Composer makes Vice a classy show
Published February 17, 1985
In this final installment of a three-part look at the television series Miami Vice, we meet the composer and performer of its original music, keyboardist / drummer / guitarist Jan Hammer.
Associate producer Fred Lyle, interviewed for last week's column, called it a "real coup" to get Hammer under contract. Although his fresh approach to television drama is already being mimicked, Vice should remain in a class by itself, musically and otherwise.
Jan Hammer (pronounced "Yon Hommer") couldn't get music out of his system if he tried. Born a Czechoslovakian in 1948, the son of a physician and a famous national songstress, Hammer learned to play piano at age four. In high school he and friend Mirozlav Vitous (future founder of Weather Report) began twisting rock and roll into what would come to be known as jazz/rock fusion.
The Soviets arrived in Prague the summer of 1968; Hammer chose Boston instead. Two years later, at the age of 21, he became keyboardist, composer, arranger, and conductor for the Sarah Vaughn Trio. Next stop, another group of modern musical pioneers, the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
In the decade since, the familiar names which appear throughout his discography need to be alphabetized: Jeff Beck, Tommy Bolin, Eric Clapton, Stanley Clarke, Joe Cocker, Al DiMeola, Mick Jagger, John McLaughlin, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, and James Young.
He has scored and performed on two motion pictures since 1983, "A Night in Heaven" and "Gimme an F..." His latest feature-length work was heard Monday evening on NBC-TV, "Two Fathers' Justice."
Jan Hammer called precisely at 2 p.m. on Tuesday. He sprinkled several comments with self-conscious giggles and, despite his Czech accent, spoke better English than a Green Bay anchorman.
You don't mind if we skip the ancient history . . .?
Please! By all means.
How do you like the routine of writing for weekly television? It must be quite a regular schedule, compared to touring or session work.
Well, this particular show doesn't really work according to the standard procedure in which you would be many episodes ahead. There is so much fine tuning and care which goes into each episode, it almost like preparing a feature movie for each week. But it's turning out more like I have about three days to really play with something.
Oh, yeah? So how far ahead are you right now?
Ahh . . . right now I'm about to look at a very, very rough cut of the episode that's going to air a week from this Friday; it was sent off yesterday.
Jeez, I'd better talk faster!
(Laughs) It's pretty maddening. I don't have problems with the inspiration and ideas. It's just that, sometimes, I'm under a gun. I spent a few sleepless nights in the beginning of the run. But now I have like 12, 13 episodes under my belt, so I feel a lot more comfortable with it.
Let me ask you about that inspiration. Is it mostly off-the-cuff as you're viewing the video cut?
Some of it is, obviously. What really helps in my case: I'm working with "minimal supervision." I don't have to sit down with the producer, director, and everybody else and figure out what does where. I'm very fortunate to work with an executive producer like Michael Mann, who, at the beginning, gave me carte blanche. He said, "You do what you want and put it where you want it," which is unheard of for TV. We really hit it off. I'm pretty much my own boss.
The only thing that I have to watch out for are the one or two songs each week, the outside source songs that are very important to the show. I have to know where they go. And also I like to hear them so I can put music that will sound right, either before or after--so it matches somehow with the mood and keys and all that.
Do you have a kind of "card file" of ideas? I realize a lot of it is straight improvisation, but do you use things you've thought of while you're, say, making breakfast?
Oh, sure, sure! A lot of time the things you end up hearing, against a particular scene, were not written with that scene in mind in the first place. You just hear this idea, you mark it down--in my case I play it into the memory of the computer--store it and I can always go back and say, Let's see what this sounds like . . . This might work here." I build it up from that idea. At any time of day or night, I can just pop it in immediately. It's a much more direct kind of storage.
Now, about the TV movie, "Two Fathers' Justice." Judging from the lead actors, Robert Conrad and George Hamilton, I would guess it's aimed at an audience slightly older than the Miami Vice crowd.
Oh, absolutely, yes, that's true. You would say it's less "pop" or "arty." On the other hand, it's a very frightening and deep and moving movie. I would say the same thing--you have a certain image of those actors. But, believe me, when I first saw the movie, it blew away all my preconceived ideas of what these guys will do. If you see it, you're not gonna believe it. It's a really great movie.
Your manager says the job offers have suddenly begun rolling in, since Vice.
Well, in the past, I may have lost some very big movies simply because I was not, quote-unquote, "a proven entity." It's all changing now. They see the success of the show and how much the music is tied into the image of it. So, obviously, they figure there must be something happening there.
Several years ago, I interviewed Mike Post (Rockford Files, A-Team, Hill Street Blues). It seemed to bother him that composers were starting to copy his style. You've seen your own influence for years. What do you think?
It doesn't bother me a bit. What you have to realize is that it's really not the things they copy; it's the things they themselves come up with that will make them cut across. Those copies don't hurt me. It's good to see somebody inspired. But that somebody will take over from you--if you don't have time, they hire him, so big deal.
(Associate producer) Fred Lyle was kind of worried that he might be mixing your underscore too loud over some of the dialog.
It's always been done in films. What you get is that the mood is more important than the actual, specific words. You remember the emotional impact of acting. It touches you much deeper than if you just heard the words spelled out. It'd be another stock cop show.
Do you remember which instruments you used in the Miami Vice theme song?
Ah! (Long pause)
It starts off with that rat-a-tat-tat machine gun sound.
Ah, that's a synthesizer. Most of it is synthesizer. In addition, I play play some drums, some guitar, and that's it.
Any possibility that it will be released in record form?
Oh yes! We are working on an album. Half of it will be some of the most popular songs that were used, and the other half will be my scoring. It should be on MCA Records--sometime soon.
Is the show broadcast in stereo anywhere?
Not yet, as far as I know. It was all mixed and produced in stereo. I think that when the reruns start, they have it scheduled. They just don't have the system up and running.
One last question: Would you ever like to do some acting in Miami Vice? Maybe just a little bit part?
I don't know. That's something I've done when I was a little kid, in Europe. You cannot just jump in there. Maybe just for the heck of it. But believe me--the time! I just don't have the time. Even if the occasion should arise, as far as scoring them, I would have to let two or three episodes go.
Now there's a bad idea. Get back to work right now. Thanks very much, Jan. Good bye.
The Miami Vice Soundtrack album was released and became a big seller. And Jan Hammer did appear in an episode, typecast as a wedding musician. After leaving Vice in 1988, Hammer went on to score dozens of theatrical movies, HBO originals, a British cop series, and even European station ID music. He has continued to work with Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, and other stars. His web site, not surprisingly, is janhammer.com.