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Remembering jazz musician Mike Renzi who has died at age 80



The great jazz pianist Mike Renzi, who died at the age of 80 September 28. He played with jazz greats that included Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins and Gerry Mulligan. Here he is with the great saxophonist Harry Allen.


SIMON: But Mike Renzi was best known as accompanist for vocalists - everyone from Mel Torme, Peggy Lee, to Lena Horne, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. Broadcaster Murray Horwitz knew Mike Renzi for more than 40 years and worked with him many times, and he joins us now.

Murray, thanks for being back with us.

MURRAY HORWITZ: Thank you, Scott. This is an honor, really.

SIMON: What stands out for you and your memories this weekend about Mike Renzi?

HORWITZ: Well, as you say, Scott, Mike could more than hold his own with jazz instrumentalists, as we just heard. But he had a gift for accompanying singers. He loved songs. He loved singers. And what made him special is that as an improvising jazz musician - remember, these people make it up; this is really hard to do - he had a sound and a sense of taste, along with a terrific ability just to get along with people that made him really one of a handful of great jazz accompanists.

SIMON: Let's listen to one of the collaborations, and this is with the peerless Peggy Lee, one of her last recordings. Mike Renzi at the piano, and this is his arrangement of "There'll Be Another Spring."


PEGGY LEE: (Singing) Don't cry. There'll be another spring. I know our hearts will dance again and sing again. So wait for me till then.

SIMON: Oh, my God. That's amazing to hear. What do you hear there that you want to draw our attention to today?

HORWITZ: Well, there's so much. First of all, that's Peggy Lee's song. She was a great lyricist, and she wrote those words to music by Hubie Wheeler. And you can hear the dialogue that she and Mike Renzi have.


LEE: (Singing) Just wait and see. I love you now...

HORWITZ: They absolutely loved each other as collaborators, and it's a call and response. But Mike's - he's never literal in his musical answers to Peggy's words. He captures the sadness and the hope that's there in the lyric and in the music. It's a conversation between close friends, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. And with his piano, he's setting up the orchestral accompaniment that follows and develops the song even further.

SIMON: Murray, what makes a great jazz accompanist?

HORWITZ: You need a great ear, an enormous knowledge of harmony and theory, improvisational skills, knowledge of the repertoire, swing. But then I called Aaron Diehl, who's one of the best jazz accompanists around today. He works with Cecile McLorin Salvant and other singers. And Aaron said the art of accompaniment can be summed up in three words. So I said, what three words? He said, put yourself last. He said the whole idea is to make the singer sound better than they already do, and that means keeping your ego in check, which - how shall I phrase it? - not every first-rate improviser can do. But a great accompanist can make a song performance sound like - it makes you go, yeah, yeah, yeah, that's the way it should sound. Right. That's it.


TONY BENNETT: (Singing) Heaven, I'm in heaven...

HORWITZ: You know, a great example is the Grammy Award-winning collaboration among Mike, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga from 2014, "Cheek To Cheek."


BENNETT: (Singing) When we're out together dancing cheek to cheek.

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Oh, I'd love to climb a mountain and reach the highest peak.

BENNETT: (Singing) Me, too.

LADY GAGA: (Singing) But it doesn't thrill me half as much as dancing cheek to cheek.

BENNETT: (Singing) And I love to go out fishing in a river or a creek.

SIMON: You knew Mike Renzi for decades, I gather. Tell us about what you learned from him, how you worked together, what he was like.

HORWITZ: You know, we worked together in a variety of settings over the years. I was mostly working in these different shows as the director and the writer, Mike as the musical director and accompanist. And we did nightclub acts for several singers. Audrey Levine (ph) comes to mind. We did a musical of Mose Allison songs called "Just Like Livin'." We did concerts at the 92nd Street Y and Carnegie Hall in New York. And he was great in all those very different settings.

And the last time we worked together, it was just a few years ago - I'm starting to tear up - at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center at their annual Sarah Vaughan Jazz Vocal Competition. Let me tell you, Scott. When these young singers came in to compete and they were backed up by a trio led by Mike Renzi, you could just see it in their whole bearing. It was like they'd been sleeping on park benches, and now they were in a feather bed at the Ritz.

But maybe what I learned from him most was diplomacy. He had this tremendous skill of just always getting along with people, sometimes, you know, real difficult prima donnas, getting the best out of them. He made you see that the art was the only thing that mattered.

SIMON: You have some music you'd like to play us out with?

HORWITZ: You know what? Sometimes near the end of a great singer's career, the voice isn't what it was. The physical demands of performing have taken their toll. And all that's left is the sheer artistry of the singer. Well, Mike Renzi worked very closely with Lena Horne in her later years. And there's a recording of Billy Strayhorn's "Something To Live For," where Mike just gives her so much support. There's a fullness and yet a poignancy, and he just makes Lena Horne shine.


LENA HORNE: This is for one of my friends that slipped away. (Singing) I have almost everything a human could desire - cars and houses, bear-skin rugs to lie before my fire...

SIMON: Remembering Mike Renzi. Murray Horwitz - he, of course, is the Tony Award-winning playwright, lyricist and host of WAMU's The Big Broadcast out of Washington, D.C.

Murray, thanks for being with us.

HORWITZ: Thank you, Scott, for the opportunity to pay tribute to my friend.


HORNE: (Singing) I want something to live for, someone to make my life an adventurous dream... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.