He calls himself the Jazz Pilot. Grammy-winning pianist and arranger Randy Waldman is the most famous musician perhaps you’ve never heard of. He’s also one of the most popular helicopter instructors in Los Angeles, flying out of Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. In 2003 he set a helicopter speed record in a Bell 206.
A native of Chicago, when he was 21, Waldman went on tour with Frank Sinatra. For the past 38 years he’s performed with and arranged for Barbra Streisand. He’s recorded and arranged for everyone from Michael Jackson to Dolly Parton to James Taylor. He’s performed with everyone from Billy Joel to Stevie Wonder to Eric Clapton. He’s produced everyone from Patti LaBelle to Kenny G to Olivia Newton John.
His music can be heard on major motion pictures as diverse as Forrest Gump, Mission Impossible, Titanic, and dozens of others. He also records his own albums. His most recent one, SuperHeroes, was nominated for two Grammy awards this year. One track on it, Spiderman Theme, won the best arrangement category.
SuperHeroes is a conglomeration of jazz-interpreted theme music of programs from Batman to Super Chicken with guest appearances by a veritable who’s who of the genre, including pianist Chick Corea; guitarist George Benson; trumpeters Arturo Sandoval, Wynton Marsalis, and Randy Brecker; saxophonists Chris Potter and Joe Lovano; clarinetist Eddie Daniels; drummers Steve Gadd and Vinnie Colaiuta; bassist Carlitos del Puerto; and the vocal group Take 6.
Waldman sporadically plays with a pickup band around Los Angeles time and schedule permitting, but he has no aspirations of ever being “an artist.”
“I wanted to be a studio musician. I just thought it was very cool to just be able to walk in and one day you’re a jazz guy, the next a country guy, the next a rock and roll guy. I just loved the diversity of the music and just trying to sound like the real deal no matter what they put in front of you,” he said.
As much as Waldman loves music, he loathes the idea of ever teaching it. “I can’t do it. Wrong notes are like hearing fingernails on a chalk board. I just don’t have the patience for it.”
Teaching helicopter flying is another matter. “It keeps me interested. My students are trying to kill me every second. It’s great.”
Waldman’s take on instructing can be found in a collection of humorous YouTube videos under his jazzpilot imprimatur. When he’s not making music you’ll likely find him beneath a pair of beating rotor blades somewhere over the Los Angeles Basin or hanging with fellow area rotorheads including Larry Welk, grandson of the famous band leader.
Q: How did you end up playing for Sinatra when you were only 21?
A: Frank’s piano player was also his conductor, but Frank decided he only wanted him to conduct. At the time the contractor they called was also my next door neighbor in Chicago. I knew who Sinatra was, but I really didn’t know that much about him, so I said, ‘OK, that sounds like fun.’ The first rehearsal was kind of funny. We’re all playing and waiting for Frank. After a while the phone rings, the conductor answers it while we keep playing. He comes back and says, ‘That was Frank. He says you guys sound great.’ So Frank never shows up. The first time I played with him was on a big stage, just he and I, in an arena in front of an audience with no rehearsal at all. That tour was in the Midwest and only lasted three weeks. Shortly after that, I moved to Los Angeles and started working with him here.
Q: How did you meet Streisand?
A: Once I got busy in L.A., I became one of the top call piano players -- doing all kinds of different things. One day I got a call to do a Streisand session after a friend had recommended me. Then I got called for her next couple of records. She got used to seeing me and we talked. Somehow it’s been 38 years of working on every movie and record she’s done since. I was co-arranger for her version of the song “Somewhere” that won a Grammy for the arrangement .
Q: How did you get interested in flying?
A: In 1989 I was riding my bike past a field for radio-controlled model airplanes. I asked a guy there if he could teach me how to fly them. Well, he was an American Airlines pilot and while he said he couldn’t teach me how to fly radio-controlled airplanes, he could teach me how to fly the real thing. So I said, ‘OK, let’s do that.’ Before you knew it I was flying two to three times a week and got my fixed-wing private, instructor, multi-engine and commercial ratings.
Q: And then you progressed to helicopters….
A: A few years later I was touring with Streisand and we were all staying at this luxury hotel near Long Beach. She got sick and canceled the concerts, but said the band could stay at the hotel for the week. Even though it was close to my house I decided to stay and take advantage of the accommodations. I could see helicopters doing pattern work at the airport and decided to take a lesson there. I was hooked right away. Airplanes need airspeed to fly. This was a magic carpet. It just picked straight up. So I became passionate about it and got my private, commercial, and CFI and CFII-H ratings. As soon as I got my private helicopter rating, I went out and bought a Bell 47 and later a Hughes 269. All my airplane friends wanted to learn how to fly my helicopter.
Q: Is it easier to teach a fixed-wing pilot to fly a helicopter as opposed to someone without flying experience?
A: Yes and no. Fixed-wing pilots understand communication, navigation, and keeping an aircraft oriented on the horizon. I teach a lot of airline and corporate jet pilots. Because of all their experience, they think that flying a helicopter should be easy. These students can get really frustrated, because once a helicopter slows down, the physical skill of controlling it is completely different than the skill set that they have. They are expecting to be really good at this, only to discover that they are no better at it than someone who has never flown before. Below 30 or 40 knots, a helicopter is a completely different animal than an airplane.
Q: Arguably, the hardest maneuver to master in a helicopter is the hover. Is there a ‘secret sauce’ to teaching it?
A: (Laughs). Not really. The more relaxed you are, the easier it will become. But when you are doing something that is completely foreign, when the machine is flailing all over the place, it is hard to relax. Just relax as much as you can, don’t put any pressure on the controls, and don’t look down. The farther you look out, the more you use your peripheral vision, the easier it will be. If you are looking down, you are going to try to correct for every tiny movement that the helicopter is making. You don’t drive a car by sticking your head out the window and looking down at the highway centerline. You drive looking out ahead. It’s the same thing.
Q: How challenging is it to fly in the Los Angeles Basin?
A: Brain surgery is easy if you know how to do it (laughs). It’s really congested airspace and you have to study it, learn where the landmarks are, where one class of airspace begins and the other ends. You use train tracks and freeways. It can be overwhelming, but like anything else, the more you do it, it just becomes second nature.
Q: Do you have a favorite helicopter?
A: Most helicopters are fun for different reasons. The (Robinson) R22 is fun because it’s almost like a little jet pack: With every move you make you feel the results of your input almost instantly. But it’s a blast to fly a big expensive turbine machine with a million bells and whistles on it, too. The (Airbus Helicopters) A-Star is a blast to fly because it’s big, but it’s also powerful and responsive. I’ve also flown a 1950s tandem-rotor Piasecki H-21, the helicopter they call 'the flying banana.' That’s probably the most fun helicopter I’ve flown recently because it’s so big—15,000 pounds—and vintage.”
Q: What’s your next gig?
A: I’m going on tour with George Benson.
Born: Chicago, Illinois.
Education: Graduated from Main East High School in Park Ridge, Illinois. Other notable Main East alumni include Hillary Clinton and Harrison Ford.
Married, three dogs
Residence: Los Angeles
Occupation: Professional musician and helicopter instructor
Hobbies: Trumpet, drums, magic, photography, and studying the medical college admission test (MCAT) exam book. “I’d love to be a surgeon, but if I went to medical school I’d be 110 by the time I graduated.”