Chatting with ace saxophonist Pete Christlieb

He played for decades in the Johnny Carson house band. Now you can hear him in Everett.

Pete Christlieb, 73, has earned three Grammy nominations in his long career. (contributed photo)

Pete Christlieb, 73, has earned three Grammy nominations in his long career. (contributed photo)

Pete Christlieb will never forget the times when his father, Don, took him to work.

The elder Christlieb was a renowned bassoonist who played in the studio orchestra at 20th Century Fox. He played on the musical soundtracks of countless movies, including the 1939 epic “Gone With The Wind.”

Seeing the conductor lead the orchestra through movie sequences had a profound effect on Pete Christlieb, who, as an adult, found his way into one of those seats as a saxophonist for Paramount Pictures, where he worked on soundtracks for the original “Star Trek” and its sequels.

Along the way, the 73-year-old Tacoma resident earned three Grammy nominations, a 20-year stint with “The Tonight Show” Band during the Johnny Carson era, and recordings on television shows such as “Family Guy,” the music for which was composed by Stanwood resident Ron Jones.

Currently, Christlieb plays in Jones’ band, Jazz Forest, an innovative ensemble that fuses film scoring and live performances, which they call “cinematic jazz.” The performances remind Christlieb of going to work with his dad.

Jazz Forest plays Sept. 22 at the Everett Mall’s Northwest Music Hall.

Here, Christlieb offers a preview of what to expect from the show, and talks about his first big break and his Grammy nominations.

Tell me about Jazz Forest’s upcoming show.

We cover a lot of ground as far as music and the style of music we play. People will hear new arrangements of old jazz standards, film score hits, pop funk and some rock ’n’ roll. There will also be a screen behind us which we use to make music to motion pictures. Ron wants to put everybody in the audience in his shoes when he’s at work. It’s a different kind of band setup than I have ever seen before. It’s more like a modern recording session.

Who influenced you to play the saxophone?

It was Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. I was 12 years old when someone left their records in a record player and I played them. Right then I decided to give up the violin. I went to a beginning winds class and asked for a saxophone. They gave me a tenor and I was off.

When did your music career begin?

I quit school at 17 and went on the road with bands, including the Si Zentner, Della Reese and Pearl Bailey bands. Playing live jazz was fun, but I needed to work in studios to make enough money to buy a house and raise a family. Most of the things I learned from my dad … came into play in that environment.

What was your first big break?

Tom Scott, a sax player, decided to quit The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, a music and comedy show on CBS in the early 1970s. I was sitting around at home doing nothing after I got off the road. The phone rang and I made a mad dash to the studio. That gig lasted three years and I bought my first house off it.

What led you to The Tonight Show’s band?

The Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson, came out to California for every summer for two weeks. I was working with Louie Bellson’s band in Los Angeles at the time and they called him asking for musicians to fill out the show’s road band. Out of the goodness of his heart, he pulled me in on this deal. It was the biggest honor anybody could have. It’s only a handpicked group of guys who get to do this. In the early ‘70s, The Tonight Show moved to Burbank, California. I got the call to be a permanent member. I stayed on for the next 20 years.

What effect did that have on your career?

Being exposed on TV to millions of people every night led to getting calls to work with different people, which was really fun, including Chet Baker, who still owes me $300 actually. (Baker died in 1988.)

What are your thoughts on being nominated for three Grammys?

That was an honor. It’s a one-in-a-million shot just to be nominated. It doesn’t bother me that I didn’t win. The biggest record companies usually do.

What was it like working with Ron on “Family Guy”?

“Family Guy” was a ball to do. But TV work can be very demanding. It puts your musicianship skills to the test. They want it now with no mistakes. I was playing the clarinet, flute, alto flute, piccolo, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet. Now, I just play my tenor sax, and I’m loving it.

Is Jazz Forest challenging, too?

Ron writes pretty intricately. Our noses are in the sheet music all the time. We started with only a dozen songs, but now we’ve got 50 tunes in the book. He writes every day.

What makes cinematic jazz special?

Ron wants people to see how it’s all done. He’ll be conducting us and looking at the screen at the same time. It’s like being in a recording or film session.

Evan Thompson: 360-544-2999, ethompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @evanthompson_1.

If you go

What: Jazz Forest

Where: Northwest Music Hall, Everett Mall, 1402 SE Everett Mall Way

When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22

Tickets: from $10.

More: www.jazzforest.com, www.petechristlieb.com or www.eventbrite.com.

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