I became a cook.  I finally because a dancer with my sister and we were part of the floor show.  So my father had a speakeasy during the late 20s and early 30s and he was like a rumrunner.  And he would go up to Canada and get the alcohol and they’d come down and put it in a vat and make bathtub gin, beer and all that other kind of stuff.  And that’s how I started out. 

And then I couldn’t stay after World War II came around and everybody was leaving.  There was no one left in town.  In fact, I tried to get a couple of jobs playing my instrument and they wouldn’t hire me because they didn’t like the way I played.  I was sort of like, “(imitates a blaring horn)”.  And they said, “Can we tell this guy to shut up or get out?  We want something soothing, you know.  Simple!”

Well, anyway, that’s how I started.  And I became a florist for awhile.  I worked in a knitting factory for awhile.  I was like some of the prep people who are running for president now.  He started out as a poor man… but anyway, a lot of fun in my early days.  It was really a great experience because I worked with some of the best musicians at that time.

And I started writing music when I was about 14, writing band arrangements.  And I did that then I went into the Navy with the Navy School of Music.  And shipped out on an aircraft carrier.  I was in the Navy for four and a half years.  It was really quite an experience because I got to meet a lot of musicians, a lot of talented people that I never would have meet otherwise.

And I went overseas with the band and became the instructor in the band.  In fact, on the aircraft carrier we had two chiefs and they were two bastards.  No question about it.  And they were telling me they were going to leave because they didn’t like the band.  I said, “Yes, sir.” Laughs.  Then I one upped them and I saw the captain and the captain says, “Don’t worry.  You guys will be alright.  We’re going to take good care of you.”  And I stayed on the aircraft carrier and I was in charge of the band.  I did arrangement from those fee discs that we used to have.  I used to take off arrangements to supply the band with arrangements and I started writing and did a lot of writing.  And I did that and finally went back to my hometown and became a florist. 

And as I said, I worked in a knitting factory.  And then I couldn’t stand that.  I thought it, it wasn’t mundane, but it was just not me.  I was so frustrated.  I had to be back in music.  Nobody would hire me.  So I said, “The hell with them, if they’re not going to hire me I’m gonna move out!”  And I left my father.  One night I took the apron off, threw it at him and said, “I’m leaving Dad.  Goodbye!”  A couple of days later I packed up the car.  We headed off to New York.  I enrolled into Juilliard and they put me in the diploma department.  And I said, “Look it, I’d like to get my degree.”  And they said, “Well you never finished high school.”  I said, “That’s true.  I didn’t finish high school.”

“You have to go back now and get your diploma.”  Oh, what’s it called?  I can’t think of what they call it.  War service diploma.  So I went back and took all of the tests.  Passed the tests.  Got my regency certificate and I was still at Juilliard, changed my diploma to a degree course and I started studying conducting and working in the labs up there.  We had a lab that used to make records and I was getting seventy-five cents an hour to cut the masters.  I used to know how to do all of that stuff.  And setup the bands.  It was a great experience for me.  And then I changed my major.  They wouldn’t let me change my major.  They said, “You’re going to have to take a test and we’re going to have to have a panel to hear what you can do, what you can’t do.” 

I had two teachers there who grilled me day and night.  And I went down and I took the test.  I know I did very well because they said, “You did very well.”  But one of the professors was an old fuddy-duddy.  He said, “Ah, Mr. Macero, you’re one of those.  I said, “Sir, what’s one of those?”  He said, “Well, you’re a jazz musician.”  I said, “What’s that got to do with it?  I want to become a composition major.  I don’t want to study saxophone.  I can play it better when I came in than where I am now.”  And they wouldn’t let me change it.  So I said, “The hell with you guys.”  So I started studying privately with Henry Brad.  And then I got a lot of other people involved and I applied for a Guggenheim.  And I had Bernstein, Aaron Copeland, Walter Reiger.  I had 10 of the greatest American composers in the United States sponsoring me for a Guggenheim.  So I’ve got two Guggenheims. 

Meantime I was teaching blind children for awhile.  And the salary there was like twenty-five hundred dollars a year.  And then they gave me a $450 raise.  I’d like to work for you Dr. Schroder.  Maybe I can make four hundred-laughs- make a few extra bucks.  But the point is, when I got the Guggenheim I said, “You know, I’m getting twenty-nine hundred and something.”  I said, “It’s really not worth it.”  So I told the women who was in charge, Barbara, that I didn’t want to stay any longer.  I wanted to really branch out and get involved with music.  And then I met Mingus and met a lot of other people.  And as I was getting ready to leave the woman said, “Look it, we’ll increase your salary to four thousand five hundred.”  I said, “Well it’s too late now, I’ve made up my mind and this is what I’m going to do.”  And I did.

I pursued a musical career.  And I was giving concerts.  I took the Guggenheim money that I had and I was giving concerts all throughout New York City in various places: Town Hall, Cooper Union.  Any place that would give me a hall.  I would hire the musicians, write the music, and do the concerts.  I had one great guy at Cooper Union who was doing a monthly series of concerts and he said, “Teo, we’d like you to write some music on a monthly basis for us.”  And he was a great conductor and he worked for NBC.  And that’s how I got started.  And finally, at the end of all of that, there was a guy named George Avakian who was then head of the jazz department at Columbia Records and he said to me at the end of the concert, “Would you like to work for Columbia?”  I said, “Well, what does it pay?”  He says, “Ninety dollars a week.”  I said, “Ninety dollars a week?  When do I start?”  He said, “Go see this guy in the morning.  If he likes you, you can become a music editor!”  By that time I could read music very well, you know, I could conduct.  So I took the job.  Got the job, took it, and then I was making, after the first year I was making about eighteen thousand a year.  Working overtime, night differential and so forth.  And then, one of the guys that was working downstairs in the A&R department said, “Teo, would you like to become a producer?”

I said, “Jesus, you know, I’m making eighteen thousand bucks.  I’m playing now.  I’m writing music for this one and that one.  I said what does it pay?”  He said, “Seventy-five hundred.”  I said, “Seventy-five hundred?  I’m making eighteen thousand!”  I said, “But, I’ll take the job.”  I took the job and within eight months to a year I was making twenty-five thousand bucks a year.  And then I got a bonus.  And then I got up to thirty thousand.  And every time the president, who used to see me in the hall, because I was working with him on Broadway shows.  He said, “Teo, by the way I gave you another five thousand, or I gave you another two thousand dollars.”  But I said, “Sir, I’d like to go to California.”  He said, “Look it, I’ll give you some more money.  Don’t go out there.  Stay here with us.”  Because I was doing all the shows with him.  I said, “Okay.”  And I ended up getting bonuses up to fifty thousand bucks a year!  I think the highest bonus I ever received was a hundred thousand!  So I was making a lot of money.  And I had in my pocket, we didn’t have credit cards in those days.  I was making a great salary, had great bonuses and any time I wanted any money at all, a thousand or two thousand dollars, all I had to do was go upstairs to the twenty-first floor and sign a little voucher.  And they laughs would could fifty dollar bills.  Two thousand dollars worth.  I’d stick it in my pocket.

He said, if you need it any tickets, if you want to go to Hollywood, he said, “Just get the tickets and go.”  He said, “If anybody asks you, you’re doing something for me.  But stop in Las Vegas on the way back to see the various artists.”  And I used to do that and wine and dine them.  And that’s how I got started.  I became a producer for CBS and I was there for, I don’t know, almost 30 years.  And I made a few bucks.  And now I don’t have to work!  So you don’t have to pay me for today.  Laughs. 

It was very interesting, you know, how I got Bernstein and Aaron Copeland and some of these other people.  You know, because as a music editor, one of my responsibilities was to edit the tapes with the engineer and we would do that with all of the classical people, the pop people and so forth.  So you got to meet a whole gang of wonderful individuals.  And I spent a lot of time, and I’ll tell you one story with Bern- Lenny is I was working with him one night on one of the projects he was involved in.  I said, “Gee, you know, this is great for me to be here with you.”  He says, “Look it, come on over here and sit down.  I’m finished for the night.  I want to talk to you for a minute or two anyway.”  He said, “Look it, I’m working on something.  Do you think by tomorrow you could write me a piece?”  I said, “Lenny.”  I said, “Look it, you’re such a great composer you don’t need me to do anything.  You’ve got to be joking!”  He said, “No.  I’m really stuck.”  I said, “Look it, Lenny, you can do it.”  So the next night we were working together again and he said, “You know, you’re right, I did it!”  I said, “By the way, what was the project?”  He said, “I’m doing a Broadway show and there was one jazz piece in there that I wanted you to do.”  I says, “But did you do it?”  He says, “Yes, I did it and it was West Side Story.”  At that point I almost fell down.  And this happened with all of the other people.  It was just one after another.  And we worked with all of the great violinists.  So I had a lot of fun you know and everything just worked out fine.

So far as when I became a producer… I was assigned, my first artist was Dave Brubeck.  And Dave Brubeck, and my boss said, “Look it, tomorrow you’re leaving for California.”  I said, “Jesus, you know, I can’t do that.”  He says, “Tomorrow morning you’re leaving for California.  First of all you gotta meet Dave Brubeck at the hotel next door. Talk to him for a minute or two.  Then get yourself a ticket and get out there cuz you’re going to do it in two or three days.”  So I did that.  His first record, I think it was called Gone With the Wind which did extremely well.  And then I got Miles at just about the same time.  And then I had Duke Ellington.  I had all the jazz, Charlie Mingus, Thelonious Monk, John Lewis.  Who was the other?  Oh God, we did a record called Sun God or something.  That sold a million records.  So I made one thing after another and I did extremely well and had a lot of fun.  And J.J. Johnson, I did all kinds of projects.  And then as I said earlier I was doing Broadway shows with the president.  Not only the musicals but we did all of the dialog shows.  Like with Richard Burton who did Camelot and so forth.  And the subject was roses.  And then there was one thing called Dylan which was a big Broadway show.  Alec Guiness was in it.  The president said, “I don’t like the music.  We’re going to record the show tomorrow and I want you to get out of here and write all of the music for the record.”  I said, “Mr. Lieberson, I’d be glad to you.”  He said, “You gotta do it and you gotta do it right away.  So get out!”  So I went home and wrote all of the music and then we put it in after we had recorded the tracks, the dialogue.  And it was one thing after another.  So I had a great time.

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