Pete Rugolo, a jazz-classical maverick in the late-1940s and architect of a brassy, West Coast orchestral sound that helped establish Stan Kenton and the music of television and the movies in the 1950s and 1960s, died on October 16 in Sherman Oaks, Calif. He was 95. [Photo by William P. Gottlieb]
Starting in 1944 with his first recorded arrangement for Kenton (Opus a Dollar Three Eighty), Rugolo's music was as sweeping and as grand as California's panoramic landscape—and at times just as entangled and commercial, earning him both fans and detractors.
Unlike fellow prolific band arrangers Neal Hefti and Ralph Burns, Rugolo's sound was rooted in a deep love for brass and mule-kicking delivery. With Kenton, Rugolo never had to fuss or mince notes. His compositions and arrangements for the bandleader always fully grasped West Coast musicians' desire to unleash egos and high notes. In most of Rugolo's works, you can hear Southern California's sudden economic rise and the yen of young residents for speed, optimism and conformity following World War II. [Photo of Stan Kenton and Pete Rugolo being interviewed by an unknown radio host in the late 1940s by William P. Gottlieb]
Some musicians who played Rugolo's charts as well as some jazz listeners found his scores excessively knotted and unnecessarily burdened with modern classical themes and faux-dramatic motifs. The knock was that his writing could feel overly dense and cerebral, sacrificing swing on the alter of Euro-modernism.
But ultimately, such criticism rarely lingered, since Rugolo could do it all. His sheer output alone as an arranger exhibited a wide range of styles, often giving all sections of an orchestra a chance to shout and shine. As a result of Rugolo's writing, the musical bar in Los Angeles was constantly rising, requiring better and better sight-readers in order to record material with precision the first time around.
Like many West Coast arrangers in the late '40s and early '50s, Rugolo kept workaholic's hours, turning out arrangement after arrangement and album after album without ever succumbing to novelty pop or sticky sentimentality. Perhaps the best expression of this approach at the dusk of the 78-rpm era was his arrangement of Orange Colored Sky in August 1950 for Stan Kenton. On this ingenious Kenton recording, the sedutive Nat Cole tries to sing his way through a playful six-lane freeway of blaring brass traffic, only to wind up playfully remarking at the end, "Wow, I thought love was much softer than that—what a most disturbing sound." The point was to contrast Capitol's safe pop sound with the unrestrained daring of Kenton's new instrumental attack—and to show that all jazz from Los Angeles, sweet or hot, was equally sexy and exciting.
Rugolo instinctively understood the excitement of the trumpet and trombone, arranging entire horn sections to spark and sustain excitement in listeners. His arrangements of Can't We Talk It Over and Godchild (both 1956) are prime examples. With his charts, music was no longer about dances or concerts. The whole point was to blow away the at-home record-listener with sonic power and instrumental hipness. [Pictured: Stan Kenton and Pete Rugolo]
As a producer for Capitol in the late '40s, Rugolo had a hand in some of the most dynamic and important recordings of 1949. Dispatched to New York by the pop label to start a jazz line, Rugolo heard the intrinsic value of two eccentric artists. In January 1949, he produced what would become known as Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool singles. Two months later, he produced the Lennie Tristano Sextet with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh recording Wow!, Cross Current, Intuition, Digression and others.
The importance of both sessions cannot be overestimated, nor can Rugolo's courage in recording them. The Birth of the Cool singles launched a new, compact impressionistic sound that relied on the collective lightness and harmonies of the whole rather than a series of soloists. The Tristano sessions turned bebop inside out, relying on high-speed unison lines that employed modal scales rather than traditional structure and in some ways pre-dated free jazz.
Rugolo knew from the outset that neither session would generate much revenue for Capitol. But for Rugolo, that wasn't the point. The music was vital precisely because it broke free of previous jazz models and convention, and pioneered radical new creative territory.
With the arrival of the LP in the late '40s and its adoption by virtually all record labels by the early '50s, the demand for Rugolo's pen grew at Capitol Records. There, his arrangements could be found extensively on albums by June Christy and the Four Freshmen, who in 1955 recorded You Made Me Love You, furtively working in Rugolo's full name just before the instrumental break. [Photo of Pete Rugolo, with bat, and singer June Christy by William P. Gottlieb]
Throughout the decade, Rugolo also experimented with his own music and orchestras, sometime with success and at other times not so much. At the dawn of stereo recordings in 1957, Rugolo was often called upon to write wide-range brass arrangements that could maximize the new two-chanel format for more dynamic at-home listening. Much of his stereo output during this period was for Mercury Records.
With the advent of rock and roll in the late '50s and '60s, Rugolo increasingly found himself writing for television and then the movies. Following Johnny Mandel's groundbreaking jazz score for the film I Want to Live, a growing number of TV shows and movies sought a brassy, sassy sound that Rugolo had perfected thanks to his earlier years with Kenton. As producer Creed Taylor noted when we spoke briefly yesterday, "Pete owned and perfected that space."
Ultimately, Rugolo must be viewed in relation to the times in which he composed and arranged. In his music, you hear a time when the West Coast jazz musician was an LP darling and new-media star. The best of those musicians worked seven days a week, up to 18 hours a day. They were well compensated by Hollywood studios. They raised families in comfortable homes in Los Angeles' sprawling suburbs. And they dominated the West Coast music scene—on records, in movies and in clubs. But in Pete Rugolo's emerging world, there were no sidemen or soloists, just large orchestras turning out new sassy visions of tomorrow.
JazzWax tracks: Here's a list of my favorite Pete Rugolo-arranged albums from the '50s:
- June Christy: Something Cool (1953)
- Introducing Pete Rugolo and His Orchestra (1954)
- Rugolomania (1954)
- Four Freshmen and Five Trombones (1955)
- Kenton in Hi-Fi (1956)
- Reeds in Hi-Fi (1956)
- Brass in Hi-Fi (1956)
- Music for Hi-Fi Bugs (1956)
- June Christy: Gone for the Day (1957)
- Buddy Collette: Four Swinging Shepherds (1958)
- Buddy Collette: At the Cinema (1959)
- Music From Richard Diamond (1959)
JazzWax tracks: Here's June Christy singing Rugolo's arrangement of Something Cool (original mono)...
Here's Oscar and Pete's Blues from Music for Hi-Fi Bugs...
And here's Rugolo's arrangement of Artistry in Boogie from Stan Kenton in Hi-Fi...