Norman Leyden, the Oregon Symphony's Mr. Pops and authority on big-band music, dies at 96
By David Stabler | firstname.lastname@example.org
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on July 23, 2014 at 4:55 PM, updated July 23, 2014 at 8:30 PM
|Swing music is about
jump-jivin' and Lindy Hopping and smooth, romantic ballads. For 34 years,
Norman Leyden put Portland in the mood with the songs that defined American
culture between 1935 and 1950.
The city's king of swing died Wednesday, ending a sentimental journey with local pops audiences and the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. He was 96.
The cause of death was "failure to thrive," said his daughter, Connie Wynn. "He felt it was time to go. He couldn't play anymore and it was time to join the big band in the sky."
Tall, lean and gentlemanly, Leyden liked to enter and exit the stage at a lope, beloved clarinet in hand. He was a conductor, composer, arranger and a leading authority on big band music of the swing era. His library in his spacious basement held 1,100 symphonic arrangements, plus 250 big band arrangements, meticulously filed with the assistance of his late wife, Alice, who was his copyist and librarian. Wynn also was a copyist.
"His arrangements are his biggest legacy," said cellist Tim Scott, who retired in May after 41 years with the Oregon Symphony. "They are always in the style of the way they were originally written. If it's Irving Berlin, he uses harmonies that Berlin used. They were well written for all the instruments. He didn't jazz them up with all kinds of extra stuff. He made the orchestra sound good."
Leyden was born in Springfield, Mass. and graduated from Yale University in 1938. He began his professional music career playing bass clarinet for the New Haven Symphony while attending Yale. During World War II, he served in the Army Air Force.
While Leyden was rehearsing in Atlantic City, Glenn Miller heard him perform and reportedly said to him, "For a Yale man, you don't play bad tenor." Leyden's association with Miller would influence the rest of his career. He began arranging songs for Miller's renowned Air Force Band, and later for the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
He was just getting started. In the 1950s, he became musical director for Arthur Godfrey's popular radio program and for "The Jackie Gleason Show." In the 1960s, he arranged songs for Disney musicals, including "Cinderella," "Alice in Wonderland" and "Pinocchio." Leyden also conducted and arranged for a who's who of recording artists, including Tony Bennett, Don Cornell, Johnny Desmond, Gordon MacRae, Mitch Miller, Ezio Pinza, Frank Sinatra, and Sarah Vaughan.
Somewhere, he found time to write a dissertation analyzing the conducting style of Arturo Toscanini, a superstar of the podium in the first half of the 20th century.
He came to Portland in 1968 to lead the Portland Youth Philharmonic while its conductor, Jacob Avshalomov, was on sabbatical, and joined the Oregon Symphony two years later. That same year, he began the orchestra's pops series, just as pops concerts began taking off nationally. He had the inside track on music that a segment of the population craved, and his shows sold out.
His arrangements were elegant, clever, even witty and he liked to recreate entire radio programs from the 1940s and '50s, including their commercials. For years, his pops concerts carried the symphony's classical concerts, drawing 1,022,000 people during three decades.
"Our entire orchestra always enjoyed playing for Norman as he was generous and genuine, and he always found a way to feature us as soloists whenever possible, said Peter Frajola, the Del M. Smith & Maria Stanley Smith Associate Concertmaster Chair. "He had a real rapport with his audience, and I'm sure we played Pops concerts in just about every community in Oregon throughout his tenure."
Leyden retired in 2004 after 34 seasons, but he hardly slowed down. He guest conducted orchestras around the country and enjoyed a close association with Thomas Lauderdale and Pink Martini. As recently as last year, they played Carnegie Hall together.
He last appeared on the stage of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in January, 2013, with his beloved clarinet. A tribute concert to him in April, 2014 found him in the audience as Doc Severinsen and the Leyden Singers performed.
On his retirement, he said, "I have mixed emotions because I've got so many wonderful friends in the orchestra. My original master plan was to drop dead on the podium."
His daughter explains why Leyden was so widely liked in a sometimes cutthroat business. "He didn't have an ego. His passion was music and getting people to listen to it and love it as much as he did."
Survivors include his daughter, who lives in Portland and a son, Bo Leyden of Corvallis, nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Leyden's wife, Alice, died in 2011 after 69 years of marriage. The Oregon Symphony issued a statement Wednesday afternoon. The family is making arrangements for a celebration of life.
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