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Gene Cipriano, saxophonist best known for extensive work in television and film, dies

Gene Cipriano
c/o the artist
Gene Cipriano, in photo from cover of his debut album

Gene Cipriano, a saxophonist who played on thousands of pop and jazz recordings and whose music was a part of dozens of films and television shows, died of natural causes on Nov. 12 at his home in Studio City, Calif. He was 94.

Known familiarly as “Cip,” the saxophonist played music for seemingly every TV show out of Hollywood, including Batman, The Flintstones, M*A*S*H*, Star Trek, The Simpsons, American Dad and Mission Impossible. He ghosted the saxophone part for Tony Curtis’ character in the iconic film Some Like It Hot. Cipriano was also a longtime member of The Wrecking Crew, the renowned group of Los Angeles-based studio musicians who played on so many hits of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Although he did plenty of jazz shows and recording sessions (close to 200 recordings), Cipriano didn’t release an album as a leader until 2006, with the two-CD set, Gene Cipriano: First Time Out. He was 78 years old at the time. The album was produced by Bill Hughes and Tom Ranier. “He played tenor saxophone, clarinet and English Horn and was featured improvising on each tune,” Ranier told WBGO. “The nature of the studio work he did for the majority of his career gave him very few chances to do so. This was an opportunity for him to shine with that ability. He played all his instruments superbly, producing beautiful singing sounds on each. His technical ability on each instrument was at the highest level and he could sight read music of any style and adapt to any genre, and do so perfectly. In addition, he had perfect pitch and played all the instruments perfectly in tune.” Ranier said that Cipriano played soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass saxophones, as well as all clarinets, all flutes and piccolo and, in addition, oboe, English Horn and bass oboe.

Cipriano was born on July 6, 1928 in New Haven, Conn. His father was a clarinetist who played in pit bands in New Haven and later on Broadway in New York City. His son started playing clarinet at the age of eight, eventually learning the saxophone and flute as well. After playing around New Haven during his younger years, he was invited to join Tommy Dorsey’s band when he was just 23. He later settled in New York City, where he played with Claude Thornhill and Lee Konitz. Tex Beneke asked him to join what was a reconstituted Glenn Miller Band, playing the hits of the deceased bandleader. Among the members of that ghost band was Henry Mancini.

It was Mancini who gave Cipriano his entry into the world of television, first calling him to play flute on the Peter Gunn show for which Mancini was doing the music. In subsequent years, Cipriano would work with Mancini as well as nearly every notable TV and film composer including Johnny Mandel, Michel Legrand, Andre Previn, Neal Hefti, Lalo Schifrin, Marvin Hamlisch, Gary Foster and many others. “I got to know Cip in the early ‘80s working with him on various TV shows and movies,” Ranier explained. “We worked together on the Academy Awards shows many times—24 for me and a record 59 for him, the most of any musician, I think. He was one of, if not the most, recorded woodwind player in history having played on thousands of record dates, movies, jingles and TV shows. I learned many lessons, musically and personally, from him over the years, including how to view the freelance music business with a healthy outlook.”

A quintessential session musician, Cipriano would play on recordings and in performance with Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Rosemary Clooney, Natalie Cole, Judy Garland and so many more. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, Cipriano was often a part of The Wrecking Crew, a group of studio musicians who played on many rock and pop hits of that time—from the Monkees to the Beach Boys. “It was a lot of fun because a lot of times the composer would say to the rhythm section, ‘Think of something wild that would fit this particular piece of music,’” Cipriano told Joanie Harmon of the website MakingLifeSwing in 2019. “They would think of something and then they’d ad lib and tell us what to play. Sometimes we’d make up music right on the spot.”

Interview with Cipriano and Chuck Findley about the LA recording scene:

Gene Cipriano and Chuck Findley

Cipriano also did his share of jazz recordings, most notably as part of the big band on Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Blues. He frequently played with Shelly Manne, Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, and other stalwarts of the West Coast jazz scene.

“He was always positive, upbeat,and a joy to be around,” said Ranier. “The tributes on Facebook attest to how much he was truly loved by all that knew him to any degree and all that worked with him.He was always encouraging to younger musicians just starting out. He truly was a person everyone looked up to with respect admiration and love. His was a life very well lived.”

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”