Captivated by Count Basie's swing and Gerry Mulligan's cool orchestral intensity, Bill Holman began arranging in the early 1950s and quickly became one of the most exciting and significant big band arrangers of the decade. Deciding on music as a profession relatively late (at age 20), Bill's charts for Kenton were highly influential, combining a Pacific Coast sunset feel with a brassy urgency that other arrangers and West Coast movie and television studios rapidly adapted. Bill's numerous arrangements for Kenton's band (including Bags, Kingfish, Stella by Starlight and Invention for Guitar and Trumpet) to this day retain their electrifying punch and rakish simplicity. Each is a work that rises incrementally and excites at each landing. In the decades that followed, Bill's orchestral technique would continue to develop, and he remains in high demand today. His bold 1997 album, Brilliant Corners: The Music of Thelonious Monk won a Grammy, and he just finished scoring a Christmas album for Tony Bennett to be released later this year.
When you speak with Bill for a while, what you notice is his mischievous wit. Bill isn't a joke teller, and much of his humor comes at his own expense. But what makes Bill so funny is his timing. He doesn't wind up. He just slips the funny stuff in, matter-of-factly. When I asked if he was a good saxophonist in high school, he paused and said, "No." When I said that was hard to believe, he replied, "It happens [beat], and it has happened a few times since." The more we spoke, the more I came to realize that Bill's humor and writing have a lot in common. Both are crafted unconsciously for impact, leaving dramatic space before and after crescendos, which in turn results in maximum delight for the listener.
In Part 1 of my four-part conversation with the legendary composer, arranger and tenor saxophonist, Bill talks about growing up in a California home without records, his close call with engineering, and the turning point that led to his enrollment at a Los Angeles music school:
JazzWax: Where were you born?
Bill Holman: In Olive, California. But we moved very early on to Orange, near Anaheim. When I was in the third grade, we moved again to Santa Ana, near the orange groves, where we remained. I had a typical kid life growing up. There was no supervision. And I could do whatever I felt like doing.
JW: What did your dad do?
BH: He owned a bunch of failing businesses. He tried produce departments in grocery stores, gas stations, and a bunch of other things. Then he took a course in accounting, and it turned out he was a whiz. He got a job right away in the Navy as an accountant, and later became an auditor. He kind of finished up with a bang and got great gigs out of that. I didn’t get to reap any of the benefit though [laughing].
JW: Brothers or sisters?
BH: I have one sister who is eight years older than me. Eight years is quite a big gap. She was into her stuff, and I was into mine. When she had to take care of me, the term "babysitter" hadn't been invented yet [laughs]. I think she resented having to look out for me, and we didn’t get along too well. My mom was supportive, but she could have done more to build my confidence. Then again, I suppose all children have complaints about their parents.
JW: Did you grow up in a musical household?
BH: No. My family didn't care much for music. We didn't own a record player, and there were no records. I only heard music on the radio. I listened to big bands day after day, hour after hour, and absorbed all the music. Back then, listening to the bands was just part of everyday life. It’s comparable today to people listening to iPods all day. It becomes so common you lose track of the magic of the thing and it becomes part of your unconscious mind. That’s kind of the way it was listening to the radio. It was there and you absorbed it. I thought radio and big bands were magical. There were some bands I liked much more than others. So music coming over the radio probably had much more of an effect on me as a composer and arranger than I realize.
JW: How did you wind up choosing the tenor saxophone?
BH: When I went into junior high school, all students had to take a musical aptitude test. I did well. A few weeks later the school's bandleader came around and asked if I wanted to play the clarinet. So I started on clarinet and that led right into the saxophone a few years later.
JW: Were you good?
BH: No [pause]. I thought I was. [laughs] Santa Ana then was a small town [pictured]. There were no professional musicians that I knew of. The only person I had to rely on was the teacher I was going to, who actually was a trumpet player and taught everything. I think he gave me a couple of bum steers on the saxophone. [laughs] I had no one in music to associate with, to listen to, or to talk to. So I bumbled along and dealt with things as they came up. I played what I thought was jazz, running down the harmonies on stock arrangements.
JW: Did you practice a lot?
BH: No. I never did.
JW: What happened after high school?
BH: I went straight into the Navy in July 1944. I was stationed in Boulder, Colorado. The war started winding down that year. I was in this training program studying engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder for a year and a half. Meantime the war had ended. Somehow my friends and I got the impression that if we finished our courses and got our commissions, we’d have to stay on active duty for four more years. So we all stopped going to classes and washed out of school. In January 1946 they shipped us off to boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois, just north of Chicago. It was cold there for a native Californian. After boot camp, I was assigned to a ship and served out my time until July 1946.
JW: When you were discharged from the Navy, did you go home?
BH: Yes. I tried to get into the music program at Los Angeles City College [pictured]. My mother had seen an article in the paper that there was a program there. So I registered and finally got to interview with the head of the jazz program. At that time there quite a few players from name bands that were working out their union cards by going to school on the GI Bill. Musicians who had just arrived in California had to show the union they lived there for six months before being allowed to take studio jobs. So the college band was perfect for them. Unfortunately for me it was bulging with all these pros.
JW: What happened?
BH: The guy wouldn’t let me in the program. So I went back home and enrolled in UCLA to finish my engineering studies. But after one semester there, I realized that engineering wasn’t for me. This was the fall of 1947.
JW: You must have felt despondent.
BH: I did. I felt adrift. Back when I was 11 or 12 years old, my parents used to ask me what I was going to do when I grew up. At that time I didn’t think about being a musician. To get peace and quiet, I told them I wanted to be an engineer. They loved that and got off my back. So engineering was always in the back of my head, but it was a construct of my own imagination, not reality. In the fall of 1947, I was unsettled about what I was going to do, but I knew it wasn't going to be engineering.
JW: Music wasn't your clear choice?
BH: I was thinking about music, but I knew that becoming a pro would be difficult and that I would be taking a big chance going in that direction. While I was being disillusioned in UCLA's engineering program, I was going down to Central Avenue, where all the jazz clubs were. I caught the tail end of the scene there and met some great players. At this point in early 1948, I still didn’t know any musicians in Los Angeles personally. To get jobs, I befriended some of the guys I met at these sessions.
JW: What was the big turning point for you?
BH: One night I told a guy I was looking for a music school. He said to talk to trombonist Britt Woodman [pictured]. The guy said Britt was going to a school where they teach you how to read music. When I asked Britt, he told me about the Westlake College of Music in L.A. He said the school had several bands and courses in harmony and arranging. Westlake was like a vocational school, no humanities or history or anything. Strictly commercial music courses. Once I made up my mind to study music, that was it. There was no looking back.
Tomorrow, Bill talks about his first job with Ike Carpenter, the arrangement that caught Stan Kenton's attention, the band that had the most influence on his writing, and the story behind Invention for Guitar and Trumpet.
JazzWax tracks: Bill's Grammy-winning album, Brilliant Corners: The Music of Thelonious Monk, can be sampled here. Unfortunately, it's not available as a download at iTunes or Amazon. But you can purchase the CD remastered at the previous link or here.
If you want to hear what Bill heard and trombonist Britt Woodman was playing on Los Angeles' Central Avenue in November 1947, go here and download tracks No. 14 through 20 off Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra: 1946-47.