Inspiring Composer: Elmer Bernstein

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Elmer Bernstein

Elmer Bernstein (right) with Buddy Clements

Yesterday (August 18th) marked the 10th anniversary of the death of composer Elmer Bernstein, whose prolific talent enhanced more than 200 movies and television shows over a career spanning a half century — from 1951 to 2002. His extensive film credits include many genres, from westerns (Magnificent Seven) to dramas (To Kill a Mockingbird) to comedies (Animal House). Bernstein’s scores continue to be performed around the world, including a recent tribute at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Generous Spirit. In celebration of Bernstein’s life, we’d like to spotlight his generous friendship with Dr. Buddy Clements, Band Director at Walnut High School (WHS) in Walnut, California. Even away from the spotlight, Bernstein touched many lives. First, some background…

“My Instant Hero.” At the age of 10, Clements recalls attending the movie “The Sons of Katie Elder” and hearing its enthralling music. He remarks:

“That’s when I discovered film music. A name popped on the screen: ‘Music by Elmer Bernstein,’ I wondered: ‘Who is this guy? Did he write this?’ He became my instant hero.”

After considering other careers during childhood, Clements eventually decided to pursue music and dreamed of breaking into Hollywood as a composer or conductor:

“I thought I’d teach high school band while also writing and arranging… then slide over into Hollywood…I’d get to know Elmer Bernstein; we’d be pals. I’d be able to call him up and say, ‘Hey Elmer, it’s Buddy. How’d the Dodgers do last night?’ I would know I’d made it when I was buddies with Elmer Bernstein.”

Finding a Mentor. While teaching, Clements learned the importance of having a mentor, whether as teacher, musician or conductor. He said that choosing someone you admire gives you a measuring stick on your own progress. He found mentors who were active in Hollywood as composers, musicians or conductors…and he became friends with them: trumpeter Bobby Shew, trombonist Bill Watrous, composer Bruce Broughton or drummer Louie Bellson. Some also visited WHS as guest artists, which Clements describes as “taking that little flame of passion you have for music and throwing positive, inspirational gasoline on it!”

Meeting His Hero. After many years teaching, Clements attended a one-day Bernstein-led seminar at UCLA. Afterwards, he asked the composer if he ever did guest conducting at schools. “Nobody’s ever asked me,” was Bernstein’s reply. Clements promised to ask him – after the WHS music program was more established. Ten years passed before Clements called him up; Bernstein remembered him, agreed to come and sent out music for Clements’ students to work on. At the end of the concert, Bernstein told the audience he was so impressed by the kids’ passion and parents’ enthusiasm that he’d return – if asked.

Return Engagements. Clements asked – so Bernstein returned annually for eight years; the two became friends. “Elmer loved his visits to our school,” notes Clements. “He would refer to the students as ‘our kids’ or ‘my kids’ and he treasured the personalized WHS band jacket we gave him.” WHS sold tickets for his concerts; Bernstein never charged a cent. Clements was surprised to hear Bernstein admit to not following his own early aspirations into teaching because ‘he didn’t think he was good enough.’

“He was my hero and that made me feel like a million bucks,” remarks Clements. “I don’t care if he’s lying, it’s a great story. He was just an awesome guy.”

Final Credits. As Bernstein battled cancer at the end of his life, Clements wrote him a letter describing the thrill of getting to know his boyhood idol. Clements still treasures the reply he received, in which Bernstein said the personal connections one makes in life really make a difference. “He wrote that he didn’t always know if his work was affecting anybody,” concludes Clements. “He was glad our paths had crossed and that he had made a difference in my life.”

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