When Stan Kenton assembled his 39-piece Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra in 1950, the band was heavy on stars and light on music. Listeners found compositions like Halls of Brass and House of Strings ponderous and pretentious. By the end of 1951, instrumentalists such as Shorty Rogers, Bob Cooper, Bud Shank and Art Pepper had had enough and began leaving to form their own groups. So Kenton scrapped his Wagnerian-jazz experiment and formed a new, swinging band in January 1952. Among this orchestra's most exciting arrangers was Bill Holman, who joined the band in March.
This new band of Kenton's recorded its first studio album, New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm, in September 1952. The album's opener was Prologue (This Is an Orchestra!), an odd, 10-minute track narrated by Kenton showcasing the musical personalities of the different band members. When it was Bill's turn, he blew a few bars on the tenor sax and Kenton thundered: "That announced the tenor saxophone of Bill Holman, playing now. He represents a talent that is discontent with the music of the present. He's anxious over the future. He writes. He orchestrates, too." When I asked Bill yesterday whether he had been truly anxious about the future, he laughed. "No. They just wrote a bunch of stuff for Stan [pictured] that would sound good. We all laughed later over the lines, like the one he said about Richie [Kamuca]: 'Willing to be happy and swing at the drop of a hat.' "
In Part 2 of my four-part conversation with the arranger who changed the direction of big band jazz, Bill recalls his passion for writing and scoring, how he came to the attention of Stan Kenton, the importance of Gerry Mulligan, and how he feels about his Invention for Guitar and Trumpet:
JazzWax: When you were at L.A.'s Westlake College of Music in the late 1940s, you also played in local bands, yes?
Bill Holman: Oh, sure. My first break was with pianist Ike Carpenter in 1948. Carpenter's orchestra had started out as a jazz band and had some Ellington-style charts written by a guy named Paul Villepigue, a wonderful arranger, teacher and a sweet man. But shortly before I arrived, Carpenter bought the complete book of arrangements from of a hotel band that played sweet dance music. That’s the stuff we played. I was with Carpenter for about a year and a half.
JW: During this time you were learning the basics of arranging in college?
BH: Yes. I had all this material stored up in my head, from when I was a kid listening to the radio. As soon as I learned a few technical things about writing and orchestrating, I was writing arrangements right away.
JW: Just like that?
BH: Pretty much. After a couple of weeks of school I was writing charts. I had a passion for it. I had been interested in arranging in high school. But growing up in Santa Ana, there were no arrangers, and no one I could ask what to do in certain situations.
JW: But why arranging? Because you had ideas in your head that you wanted to hear played by a band?
BH: You make it sound more exciting than it was. [laughs] I just liked the idea of doing it and wondered whether I could. So when I was at Westlake, I met saxophonists Bill Perkins [pictured] and Dave Madden and other guys who were making a living writing, arranging and playing music. That encouraged me enormously.
JW: Which band had the most influence on you?
BW: When I was listening to the radio all those years growing up? I loved Count Basie’s band, with Lester Young and Jo Jones. That swing rhythm got to me, more so than Duke's band. Duke was so different from everyone else that I didn’t think what he was doing applied to me or that I could ever do what he did. Duke had some magic going that I could never touch. But Basie's rhythm was different.
JW: What was your big breakthrough in college?
BH: Reading Russ Garcia’s book, which he eventually published in 1954 as Professional Arranger and Composer. It's still available today. Russ taught at the school, and his workbook for class had practically everything you needed to be a commercial arranger. I studied arranging with him for about a year at Westlake and liked him so much I studied with him privately. We went over the same stuff that was in his book, but in a little more depth.
JW: You graduated from Westlake in 1950. Then what?
BH: I joined Charlie Barnet's band. During my time with Ike Carpenter and Barnet, I also played in local rehearsal bands and associated with a lot of arrangers, including Gene Roland [pictured], who played and arranged for Kenton. We became good friends. Gene always had a rehearsal band wherever he’d go. He had four trumpets and four tenors, and I got to sit in with a couple of those bands. That rehearsal orchestra known as the Band That Never Was [in 1950] was his. Gene's writing was very simple. He'd write everything in four-part block harmony. By having tenors and trumpets, he'd only have to write four parts for the trumpets and the same four parts would do for the tenors, except they'd be an octave lower. This gave him an automatic ensemble.
JW: What was Gene Roland like?
BH: He was a talented guy. Very energetic. But his talent got spread out in a lot of areas, and never really got it together in a single area. He was a substantial contributor to the Kenton band and had a couple of big hits, like Tampico and Easy Street in 1945 and Jump for Joe in 1951. He had a meat-and-potatoes writing style using four-part harmony. He was an inspiration to me, and he showed me what could be done using a limited palette of harmony. He epitomized what it meant to be a jazz arranger. He was friendly and never tried to hide anything. He could be funny and serious, and his emotions always showed.
JW: Did he like your work?
BH: Yes. One night in 1951, Gene was at my house, and I played him a recording I had made when I was still going to Westlake. It was a 12-tone blues piece for a rehearsal band. Gene got very excited when he heard it and said, “I think this is what Stan is looking for.” Apparently, Stan had been talking to Gene about working a more linear approach into the band's music instead of that vertical harmonic thing he was doing with the Innovations orchestra. Stan was thinking about lines, and this 12-tone tune I played for Gene was full of lines. I don’t remember the name of it.
JW: What exactly is a 12-tone tune?
BH: It’s a technique devised by Arnold Scheonberg where you use all 12 tones of the chromatic scale in a preconceived order, and you use them all before you repeat them. It’s also called "serial writing." When students are first exposed to that concept, they're apt to write a 12-tone blues. It was the thing to do in avant-garde classical music back then. Since then it has lost favor.
JW: Did Kenton hear your 12-tone tune?
BH: Yes. After playing the recording for Gene, I went out on the road with Barnet [pictured]. Gene took the recording to Stan in the fall of 1951. When I came back off the road, I met with Stan, and he told me he was very interested in my writing. He told me about his idea for a new band that would have a more linear approach and that my writing style would be perfect. He asked me to write a couple of things for the band, which I did in late 1951. Meanwhile, Stan was re-forming the band and was looking for a tenor saxophonist. My friend Dick Meldonian, who played alto sax in the band, recommended me. I replaced Bob Cooper, who had left.
JW: Were the compositions you wrote good?
BH: They were awful. [laughs] I was trying too hard. I didn’t have the intellectual equipment to do what I was trying to do. So we rehearsed them once, and they were never heard of again.
JW: How were things left with Kenton?
BH: It was decided in March 1952 that I'd join Kenton strictly as a tenor player. After my two arranging failures, we didn’t talk any more about writing. So I was the tenor player. Eventually, he said I should write something. But I didn’t know what to write because I didn’t know how to write the kind of progressive jazz he favored. I also knew he didn't want Count Basie-type arrangements. So I just kind of cooled it and played the book.
JW: What was the turning point?
BH: Gerry Mulligan [pictured] wrote 8 or 10 charts for the band at around the time I joined. So we played those, and I got to listen to them every night. As I'd play them, I'd listen to the harmony and the form to see how a big-time writer goes about crafting a chart. It kind of helped me get my own conception going. By late 1952 I started writing again. Stan liked what I was doing. I liked what I was doing, too. So I figured I had found a direction in which to go with my composing and arranging.
JW: In September 1952, the Kenton band recorded This Is an Orchestra! How was that done?
BH: We just did it live in the studio. We did what’s on the record. There was no editing or retakes. That’s the way we made all our records back then. We played them all the way through and hoped no one goofed. [Pictured: Kenton and Capitol engineer Bill Putnam, center]
JW: Perhaps the strongest and most cutting-edge track recorded during the September Capitol session was your Invention for Guitar and Trumpet.
BH: That was an assignment. Stan asked me to do that featuring Maynard [Ferguson] and Sal [Salvador, pictured]. An invention is a song with lots of counterpoint between two instruments. I knew how to write an invention from my studies. I just jumped in and did it.
JW: What do you think of it?
BH: It’s not one of my favorite pieces.
JW: You've got to be kidding. Why?
BH: It’s disjointed. Nothing ever gets said. It’s a hodge-podge of different things. But it filled the bill, and I think it was re-released more than any other chart I wrote for him.
JW: Were you surprised to hear it pop up in the movie, The Blackboard Jungle in 1955?
BH: I was surprised when I got paid for it. [laughs] I hadn't seen the picture, so I didn’t know. I only knew about it when I saw the royalty statement. So I went to see the film. The composition is OK. It's not my favorite piece.
Tomorrow, Bill talks about his favorite trumpet player in the band, the writing and arranging of Bags and his other Kenton Showcase pieces, writing for trombonist Frank Rosolino, rising to become Kenton's chief arranger in 1955, and the reason he left the band in 1956.
JazzWax tracks: You can sample Kenton's 1950-1951 Innovations Orchestra at iTunes on Carnegie Hall: October '51. Or you'll find much of the band's recorded works on CD here. The band's European-influenced, string-heavy arrangements were exercises in tedium for Kenton fans and many of the band's Young Turks, who were itching to break out on their own by the end of 1951.
New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm, the first album showcasing Kenton's new brassy sound, can be downloaded at iTunes and Amazon. Prologue (This Is an Orchestra!) remains a fascinating mood-setter for me and an interesting audio document. The narrated track comes off almost as a Kenton apology for the brooding Innovations material. It has always struck me as a slate-cleaning announcement that a new, hot-blooded orchestra with charts to match was in place. As you click around on the album's other tracks, you'll notice that many are pretty mundane works—until you hit Bill's only composition and arrangement for the session, Invention for Guitar and Trumpet.
Even on the sample snippet, you hear instantly that this song is different. It virtually explodes with risk-taking and biting energy, signaling an entire new era in big-band writing and arranging. Despite Bill's misgivings about the song's quality, it is the start of the West Coast's modern big-band sound and marks a significant shift away from the formulaic arranging styles that had preceded it.
Interestingly, four years later, in the film The Blackboard Jungle, the record was not used as an example of hot new music but a symbol of square, adult jazz—a relic being edged out by rock 'n' roll favored by the film's rude and angry teens.