Once Bill Holman began composing and arranging in earnest for Stan Kenton's orchestra in late 1952, he quickly grew comfortable taking risks with his music. The band was made up of enormously skilled technicians and fiery soloists, allowing Bill to experiment with different sections of the orchestra, develop conversational harmonies, and retain the tap-dancey swing he favored since childhood. [Pictured, Conte Candoli and Bill Holman. Photo: Ray Avery Collection]
By the time Bill's music was featured on a 10-inch Capitol album called Kenton Showcase: The Music of Bill Holman (1954), much of his style was in place. A signature Bill Holman arrangement often opened with a simple clarion theme, quickly followed by the band crowding in and swaggering on the theme toward a series of towel-snap crescendos. Bill's work on Stan Kenton: Contemporary Concepts, recorded in July 1955, reflects the high point of this period with the Kenton band.
In Part 3 of my four-part conversation on Bill's 1950s career, the legendary composer, arranger and tenor saxophonist talks about his fondness for trumpeter Conte Candoli's sound, using the Kenton band bus to think through arrangements, the characteristics of the Bill Holman sound, and his favorite Kenton chart:
JazzWax: Bags on the Kenton Showcase album, is a fabulous piece of writing.
Bill Holman: I wrote that for bassist Don Bagley. It was a feature for him. That was the first composition I wrote and arranged after I my writing style began to evolve. I was very happy with Bags, and the band liked playing it. They liked pretty much everything I did. It was a very good period. I still had innocence about my writing, you know?
JW: What do you mean?
BH: The writing on Bags and other songs from that period, I’ll never be able to recapture that feel. In the early 1950s, I didn’t have the technique yet to be a showoff. All that music came straight from the heart. As you get older, you get wiser and along the way you lose your innocence. When you're young, you don’t have the smarts to get cute. You're just being inspirational. Also, back then, I was playing every night. I think being a steady jazz player had a big influence on my writing. It made me give the music an improvised feel, unless I was writing a dramatic piece, which is obviously not improvised.
JW: Without the technique, as you put it, how did you view such a monster band when writing?
BH: I used to think of it as a large quintet. I wanted the horns to sound like they were playing together, as if reading written music. But I also wanted them at times to sound like they were improvising over the rhythm section. That’s what I did with the band all the time. Being a player is immensely helpful in understanding that feel and how to write so it actually happens.
JW: Were you a fast writer?
BH: I wrote the Kenton arrangements fairly quickly. I remember when we were on the road, I would sit on the bus and, you know, if there was no conversation that involved me and no one was playing any music or anything, I’d think about charts and make notes. When I’d get to the hotel, I’d write them out. When we'd get to a gig, I’d check them out on the piano. There wasn't too much agonizing going on there.
JW: So you were pretty quick.
BH: Yeah, at times. Once the score was done, I would send everything back to L.A., where Stan had a copyist who transcribed what I wrote for the individual musicians' parts. Then he'd send the parts back to the band, wherever we were.
JW: Who was your favorite in the trumpet section?
BH: For jazz, Conte Candoli. His overall approach to jazz from early on was very mature. He wasn’t the most original player, but he could get the right feeling in practically any situation. [Pictured: Conte Candoli and guitarist Sal Salvador in the early 1950s]
JW: What about Maynard Ferguson?
BH: I didn’t really think of him as a jazz player, in the purest sense. Jazz is about ideas, and Maynard at times was more technical in his approach. He did a lot of improvising with his various bands, but he rarely played warm solos the way Conte did. He had a different style. He was a fabulous player and a great guy.
JW: Did your confidence grow as a writer in 1952 and 1953? Did you feel like you had a magic pen?
BH: No I never did feel that way, thank god. That’s a very dangerous way to feel. Writing music and arranging never gets easy. I’ve had students ask me, "How long does it take before it gets easy?" I tell them, "Never." As soon as you get to one point in your development, you’re looking at the next level.
JW: Your arrangements for Stan Kenton Presents: Frank Rosolino in 1954 and 1955 are some of the most fabulous small-group charts.
BH: [Laughs] Those were fun. That was a great group to write for. Frank was a terrific trombonist.
JW: Which of your Kenton arrangements are you most happy with?
BH: For a long time it was What's New?, off the Contemporary Concepts album. I’m not so sure about that now. I like Stella by Starlight, with Charlie Mariano [pictured, on alto sax]. There was another one I liked a lot, from the Kenton Showcase album...
JW: Solo for Buddy?
BH: No, I hated that one. [Bill hums a few bars of the song he has in mind.]
BH: Yes, that's the one. I was very happy with how the blues line came out on there.
JW: Did your workload for the Kenton band increase in the mid-1950s?
BH: A bit. I was the chief arranger for the band by 1955 and part of 1956, so I was writing a lot then.
JW: How did you wind up leaving the band?
BH: Almost overnight Stan [pictured] had some kind of weird shift in his outlook, and he fired trumpeter Al Porcino and me. I don’t know why. He possibly felt the music was getting away from him. Al was a die-hard fan of swinging music, as was I. I think Stan thought that his conception for the band was going out the window. That's just my idea of what happened.
JW: When he let you go, were you anxious about suddenly being out on your own?
BH: Not really. By that time I started doing a lot of writing for different bands.
JW: Right around this time you arranged Around the Horn with Maynard Ferguson, an album with a glorious swinging feel.
BH: When we made that record, it was kind of a studio band made up of a lot of Maynard's friends. It wasn’t until Maynard went to New York that he came up with that young, energetic band he used steadily. My things for Around the Horn were kind of laid back, in the Basie groove.
JW: If there's a Bill Holman sound around this period, what is it?
BH: The lines, I think, would be the big tipoff. But there are some melodic things that are distinctive. Same with my overall style. I didn’t realize that my music was recognizable until probably the 1960s, when enough people told me they could recognize pieces of mine. That’s when I started paying attention and realized maybe there are some things that sound like me.
JW: To me, you're always building toward a punch.
BH: That's true. I became very aware early on of the form that an arrangement needed to take to be exciting. I also learned what to leave out. Russ Garcia [pictured] was the first hint I got of that. I took an arrangement to him one time and he looked it over and said, "You have enough music here for 10 charts. You have to learn how to be more economical and reuse your material."
JW: What did he mean?
BH: I used to think that writing a jazz arrangement was like stream of consciousness, the same as a jazz solo. You just started playing and built on what you just played. Then you go on to the next thing and never repeat yourself. This was before I realized that jazz solos actually had form, too. After a few years it finally dawned on me that the ear wants to hear something it recognizes, so I started concentrating on the shape of an entire piece, the form, and how it builds to a climax. As a writer, you also want to avoid getting to the climax too soon. If you do, you’ll kill yourself trying to top it in the arrangement. And the result is monotony. So what you just said about building to a punch is a conscious effort on my part.
JW: It’s almost as if you're shifting gears in a car.
BH: [Laughs] Well, I’ve always been aware of the audience, in that respect. I think that doing a lot of commercial writing since the late 1950s may have made me too overly conscious of the audience.
JW: What do you mean?
BH: As a composer and arranger, there’s always a natural tendency to make things attractive, and music doesn’t always need to be attractive. You have to pull yourself back.
Tomorrow, in the final part of my interview series, Bill talks about playing on Johnny Richards' Something Else, his compositions for The Gerry Mulligan Songbook, his big band album In a Jazz Orbit, writing for Anita O'Day, his crush on Peggy Lee, and the upcoming Tony Bennett Christmas album.
JazzWax tracks: In 1954, Stan Kenton gave Bill Holman an opportunity to record an album devoted entirely to his compositions and arrangements. The album was called Kenton Showcase: The Music of Bill Holman. Today, the album has been coupled on CD with Kenton Showcase: The Music of Bill Russo, another Kenton arranger. The Holman material is fabulous and can be downloaded at iTunes or Amazon. The Holman tracks are Nos. 9 through 12.
Kenton's Contemporary Concepts, is available at Amazon as a download. Bill's arrangements are Stella by Starlight, Yesterdays, Cherokee, I've Got You Under My Skin, What's New?, Stompin' at the Savoy, Black Coffee and The Thrill Is Gone. To hear how magnificent and advanced Bill's arranging was at this point, listen to Stompin' at the Savoy carefully and dig how it keeps building, with Mel Lewis delivering a powerhouse beat and crescendo solo. What a bounce! And catch the counterpoint and harmonies. It's a perfect chart.
Bill's arrangements for Frank Rosolino's small groups in 1954 and 1955 were released originally on 10-inch albums and then on 12-inch LPs as Kenton Presents: Frank Rosolino and Kenton Presents: Frankly Speaking. If you don't own these, do yourself a favor and grab one of the six out-of-print Mosaic CD boxes of the entire Presents series being sold by independent sellers for about $50 here.
Around the Horn With Maynard Ferguson also is a favorite of mine. I own two copies of the EmArcy LP. One day soon, hopefully, Verve will re-issue the recording. Until then, you can download a handful of the Bill Holman tracks—Dreamboat, Pork Pie, Never You Mind, Dancing Nightly and Wildman—at iTunes off Maynard Ferguson: Verve Jazz Masters 52.