One of the founding fathers of the West Coast big-band sound is Russ Garcia. Born in April 1916, Russ was and remains a tireless orchestrator and was an early pioneer of atonal arranging. Starting as a trumpet player in the bands of Al Donahue and Horace Heidt, Garcia first recorded with the Harry James bands of 1947 and1948. Intensive private composing and arranging studies followed in Hollywood before Russ began teaching at a local college. There, the class workbook he developed would become The Professional Arranger-Composer, a classic that nearly every up-and-coming West Coast arranger in the early 1950s and beyond read.
At 92, Russ is still active on the jazz scene. Now residing with his wife, Gina, in New Zealand, Russ recently arranged and conducted singer Shaynee Rainbolt's new album, Charmed Life: Shaynee Rainbolt Sings Russell Garcia. It's the first vocal album of Russ' original work, and Russ used four trombones for the date, a sound he made famous in the early 1950s. Russ also flew in from New Zealand to tour with Rainbolt and conduct the four-trombone band. Both will appear with the four-trombone band in New York on September 23d at the Highline Ballroom.
In Part 1 of my three-part interview with Russ, he talks about getting his start with Harry James [pictured], his years of study in the late 1940s, writing the book that changed arranging, how producer Norman Granz gave him his big break, the groundbreaking Wigville sessions of 1955, and why he loves writing for trombones:
JazzWax: When did you fall in love with big bands?
Russ Garcia: I grew up in the 1930s in Oakland, CA, when the big bands were just coming in. At first you had Ellington and Lunceford. Then the others came along. I always loved that exciting big band sound. All we had back in those days was radio, no television. I grew up with jazz, and when I was just a kid, I played the trumpet. I had a good ear from an early age. [Pictured: Oakland in 1930]
JW: Were you good?
RG: Not really, but when I became a professional player, the bands all wanted me. I played third or fourth trumpet, but the real reason they wanted me was because I could write a good arrangement.
JW: How did you come to arranging so early?
RG: I was gung-ho about music as a kid. My brother bought me an old cornet for $5 held together with Band Aids. I quickly taught myself to play it, and then my parents got me a better horn. In grade school, me and my friends started a little jazz band. I wanted to write for it, so I had to figure out logically how to transpose for the instruments. For my first arrangement, I tried to put everything into parts from a piano sheet.
JW: What was the first song?
RG: Me and My Shadow.
JW: How did it sound?
RG: Terrible. I asked myself why it sounded so bad. To find out, I took a stock arrangement and analyzed it to see what the writer did. Everything I had done was all wrong. That’s when I started listening very analytically to records to figure out what was being done by the arranger. Later when I went to high school, I was lucky to have two great teachers who were wonderful musicians. In high school, we had two orchestras, a concert band, a marching band—and the jazz band my friends and I still had. So I was playing all the time and thinking about music constantly. Those two teachers taught me harmony, counterpoint, conducting and orchestration. I was very fortunate.
JW: Your earliest recordings in 1947 were with Harry James. What was he like?
RG: He was a strange guy. If I’d meet him on the street, one time he’d greet me like a long lost brother. The next time he’d just look at me like he didn’t even know me. I guess he was in his own world.
JW: Why do you suppose that was?
RG: Hey, if I were married to Betty Grable [pictured], I guess I’d be lost in my thoughts, too. [laughs] Seriously, Harry was a fabulous trumpet player, even when he was a kid. He was with the Benny Goodman band when he was 16 years old and played like a demon.
JW: Was James an inspiration?
RG: Oh yeah. I collected a lot of jazz trumpet-player records when I was a kid, and he was one of them. Bix and Louis, and Bobby Hackett, too. Years later, Louis was so happy when I told him that I had learned I could write when I transcribed his solo on I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby. I wrote it down note for note just by hearing it off the record.
JW: Did arranging just come to you, or did you have to work hard at it?
RG: I studied very hard, mostly privately. After high school I went to San Francisco University but quit after a year. I wasn't learning anything. I was already a professional composer and arranger at that point, and my teachers couldn’t do what by then I could. So I quit and went on the road with bands led by Al Donahue [pictured], Horace Heidt and Bob Crosby. I didn't play trumpet in the Crosby band, though. I wrote arrangements.
JW: Your book, The Professional Arranger-Composer, was and continues to be a huge success. It's still sold on Amazon.com. Bill Holman told me that it was your class workbook when you taught him in the late 1940s.
RG: Yes, the book's success has been amazing. When I got out of the army after World War II, I needed a job. So I took one teaching at the Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles. Once they gave me the job, I asked myself what I would teach my students. So I wrote a four-page outline. Then I added musical examples to illustrate the points. That became the book.
JW: How did you print it?
RG: My wife and I ground it out on an old Gestetner machine, getting ink on our fingers. We printed 60 copies, and they sold in a couple of days. So I said we had better do a better job. We rented an electric typewriter and made up a cleaner copy. Then we ran two ads in Down Beat magazine. Every time a university would order one copy, I guess as a look-see, an order would come back for 50 or 100. Eventually filling orders got too big a job for my wife to handle plus all the bookkeeping. So we gave it to a publisher, and it was officially printed in 1954. The second book was an update of the first one. You know, both books are in six different languages and still selling all over the world.
JW: Why do you think it was so successful?
RG: I don't know. I guess I’ve always been a synthesizer, finding ways to make things simpler. I just took what I knew about arranging and composing, broke it up into parts, added musical illustrations and put it in a book. I guess the techniques were explained in a way that many musicians could grasp quickly.
JW: Bill Holman told me your book changed his thinking about arranging early on.
RG: Oh that's wonderful to hear. Bill came into my class as a kid. He had a very high IQ, a brilliant mind. He not only went to school, he also took private lessons with me. I'm glad a few things I taught helped him in his terrific career. [Pictured: Bill Holman in the 1950s]
JW: How was the West Coast jazz scene back in the early 1950s?
RG: It was a good environment because it allowed many of us to do something different and original with arranging. It was an experimental time. I had studied every style of music I could. I took lessons in the Schillinger System, which was mathematical theory for composing. Joseph Schillinger never wrote anything I’d like to hear twice, but I studied it. Then I studied [composer Arnold] Schoenberg's [pictured] tone-row method. I think I was the one of the first arrangers to use tone rows in my 1955 Wigville album.
JW: I want to ask you about that album. But first, for those who don't know, what does "tone rows" mean?
RG: There are 12 notes in an octave. Schoenberg used to put those in a random order and sometimes play them upside down or backward, and he'd build harmonies out of them. But his approach didn't have enough order for me. See, if I can’t sing something I can't write it down after hearing it. And his things are impossible to sing. I also analyzed [Bela] Bartok [pictured] and other composers. I took tricks from them all and learned to write in every style. That work really paid off. It's probably why I'm still working today.
JW: How were you able to absorb so much so early?
RG: I think I would have done it without the teachers I had, I was so determined. But it would have taken me much longer. After I quit San Francisco University and played with big bands for a year, I went to Hollywood and studied with the finest teachers I could find there. They included Ernst Toch, Edmund Ross and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco [pictured]. I also studied conducting with Sir Albert Coates. Every Wednesday, I got to conduct a movement from a tone poem or a symphony. For two years I got to do this in West Hollywood. It was a great experience.
JW: Did you ever feel discouraged along the way?
RG: You know, I don’t think so. Maybe I need humility lessons. [laughs] I always enjoyed what I did and worked hard at it. I did a good job. I never sloughed off anything, and it paid off. I never had to work a day in my life. I wrote music, and they gave me money for it. [laughs] I never had to look for work either. It always found its way to me.
JW: By the early 1950s, you were arranging for jazz sessions and studio dates in Los Angeles. How did that happen?
RG: I caught a lucky break. Someone told Norman Granz, the owner and producer of Clef and Norgran Records, about me. He decided to use me to score part of an album with Buddy DeFranco's Orchestra in 1953. Then he brought me in at the end of 1954 to arrange strings for an entire Buddy DeFranco and Oscar Peterson album called The George Gershwin Songbook. I loved working with Oscar and Buddy.
JW: You mentioned Wigville. The personnel on that early 1955 album is incredible—the Candolis, Charlie Mariano, Bill Holman, Jimmy Giuffre just to name a few. It doesn't sound far out at all. It swings.
RG: [laughs] Thank you. That was fun. I remember Conte had a tough time. I wrote that album for four saxes and a trumpet. I gave Conte the parts two weeks ahead of time. When he came to the session, he hadn’t even opened the envelope. He was used to just going into a studio and playing solos. Suddenly he opened the music, took one look at it and said to me, "Help, help call my brother!" So he called Pete [Candoli], and Pete came down to the studio.
JW: Why did he need his brother?
RG: Pete was an excellent sightreader and could handle more modern kinds of things. This atonal arrangement stuff was new to Conte [pictured]. He was just used to playing warm jazz solos on standards and normal originals. Wigville required playing solos on tone rows or some weird scale structure. It kind of scared him when he looked at it. So Pete came down. Conte and Pete shared the parts, with Conte playing the solos and Pete helping on the ensemble things, the written parts.
JW: Four Horns and a Lush Life, recorded several months later, featured your original four-trombone concept. Who came up with the song title, I'll Never Forget What's Her Name?
RG: [laughs] Oh, that was trombonist Frank Rosolino. The tune actually was Fine and Dandy, but there wasn’t much left of that. I just took the chord structure and wrote an original. I said, "What do I call this?" Frank was a funny, funny guy. He shot out, how about "I’ll Never Forget What’s Her Name." It was too good to pass up.
JW: What is it about writing for the trombone that you love so much?
RG: The instrument can be strong and gutsy and swinging, or it can be soft and beautiful, like a French horn. And it’s in a tenor range, which is always very pleasant. I just kind of enjoy the instrument. I played a wee bit of trombone. After that Four Horns album, I wound up writing a number of trombone-oriented albums in the 50s for Frances Faye and Anita O'Day.
Tomorrow, in Part 2 of my three-part conversation with Russ, the legendary arranger talks about trumpeter Buddy Childers, vocalists Julie London and Anita O'Day, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald (Porgy and Bess), how Louis learned Bess Oh Where's My Bess, Ella's backstage secret, Stan Getz's reaction when he saw the size of the orchestra for Cool Velvet, and the time of day when Russ does most of his best writing.
JazzWax tracks: To hear the delicate touch of Russ Garcia in 1954, you can download Buddy DeFranco and Oscar Peterson Play George Gershwin at iTunes or Amazon. The track I Was Doing Alright is a standout. Russ put a gentle, sophisticated bed of swinging strings down for DeFranco and Peterson. Shrewd string arrangements throughout that avoid going over the top.
If you're unfamiliar with Wigville, buy the CD. It's a tremendous, little-known album. Don't be put off by Russ' talk of tones and scales. It's as brisk and breezy as can be, and far removed from the ponderous Third Stream stuff that would come later from other modal composers. And dig the lineup on the date: Pete Candoli and Conte Candoli (trumpets), Bob Enevoldsen (valve trombone), Russ Cheever and Charlie Mariano (alto saxes), Bill Holman (tenor sax), Jimmy Giuffre (baritone sax), Marty Paich (piano), Max Bennett (bass) and Stan Levey (drums). The Fresh Sound CD pairs the instrumental Wigville album with Russ Garcia's Wigville Band Featuring Peggy Connelly, a charming singer who wound up marrying Dick Martin of Laugh-In fame. Connelly's voice and Russ' charts are sensational. You'll find the Wigville CD here.
Four Horns and a Lush Life is also a superb album. If you love trombones arranged uptempo and in sync, this one's a beaut. The album featured Maynard Ferguson (valve trombone), Herbie Harper, Tommy Pederson and Frank Rosolino (trombones), Dick Houlgate (baritone sax), Marty Paich (piano), Red Mitchell (bass) and Stan Levey (drums). The album is on Fresh Sound here paired with sides Russ arranged for Frances Faye.
A special thanks to Shaynee Rainbolt for sharing the original cover of Russ' Wigville album cover.