John Williams needed a clarinettist on the ‘Jaws’ soundtrack. So, Spielberg volunteered.

8 February 2022, 17:16

Steven Spielberg and John Williams
Steven Spielberg and John Williams. Picture: Getty

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

Hollywood’s best known director is also a high school clarinettist and can be heard playing in one of his films...

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Steven Spielberg is the world’s most commercially successful director, the creator of multiple award-winning films, and a recipient of a multitude of honours and accolades.

But this master of movies is not just a talented director, but also a marvellous musician.

Born into a musical family, Spielberg’s mother, Leah, was a restaurateur and concert pianist. Her passion for music clearly rubbed off on the young Spielberg as he took up the clarinet as a child and continued playing throughout his school days.

Fast forward to 1975, and Spielberg features on the soundtrack for his horror-film, Jaws (1975). This is the story of how, and why the school-standard clarinettist ended up on John Williams’ Oscar-winning score.

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Famous people who played in band. Steven Spielberg (Bb Clarinet)--Arcadia High School Band in Phoenix.

Posted by American Bandmasters Association on Monday, November 27, 2017

Early on in Jaws, a band is seen playing a John Sousa march in the street as part of the Fourth of July weekend celebrations.

Williams wanted the sound of the band to be akin to that heard in any random local town in America; not playing at the standard of the Hollywood-level orchestra he had available to him.

“It's very difficult to ask these great musicians to play badly,” Williams told journalist, Jon Burlingame.

Williams recalls that Spielberg subsequently raised his hand and offered to play the clarinet, citing that he used to play back in school. The award-winning director consequently joined the orchestra for a poor rendition of the Sousa march.

“[Spielberg] added just the right amateur quality to the piece,” Williams quipped. “A few measures still survive in the movie.”

Read more: What makes the Star Wars soundtrack so good?

Spielberg played the clarinet in both his grade school (primary school) band and high school band, with the latter performing music which Spielberg wrote for his first feature film, Firelight (1964).

He directed Firelight, which made a profit of one dollar, when he was just 18. The film would go on to inspire his third major film, the 1977 Sci-Fi film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

For the film’s score, Spielberg composed the soundtrack on his clarinet, and then his mother Leah transposed and arranged the music for piano and the Arcadia High School band.

Jaws isn’t the only Hollywood film that Spielberg the musician features on. Four years after his Hollywood orchestral debut, Spielberg returned to the clarinet in 1979 for the score of his American period war comedy film, 1941.

In the film Spielberg plays the clarinet for another march, this time written by Williams specifically for the film, and the jaunty titular tune is arguably one of Williams’ catchiest scores.

Read more: 10 of John Williams’ all-time greatest film themes, ranked

Spielberg gave his musical input on many of Williams’ scores, and this backstage footage of their collaboration on the soundtrack for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a heartwarming insight into their decades-long partnership.

Read more: Look at this wonderful footage of Steven Spielberg and John Williams composing music for E.T. together