Harry McDoggus
May 10, 2024
Bill Holman 1927-2024

Willis "Bill" Holman, a three-time Grammy-winning arranger, composer and saxophonist and one of the last-surviving artists who shaped West Coast jazz in the early 1950s, died May 6 in his sleep of natural causes. He was 96.

Influenced most by Gerry Mulligan's arranging and the sound of Count Basie's band, Bill began writing for Stan Kenton just as the popular brassy orchestra was facing musician defections over his drift into a jazz-classical realm. Bill's composition and arrangement of Invention for Guitar and Trumpet, included on Kenton's New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm album, recorded in 1952, was a rebel yell, marking the start of a new aggressive, contrapuntal West Coast sound. On the song, trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and guitarist Sal Salvador weave through a forest of brass at breakneck speed, building toward a crescendo.

Then came Bill's Kenton Showcase, a 10-inch album released in 1954, on which Bill wrote originals and arranged them. The album is a West Coast jazz masterpiece. The music's sassy cool modernism arrived just as Los Angeles was becoming the model of suburbia—with fluid highways, strip malls, vast beaches lining the Pacific Ocean and temperate weather year-round. Whenever I'm in L.A. and driving from the Valley into the city on the 405, I play this album. It's a must.

Even more important was Kenton's Contemporary Concepts, recorded in 1955. On the album, Bill arranged the first six songs. A Mulligan chart on Limelight was the only non-Holman track. Of particular note on the album are Bill's Stompin' at the Savoy, Stella by Starlight and What's New? Each had a refreshing, coherent approach complete with a relaxed, daring swagger. Bill would continue to bring a fresh, strong approach to his recording sessions rolling forward into the 2000s.

Screenshot 2024-05-07 at 8.38.55 PM
I had an opportunity to interview Bill multiple times over the years. You'll find links to my conversations with him in the right-hand column under "JazzWax Interviews." [Photo above is one of Bill's favorite photos, from left, Zoot Sims, Joe Maini and Bill in the early 1960s, before Maini's death]

Here is my career-spanning 2008 interview with Bill with all four parts combined. Miss you, Bill:

JazzWax: Where were you born?
Bill Holman: In Olive, Ca., but we moved very early on to Orange, near Anaheim. When I was in the third grade, we moved again to Santa Ana, near the orange groves, where we remained. I had a typical kid life growing up. There was no supervision, and I could do whatever I felt like doing.

JW: What did your dad do?
BH: He owned a bunch of failing businesses that tried to create produce departments in grocery stores and gas stations, and a bunch of other things. Then he took a course in accounting, and it turned out he was a whiz. He got a job right away in the Navy as an accountant, and later became an auditor. He kind of finished up with a bang and got great gigs out of that. I didn’t get to reap any of the benefit though [laughing]. I was already out of the house.

JW: Brothers or sisters?
BH: I have one sister who is eight years older than me. Eight years is quite a big gap. She was into her stuff, and I was into mine. When she had to take care of me, the term "babysitter" hadn't been invented yet [laughs]. I think she resented having to look out for me, and we didn’t get along too well. My mom was supportive, but she could have done more to build my confidence. Then again, I suppose all children have complaints about their parents.

JW: Did you grow up in a musical household?
BH: No. My family didn't care much for music. We didn't own a record player, and there were no records. I only heard music on the radio. I listened to big bands day after day, hour after hour, and absorbed all the music. Back then, listening to the bands was just part of everyday life. It’s comparable today to people listening to iPods all day. It becomes so common you lose track of the magic of the thing and it becomes part of your unconscious mind. That’s kind of the way it was listening to the radio. It was there and you absorbed it. I thought radio and big bands were magical. There were some bands I liked much more than others. So music coming over the radio probably had much more of an effect on me as a composer and arranger than I realize.

JW: How did you wind up choosing the tenor saxophone?
BH: When I went into junior high school, all students had to take a musical aptitude test. I did well. A few weeks later the school's bandleader came around and asked if I wanted to play the clarinet. So I started on clarinet and that led right into the saxophone a few years later.

JW: Were you good?
BH: No [pause]. I thought I was. [laughs] Santa Ana then was a small town. There were no professional musicians that I knew of. The only person I had to rely on was the teacher I was going to, who actually was a trumpet player and taught everything. I think he gave me a couple of bum steers on the saxophone [laughs]. I had no one in music to associate with, to listen to, or to talk to. So I bumbled along and dealt with things as they came up. I played what I thought was jazz, running down the harmonies on stock arrangements.

JW: Did you practice a lot?
BH: No. I never did.

JW: What happened after high school?
BH: I went straight into the Navy in July 1944. I was stationed in Boulder, Colorado. The war started winding down that year. I was in this training program studying engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder for a year and a half. Meantime the war had ended. Somehow my friends and I got the impression that if we finished our courses and got our commissions, we’d have to stay on active duty for four more years. So we all stopped going to classes and washed out of school. In January 1946 they shipped us off to boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois, just north of Chicago. It was cold there for a native Californian. After boot camp, I was assigned to a ship and served out my time until July 1946.

JW: When you were discharged from the Navy, did you go home?
BH: Yes. I tried to get into the music program at Los Angeles City College. My mother had seen an article in the paper that there was a program there. So I registered and finally got to interview with the head of the jazz program. At that time there quite a few players from name bands that were working out their union cards by going to school on the G.I. Bill. Musicians who had just arrived in California had to prove they had lived there for six months before the union let them take studio jobs. So the college band was perfect for them. Unfortunately for me it was bulging with all these pros.

JW: What happened?
BH: The guy wouldn’t let me in the program. So I went back home and enrolled at UCLA to finish my engineering studies. But after one semester, I realized that engineering wasn’t for me. This was the fall of 1947.

JW: You must have felt despondent.
BH: I did. I felt adrift. Back when I was 11 or 12, my parents used to ask me what I was going to do when I grew up. At that time I didn’t think about being a musician. To get peace and quiet, I told them I wanted to be an engineer. They loved that and got off my back. So engineering was always in the back of my head, but it was a construct of my own imagination, not reality. In the fall of 1947, I was unsettled about what I was going to do, but I knew it wasn't going to be engineering.

JW: Music wasn't your clear choice?
BH: I was thinking about music, but I knew that becoming a pro would be difficult and that I would be taking a big chance going in that direction. While I was being disillusioned by UCLA's engineering program, I was going down to Central Avenue, where all the jazz clubs were. I caught the tail end of the scene there and met some great players. At this point in early 1948, I still didn’t know any musicians in Los Angeles personally. To get jobs, I befriended some of the guys I met at these sessions.

JW: What was the big turning point for you?
BH: One night I told a guy I was looking for a music school. He said to talk to trombonist Britt Woodman. The guy said Britt was going to a school where they teach you how to read music. When I asked Britt, he told me about the Westlake College of Music in L.A. He said the school had several bands and courses in harmony and arranging. Westlake was like a vocational school, no humanities or history or anything. Strictly commercial music courses. Once I made up my mind to study music, that was it. There was no looking back.

JW: When you were at L.A.'s Westlake College of Music in the late 1940s, you also played in local bands, yes?
BH: Oh, sure. My first break was with pianist Ike Carpenter in 1948. Carpenter's orchestra had started out as a jazz band and had some Ellington-style charts written by a guy named Paul Villepigue, a wonderful arranger, teacher and a sweet man. But shortly before I arrived, Carpenter bought the complete book of arrangements from a hotel band that played sweet dance music. That’s the stuff we played. I was with Carpenter for about a year and a half.

JW: During this time you were learning the basics of arranging in college?
BH: Yes. I had all this material stored up in my head, from when I was a kid listening to the radio. As soon as I learned a few technical things about writing and orchestrating, I was writing arrangements right away.

JW: Just like that?
BH: Pretty much. After a couple of weeks of school I was writing charts. I had a passion for it. I had been interested in arranging in high school. But growing up in Santa Ana, there were no arrangers, and no one I could ask what to do in certain situations.

JW: But why arranging? Because you had ideas in your head that you wanted to hear played by a band?
BH: You make it sound more exciting than it was [laughs]. I just liked the idea of doing it and wondered whether I could. So when I was at Westlake, I met saxophonists Bill Perkins and Dave Madden and other guys who were making a living writing, arranging and playing music. That encouraged me enormously.

JW: Which band had the most influence on you?
BW: When I was listening to the radio all those years growing up? I loved Count Basie’s band, with tenor saxophonist Lester Young and drummer Jo Jones. That swing rhythm got to me, more so than Duke's band. Duke was so different from everyone else that I didn’t think what he was doing applied to me or that I could ever do what he did. Duke had some magic going that I could never touch. But Basie's rhythm was different.

JW: What was your big breakthrough in college?
BH: Reading Russ Garcia’s book on arranging, which he eventually published in 1954 as Professional Arranger and Composer. It's still available today. Russ taught at the school, and his workbook for class had practically everything you needed to be a commercial arranger. I studied arranging with him for about a year at Westlake and liked him so much I studied with him privately. We went over the same stuff that was in his book, but in a little more depth.

JW: You graduated from Westlake in 1950. Then what?
BH: I joined Charlie Barnet's band. During my time with Ike Carpenter and Barnet, I also played in local rehearsal bands and associated with a lot of arrangers, including Gene Roland, who played and arranged for Stan Kenton. We became good friends. Gene always had a rehearsal band wherever he’d go. He had four trumpets and four tenors, and I got to sit in with a couple of those bands. That rehearsal orchestra known as the Band That Never Was [in 1950] was his. Gene's writing was very simple. He'd write everything in four-part block harmony. By having tenors and trumpets, he'd only have to write four parts for the trumpets and the same four parts would do for the tenors, except they'd be an octave lower. This gave him an automatic ensemble.

JW: What was Gene Roland like?
BH: He was a talented guy. Very energetic. But his talent got spread out in a lot of areas, and never really got it together in a single area. He was a substantial contributor to the Kenton band and had a couple of big hits, like Tampico and Easy Street in 1945 and Jump for Joe in 1951. He had a meat-and-potatoes writing style, using four-part harmony. He was an inspiration for me, and he showed me what could be done using a limited palette of harmony. He epitomized what it meant to be a jazz arranger. He was friendly and never tried to hide anything. He could be funny and serious, and his emotions always showed.

JW: Did he like your work?
BH: Yes. One night in 1951, Gene was at my house, and I played him a recording I had made when I was still going to Westlake. It was a 12-tone blues piece for a rehearsal band. Gene got very excited when he heard it and said, “I think this is what Stan is looking for.” Apparently, Stan had been talking to Gene about working a more linear approach into the band's music instead of that vertical harmonic thing he was doing with the Innovations Orchestra. Stan was thinking about lines, and this 12-tone tune I played for Gene was full of lines. I don’t remember the name of it.

JW: What exactly is a 12-tone tune?
BH: It’s a technique devised by Arnold Scheonberg where you use all 12 tones of the chromatic scale in a preconceived order, and you use them all before you repeat them. It’s also called "serial writing." When students are first exposed to that concept, they're apt to write a 12-tone blues. It was the thing to do in avant-garde classical music back then. Since then it has lost favor.

JW: Did Kenton hear your 12-tone tune?
BH: Yes. After playing my early recording of the song for Gene, I went out on the road with Barnet. Gene took the recording to Stan in the fall of 1951. When I came back off the road, I met with Stan, and he told me he was very interested in my writing. He told me about his idea for a new band that would have a more linear approach and that my writing style would be perfect. He asked me to write a couple of things for the band, which I did in late 1951. Meanwhile, Stan was re-forming the band and was looking for a tenor saxophonist. My friend Dick Meldonian, who played alto sax in the band, recommended me. I replaced Bob Cooper, who had left.

JW: Were the compositions you wrote good?
BH: They were awful [laughs]. I was trying too hard. I didn’t have the intellectual equipment to do what I was trying to do. So we rehearsed them once, and they were never heard of again.

JW: How were things left with Kenton?
BH: It was decided in March 1952 that I'd join Kenton strictly as a tenor player. After my two arranging failures, we didn’t talk any more about writing. So I was the tenor player. Eventually, he said I should write something. But I didn’t know what to write because I didn’t know how to write the kind of progressive jazz he favored. I also knew he didn't want Count Basie-type arrangements. So I just kind of cooled it and played the book.

JW: What was the turning point?
BH: Gerry Mulligan wrote 8 or 10 charts for the band at around the time I joined. So we played those, and I got to listen to them every night. As I'd play them, I'd listen to the harmony and the form to see how a big-time writer goes about crafting a chart. It kind of helped me get my own conception going. By late 1952 I started writing again. Stan liked what I was doing. I liked what I was doing, too. So I figured I had found a direction in which to go with my composing and arranging.

JW: In September 1952, the Kenton band recorded This Is an Orchestra! How was that done?
BH: We just did it live in the studio. We did what’s on the record. There was no editing or retakes. That’s the way we made all our records back then. We played them all the way through and hoped no one goofed.

JW: Perhaps the strongest and most cutting-edge track recorded during the September Capitol session was your Invention for Guitar and Trumpet.
BH: That was an assignment. Stan asked me to do that, featuring Maynard [Ferguson] and Sal [Salvador]. An invention is a song with lots of counterpoint between two instruments. I knew how to write an invention from my studies. I just jumped in and did it.

JW: What do you think of it?
BH: It’s not one of my favorite pieces.

JW: You've got to be kidding. Why?
BH: It’s disjointed. Nothing ever gets said. It’s a hodge-podge of different things. But it filled the bill, and I think it was re-released more than any other chart I wrote for him.

JW: Were you surprised to hear it pop up in the movie, The Blackboard Jungle in 1955?
BH: I was surprised when I got paid for it [laughs]. I hadn't seen the picture, so I didn’t know. I only knew about it when I saw the royalty statement. So I went to see the film. The composition is OK. It's not my favorite piece.

Music break: You can hear Invention for Guitar and Trumpet playing in The Blackboard Jungle as Glenn Ford enters the bar. Here's the scene, but start at 32:38...


JW: Bags on the Kenton Showcase album, is a fabulous piece of writing.
BH: I wrote that for bassist Don Bagley. It was a feature for him. That was the first composition I wrote and arranged after I my writing style began to evolve. I was very happy with Bags, and the band liked playing it. They liked pretty much everything I did. It was a very good period. I still had innocence about my writing, you know?

JW: What do you mean?
BH: The writing on Bags and other songs from that period, I’ll never be able to recapture that feel. In the early 1950s, I didn’t have the technique yet to be a showoff. All that music came straight from the heart. As you get older, you get wiser and along the way you lose your innocence. When you're young, you don’t have the smarts to get cute. You're just being inspirational. Also, back then, I was playing every night. I think being a steady jazz player had a big influence on my writing. It made me give the music an improvised feel, unless I was writing a dramatic piece, which is obviously not improvised.

JW: Without the technique, as you put it, how did you view such a monster band when writing?
BH: I used to think of it as a large quintet. I wanted the horns to sound like they were playing together, as if reading written music. But I also wanted them at times to sound like they were improvising over the rhythm section. That’s what I did with the band all the time. Being a player is immensely helpful in understanding that feel and how to write so it actually happens.

JW: Were you a fast writer?
BH: I wrote the Kenton arrangements fairly quickly. I remember when we were on the road, I would sit on the bus and, you know, if there was no conversation that involved me and no one was playing any music or anything, I’d think about charts and make notes. When I’d get to the hotel, I’d write them out. When we'd get to a gig, I’d check them out on the piano. There wasn't too much agonizing going on there.

JW: So you were pretty quick.
BH: Yeah, at times. Once the score was done, I would send everything back to L.A., where Stan had a copyist who transcribed what I wrote for the individual musicians' parts. Then he'd send the parts back to the band, wherever we were.

JW: Who was your favorite in the trumpet section?
BH: For jazz, Conte Candoli. His overall approach to jazz from early on was very mature. He wasn’t the most original player, but he could get the right feeling in practically any situation.

JW: What about Maynard Ferguson?
BH: I didn’t really think of him as a jazz player, in the purest sense. Jazz is about ideas, and Maynard at times was more technical in his approach. He did a lot of improvising with his various bands, but he rarely played warm solos the way Conte did. He had a different style. He was a fabulous player and a great guy.

JW: Did your confidence grow as a writer in 1952 and 1953? Did you feel like you had a magic pen?
BH: No I never did feel that way, thank god. That’s a very dangerous way to feel. Writing music and arranging never gets easy. I’ve had students ask me, "How long does it take before it gets easy?" I tell them, "Never." As soon as you get to one point in your development, you’re looking at the next level.

JW: Your arrangements for Stan Kenton Presents: Frank Rosolino in 1954 and 1955 are some of the most fabulous small-group charts.
BH: [Laughs] Those were fun. That was a great group to write for. Frank was a terrific trombonist.

JW: Which of your Kenton arrangements are you most happy with?
BH: For a long time it was What's New?, off the Contemporary Concepts album. I’m not so sure about that now. I like Stella by Starlight, with Charlie Mariano. There was another one I liked a lot, from the Kenton Showcase album...

JW: Solo for Buddy?
BH: No, I hated that one. [Bill hums a few bars of the song he has in mind.]

JW: Kingfish?
BH: Yes, that's the one. I was very happy with how the blues line came out on there.

JW: Did your workload for the Kenton band increase in the mid-1950s?
BH: A bit. I was the chief arranger for the band by 1955 and part of 1956, so I was writing a lot then.

JW: How did you wind up leaving the band?
BH: Almost overnight, Stan had some kind of weird shift in his outlook, and he fired trumpeter Al Porcino and me. I don’t know why. He possibly felt the music was getting away from him. Al was a die-hard fan of swinging music, as was I. I think Stan thought that his conception for the band was going out the window. That's just my idea of what happened.

JW: When he let you go, were you anxious about suddenly being out on your own?
BH: Not really. By that time I started doing a lot of writing for different bands.

JW: Right around this time you arranged Around the Horn with Maynard Ferguson, an album with a glorious swinging feel.
BH: When we made that record, it was kind of a studio band made up of a lot of Maynard's friends. It wasn’t until Maynard went to New York that he came up with that young, energetic band he used steadily. My things for Around the Horn were kind of laid back, in the Basie groove.

JW: If there's a Bill Holman sound around this period, what is it?
BH: The lines, I think, would be the big tipoff. But there are some melodic things that are distinctive. Same with my overall style. I didn’t realize that my music was recognizable until probably the 1960s, when enough people told me they could recognize pieces of mine. That’s when I started paying attention and realized maybe there are some things that sound like me.

JW: To me, you're always building toward a punch.
BH: That's true. I became very aware early on of the form that an arrangement needed to take to be exciting. I also learned what to leave out. Russ Garcia was the first hint I got of that. I took an arrangement to him one time and he looked it over and said, "You have enough music here for 10 charts. You have to learn how to be more economical and reuse your material."

JW: What did he mean?
BH: I used to think that writing a jazz arrangement was like stream of consciousness, the same as a jazz solo. You just started playing and built on what you just played. Then you go on to the next thing and never repeat yourself. This was before I realized that jazz solos actually had form, too. After a few years it finally dawned on me that the ear wants to hear something it recognizes, so I started concentrating on the shape of an entire piece, the form, and how it builds to a climax. As a writer, you also want to avoid getting to the climax too soon. If you do, you’ll kill yourself trying to top it in the arrangement. And the result is monotony. So what you just said about building to a punch is a conscious effort on my part.

JW: It’s almost as if you're shifting gears in a car.
BH: [Laughs] Well, I’ve always been aware of the audience, in that respect. I think that doing a lot of commercial writing since the late 1950s may have made me too overly conscious of the audience.

JW: What do you mean?
BH: As a composer and arranger, there’s always a natural tendency to make things attractive, and music doesn’t always need to be attractive. You have to pull yourself back.

JW: Were there arrangements you had written for Stan Kenton that didn't get into the band's book?
BH: 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 album 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 recorded 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: Did you enjoy writing those arrangements?
BH: Very much so. I felt a kinship with Gerry and that I would be giving him a tribute if I did the tunes my way.

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 Basie for years, but I had a different feel in my writing. It's really a sax soli album, and the guitar makes the rhythm section 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 come 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. 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 would show him that. 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 Count 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 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.

Posted by Marc Myers at 12:05 AM | Permalink

Tags: Bill Holman


See Related:
Related Link
Back to List
Back to Top