Interview with Lalo Schifrin – EXCLUSIVE SoundTrackFest


And then you had no choice but to tell things at home.

True. That’s when I had to tell my parents that I was leaving. They were very sad, sure, but they were also proud that I had that possibility. That was how I came to Paris, and well, all began there.

I was lucky enough to study with great teachers, even with the director of the conservatory at that time that was Olivier Messiaen, one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. He gave me many, many new technical tips that helped me a lot, and that have even served me to write film music.

I had already studied fugue, harmony, counterpoint and composition with Juan Carlos Paz, but there I studied orchestration with the great master Olivier Messiaen, who had been a pupil of Ravel himself, one of the greatest orchestrators of world history.

Olivier Messiaen gave me all those secrets, that are secrets in fact, because not many people know them, not many composers know them, and that has helped me a lot in the rest of my career.


How was your student life in Paris?

Young Lalo Schifrin

There I had a double life. During the day I went to the conservatory and at night I played Jazz with Jazz musicians in Paris, where Jazz concerts were also brought from the United States.

Many of the greatest Jazz musicians of all history came to Paris theaters to give concerts there.

At the same time, I went to the cinema as much as I could, as I have always liked the movies. There was no television yet, but there was cinema, so when I could, I went to the movies. One night, I began to pay attention to the background music of the film, to what happened with music. For example, horror movies, terror movies. I told myself, in my thoughts, without music, this movie would not be so scary, right? I was curious, and that started to lead me to the career that I embraced later.


How did you decide to return to Argentina and then move to the US?

When I returned to Argentina three years later, I founded a Jazz orchestra, seeking opportunity to make music for movies, because I already had the idea of cinema in my head. But I did not know anyone. It was very difficult. Producers and the film industry did not allow anyone from outside like me to get in.

I was young and there were no possibilities, so what I did was find a person who had a lot of money, and that I knew that liked my Jazz music. Then I told him I wanted to have a Jazz band for radio and television, and that person gave me all the support and indeed I began to present my Jazz Orchestra everywhere, a big band of 16 musicians.

I composed all the music, all the arrangements, and it was very successful because we started touring not only in Buenos Aires but in Argentina, that if you know the place, is a big wide country. Then I also went to Uruguay, Brazil, Peru, Chile… and what happened next was a coincidence.


So we’re back to luck and destiny coupling again….

That’s it. We’re talking about coincidences once more. It was the era of the cold war, and suddenly, the United States Department of State was sending cultural ambassadors to seduce audiences around the world, to make propaganda for the United States. And this did not happen only in America, I think it also was happening in Asia (countries like Pakistan as I recall).

Lalo Schifrin & Dizzy GillespieWell, in this context, the great American trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie came on one of those tours to Argentina, and one night, because my orchestra was pretty good, a person arranged for my orchestra to play a concert for Gillespie’s  musicians and his wife.

The style of my orchestra was very similar to his orchestra. He came on tour with an orchestra of exactly the same size: 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 5 saxophones, rhythm section, piano (I conducted the orchestra from the piano), bass and drums.

One night they were not playing (they had a matinee but they were free at night) a soiree was organized for Dizzy Gillespie, his wife, and the whole orchestra. Curiously, Quincy Jones, who was at that time the fourth trumpet of Gillespie’s orchestra, came too.

Well, when my orchestra finished playing, John Birks Gillespie (which was his real name), came to the stage where I was playing and said “Who wrote this music? Who wrote these arrangements? “ And I said “I did”. And immediately he told me “Do you want to come to the United States?



So you were invited to the United States.

Yes. I came to the United States and I started playing with him. I spent three years with him, and while I was here, finally the question of film music was solved in a very curious way.

I toured with Gillespie worldwide, and one night going to Europe, Scandinavia I think, to some festivals where there were musicians of all kinds; trios, quartets, and where the only large orchestra was Dizzy’s, we met with Jimmy Smith, who had a trio. Jimmy played the electric organ and played Jazz amazingly.

While we were at the airport going to the plane (I think we were flying to Denmark), Jimmy Smith’s agent  told  me “Did you write The Gillespiana Suite?” which is the first piece I wrote for Gillespie, a work for a very large orchestra, but where instead of 5 saxophones, I put 4 horns and a tuba, keeping the rest.

There I also played the piano, but this time, the director of the orchestra was not me, it was Dizzy Gillespie. Someone whom I have respected very much, because with him I also learned about harmony. He had a way of looking at the chords from within, and that helped me a lot, even to write film music as well.


It’s funny how one thing leads to another and how you learn a little bit of each person you meet.

Exactly! So returning to film music, what happened was that this man, who was the representative of Jimmy Smith, gave me his card and said “When you get back from this trip call me, and maybe we can have lunch together“.

When I got back I called him, and having lunch in New York, he asked me if I wanted to be with Dizzy Gillespie forever. I said no, that I would like to write music for film and television. And then he told me “Aaaah, that’s easy! Do not worry“.

He knew the music director of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer, who was in charge of the music publishing department of Warner, Arnold Maxim. This man gave me a film right away, that is not very known now, but that was my first film, Rhino! (1964).

Lalo Schifrin - Rhino


But as I recall, that is not your first movie right?

Rhino!  Is my first American film, but the first music I composed for a film was in Argentina, shortly before coming to the United States.

I do not know if they heard Dizzy Gillespie was bringing me to America, but suddenly I was called because they needed a composer who had a suitable rhythm for the youth of that time, and that way, in 1958, the year I came to America, I wrote music for a film in Argentina called El Jefe, with Alberto de Mendoza and Graciela Borges.

I still didn’t have the image and sound synchronization technique that later I learned in America, but I composed the music of the movie, and they liked it very much. In fact, it won the acceptance of film critics, and I got an award for best film music of ’58 in Argentina.

Going back to the story, in the United States, Arnold Maxim knew nothing of El Jefe and he gave me my first American film, Rhino!, that was not a big movie, but gave me the chance to be there and be seen.

It was about Africa, about people who buy elephant tusks and ivory traffic. It wasn’t a very important film neither a great success, so after finishing it, I had to wait to see what projects arose next.

And now listen to what I’m going to say, because maybe you’re not going to believe me, but the evidence is there.

There was a film that MGM wanted to do, they had the money and everything, and it was a film with Alain Delon and Jane Fonda, called Joy House (1964), which was to be shot in Paris.

The French producer Jaques Bar spoke English, but the director, who was René Clemént, only spoke French, no English, so he asked for a composer who could speak French to communicate with him.

Then they asked everywhere, and I was the only one here who spoke French, for the years I had lived in France. Fortunately, all the greatest composers here did not speak French, so I got the film, and that helped me a lot.

I went to Paris, I composed the music for the film, and I think that was my launching point. So as I always say, I was very lucky.