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Lennie Niehaus (1929–2020), jazzman who wrote music for Clint Eastwood movies

by Linnea Crowther

Lennie Niehaus was a jazz saxophonist who played and arranged music for Stan Kenton, and later wrote music for several Clint Eastwood films.

Player, composer, arranger, teacher

Niehaus began working with Stan Kenton in the early 1950s, playing alto saxophone and later arranging the music for dozens of the jazz great’s songs. His work with Kenton was interrupted by his military service during the Korean War. Niehaus served in the U.S. Army at Ford Ord in California, where he met fellow soldier Eastwood. After the war, Niehaus continued recording with Kenton and later began working with composer Jerry Fielding, who wrote scores for early Eastwood films including “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976).

When Fielding died in 1980, Niehaus began composing for Eastwood, including music for “Tightrope” (1984), “Bird” (1988), “Unforgiven” (1992), “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995), and “Space Cowboys” (2000). For “Bird,” Fielding composed new background tracks for jazz great Charlie Parker’s music, and he taught actor Forest Whitaker some basics of saxophone performance. As Eastwood began writing more of the music for his films, Niehaus orchestrated and conducted the music Eastwood composed, including on “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) and “Gran Torino” (2008).

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Niehaus on his favorite composition for an Eastwood film

“I like the music I composed for ‘The Bridges of Madison County.’ There’s a scene where Clint is standing in the rain and Meryl Streep is deciding whether or not to get out of her husband’s pickup truck and go with him… I was writing music for a build-up to her hand on the doorknob. The scene starts with a piano playing. It’s soon joined by strings. Then there’s a crescendo at the doorknob moment to emphasize the pathos of the scene and her indecision.” —from a 2009 interview with All About Jazz

What people said about him

Full obituary: Variety

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