The late trombonist-arranger Billy VerPlanck isn't particularly well-known to jazz fans today—but he should be. Throughout his career, from the late 1940s to 2009, Billy had a delicate, swinging touch when writing for bands—more harmonic interplay and seduction than sheer bombast and section muscle.
VerPlanck's real first name was John; he called himself Billy after hearing Woody Herman trombonist Bill Harris in the '40s. Early on, he preferred being behind the scenes—ghosting and tidying up charts when name arrangers were too far in the tank to complete assignments. [Pictured above, Marlene and Billy VerPlanck]
By the late '50s, his name was front and center, until the the band business headed south in the early '60s. That's when he and his wife, singer Marlene VerPlanck, transitioned into the demo and jingle business in New York.
Like many musicians who could arrange in the early '50s, VerPlanck wound up in Hollywood, where he remained for a time. He was part of a generation of musicians who still loved the big bands at a time when the big bands were supposed to be dead and buried. In 1952 he was with Jimmy Dorsey's orchestra, from 1953 to '55 he was with Claude Thornhill, then Tommy Dorsey for seven months in '56 before re-joining Jimmy Dorsey and winding up on his So Rare session in November 1956.
As VerPlanck told Schaen Fox in Jersey Jazz in 2009:
"Neal Hefti [pictured] was absolutely remarkable. I played on the So Rare date with Jimmy Dorsey. We had four arrangements for a big, commercial radio orchestra with strings. And Jimmy said, 'I don't like this.' Neal had been hired to conduct and he was on a roll. He had written a couple of hits for Tommy. The Most Beautiful Girl in the World was Neal's, and it had brought Tommy back in the business.
"So the A&R man said, 'Neal, do something.' Neal sent home the strings and kept the vocal group and the four trombones. He put it together in about an hour and we faked it. I mean, he just sang the lines that he wanted us to do and we did it. When Jimmy heard the thing, he said, 'That's it." That's the way Neal was; he just wrote those things and they were wonderful."
Then, with the advent of the 12-inch LP era in the mid-50s, Billy arranged a series of superb albums under his own name. These included Dancing Jazz and Jazz for Playgirls in 1957 and The Spirit of Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins Meets the Sax Section and The Soul of Jazz in 1958.
By 1960, VerPlanck and wife Marlene began arranging and recording demos and jingles, and they made a great living at it. VerPlanck also arranged many of his wife's vocal albums, including Jumpin' at the Left Bank with the John LaSalle Quartet.
Others by Marlene and Billy include I Like to Sing (1983), Sings Alec Wilder (1986), The Classic Hoagy Carmichael (1987), Meets Saxomania (1993), What Are We Going to Do With All This Moonlight? (1997), My Impetuous Heart (1999) and Speaking of Love (2001).
And then there were charts for albums by Sonny Stitt (Goin' Down Slow/1972), Leon Spencer Jr. (Bad Walkin' Woman/1972), Houston Person (Broken Windows, Empty Hallways/1972), Panama Francis & the Savoy Sultans (Grooving/1982) and many others.
JazzWax tracks: All of Billy VerPlanck's greatest albums are out of print. How good are they? I uploaded a sampling in the clips section below.
JazzWax clips: Here's On Top of Old Mountie from Dancing Jazz in 1957. The band included Bernie Glow, Joe Wilder (tp), Frank Rehak (tb), Phil Woods (cl,as), Buzzy Brauner (ts), Gene Allen (bar), Eddie Costa (p,vib), Wendell Marshall (b), Bobby Donaldson (d) and Billy VerPlanck (arr)...
Here's Jan-Cee Brown from The Trombone Album (1957). The album featured Bernie Glow, Phil Sunkel (tp); Bill Harris (tb); Phil Woods (cl,as); Seldon Powell (fl,ts); Sol Schlinger (bar); Eddie Costa (p,vib); Wendell Marshall (b); Gus Johnson (d) and Billy VerPlanck (arr,cond)...
Billy knew how to write for flutes. Here's Parker's Mood from The Spirit of Charlie Parker (1958). On the date were Frank Rehak (tb) Bobby Jaspar (fl) Seldon Powell (fl-3) Frank Wess (fl) Eddie Costa (p-5) George Duvivier (b) Bobby Donaldson (d) Billy VerPlanck (ldr,arr)...
Here's a track from VerPlanck's own favorite album: I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face from Coleman Hawkins Meets the Big Sax Section (1958). The personnel: Marshal Royal and Frank Wess (as), Coleman Hawkins (ts,ldr), Frank Foster (ts), Charlie Fowlkes (bar), Nat Pierce (p), Freddie Green (g), Eddie Jones (b), Bobby Donaldson (d) and Billy VerPlanck (arr)...
And finally, here's VerPlanck's orchestral arrangement with flutes for Leon Spencer Jr.'s If You Were Me and I were You from Bad Walkin' Woman (1972). On the date: Hubert Laws (fl), Buzzy Brauner (fl,eng-hrn,oboe), Leon Spencer, Jr. (org), Joe Beck (g), Idris Muhammad (d), strings, Billy VerPlanck (arr)...