Ralph Burns, pianist, composer and orchestrator: born Newton, Massachusetts 29 June 1922; died Los Angeles 21 November 2001.
The pianist Ralph Burns was the lynchpin of the Woody Herman First Herd of 1945. His writings for that band thrust him with it to the forefront of the musical exhilaration that came with the end of the Second World War. Recordings like "Northwest Passage", "Apple Honey" and "Caldonia" burned themselves for life in the minds of those of us who grew up with them. Amid Herman's brilliant and volatile young men that Burns was one of the most hard-swinging and effective of jazz pianists was largely overlooked.
Among the most inspired of Herman's men was the trombonist Bill Harris, the excitement of whose solos from that period can still cure your circulation problems. Burns wrote the piece "Bijou" to feature Harris. It had a Latin rhythm and a bright and fresh orchestration that was new to jazz. Igor Stravinsky heard the record and it inspired his interest in the band. As a result he wrote his Ebony Concerto to feature Herman and the orchestra. "In those days," Burns told me two weeks ago of the band,
We'd take Benzedrine and stay up all night listening to records of Stravinsky and Charlie Parker. We were at both ends of the spectrum at once.
Burns was a conservatory-trained musician, but the other musicians had trouble with Stravinsky's score:
They were lousy readers. All the big-band musicians except those in Benny Goodman's were. If Stravinsky could have seen the guys taking the parts home with them every night to struggle with them like little kids with their homework, he'd have been impressed.
Drawn into Stravinsky's orbit, Burns was befriended by Alexis Haieff, Stravinsky's protégé. and studied composition and orchestration with him. It was to serve him in good stead, for Burns went on to be not only a jazz figure to rank with Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans, but also to become one of the finest orchestrators of popular music. Burns taught himself to write by listening to records by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Lunceford and Benny Goodman and transcribing the music from the records.
Although his career was inextricably linked with Herman's until Herman died, Burns became known outside jazz for the key role he played in the orchestration of some of the most successful shows on Broadway. These included Chicago, No, No, Nanette, Sweet Charity, Dancin' and, among the innumerable Hollywood film soundtracks that he scored, Cabaret. He was Richard Rodgers's collaborator on No Strings and worked with Jule Styne and Barbra Streisand on Funny Girl. He won Academy Awards for Cabaret (1972) and All That Jazz (1979) and towards the end of his career took a Tony for Fosse (1999).
Burns continued to write for shows until earlier this year when illness forced him to give up. His last appearance was from his home two weeks ago in the first of a planned series of transatlantic conversations that he and I had on radio for BBC North. Happy to reminisce, he said that he had had a good life and a happy one.
He regarded himself as lucky in having Herman as a boss. "Woody believed in simplicity, and he could see the essence of everything. It was a great virtue," Burns told me. Herman fostered Burns's experiments in writing unusual lines for vibraphone and guitar for the band. With Burns on piano, Chubby Jackson as bassist, Billy Bauer as guitarist and Dave Tough and Don Lamond consecutively as drummers, the Herman band had what still stands out as one of the greatest rhythm sections in jazz. It fired the soloists to the extent that the music for a couple of years transcended even that of Duke Ellington's orchestra.
Burns had studied piano as a child and was already outstanding by the time he enrolled in the New England Conservatory. He lived with the family of Frances Wayne, who had the most beautiful voice of all the big-band singers of the Forties. Burns played in the band led by her brother Nick Jerret. Jerret took the band to New York to audition for one of the night-clubs that featured jazz, Kelly's Stables. Jerret got the job, and Burns found himself at 18 playing on the same bill as Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum and Nat "King" Cole. "I was paid $35 a night. Although he was famous Nat was paid at the black union rate, so he only got $32. We joked about it later, but it wasn't funny for him at the time," Burns said.
Frances Wayne joined the Charlie Barnet Orchestra and suggested that Barnet should hire Burns as pianist and writer. He did, and Burns composed "The Moose", which drew forth a classic performance from another Barnet pianist, Dodo Marmarosa. Burns also wrote one of his most beautiful early arrangements, "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe" to feature Wayne's vocal. There was a union ban on recording at the time and the chart wasn't recorded.
Herman, who had been copying Ellington's music with some success, preferred an original sound for his band. He took Burns from Barnet to create it for him. "The band scene was like a football transfer market then," said Burns. "Musicians moved from one band to another all the time." Wayne and Chubby Jackson also left Barnet to join Herman. The recording ban ended in February 1945 and that month Herman, with Wayne and Burns, recorded "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe". "Charlie was pissed off about that," reflected Burns.
The band caught the public imagination and began a sequence of very popular sponsored radio broadcasts ("Apple Honey" was an ingredient in Old Gold tobacco). By this time Burns was being called upon to do so much writing for the band that Herman replaced him with another pianist and left Burns in an apartment and to compose and orchestrate.
A long Burns composition recorded by the band called "Lady McGowan's Dream" celebrated a lady who, meeting the band when they stayed at the same hotel, threw a lavish banquet for Herman and his men with no expenses spared. It transpired a couple of days later, when she fled the hotel leaving the bills unpaid, that she was a penniless impostor.
During the late Forties, on the Herman band's nights off Burns worked in a small group with Bill Harris, Chubby Jackson and Dave Tough. For a time this was led by the saxophone player Charlie Ventura.
Much inspired by his friend Billy Strayhorn and by Ellington, Burns's writing flourished. It was while staying at the Long Island home of Mom Jackson, Chubby Jackson's mother ("she was a terrific cook and a character"), that Burns wrote Summer Sequence, an imaginative suite unique in jazz. By the time the fourth movement, subsequently entitled "Early Autumn", was recorded, the First Herd had metamorphosed into the Second Herd, and Stan Getz, Shorty Rogers, Zoot Sims and Serge Chaloff had joined. "Stan Getz was unique. He could read anything at sight. Nothing was too difficult," said Burns. "But he was a prick." More than half the band members were heroin addicts and Herman lost $180,000 as he wound it up.
Herman conscripted Burns, Bill Harris, Conte Candoli and Milt Jackson into a small band and headed for pre-Castro Cuba in 1949. Whilst there he found a girl he thought Burns would like. Her fiery temperament caused a falling out, and she accused Burns of stealing her fur collar. "It was like an old piece of rope, anyway," said Burns. "Nobody could have thought I would have wanted it." However, he was thrown into jail overnight.
During the early Fifties Burns made the first records under his own name for Decca. These had a palpable Ellington influence and the writing was rich and profound. For a time Norman Granz became his sponsor and as a result Burns wrote chamber and experimental pieces that Granz recorded and issued. Burns also wrote an album of charts to feature Bill Harris and another for Lee Konitz. He and Strayhorn collaborated on an album of ballads played by the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and he also wrote for Carmen McRae. "I've got some great stories for you about the sessions with Ben Webster and Carmen McRae," he told me as we planned the programme for last Sunday that, of course, never happened.
Burns continued to write for Herman throughout the Fifties, creating unforgettable classics like "Ill Wind", a ballad arrangement for Bill Perkins, and his own composition "Strange".
"I phoned him one time and said that I'd like to record an album of piano and cornet duets with him," Ruby Braff told me last weekend. "There was a pause and then he said, 'I don't play piano any more.' " Braff heard subsequently that Burns had been hired to tour with a much later Herman band as featured soloist for his own Summer Sequence:
He had apparently overheard one of the younger musicians in the band say, "Who's the old guy playing the crummy piano?" He never played in public again.
Burns kept busy with writing, never short of work throughout the best part of 60 years, manuscripts for a projected musical on his desk when he died. His skills were directed at chamber composition, jazz writing and at enhancing those who performed the great American songbook. He was matchless, and it is certain that the timeless nature of his work will ensure its survival along with the best of Ellington and Strayhorn, whom he so much admired.
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