Bridging the perceived gap between, say, Beethoven and Ellington has been one of his lifelong goals, ever since he first discovered jazz as a 16-year-old living in Buenos Aires.
"You see in 'Cherokee' how the Ravel chords are used as a bridge?" Schifrin asked. Suddenly the 76-year-old composer, conductor and pianist, who will be honored on Sept. 21 with a lifetime achievement award at the Temecula Valley International Film & Music Festival, seemed like a teenager.
"It's the harmonies of Ravel and Debussy that attract jazz musicians," he said. "I once showed Dizzy Gillespie Ravel's 'Histoires naturelles' for voice and piano. He heard one passage and said, 'Oh, this will go well with Monk's 'Round Midnight.' From then on we had to play it with the Ravel chords."
Schifrin played in the trumpet virtuoso's jazz group from 1958 to 1963, when he came to Hollywood and started composing for television and film. His most famous work is probably the Latin-flavored theme from "Mission: Impossible." But he's also written classic scores for "Bullitt" and three Academy Award-nominated films, "The Fox," "Cool Hand Luke" and "Voyage of the Damned." Schifrin also scored four of Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" films. Schifrin explained that sometimes the best film music is none at all.
About one of his most celebrated film scores, Schifrin said, "Everybody tells me I wrote a fantastic car chase sequence in 'Bullitt,' but I didn't. I wrote tension and suspense up to the moment where Steve McQueen puts his Mustang into gear."
Schifrin seems most proud of his "Jazz Meets the Symphony," a musical encounter that he hopes will be a "celebration of walls and fences coming down" and the "merging of two cultural heritages." He was scheduled to play and conduct the piece in Paris on Sept. 13.
Schifrin's autobiography, "Mission Impossible: My Life in Music" (edited by Richard Palmer, Scarecrow Press, $35, includes CD), which just hit bookstores, looks at his early years living under the fascist Peron regime in Argentina, his subsequent studies with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory and his evolution into one of Hollywood's elite composers.
Schifrin left Argentina in 1952, returning four years later. By the early '60s, however, he was solidly planted in Hollywood. The many military dictatorships that followed Peron's made it impossible for him to attend his father's funeral in Buenos Aires in 1979. By that time, Schifrin was under a death threat.
Schifrin's father was concertmaster of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, and his uncle was principal cellist. His father thought young Boris -- Schifrin legally changed it to "Lalo," which is a nickname for Claudio, his middle name -- might be better off as a classical musician. He studied with pianist Daniel Barenboim's father, Enrique, who used to whack his fingers with a sharp pencil whenever he made a mistake. "That was the way musical education was at that time," he said.
Although he later rebelled, Schifrin now seems grateful for the European musical education instilled in him by his father. When he was 9, he played Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" at the Teatro Colon with Erich Kleiber conducting. By then, Schifrin had already seen and absorbed operas, ballets and symphonies.
Looking back, Schifrin says his father did finally accept his unusual hybrid career, which fuses jazz with the European tradition of classical music. No doubt he would be proud of his son's four Grammy awards and six Oscar nominations -- and that past honorees for the Temecula Festival lifetime achievement award have included Ray Charles, Karl Malden, Robert Wise and Etta James.
The composer said his father thought the tango was "vulgar," but his natural feel for that sultry urban dance may have saved him from a night in jail. He was coming home late one night in Buenos Aires when two policemen spotted him.
"I had a case of LPs," he recalled. "A whole case made for LPs was new in Argentina, and the police thought I looked suspicious, especially when they saw English labels and the word 'jazz' on many of them. They wanted to take me to the station. There was a cafe across the street with a piano, and I asked them to go there. I opened the piano lid and played a tango. They smiled and let me go."
It was a close call, but other incidents, such as seeing Argentine soldiers goose-stepping in German uniforms, made it clear that the time had come to leave his beloved city. At the Special Section for Anti-Argentine Activities, his interrogator asked him why he wanted to leave Argentina to attend the Paris music conservatory. Schifrin answered: "Do you realize the honor it represents to have an Argentinean admitted to one of the most prestigious music schools in the world? I respectfully submit to you that this should be a cause for pride to our country!" His passport was signed and stamped.
Schifrin grew up in a religiously mixed family where Jews and Catholics intermarried. His father would take him to temple, and on Sunday mornings he would go to mass.
As he notes in his book, "All this was confusing to me since I was observing different rituals for the same God."
His mother's side was half-Jewish and half-Catholic but, he said, she "became Jewish." There was a note of slight offense in his voice when he recalled how an aunt and uncle on his mother's side once tried to convert him to Catholicism. Yet Schifrin has "great respect for people who believe sincerely in a religion and a God."
Art, and particularly the art of music, forms a large part of Schifrin's identity, but when asked whether he feels Jewish, he told a story.
"Well, I have to tell you when I went to Israel for the first time I felt something when I saw that the police had the Star of David on their uniforms. I mean, this did something to me."
The Temecula Valley International Film & Music Festival runs Sept. 17-21, 2008 at Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula. For more information on the Temecula Valley International Film & Music Festival, visit www.tviff.com
or call (951) 699-5514.
Rick Schultz writes about music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.