JAN HAMMER scores a hit
"Miami Vice" composer rocks prime time
By John Milward
Special for USA TODAY
NEW YORK: Jan Hammer's parents, who remained in Czechoslovakia after their son emigrated to the USA in 1968, can't quite get a handle on the TV show whose score their son composes.
"I tried to translate the word vice for my father," says Hammer. "At first he thought it was wise, as in wisdom, then vice, as in vice president."
Outside the Eastern Bloc, Miami Vice is known as the first TV show to fully exploit pop music.
The sound track album is No. 1, with two top-10 singles: Hammer's Miami Vice theme and Glenn Frey's You Belong to the City.
"I picked up the phone last week," says Hammer, 37, sitting in a Manhattan warehouse where a crew is building sets for a video of his first hit record, "and it was Henry Mancini calling to congratulate me." The reason: Miami Vice is the first TV sound track to hit No. 1 since Mancini's 1959 The Music From Peter Gunn.
Besides spawning hit recordsâ€”including Frey's earlier Smuggler's Blues, which became a hit for the ex-Eagle after it inspired a Vice episodeâ€” the show has given new emphasis to instrumental scores. And Hammer, who produces about 20 minutes of new music for each week's program, has brought rock to prime time.
Here's Hammer's week
On Monday or Tuesday, a courier arrives at his Colonial home in upstate New York with the initial cut of the next episode. It's usually about 60 minutes long, and will cut to 50.
"I stopped reading scripts after the pilot," says Hammer. Instead, "I sit down and watch like a viewer, get caught up in the drama, and rely on that to goose me into action." Initially, that means jotting down notes on where major sections of music must be scored.
The pre-existing pop songs leased for use on Vice are already on each week's sound track: they're chosen by associate producer Fred Lyle.
During the week, Hammer receives up to four versions of the program as it evolves. By Wednesday, his initial musical sketches are becoming more developed, and he's girding up for a pair of 12- hour days recording in his 2t track home studio.
Hammer, primarily a keyboardist, first came to prominence with guitarist John McLaughlin's original Mahavishnu Orchestra. He later collaborated with guitarist Jeff Beck on a trio of fusion albums. His career has paralleled and profited from the development of synthesizers and associated computer technology.
His prominent use of computer-generated sounds has drawn criticism from old school composers and pop critics alike. Hammer dismisses such criticism: "I've personally played every drum sound that's stored in my computer. ... And anyway, I'm a much better drummer in my mind than I am in person."
â€¢ Thursday and Friday are long days spent recording his musical tracks and making sure they're precisely timed to the final cut. The work is both exhilarating and exhausting, and Hammer says this might be his last season with the show. That's also because his TV success is spurring hot offers for film sound tracks.
For now, each Friday night at 10 you can find Hammer and his wife, Ivona, sitting down to watch Miami Vice. "I have a stereo television, but since my two children are asleep by that time, we have to keep the sound down low."