Band­leader, ‘A-Tisket, A-Tas­ket’ co-writer

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

Van Alexan­der, a mu­si­cal jack-of-all-trades who co-wrote Ella Fitzger­ald’s big­gest hit in the 1930s, led a swing band, com­posed ar­range­ments for other band­leaders and later be­came a com­poser and mu­sic di­rec­tor in Hol­ly­wood, died July 19 at a Los An­ge­les hos­pi­tal. He was 100.

He had heart and kid­ney ail­ments, said his daugh­ter Joyce Harris.

Mr. Alexan­der was a self-taught mu­si­cian who grew up in New York dur­ing the early years of jazz and the swing era. He went on to be a busy be­hind-the-scenes fig­ure in mu­sic stu­dios, work­ing with such stars as Dean Martin, Doris Day, Mickey Rooney and Lena Horne.

“Van was the con­sum­mate pro­fes­sional,” film mu­sic his­to­rian Jon Burlingame said Satur­day in an in­ter­view. “He was a great ar­ranger, and he knew how to write for a vo­cal­ist with a band.”

As a teenager, Mr. Alexan­der played pi­ano and led a band un­der his orig­i­nal name, Al Feld­man. His fa­ther ran a drug­store in Har­lem, and Mr. Alexan­der be­came a fix­ture at nearby dance halls, par­tic­u­larly the Savoy Ball­room, where the fea­tured band was led by drum­mer Chick Webb.

He told Webb that he had some mu­si­cal ar­range­ments to show him. When Webb said he was in­ter­ested, Mr. Alexan­der “went home with fear and trep­i­da­tion” be­cause he hadn’t yet writ­ten the ar­range­ments, he re­called in a 2012 in­ter­view with jazz writer Marc My­ers.

“Over the next four or five days,” he said, “I knocked out two charts.”

Webb liked the mu­sic, “paid me $10 for each one, and I went home on Cloud 90.”

At age 20, Mr. Alexan­der be­came a reg­u­lar ar­ranger for Webb, whose hard-swing­ing group bested Benny Good­man’s in a now-fa­mous Savoy Ball­room bat­tle of the bands in 1938. Webb’s singer was a young Ella Fitzger­ald, who kept ask­ing Mr. Alexan­der to write a song for her.

She sug­gested a vari­a­tion on a nurs­ery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tas­ket,” and she and Mr. Alexan­der, who was still known as Al Feld­man, took joint credit as the song’s com­posers. He wrote the play­ful call-and-re­sponse lyrics in which the band shouts out ques­tions to Fitzger­ald about her lost yel­low bas­ket: “Was it green?” No, no, no, no. “Was it red?” No, no, no, no. “Was it blue?” No, no, no, no. Just a lit­tle yel­low bas­ket.

“A-Tisket, A-Tas­ket” spent more than two months as the coun­try’s No. 1 song in 1938.

“No one knew what we had at the time,” Mr. Alexan­der said in the 2012 in­ter­view with My­ers for his “Jazz Wax” Web site. “It was just another nov­elty song, and pick­ing a hit is next to im­pos­si­ble. It just hap­pens.”

Alexan­der Van Vliet Feld­man was born May 2, 1915. His fa­ther was a phar­ma­cist, and his mother was a clas­si­cal pi­anist who be­gan giv­ing lessons to her son when he was 6.

Mr. Alexan­der briefly stud­ied at Columbia Univer­sity, but he mostly learned on his own. Be­sides his work with Webb and Fitzger­ald, he wrote ar­range­ments for other band­leaders, in­clud­ing Good­man and Cab Cal­loway.

In 1939, he signed with RCA, and a record-la­bel ex­ec­u­tive sug­gested he adopt a “more dra­matic” name. By re­vers­ing his first and mid­dle names, Al Feld­man be­came Van Alexan­der.

As a band­leader, he helped launch the ca­reers of drum­mers Irv Cot­tler and Shelly Manne, bassist Slam Stewart and trum­peter Neal Hefti, who later found greater suc­cess as a com­poser and ar­ranger.

Mr. Alexan­der moved to Hol­ly­wood in 1945 and be­gan work­ing in film and record­ing stu­dios. He recorded sev­eral al­bums with his own groups but be­came bet­ter known as a stand­out ar­ranger and con­duc­tor for such singers as Peggy Lee, Doris Day, Di­nah Shore, Kay Starr and Gor­don MacRae.

Mr. Alexan­der com­posed mu­sic for sev­eral movies fea­tur­ing Mickey Rooney, in­clud­ing “Baby Face Nel­son” (1957) and “Andy Hardy Comes Home” (1958), and wrote the scores for two of Joan Craw­ford’s later films, “Strait-Jacket” (1964) and “I Saw What You Did” (1965).

He also com­posed mu­sic for dozens of TV shows, in­clud­ing “Hazel,” “Be­witched” and “I Dream of Jean­nie.” From 1965 to 1974, he was the chief ar­ranger for Dean Martin’s va­ri­ety show. He re­ceived Emmy nom­i­na­tions in the 1970s for his work on tele­vi­sion va­ri­ety pro­grams hosted by Jonathan Win­ters and Gene Kelly.

In 1946, Mr. Alexan­der pub­lished a mu­sic text­book, “First Ar­range­ment,” and he men­tored many other com­posers and ar­rangers through­out his life. He also wrote an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, with Stephen Fratal­lone, “From Har­lem to Hol­ly­wood” (2009).

He re­ceived a life­time achieve­ment award from the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Com­posers, Au­thors and Pub­lish­ers, the mu­sic pub­lish­ing as­so­ci­a­tion, in 2002.

His wife of 72 years, Beth Bare­more Alexan­der, died in 2011. Sur­vivors in­clude two daugh­ters, Joyce Harris and Lynn To­bias, both of Los An­ge­les; four grand­chil­dren; and 14 great-grand­chil­dren.

Mr. Alexan­der re­mained ac­tive into his 90s. In May, more than 200 peo­ple at­tended his 100th birth­day party, at which he re­galed the gath­er­ing with mem­o­ries and jokes.

“I never touched a cig­a­rette or a drink in my life,” he said, ex­plain­ing his longevity. “I also never touched a woman un­til I was 11 years old— my fu­ture wife.”

PHOTO BY MITCH TO­BIAS

Van Alexan­der was a song­writer, band­leader and mu­sic ar­ranger for TV and film. He was the co-writer of “A-Tisket, A-Tas­ket.”

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