After Bill Holman left Stan Kenton's orchestra in 1956, he became one of the most sought-after jazz arrangers and tenor saxophonists on the West Coast. His cool, high-bounce sound quickly became "the approach" adapted by a growing number of Los Angeles arrangers writing for big bands, television and the movies. Bill's jaunty, brassy arranging style also was favored by pop singers with a jazz sensibility. [Pictured from left, Zoot Sims, alto saxophonist Joe Maini and Bill Holman in the mid-1950s]
Throughout the second half of the 1950s, Bill recorded relentlessly with small groups and big bands and arranged some of the most interesting West Coast albums of the period. Post-Kenton playing dates included Johnny Richards' Something Else, Elmer Bernstein's Man With the Golden Arm and Sweet Smell of Success soundtracks, Russ Garcia's Porgy & Bess, Maynard Ferguson's Birdland Dreamband, Johnny Mandel's I Want to Live soundtrack and Shorty Rogers' toe-tapping Chances Are It Swings. Bill's arranging dates included Jackie Cain and Roy Kral's Bits and Pieces and Free and Easy, Maynard Ferguson's Boy with Lots of Brass and Swinging My Way Through College, and the masterful Gerry Mulligan Songbook Vol 1. And when he had a minute, Bill also recorded several albums with his own big band.
In Part 4 of my conversation with Bill about his prolific 1950s period, he talks about his crush on Peggy Lee, his arrangements for The Gerry Mulligan Song Book, the album's only minor flaw, and the trouble with Anita O'Day:
JazzWax: Were there arrangements you had written for Stan Kenton that didn't get into the band's book?
Bill Holman: I had pretty good luck. Everything seemed to go pretty well. You'd think I would have gotten too confident after a few years of everything going so well. But I didn't. I always had that trepidation when I took on new charts, which kept me pretty humble.
JW: Why do you suppose you retained your trepidation?
BH: I’m not a good piano player, so I couldn’t write charts using the instrument. If you learn how to write and arrange on the piano, you usually have enough confidence to take in quickly what you want to do, play it and write it. But with that ability there's always the risk of becoming overconfident. Not being able to use the piano that way kept success in perspective for me.
JW: So when you wrote a chart, did you start by writing for the saxes, building everything else around them?
BH: No. Just because I’m sax player and enjoy writing for saxes doesn’t mean I write them first.
JW: Do you start by writing for a soloist and build everything around that artist's personality?
BH: That happens. If it’s a singer, I’ll work with that singer's style and approach.
JW: So if you’re not blocking out arrangements on the piano, where does Bill Holman start?
BH: I look for an idea. If it’s an original piece, maybe I’ll fool around on the piano doing nonsense things. If I hear something that I like, I’ll make note of it and fiddle around with it for a while to see what I can develop. Or sometimes I’ll just start writing foolishness, and somehow the connection between my hand and my head kicks in and I start thinking of things. Maybe just one interval I’ve written down will suggest another note that will go with the interval or extend it. I’ll put that down and pretty soon I’ll have an idea that I can work with. I don’t start of thinking of the band or a section. If I’m writing a solo piece, I start out thinking of the soloist in mind. If it’s going to be an original, I have to go through the same process.
JW: You played bass sax on Johnny Richards' famed Something Else session in 1956. Were Johnny's arrangements difficult to play?
BH: I don’t remember a whole lot from that date. I do remember being in the studio with that bass sax. I wasn’t a bass sax player. I had to work pretty hard to make it perform.
JW: Why did Richards choose you to play bass sax?
BH: He probably chose me because he knew me from Stan Kenton's band and thought I was a good player. I was just glad to get the gig. I only remember walking into the studio with that huge sax.
JW: In late 1957, you wrote all of the arrangements for The Gerry Mulligan Songbook Vol. 1. Those are breathtaking by any measure.
BH: Originally that album was supposed to be done in L.A., in 1956, with the usual West Coast guys—probably Bob Cooper, Bob Gordon, me, Herb Geller and Art Pepper—but we never got that far. Something happened with Gerry's scheduling, and he couldn't make it out to California. So he put the session aside for a year. Which turned out great considering the players he got to record with him in New York—Lee Konitz, Allen Eager, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn.
JW: Were you at the session?
BH: No. They recorded it in New York. I was never in the studio.
JW: Were you happy with the result?
BH: Oh, sure. My only complaint was that they added Freddie Green on guitar. I love Freddie but the feeling I wanted when I wrote the arrangements was not a guitar thing. A guitar playing a steady four-four rhythm nails down the rhythm section a little bit too tightly. The sound worked well for [Count] Basie for years, but I had a different feel in my writing. It's really a sax soli album, and the guitar makes the group behind the saxes sound too rigid instead of the looser feel I wanted.
JW: In 1958 you recorded In a Jazz Orbit, your compositions and arrangements with a monster band you assembled.
BH: That was a great band. The personnel was really inspiring from a writer's standpoint. I liked the music, so we had fun recording it.
JW: You also liked—and still like—writing for singers, don’t you?
BH: Yeah. For one thing, I like doing arrangements of well-known tunes. As an arranger, you can practically annihilate them, and the melodies will always comes through, and people will recognize them. You have a lot more freedom without the danger of losing the listener. For another, it’s nice to hear a singer and imagine writing music to complement their phrasing and what they do vocally. It helps if the person is a good singer. [laughs]
JW: Who did you particularly enjoy writing for?
BH: Writing for Peggy Lee was enjoyable. She was a lot of fun. I had a crush on her from when I was in high school, so I managed to work through that to write her music. [laughs]
JW: Did you ever tell her that?
BH: Nah. Actually, I was thinking about that the other day. The last time I saw her wasn't long before she died. I thought I should have told her then, but I chickened out.
JW: Who are your other favorite singers?
BH: I loved Sarah Vaughan [pictured]. Carmen McRae's sound put me off for a few years. She had a...I don’t know. There was something in her style that wasn’t as soft and cushiony as Peggy's or as grandiose as Sarah's. It took a little maturing on my part to get her. Chris Connor also made some great records in the 1950s.
JW: Did you ever meet Basie?
BH: Yes. I wrote an album for him in 1976 called, I Told You So. That’s when I met Basie and got to work with him.
JW: Did you tell him how much he meant to you?
BH: No. I hoped that my music showed him how much I dug him. But it was a bad time for that band. They had just come back from Christmas vacation and the band had three new trumpet players. The band never could sight read, and they didn't have enough time with my arrangements. They should have had those charts for three months rehearsing before recording them. Those days, in January 1976, were the first time they saw the charts. So the record is pretty sloppy to my ear. But it got done, and there are some good moments in it. I ran into Basie a couple of months later, and he was all hot to do another record. He was going to talk to Norman Granz about it, but he got sick and died before anything more could be done.
JW: Your writing and arranging has so much bounce. I always imagine that you wrote them while jumping up and down on a trampoline.
BH: [Laughs] Well, that goes back to my fascination with rhythm, I think. Rhythm has always been a very important part of writing for me, which is probably why I don’t write more ballads.
JW: In 1960, you and your orchestra backed Anita O’Day on Incomparable. How was she to work with?
BH: She was very difficult. She was afraid that we wouldn't be able to do what she wanted. She had definite ideas on how to do each song. Some of her vocal ideas were radical and some were easy to understand. I think she had had a bad experience with a previous arranger who didn’t get what she had wanted. [Editor's note: Billy May]. She was defensively offensive. I had just had a tragedy at my house a few months earlier. A neighborhood child had drowned in my pool. It was a terribly stressful time. But after we all got settled, the recording actually turned out OK.
JW: What exactly was the problem with Anita?
BH: It was the planning and sketching down of her arrangements. This was before the days of digital recordings where the singer could take home a CD of the music to hear the charts. Back then, you worked together. She had a particular way of phrasing things that worked against the frame of my arrangements.
JW: For example?
BH: Did you ever see the film, Jazz on a Summer's Day? Remember Anita scats through Tea for Two? If someone told you that's what they wanted to do on an album, as an arranger you'd have a hard time figuring out what to write behind them. So what she wanted and what I wanted to do was at odds. But we finally found a place.
JW: Tell me about the upcoming Tony Bennett holiday album due this Christmas. You wrote all the arrangements.
BH: Tony used the Basie band plus Harold Jones, his full-time drummer, and Monty Alexander on piano. There were 11 charts. They're all very smooth. I also just finished arrangements for a new Natalie Cole album.
JW: So it's 2008, and here you are, writing for the Basie orchestra, the band in spirit you loved most as a kid.
BH: I know. Everything in life comes full circle.
JazzWax tracks: Bill's arrangements for the Gerry Mulligan Songbook Vol. 1 are a tour de force of reed writing. If you love the saxophone, you'll wish you were there playing with the guys on this section. The harmonic lines Bill wrote are hair-raising in their richness and simplicity. And each arrangement builds to a monumental sax soli (all saxes playing together in unison). The arrangements are so good they actually out-Mulligan Mulligan. For years, only the mono version was available on CD (which sounds fabulous just the same). But last year, Mosaic released the long-lost stereo version here. Venus de Milo alone is worth the price.
In a Jazz Orbit is pure Bill, with each of his composing and arranging styles on display. A classic example of Bill's linear approach building to a big crescendo is Theme & Variations. The orchestra says it all: Conte Candoli, Ed Leddy, Al Porcino and Jack Sheldon (trumpets); Carl Fontana, Frank Rosolino and Ray Sims (trombones); Herb Geller and Charlie Mariano (alto saxes); Bill Holman, Richie Kamuca and Charlie Kennedy (tenor saxes); Bill Hood (baritone sax); Victor Feldman (piano); Buddy Clark (bass) and Mel Lewis (drums). The CD is available at iTunes and Amazon.
As for Anita O'Day, you can hear what Bill was struggling with on Incomparable. The arrangements are smooth as silk, but Anita's singing style was a bit at odds with Bill's reedy approach. You can hear the odd fit by listening to Avalon and Slaughter on Tenth Ave. Both must have been a bear to record, since O'Day seems to all but ignore the flow of the arrangement, and the band has no reference point in her improvised scatting. A peek at the discography shows that excessive tracks were required for nearly each song on the album. Avalon, for example, required 10 takes.