The Jazz Pianist Who Wrote the Music for “Star Wars”
Post by: Paul Kneusel
You’re probably familiar with the opening theme of Star Wars, right? The electrifying trumpet blast, the dramatic, exciting march. Or perhaps the way the strings make your heart soar right along with the flying bicycle in E.T. the Extraterrestrial. The common thread here is legendary film composer John Williams, universally known as a master of movie music and a big orchestral sound. But what you may not know is that before Jurassic Park, Jaws, and all the rest John, or “Johnny” Williams as he was known at the time, worked and performed as a jazz pianist.
Starting in high school Williams would accompany his father (also a musician) to rehearsals and meet ups to play along on the piano. Johnny also had his own band. He admitted they were “pretty rough” starting out, but the slump must not have lasted long as the group was dubbed the “hottest band in Hollywood” by Time magazine in 1949. For a little more background on the band and Johnny’s early years take a look at Tim Greiving’s entertaining L.A. Times article here (https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-john-williams-early-life-20180718-story.html)
After serving in the military (and scoring his first short film) it didn’t take too long for Williams to cut a couple of jazz albums: The John Towner Touch (Towner is his middle name) and World on a String both in 1957. Take a listen. The way the piano grooves and moves in ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’ from The John Towner Touch iseffortless (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCgQ1haQU7c). The short solo starting at about 1:20 in Over the Rainbow from World on a String is simple but masterfully executed (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ke6_cT5I0s). Just hearing a couple examples it’s easy to see that Williams could’ve made it big as a jazz pianist, but then again, why stop there? Be sure to check out both albums in their entirety, World on a String is on Spotify; you might need to dig around a little for Touch but try YouTube.
The John Williams sound we know and love today may often seem quite distant from his roots, but a keen ear and a little analysis will reveal that those exquisite string melodies, dazzling woodwind runs, and bombastic brass hits were all written by a jazz pianist at heart. So keep practicing, performing, and playing what you love. Who knows where it might take you.