Clare Fischer, American composer, died he was 83.
Douglas Clare Fischer  was an American keyboardist, composer, arranger, and bandleader died he was 83.. After graduating from Michigan State University (from whom, five decades later, he would receive an honorary doctorate), he became the pianist and arranger for the vocal group The Hi-Lo’s in the late 1950s. Fischer went on to work with Donald Byrd and Dizzy Gillespie, and became known for his Latin and bossa nova recordings in the 1960s. He composed the salsa standard, “Morning“, and the jazz standard, “Pensativa“. Consistently cited by jazz pianist and composer Herbie Hancock as a major influence (“I wouldn’t be me without Clare Fischer”), he was nominated for eleven Grammy Awards during his lifetime, winning for his landmark album, Clare Fischer & Salsa Picante Present “2 + 2”
(1981), the first of Fischer’s records to incorporate the vocal
ensemble writing developed during his Hi-Lo’s days into his already
sizable Latin jazz discography; it was also the first recorded
installment in Fischer’s three-decade-long collaboration with his son Brent. Dr. Fischer was also a posthumous Grammy winner for ¡Ritmo! (2012).
Beginning in the early 1970s, Fischer embarked on a parallel career
(and by far the more lucrative one), eventually becoming a much sought
after arranger, providing orchestral ‘sweeteners’ for pop and R&B artists such as Rufus (with Chaka Kahn), Prince (a regular client from 1985 on, and by far Fischer’s most frequent employer in this vein), Robert Palmer, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, and many others.
(October 22, 1928 – January 26, 2012)
Early life and education
Fischer was the third of four children born to Cecil and Louella (Roussin) Fischer of Durand, Michigan.
His parents were of German, French, Irish-Scot, and English
backgrounds. In grade school he started his general music study with violin
and piano as his first instruments. At the age of 7 he began to pick
out four-part harmony on the piano. After two years of piano lessons the
family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Fischer began composing classical music and making instrumental arrangements for dance bands.
At South High School he took up cello, clarinet, and saxophone.
His high school instructor, Glenn Litton, took an interest in the boy
and, because the family could not afford it, gave him free lessons in music theory, harmony, and orchestration.
Fischer returned the favor by orchestrating and copying music for him.
Whenever the concert band needed an instrument, Fischer would be
supplied with it and the fingering chart to play it in concert. This
gave him a personal training in orchestration that was invaluable.
Fischer started his own band at 15, for which he wrote all the arrangements. After graduating in 1946, he began undergraduate studies in 1947 at Michigan State University, majoring in music composition and theory, and studying with H. Owen Reed.
During his teens there were no funds for him to study piano, so he was
mostly self-taught. Therefore his major instrument in college was cello,
and piano a minor. Later he changed his major to piano and minor in
Fischer graduated in 1951 with a B.M., cum laude, and began his first year of graduate work in composition. The U.S. Army drafted him the next year, sending him to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri,
for basic training. There he played alto saxophone in the band and
ended his service as an arranger at the U.S. Military Academy Band at
West Point, N.Y. After the army, Fischer returned to Michigan State. In
1955 he received his Master of Music.
Fischer next lived in Detroit, Michigan, whereupon, after first hearing the vocal quartet The Hi-Lo’s
in a live perfomance, he promptly offered his services. Over the next
five years, Fischer recorded several albums with the group, serving as
pianist and, on occasion, arranger. In addition, he contributed several
vocal arrangements, making his debut in that capacity; it was these
arrangements that Herbie Hancock would later point to as a major influence:
- [T]hat’s when I really learned some much farther-out voicings – like the harmonies I used on Speak Like a Child
– just being able to do that. I really got that from Clare Fischer’s
arrangements for the Hi-Lo’s. Clare Fischer was a major influence on my
I heard some of his last records, and he was still doing amazing
harmonic stuff. And, of course, he was a wonderful pianist, too. But it
was those vocal harmonies that were the first thing I heard. I was in
awe of him.
While with The Hi-Lo’s, Fischer arranged a record by trumpeter Donald Byrd,
which, by virtue of Fischer’s use of strings and harps, imbued
well-known standards with an unaccustomed, melancholic quality. Although
it would be twenty-five years before the album was finally released, September Afternoon paid immediate dividends when Byrd played a copy for Dizzy Gillespie. In turn, Gillespie hired Fischer to write arrangements for a small ensemble featuring brass and woodwinds for his own album, A Portrait of Duke Ellington, which was well received. In 1960 albums for vibraphonist Cal Tjader and pianist George Shearing
followed, as did an eight year career of writing music for commercials,
as well as the signing of Fischer’s first record contract.
Early career as a leader
The first recording under his own name began in 1962 for Pacific Jazz Records: First Time Out, Surging Ahead, Manteca! and Extension, plus recordings with Bud Shank and Joe Pass. These early records are meticulous studies in jazz, bossa nova and mambo, with the harmonic depth of Bach, Shostakovich and Stravinsky.
They were well received by the critics, but commercially not very
successful. Fischer presented himself both as pianist and arranger and
composed his most famous pieces, “Pensativa” and “Morning”. His many talents, however, proved a disadvantage.
- Whenever I played with a trio, people said: “Fischer owes a lot
to Bill Evans.” Who I had never heard playing. My big musical example at
the time was Lee Konitz. And when I orchestrated a record it was Gil Evans, the arranger, that I copied. I called this my “Evans Brothers syndrome”.
Arrangements for Sérgio Mendes,
Willy Ruff and others followed. In the sixties Fischer began playing
the organ again, having studied the pipe organ at sixteen. He began to
record on a Hammond B-3 for Pacific and on an album by Cal Tjader, Soña Libre. Years later, Fischer would record T’DAAA (1972) which showcased his skill on the Yamaha EX-42 and Clare Declares (1977) which once again featured the pipe organ.
Fischer’s roommates at the Michigan State University were Latin
Americans, as were the majority of his friends outside the music
department. He was introduced to the music of Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Machito
and others. Through his friends he became interested in the Spanish
language and took it as a minor on his Masters Degree. Fischer’s passion
for music was always matched by his love of languages.
- The average person has about a fifteen percent understanding of a
foreign language. He knows what language it is and is familiar with one
or two words. With music it is not different. Most people only hear the
lyrics to a song or feel the beat. I have always made music for good
listeners, with 65 to eighty percent of musical understanding. That is
why with my vocal sextet all pieces are sung in the original language,
whether that is German, Spanish or Japanese.
When he moved to Hollywood in 1958, he went to East L.A. to play and learn more about Latin-Jazz. He started in a charanga group with Modesta Duran as leader and played with many different groups.
During this period Fischer became interested in Brazilian music through the recordings of Elizete Cardoso,
for whom he wrote the standard “Elizete”. Allegedly he cut the very
first American Bossa Nova record for Cal Tjader. His liner notes
illustrate how uncommon it was that Fischer tried to get people to dance
to something other than the twist:
- Last spring I was introduced to a friend of bassist Ralph Peña
[…] he talked to us about a new kind of music that was being played in
Brazil called the ‘Bossa Nova’ which in slang terms might be like
saying ‘the new bag’ or ‘new aptitude’. […] The rhythms were so
infectious that, even though I usually don’t dance much myself, I felt
compelled to respond and found myself dancing away several hours.
Salsa Picante years
In 1975, after ten years of studiowork and artistically successful
yet obscure solo records, Fischer found a new direction. Just like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea
he was a pioneer on the electric keyboard, and in that capacity he
joined vibraphonist Cal Tjader’s group. The reunion with Tjader gave a
new impulse to Fischer’s love of Latin-American music. He started his
own group with Latino musicians, “Salsa Picante,” which showed great
eclecticism in musical styles. Later he added a vocal group, 2+2.
Stravinsky mixed with boogie woogie, country with renaissance music.
The record Clare Fischer & Salsa Picante Present “2 + 2” won a Grammy in 1981. After that he recorded And Sometimes Voices and Free Fall with the vocal group. Free Fall was nominated in three categories for the Grammy Awards and won under the category of “Best Jazz Album By A Vocal Duo Or Group”. Crazy Bird was with the instrumental group and Alone Together, a solo piano album recorded on a magnificent Hamburg Steinway.
It was recorded for Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer and the German company
MPS Records. Fischer’s MPS records were re-released by Discovery
Records. In 1999 Motor Music in Hamburg issued a CD with 24 bits
re-mastered highpoints of four of his Latin-flavoured MPS records,
called Latin Patterns.
In the seventies, Fischer began doing orchestral sweeteners for
R&B groups. His nephew, André Fischer, was the drummer of the band Rufus, featuring Chaka Khan.
“Apparently the arrangements I made for their early records were
appreciated, for in the following years I was hired almost exclusively
by black artists.” Among the artists Fischer worked for are The Jacksons, Earl Klugh, Switch, Debarge, Shotgun (a late 70s offshoot of 24-Carat Black) and Atlantic Starr. His walls are now covered with gold and platinum records from these recordings, Grammy Award Nominations, and several NARAS MVP Awards, culminating in an MVP-emeritus in 1985.
Once his fame as an arranger was established, Fischer also worked with pop musicians like Paul McCartney, Prince, Celine Dion and Robert Palmer.
“I am surprised that my arrangements are now considered one of the
prerequisites for a hit album. People feel that they make a song sound
Classical concert artist Richard Stoltzman commissioned him in 1983 to write a symphonic work using Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
themes. The result, “The Duke, Swee’pea and Me”, an eleven and a half
minute orchestral work, was performed with a symphony orchestra and Stoltzman on clarinet all around the world.
Later years: jazz inspiration and pop arranger
Since 1985 Fischer wrote orchestral arrangements for pop artist Prince. Some appeared on Prince’s albums and have been used for his movies Under the Cherry Moon (Fischer’s first screen credit), Graffiti Bridge and in Spike Lee‘s Girl 6. One of Fischer’s Prince arrangements was also used in a revised form for the movie Batman. Prince’s December 2005 single “Te Amo Corazon,” a mid-tempo Latin jazz track, featured string arrangements by Fischer.
More recently, as a jazz educator, Fischer performed solo piano
concerts and conducted clinics and master classes in universities and
music conservatories in Europe and throughout the United States. In 1995
Just Me came out, a Concord Jazz
CD with Fischer on solo piano. Featuring his Latin-jazz group and six
singers, now referred to as “Clare Fischer & Friends”, a JVC Music
CD was released in 1997 called Rockin’ In Rhythm.
Two gifted Dutch jazz pianists, Cor Bakker and Bert van den Brink, recorded the homage DeClared (1993) which contains nine Fischer compositions. Five years later recordings made in 1991 and 1997 with The Netherlands Metropole Orchestra led by Rob Pronk and Vince Mendoza came out as The Latin Side. Another notable recent CD with Clare is a re-issue of Art Pepper’s Tokyo Debut on Galaxy (1995).
Fischer continued to write for Prince and many other renowned artists including Michael Jackson before his death, Amy Grant, Brazilian artist João Gilberto (João), Paula Abdul, Natalie Cole and more recently Chaka Khan and Branford Marsalis.
With his commercial work Fischer financed a costly band of twenty
brass instruments, called “Clare Fischer’s Jazz Corps”. The recordings
of this band contain an interesting arrangement of Antonio Carlos Jobim‘s “Corcovado“. “The death of my friend Tom Jobim
has affected me deeply. Like me he was 68, and I am still alive. After
he died I had a dream in which I was conducting his ‘Corcovado’. Only it
was not a normal version, there were these harmonic countermelodies
in the bass. When I awoke I wrote down what I had dreamed. It became
Jobim’s In Memoriam, a piece I called ‘Corcovado Fúnebre.'”
One of Fischer’s last projects in his own name was a recording with Brazilian guitarist Hélio Delmiro
called “Symbiosis” which has been released on a “Clare Fischer
Productions” recording as has his Clare Fischer’s Jazz Corps recording.
In December 1999, Michigan State University School of Music conferred
an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts Degree on Fischer in recognition of
his “creativity and excellence as a jazz composer, arranger and
On October 22, 2009, Manhattan School of Music’s Concert Jazz Band,
under the direction of Justin DiCoccio, commemorated two Clare Fischer
anniversaries – both his 81st birthday and the 40th anniversary of the
release of his well-regarded big band LP, Thesaurus
– with a concert whose program concluded with five consecutive
arrangements culled from that album. FIttingly, the five-tune sequence
both began and ended, much like the album itself, with “The Duke” and
“Upper Manhattan Medical Group,” respectively,[a] Fischer’s tributes to his twin jazz inspirations, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.[b]
Sadly, Dr. Fischer could not attend the tribute; following a medical
emergency on the flight home from a family reunion in Michigan the
previous year, the family had decided that air travel was “just too
On January 8, 2012, Fischer suffered a cardiac arrest in Los Angeles,
following a minor surgery a few days before. His wife of 18 years,
Donna, was at his side and performed CPR.
He remained in ICU on life support, and died on January 26, 2012. He is
survived by his wife; three children, Lee, Brent and Tahlia; and two
stepchildren, Lisa and Bill Bachman.
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