'Certainly the Francy Boland/ Kenny Clarke band was the best big band I've ever played in," said Ronnie Scott. "Francy is a brilliant composer and arranger, very musical, very original, very under-rated. Fantastic pianist. No clichés." It was amazing that a man so little known as Francy Boland could put together, with the drummer Kenny Clarke, the finest international all-star band in jazz, certainly the best big band ever put together outside the United States. And the "stars" wanted to stay - there was no temperament - so the band stayed together from 1963 until 1973.
Its ranks included Americans, Swedes, Belgians, Germans, Austrians, Yugoslavs and Britons - amongst whom were Scott, Tony Coe, Ron Matthewson, Jimmy Deuchar, Derek Humble and Kenny Clare. Boland wrote many pieces for the group and did virtually all of the arranging of its music. His tastefulness and originality made the band's sound unique and he contrived an unusually swinging brand of bebop.
Born in Namur, Belgium in 1929, Boland took up the piano when he was eight. At the end of the Second World War, he moved to Liège to study at the conservatory there. He joined the Bob Shots in 1949, playing with the best Belgian jazz musicians including the tenorist Bobby Jaspar, the vibraphonist Fats Sadi and the guitarist René Thomas. Boland made six records in Paris with the band. When the band broke up, the musicians stayed in Paris and frequently worked together.
Boland worked as pianist and arranger for the trumpeter Aimé Barelli's band in 1954. In 1956 he met the American trumpeter Chet Baker in Paris and joined his quartet. Baker took Boland with him when he returned to the United States and Boland lived there until 1958, writing for bands led by Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Mary Lou Williams.
He moved to Germany to work as pianist and arranger for Kurt Edelhagen's orchestra and also for the West Deutsche Radio big band. In May 1961 he made an album in Cologne for Blue Note with the drummer Kenny Clarke. They called their group the Golden Eight. By 1962, with the encouragement of the Italian producer Gigi Campi this had grown into the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland big band and in 1963 made its first recording for Atlantic. It was the first of many successful albums for major labels which culminated in a collection of recordings on MPS from the band's 1969 season at the Ronnie Scott Club that were generally regarded as its most exciting and musically successful.
Keeping the band together with musicians from so many countries was a nightmare and, as was predicted from the start, it was never a financial success. It fell apart after a concert in Nuremburg in March 1972 when, as Campi remarked, it was but a shadow of its former self. Campi had been hoping for an American tour for the band, and did his best to pull the musicians together again in Paris, but wound up with only the two leaders and the trumpeter Benny Bailey. It was the end.
Boland settled in Geneva, where he lived for the rest of his life. He did some teaching and still led occasional bands. But mainly he wrote, including in 1980 some arrangements for Sarah Vaughan. In 1984 he set to music poems written by Pope John Paul II for a television programme. These were recorded and appeared as an album One World, One Peace.
In all, the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland band recorded 24 albums. It was sad but predictable that it never visited the home of jazz to tour, but it had a huge reputation amongst American musicians and in 1971 Stan Getz had leapt at the chance to record Change of Scene, an album for Verve, with the band. His tenor sax was couched in the usual imaginative array of Boland compositions and arrangements.
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