We tend to think of experiments with atonality in jazz as largely an East Coast phenomenon. But in fact, West Coast musicians also were involved in the movement. Musicians on both coasts were exposed to chromatic and atonal 20th century Western classical music. Many Hollywood film composers were influenced by 20th century classical pieces (Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky lived in Los Angeles for a time), and jazz musicians who found jobs in the film industry often played this modern film music. Most notable among the California modernists was Lyle "Spud" Murphy, whose 12-tone-based Gone with the Woodwinds! has long been one of my favorite experimental jazz albums. (Hal McKusick's Cross Section: Saxes is another.)
Born in Salt Lake City in 1908, Murphy's discography dates to the late 1920s, when he played organ in Slim Lamar's band. But his big claim to fame early on was arranging for Benny Goodman's orchestra in 1935 and 1936, the band that ignited the national swing craze following its performance and radio broadcast at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Murphy also arranged for Tommy Dorsey and other bands during the mid-1930s.
In 1938, Murphy led his own band and recorded for Decca, and from 1940 to 1943 he arranged steadily for Charlie Barnet. After World War II, Murphy began working in the film industry, where he arranged, orchestrated and composed for more than 50 films. He also was an educator who authored 26 music books.
But in the late 1940s, Murphy took time out to develop a 12-tone technique known as his "system of horizontal composition" or "equal interval system." He designed this system so it would be adaptable for film scores and popular music. The point of the system was to give arrangers and musicians a lighter-sounding jazz-classical option to the heavy, brooding Euro-centric classical forms popular at the time.
In 1955, Murphy was able to document his experiments on 12-Tone Compositions and Arrangements (Contemporary Records), an album that was later renamed Gone With the Woodwinds! Featured on this date were leading West Coast studio musicians Abe Most, Jack Dumont, Russ Cheever, Chuck Gentry, Buddy Collette [pictured], Andre Previn, Curtis Counce and Shelly Manne.
In 1957 Murphy recorded another 12-tone jazz album for Gene Norman Records called New Orbits in Sound. He contracted a different mix of studio pros: Milt Bernhart, Dick Nash, Russ Cheever, Buddy Collette, Morrie Crawford, Bill Ulyate, Curtis Counce [pictured] and Larry Bunker.
In the years that followed, Murphy continued to work in film and taught his 12-tone interval technique to many jazz musicians, including pianists Oscar Peterson and Gerald Wiggins, and bassist Curtis Counce. Murphy died in 2005.
What I've always loved about Gone with the Woodwinds! is its light, mischievous sound. The album places an emphasis on clarinets, flutes and saxophones, and all seem to be tiptoeing around as thought sneaking home after a fun night out. Flutes swirl up, clarinets swing down and Previn [pictured] plays lovely 12-tone solos. If ever there was an album that captured the music of the wind, this is it.
Murphy's Fourth Dimension, the album's opening track, features harmonies that are built on intervals of a fourth (C to F for example), with Previn still managing to quote Twisted. Or dig Poly-Doodle, an exuberant polytonal sketch that shows flourish at every turn. Murphy also takes on standards. Sophisticated Lady, These Foolish Things and Perdido retain their chord changes, but Murphy adds 12-tone touches during interludes and at the end. [Photo from the 1955 recording session]
Perdido is a remarkably beautiful arrangement and an example of West Coast influences on 12-tone music. It features all saxophones, and different sets of reeds compete contrapuntally with others, some arranged to sound like strings. The album's high point, though, is Blue Moon, a patient standard that allows Murphy to demonstrate the 12-tone model on an inhale-exhale ballad. The result is absolutely gorgeous. [Photo: Lyle Murphy in the 1930s]
To quote Murphy from the Gone With the Woodwind's liner notes:
"My 12-tone system is not a style, and it is not related to the Schoenberg system. It can be applied to any existing style (or type) of music, or it can be the basis for complete originality. It is merely a question of musical architecture. For this album, its structure consists of horizontal patterns written in equal intervals and using the 12 tones as a basis...
"Quite often the piano joins the woodwind quintet and fulfills the requirement of an extra instrument or two by playing above, below or in between the various woodwind parts. It is a good deal of fun and quite a test for the perception of tone color to try to pick the piano lines from these instrument combinations." [Photo: Lyle Murphy]
Wow. I may be wrong but I don't think the word "fun" pops up in the writings of any other 12-tone composer or arranger.
JazzWax tracks: Lucky for you that Gone With the Woodwinds! and New Orbits in Sound are available as downloads at iTunes and at Amazon here and here. Both are superb recordings and a delight to the ear. New Orbits in Sound features more straightforward writing and arranging by Murphy, mostly due to the more traditional jazz instrumentation. There's also a track of Transcontinental at iTunes and Amazon from Murphy's 1938 band here. And then there's a CD by Mora's Modern Rhythmists playing the arrangements of Lyle Murphy here.