We with great sadness announce that the great Robert Drasnin passed away in the afternoon of 5/13/15, after about a year of failing health. He was 87 years old.
He joined the Musicians Union at the age of 14 upon being hired to play in the Canteen Kids big band on Hoagy Carmichael’s radio show. He first made his way as a player through the forties, playing alto saxophone and clarinet with a great many big bands, including Les Brown, Freddie Slack, Tommy Dorsey, and others. He studied composition and conducting at UCLA, joined a bebop era Red Norvo Quintet (with whom he recorded), and evolved into a film/tv composer and also a very well regarded sideman (on clarinet and alto saxophone).
As a television composer, he was prolific. Twilight Zone, Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible, Man From U.N.C.L.E. all boasted great Drasnin scores, and such giants as Johnny Mandel and Jerry Goldsmith considered him an equal. Rightfully.
He eventually became the head of music for CBS television, until his position was eliminated (mostly because the vast majority of shows were made by outside production companies, not the network).
He took to teaching film/tv music, first at the Dick Grove School, then at the UCLA Extension, and he was an excellent teacher, beloved by his classes. I sat in on many of them, and he was inspired, inspiring, insightful, and generous with to everyone to whom he taught.
In the mid nineties, the resurgence of interest in exotica brought him back to public musicmaking. Unlike any of the other first generation exotics, Bob’s powers as a composer and conductor were undiminished. The 1996 reissue of his Tops Records 1959 gem Voodoo returned him to composing and playing. He played on a great many records of mine and toured in my jazz quartet (teaching me more about music than I can ever estimate in the process). He played on my music for Dexter’s Laboratory, Flintsones On The Rocks, Tilt: The Battle To Save Pinball, and the Bernie Mac Show. And he was playing at least as well as he had in the fifties.
In 2007, he returned to the studio as composer and conductor with Voodoo 2, a record that did more that just pick up where the first one left off, but rather showed a greater, deepened command of composing and orchestration. It was cut almost entirely live in two days in an auditorium at Pierce College in the Valley. The cast of musicians was stellar, and his brilliance in those sessions was truly awesome to all who witnessed it. In 2008, he was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, an honor that meant the world to him.
There were a few exotica performances after that, but the last years of his life were devoted mostly to teaching. In many ways, his energy flagged as he went into his eighties, but not when it came to teaching. I saw him conduct pieces composed by his last group of students, and his energy as a conductor, his incredibly facile judgement as a music editor, and his unbelievable insight as a teacher served everyone in that room as a lesson on how a classy elder statesman gets the job done.
The last year or so of his life was a lot of health problems. He lived a healthy life — rarely drank, always ate smart, played tennis innto his late seventies — but he became increasingly frail in his last months.
Work was started on a Voodoo 3 (as many of you know). It is not as now releasable, and the family is going to need some time to deal with the immediate facts of his passing, so it would not be in good taste to start asking questions about when and if V3 will be released.
Bob is survived by his devoted wife Marlene and their three children, who loved him dearly. To say he was well-loved by his friends is an understatement. He was generous, insightful, funny, and ridiculously smart, and passionately concerned about the world around him. He’d also take your hand off at the wrist before he’d let you pick up at the check.
His legacy as a great Hollywood composer is huge. Less known but no less enduring is his incredible body of work as a teacher, which is ongoing in the work and methods of the composers he taught so well.
Skip Heller, 5/14/2015